By Rod Machado, CR 2023
(You can call them Learners but I’ll stick with 3,500 hundred years of historical precedent and call them Students.)
For decades the leaders in our instructor community have lamented over the damage caused by bad flight instructors. I'm speaking of CFIs who are more interested in building flight time than building competent pilots. These are the instructors whose single talent is the ability to deposit, in their students’ minds, doubt that they might ever learn to fly someday. Irked by the notion that teaching others to fly ultimately delays their upward career mobility, these bad boys turn cockpits into octagons where helpless students absorb the pummeling wrath of their immature personalities.
Leaders in the flight instructor community have only contempt for the pedagogical debris field left in the wake of these malpracticing CFIs. “Let’s make CFIs take more training,” some say. Other leaders say, “Let’s increase the standards for CFI certification.” But nothing seems to change, does it? While the mavens of our flight training industry are well-intentioned, most seem to be caterwauling off the same song sheet. These folks all profess to want better-trained instructors, and that, I believe, is the problem. I want something else. I want better-trained pilots, and the two are not necessarily the same. Nor will the attainment of the former ensure the creation of the latter. So, here are a few ideas (some new, some old) that might produce better-trained pilots and, by default, produce more competent and capable flight instructors. First, let's recount how we got where we are.
Credentialed Teachers: The Good, the Mediocre, and the Exceptionally Bad
Becoming a credentialed school teacher in California requires applicants to spend four to five years in college studying education. Upon graduation with a teaching credential, society ends up with either a potentially great teacher or someone who can’t escape the pedagogical gravity of mediocrity. The latter might be due to a lack of interest in the profession, poor character, insufficient intelligence or wisdom, etc. It might also be (as I will show later) that some people couldn’t teach a rock to stand still.
Indeed, you recognize what a poor teacher is from your experience in the primary and secondary school system. Poor teaching explains why so many kids think the “equator” is a device that helps balance math equations. So why should we expect a flight instructor applicant with 40 hours (or even 100, 200, or 300 hours) of CFI-prep training, to be a responsible and capable instructor upon certification? I see no evidence that exposing CFI candidates to more training beyond that necessary for initial certification makes them better instructors. None! Yet, our industry insists that training (or the lack of it) determines whether someone becomes a responsible and capable teacher. Here is where the leaders of our instructor community should reconsider what makes our instructors competent and capable.
In 2016, the FAA introduced the Private Pilot Airman Certification Standards, which was supposed to usher in a new era of aviation training and safety. The results? In 2019, three of the most experienced designated pilot examiners in the United States responded during a group discussion by saying, “…we certainly have major problems [in] that there’s a lack of stick and rudder skills… but the ACS has been out… two or three years for the private pilot and by this time you’d think that instructors should be learning to teach risk management.” It’s clear to me that the ACS, or Airmen Certification Standards (then and now) has done little (if anything) to increase the quality of flight instruction our industry offers.
The FAA’s approach to flight instructor improvement via the ACS has been an attempt to alter reality through the use of language. Stick words on paper and insist that everyone comply with the edicts and the structure of reality should change to accommodate the text. The only place where this idea has merit is at Disney World’s Fantasy Land. However, when you exit Fantasy Land, you enter Reality Land where you might find a loan officer holding an overdue notice on your mortgage payment. There has to be a better way to improve the quality of flight training by directly or indirectly elevating the flight instructor profession. While some of the best minds in our industry have combined their lobes to offer some good ideas, none seem to have had much of an impact…so far. Perhaps some of these ideas might help.
Make Pilot Applicants Better Consumers
For the past four decades, I’ve professed that educating the consumers of flight training elevates the flight instruction profession and produces better pilots. Most consumers know that a flight instructor’s human nature is no different than that of doctors, mechanics, gardeners, etc. In every profession, there will be good people and bad people. As we wise-up with age, we learn that an individual’s character increases the chance that he’s trustworthy, empathetic, responsible, and dedicated to his profession. This is especially true of flight instructors. Since general aviation is less well-known to the non-pilot public, there’s little access to the rumor mill that generates the buzz by which a consumer might assess an instructor’s character.
It would be a game-changer if our aviation non-profit groups offered pre-flight training seminars/webinars for the general public on how to find a good, reputable flight instructor or even a good flight school. Yes, some groups offer excellent guidance and mentoring programs. These, however, are generally for those students already established in a flight training program. By then, it might be too late to undo the malpractice caused by some of aviation’s worst CFIs. Should the GA division of the FAA suddenly undergo new management (such as if I ran it) and host these pre-training seminars, it could do so with impunity because it has no financial association with GA. Of course, should the FAA do this, it should be prepared to explain why it certifies (or allows to be certified) individuals who become poor instructors in the first place. To be fair here, the FAA (or their DPE representatives) can’t take a measure of the CFI applicant’s most essential personal quality that determines his capability as an instructor. I’m speaking of that person’s moral/ethical character: his trustworthiness, empathy, responsibility, and dedication to his students. Nothing is more important than this quality to the profession of flight training, and nothing is more difficult to evaluate prior to initial instructor certification.
After all, it’s not as if the FAA does a background search on an individual comparable to that done for a national security clearance. However, checking an instructor applicant’s Facebook page might reveal that he has more demons than a census taken in hell. Therefore, by default, there will always be poor instructors around to traumatize hapless students.
That leaves those seeking advice on how to find a good flight instructor in a sticky wicket. Fortunately, there are several good YouTube videos on the subject. Unfortunately, too few flight training consumers even consider looking for this information before beginning flight training. Don’t fret. There is a way to help these consumers, but it requires money, time, and a willingness to make a significant contribution to general aviation.
Here’s how this might work by way of a short lesson in pop culture.
About 30 years ago, the Pepsi soda company paid Michael Jackson 15 million dollars to hold a can of Pepsi in an advertising video. No, not drink it because Jackson didn’t like the stuff. Pepsi benefited by having its drink associated with a famous Pop Star. As a bonus, Jackson threw in an impromptu safety video on the fire dangers of using Jheri Curl near hot stage lighting. The point here is that advertising (marketing) works. Pepsi’s sales went up, and not “in” smoke, either.
Today, using social media, it’s easy to precisely target those in the market for flight training. You're ready to roll if you have enough cash, a generous benefactor, or a rocking Go-Fund-Me page. Your objective should be to advertise the importance of finding a good flight instructor before beginning flight training. You’ll tout the apparent benefits of doing so, such as more fun, less cost, quicker training, and the chance to learn exceptional piloting skills. You can also share with potential consumers the perils of spending time with a bad flight instructor, someone whose personality can rub entire cities the wrong way. A wise person that you are, you won’t mention any the names of people or flight schools, nor should you hint at such. You want to stay non-biased and apolitical here.
If you think this idea won’t work, chat with the folks who invest billions of dollars in advertising around election time. The behavioral objective of political advertising is to get people to check a box next to someone’s name or some proposal. Your flight training objective is to help a potential student identify and select a good instructor while depriving bad instructors and bad flight schools of that student’s money. In this way, bad instructors and bad flight schools might get the message that they must change their behaviors or leave the aviation business.
This is just one way to educate flight training consumers. But wait, there are many other things to consider here.
Send Bad CFIs Packing to the Airlines
Time-building instructors inflict some of the worst damage that occurs during flight training. While I’ve defended time-builders in the past, I’ve only defended those who do good work, not the hackers. This wasn’t as much of an issue in the early 2000s when regional airlines were hiring competent low-time pilots with a minimum of 500 total flight hours. In 2009, the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 initiated an FAA-inspired rule change that mandated a minimum flight time of 1,500 hours and an ATP certificate for all airline new-hires (with the exception of allowable variations to this rule). General aviation both benefited and suffered because of this rule.
GA benefited by having a few more experienced flight instructors in the business, even if only for a short span of time. It suffered because a disproportionate number of those flight instructors either didn’t want to teach or had no business teaching others to fly. Some of these instructors felt forced to teach to gain experience and grudgingly performed poorly as a result. An example of such an instructor might be the 22-year-old CFI who managed to fly his 18-year-old primary student into convective weather, vaporizing both of them in the process. This instructor was notorious for mocking his student(s) on social media and even managed to film evidence of his immaturity prior to and during the fatal flight. Instructors of this ilk have no place in the flight training business. Nevertheless, there he was, unmonitored, unaware and unsupervised. Herein lies the rub.
Early in 2023, I wrote an article supporting the idea that competent 500-hour commercial and instrument-rated pilots should be allowed, once again, to be hired for regional airline positions. This would remove many poor-performing instructors from harming our flight training industry and move them to an environment where they can be adequately supervised, nurtured and educated.
Wait a minute! Before you go all “Kung-fu” on me, let’s remember that this is where nearly all time-building CFIs eventually end up. Yes, some of these people are terrible flight instructors. Nevertheless, you might say, “We don’t want this caliber of individual working for the airlines.” Well, that’s not for you to decide, is it? The airlines don’t call you and ask for your opinion about everyone they hire, do they? The airlines have their own selection system for pilot new-hires and you are probably not involved in it.
With proper supervision and training (something that poor instructors failed to receive at their flight school), they’re likely to survive and thrive in the airline environment. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact supported by all the low-time flight instructors hired by the airlines prior to years 2000 (pre 9-11) and 2009 (post-Colgon). Most of the flight instructors hired during this time were capable instructors. However, I personally know more than a few who were just terrible at the profession—terrible! Nevertheless, even these poor instructors appear to survive and thrive in the airline environment, perhaps because they receive dual instruction rather than give it.
Here's another reason to move low-time instructors to airline flight decks. By the time the average flight instructor reaches 500 hours of flight time, he’s acquired about 90% of the practical experience he’ll obtain during the next 1,000 hours of flight time. In other words, the next 1,000 hours could become a boring repetition of his first 500 hours of experience. The risk to general aviation is that the post-500-hour flight instructor might fall out of love with his students’ well-being, while his logbook’s waistline becomes his tempting mistress.
Furthermore, while accumulating 1,500 hours of total flight experience the typical instructor seldom travels more than 250 nautical miles from his home airport, and perhaps only does that one time (i.e., the commercial certificate XC requirement). Nor will he gain experience flying airplanes much different from those in which he initially trained. Most of his flying will be done during the daytime with very little experience in actual instrument conditions. Therefore, the flight time acquired beyond the initial 500-hour mark does very little to elevate the general level of experience of a potential airline new hire. So, to the FAA and Congress I say, “Can’t we just let our people go?” Change the rules to allow these lower-time CFIs to go to the airlines where both GA and the airlines will benefit.
Use Guilt, Shame, and Honor to Compel Better Behaviors
Have you ever stopped to think that we expect flight instructors to be professional in their behavior without ever asking them, much less compelling them to do so? Has anyone ever asked you to commit to being a good flight instructor? And when I say, “commit,” I mean putting some skin in the game. This might involve allowing your performance to be voluntarily peer-reviewed, much like military pilots are debriefed after a military sortie. Few instructors are asked to make this commitment.
We certainly require ATP applicants to be “of good moral character” as part of FAR 61.153(c). We also require occupational therapists, accountants, law enforcement officers, and medical professionals to take a loyalty oath to essentially do good and do no harm. We don’t, however, make even the slightest contractual demand (either verbally or on paper) that flight instructors do likewise. Why not? I suspect that few folks have seriously considered it or simply think it won’t change a person’s behavior.
Years ago, I wrote a Facebook post on adding the “be of good moral character” rule to the eligibility requirements for flight instructors. Many supported the idea. A few argued that they didn’t want to be judged by others. Ironically, these same individuals didn’t have an issue judging me, my post or others that disagreed with them. That argument is about as silly as trying to convert temperatures from magnetic to true. Good golly. We’re always being judged by others, and if that hurts our feelings, then we need to make peace with this.
If you are worried that the “be of good moral character” rule might be abused by those in power (i.e., The Man), try and find any those instances where an ATP-certificated pilot went down on a “of good moral character” rap. Good luck finding more than a few of these. These legal cases are very difficult to make, much less find. Finding one usually involves an ATP doing something stupidly inappropriate, such as mooning a troupe of Boy Scouts from the cockpit of his taxiing DC-3. There’s just no evidence that this regulation has a history of abuse. If anything, its use is completely justified based on the rare evidence I’ve seen.
You might argue that the “be of good moral character” rule would have no effect on a flight instructor’s behavior. You might also suggest that some type of loyalty oath would be similarly ineffective. If that’s your position, then please explain why FAR 61.153(c) exists in the first place. Please explain why so many professions have loyalty oaths for new hires. Clearly, these rules exist so that individuals know what is expected of them and hint at what might happen if they fail to honor their personal commitments.
The “be of good moral character” rule is also an emotional cudgel that can dispense a measure of guilt and shame when irresponsible instructors are forced to confront their bad behavior. The rule can inspire self-criticism, which is a poor instructor’s most valuable asset (should he choose to use it). Loyalty requirements and oaths do matter. They also work. This is why AOPA has a “Personal Minimums Contract” that you voluntarily agree to by fixing your signature to a contractual document. The act of doing this is a means of encouraging better decision-making on your part. The folks at AOPA have the right instincts here.
So why are loyalty oaths, personal-minimums contracts, or moral-character regulations likely to affect someone’s behavior positively? They do so for the same reason that a military man will risk his life to avoid leaving a wounded comrade behind enemy lines; for the same reason a law enforcement officer will show up at your door on a spooky night and risk his life to protect you and your family when threatened by an armed intruder, and so on. It’s simply a matter of honor. The loyalty oath gives people something tangible to reach for that’s bigger than themselves and to feel rewarded for doing so. We humans have a transcendental temptation that allows us to be inspired to do the right thing when something bigger than us is at stake—our honor, in this instance.
Most importantly, the loyalty oath reminds instructors that they have an obligation to behave properly while defining what “properly” means. I remember a Rabbi being asked why he wears a Jewish yamaka (a small, skull cap). The Rabbi replied, “It’s to remind me of where I end and God begins.” Now, I’m not suggesting that flight instructors wear the occupationally equivalent of a propeller hat (although I wouldn’t discourage it, either). I am, however, suggesting that the FAA add the “of good moral character” clause to the flight instructor eligibility requirements in the FARs. At least we can point to it in the regulations when instructor malfeasance shows up on the flight line. Perhaps this instructor might realize he has no business teaching others and look for an easier job, such as becoming a loadmaster on a Cessna 150.
Let Mommies and Daddies Teach Their Kids to Fly
On August 23, 1956, the FAA began offering something known as the limited flight instructor certificate (LFIC) to non-instrument-rated private pilots. Applicants for the LFIC needed a minimum of 200 hours total time to meet the necessary skill standards along with a demonstration that their students could fly safely under their supervision. The LFIC was instituted successfully as an experiment by the FAA. It disappeared in May of 1962 for political reasons, and not because the students of LFIC-rated instructors weren’t competent and capable.
The main benefit of the LFIC was that private pilots could train family members to also become private pilots. That meant dads, moms, uncles, aunts, grandmas, and grandpas could teach their kin to fly. Can you think of anyone who would take a deeper and more active interest in a student than those they considered to be their loved ones? I doubt that you’d see many parents posting humiliating aviation videos of their kids on Facebook just for the fun of it. More likely, you’re guaranteed to get better training from someone who has an active interest in your well-being.
Furthermore, you’re not likely to see private-pilot-rated parents dumping their siblings at 1,500 hours and running off to the airlines. It seems to me that any private pilot pursuing an LFIC (should such a thing become available again) would do so because he wants to share his enthusiasm and love for flying with others, not because he wants to build flight time. A real spiff here is that encouraging private pilots to teach will certainly make them better private pilots. Richard Bach, in his book, Illusions, spoke to this idea when he wrote, “We teach best what we need to learn most.”
“Wait a minute. Hold on,” you say, “private pilots don’t have the experience to teach others to fly properly. Well, if you believe that, then you probably believe that it was Abraham Newton who freed the slaves from the bonds of gravity. You’re standing pretty much alone in your opinion here. After all, the FAA sport pilot regulations (having ½ the flight time requirement for private pilot certification), allow sport pilots to earn a sport pilot instructor certificate with only 150 hours total time. Therefore, private pilots with comparable flight time and basic instructor training are more than capable of becoming competent CFIs.
As I stated at the beginning of this piece, there is absolutely no evidence suggesting that poor instruction results from instructors who don’t receive “enough” training. Yes, a minimal amount of training to meet the current standards is necessary, but training beyond this point doesn’t seem to produce better results, especially in those instructors who don’t want better results for themselves. It’s a good bet that every mature (adult) private pilot who obtains an LFIC flight instructor certificate would do more good for our flight training community than all the additional educational hours added to our current flight instructor certification requirements.
Keep in mind that the sport pilot instructor certificate would accomplish the same thing as the LFIC were it not for the limited supply of light sport airplanes. However, this may change if the anticipated MOSAIC regulations are adopted. This would allow many more smaller and common GA airplanes (i.e., Cessna 150, 172, Warrior, etc.) to fall into the sport pilot airplane category.
Let’s Put Retired (Or Nearly So) Airline Pilots to Work as CFIs
Have you ever stopped to consider how much potential aviation experience rides around in golf carts on our nation’s golf courses? My guess is that there are more than a few retired professional pilots who would love to share their love of flying with others. These experienced pilots would make excellent instructors if there was an easy path to instructor certification.
As I see it, there’s no reason whatsoever for an active or retired ATP-rated airline captain to take the FOI exam or the flight instructor knowledge exam. All that should be necessary for instructor certification at this age and experience level is a flight instructor checkride given by a designated examiner. To make this transition easier, my friend Gary Reeves, and his airline pilot partner, Les Abend, have recorded a webinar on the subject.
“Whoa, hold on just a minute,” you say, “what about the liability of a retired airline pilot training students?” After all, this is one reason many retired airline pilots dismiss a return to GA as a risky proposition for fear of being sued by “ambulance chasing” lawyers. Fortunately, there is liability insurance offered by several entities such as AOPA, Avemco, NAFI, etc. There are also such things as liability waivers.
Years ago I thought these contracts weren’t worth the paper they were written on. I changed my mind on this issue when several lawyers schooled me on the subject. It turns out that, according to the legal profession, you can protect your assets by having your students sign some form of hold-harmless contract. While it’s not within the scope of this article to show you how to create a liability waiver, you should work with your own lawyer to learn more on this subject.
Do these contracts actually work? There are several cases where individuals signed away their right to sue the pilot in command should an accident occur. One of these accidents occurred in Watsonville, CA many years ago. A customer in this example took a sightseeing flight in a Stearman biplane. Unfortunately, the airplane crashed and the passenger didn’t survive. The pilot did survive, but the passenger’s heirs didn’t sue because that passenger signed a liability waiver before departure. Whether or not you agree with the propriety of this isn’t the issue here. Legally, this can be done and it does offer some protection.
Now for the question I know you want to ask: Why would primary students elect to sign away their right to sue just to take flight training with you? The answer is: So they can take flight training with you! It’s not more complicated than that. A student can either fly with a less experienced instructor and take a chance on receiving poor instruction, or reach for the gold standard of flight training by signing your liability waiver. If a potential student expresses a concern about signing this waiver, then have them ask you how many times you crashed your airliner. That should pretty much settle the issue of signing any waiver.
Maybe We Don’t Even Need Flight Instructors to Learn to Fly
What if we could eliminate the problem of bad flight instructors by minimizing the participation of the flight instructor in the training process? Here’s how this might work by way of a history lesson.
Over the years, the FAA has allowed more flight simulation time to meet the total time requirement for the private pilot certificate. Flight centers operating under Part 142 of the FARs are allowed to use as much as five hours of simulator (flight training device) time to meet the 35-hour minimum private pilot requirement. Clearly the FAA sees training value in today’s sophisticated flight training devices.
Doesn’t this make you wonder if there is more training value in flight simulation than meets the eye? Years ago I wrote an article describing how a student, having logged only two previous intro flights (with no previous flight experience) took a 60-hour flight simulation class from master teacher Ed Valdez at Cypress College in California. The course was based on supervised training using Microsoft Flight Simulator, version “X.” After completion of the course, this student scheduled a third demo flight where he asked the CFI to let him do as much as possible on the flight. The student started the airplane, obtained a clearance, taxied, obtained a takeoff clearance, departed, flew a pattern, and successfully landed the Cessna 172, all without the instructor touching the flight controls. This, however, is not an uncommon experience for many flight simulation students.
I know from my own experience that students who earnestly studied the flight lessons in Microsoft Flight Simulator X (MFSX) and, thereafter, began actual flight training, learned much quicker than those without this experience. That’s a fact. Yes, a few learned some bad habits that needed correcting. But many more students learned bad habits from their bad instructors that are seldom corrected. One of the reasons MFSX was so effective as a teaching tool resulted from the visionary programming skills of some very smart people at Microsoft headquarters. In 2006, these individuals created a programming masterpiece by adding interactive flight lessons to the “X” version of its flight simulation software. I was fortunate enough to design and narrate those lessons. In doing so, I created flying lessons that replicated the training process I used for years to teach others to fly airplanes. Because of its utility as a training tool, MFSX is now used in many of today’s general aviation and military flight training platforms.
Keep in mind that in 2006, artificial intelligence software for the general public wasn’t available as it is now. Today, any smart entrepreneur with a skilled team of programmers could design a flight-instructor package for student flight training based on the use of artificial intelligence. To the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t been attempted beyond that created by the Microsoft team in 2006. I suspect, however, that this will happen very soon.
So where am I going with this? Ultimately, given the sophistication and ubiquity of artificial intelligence software, pilot applicants will soon be able to take flight training in the comfort of their own home. That’s right. You won’t need a flesh-and-bones flight instructor on-site to learn the basic principles of stick and rudder flying. You heard that right. I’m advocating having Hal 2000 in the bedroom to provide flying lessons. This, of course, requires the hardware necessary to meet the necessary authenticity requirements for training (i.e., rudder pedals, semi-wrap around or multi-monitor environment, ATC simulation software, etc.). None of this, however, is prohibitively expensive. I could easily imagine someone earning a private pilot certificate at one-third the cost of what students pay today.
Of course, some minimum experience in an actual airplane would be necessary for sport or private pilot certification. I’m speaking of a skills-review phase-check at two or three intervals before allowing a student to fly solo. Let’s not forget that the FAA (sadly) doesn’t place a great deal of emphasis on solo flight time, given its reduction to a minimum of only five hours for sport or private pilot certification. Therefore, when Hal 2000 indicates that you’ve met the required performance standards for certification, Hal schedules a “skill assessment” phase check in the actual airplane with a qualified instructor. Eventually, the training software would recommend you for a checkride, but only if your name isn’t Dave.
Before any of this is possible we’ll need an entirely new set of regulations for cognitive, perceptual, and motor skill assessment. These new regulations would assess a student’s skill on an “objective” basis. Total flight time wouldn’t matter as long as the student could meet the required performance standards. It takes very little imagination to see how primary students can be properly and thoroughly trained in this manner. Additionally, there’s potentially very little overall cost to the student when training to the highest possible behavioral standards. If the student has to (or elects to) spend 10 additional hours in the AI module that teaches decision-making, so be it. The cost will be negligible.
Another benefit is that students would have less exposure to malpracticing CFIs who might ruin their experience of aviation for an entire lifetime. I can easily see our AI-based instructor software being trained on the best practices of aviation’s most capable flight instructors. AI training in this manner is something we already do. Many people have trained Chat GPT software to answer their website questions, monitor production lines, do employee accounting, and so on. The technology is here. It just needs to be applied to flight training.
Welcome to the Future
I’m not saying that any or all of these ideas will solve the problem of poor instruction in aviation. Nor am I saying that there are more bad instructors in aviation than there are stellar ones. That’s absolutely not true. I’m simply saying that there are bad instructors that harm our industry and we need to limit our exposure to them. What I’ve offered here are suggestions (some new, some not) that might be useful and practical when applied in earnest. At a minimum, the most effective advice I can offer anyone seeking flight training is to do the gumshoe work and search for a good teacher. This is the one guaranteed way to ensure that students have a good flight training experience.