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Choosing Your Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)

Unlike your parents, you get to choose your flight instructor. So take advantage of this precious opportunity now. (And avoid therapy later.)

Have you started your flight training yet? If not, why? Still looking for that perfect CFI?

It’s not uncommon for prospective student pilots to delay flight training months or even years, waiting for the perfect CFI to come knocking on the door. The trouble is, CFIs never come knocking on the door. (Hell, you’re lucky if some of them even show up for lessons on time.)

And “perfect” is really a loaded term when it comes to CFIs anyway. What’s perfect? Smart? Sexy? Funny? Knowledgeable? On most of these accounts you’re in luck:

  • Smart? Many CFIs are smart, often to the point of irritation. It can be particularly endearing when all that brainpower comes tucked behind a forehead that still dreads acne.
  • Sexy? Most CFIs are reasonably attractive, some being downright gorgeous. If you learn best whilst you giggle and blush, this is the attribute to consider. And though “distractions” are an important part of primary pilot training, distractions on this scale are really better suited toward more advance pilot training, like instrument or commercial ratings.
  • Funny? None are as funny as me, so let’s skip this one.
  • Knowledgeable? I’ll bet this is the one that’s holding you up. How do you know how knowledgeable a person is about a subject you don’t know yourself?

The “certified” part of the “certified flight instructor” title suggests the FAA has educated and examined these folks. It’s supposed to mean no matter which one you get, you’ll get what you need. And no matter what happens, your money won’t be wasted.

You know, it’s like choosing a masseuse or masseur from a line up.

Here’s the truth: It’s near impossible to find the perfect CFI up front, because you play such an important role in the ultimate determination of who’s perfect. Who will you connect with? Who’s schedule fits your schedule? Who’s nearby? Who will laugh at your jokes? (After all, it’s your money.)

Here are some things to consider when choosing the CFI that’s perfect for you:

  • Who makes you feel comfortable? You’re going to spend a lot of time in a small place with this person. Do you think you’ll get along? If not, move on. In my ever humble opinion, this is by far the most important consideration, because it affects everything else.
    Suggestion: Ask CFI candidates about their hobbies or interests. While they tell you, check to make sure their breath is fresh.
  • Who’s available when you’re available? Things like weather, aircraft maintenance schedules and illness are things you can’t control, and you’ll be amazed often you must cancel lessons because of these and other factors beyond your control. But some things you can control, and daily schedule compatibility is one of the most important. CFIs want your business, so they might tell you things like, “Oh, I’m sure we’ll work something out,” or “Weekends are fine—airplanes are hardly ever used on the weekends in this country!” If your daily schedules don’t mesh, you’re never going to get through your training. Someone is available when you are, so keep looking.
    Suggestion: Ask CFI candidates to show you their schedules. See if time slots are free that suit you. Chances are, if the slots you’ll need are used up for the coming weeks, you’ll find yourself fighting with other students for time.
  • Who’s nearby? Like regular workouts at a gym, learning to fly an airplane will make you more attractive. You picked your gym based in part on its convenient location, and you need to pick your CFI for the same reason—if your lessons aren’t convenient, you won’t go. In some areas, you won’t have a choice. But if you do have more than one nearby airport, choose the place you’re most likely to get to. Consider the CFIs at that “other” local airport less desirable, no matter how hot they look in their sunglasses and David Clarks.
    Suggestion: If your local airport isn’t very local, ask CFI candidates if they’re available outside the airport for ground instruction, which doesn’t require an airplane. This could end up saving you lots of time.
  • Who can you afford? Each CFI charges differently. In some cases, the flight school will determine the costs. But if you pay your CFI directly, find out what kind of money you’re talking about. How much per hour? How long is a typical lesson? When does the clock start and stop?
    Suggestion: Ask CFI candidates how they conduct their business. This can be an awkward question, but you have a right to know—this is someone you’re hiring! You’re the boss, and don’t forget it!

Other things are important to consider too, in case you happen to be clairvoyant and can predict such things:

  • Who’s airline bound? Some CFIs are training students while they pursue airline careers. It makes sense for them because they need the flight hours and students pay for the airplane. The trouble is that these CFIs can be more focused on their goals than yours. Not all, but some. Once that airline job comes along, you’re back at square one. You won’t loose the flight time you’ve already put in, but you can lose the momentum you need to get that license.
    Suggestion: Ask CFI candidates to describe their goals as aviators. If they mention the airlines, find out what time frame they’re looking at before they start looking for a job. If they’re already looking, you keep looking too. If they’re many months away from their job hunt, you might be able to get through your training before they go.
  • Who seems stable? It’s not like you’re expecting your CFI to snap mid-flight, but a CFI who has been training for many years—particularly in the same location—might have the upper hand with regard to being there for you throughout your training.
    Suggestion: Ask CFI candidates how long they’ve been training. If they’re new to the area, that’s fine. Just ask some follow-up questions until you’re satisfied they’re not just passing through.

Choosing a CFI is tough, but it’s no reason to delay your training. All the hours you accrue during your training follow you forever; so even if you need to fire a CFI, you don’t need to start your training all over. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. Good CFIs are used to it, and it will show them you’re serious about your training.

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One Comment

  1. Jeanne Peterson
    Posted October 13, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,

    I looked over this list a couple of months ago and thought great list but I have my CFI so I’m good to go. A couple of things have happened since that made me think you should add one more item to your list: Organized!

    My first CFI operated off a syllabus for the local university that he used for the students but adapted some portions because I’m not attending the university so not all of their requirements applied to me but most did.

    This summer they hired a new Chief CFI at the flight school where I take lessons and at the same time they changed to a new course syllabus. What I’ve observed is that there is a difference in how my time is used. The new syllabus has everything for ground lessons and flight lessons organized into a very understandable package. I always know what is coming next and there is very little wasted time. If it happens that the weather becomes a factor in cancelling a flight lesson, I always know what ground material we will be covering instead.

    The other thing that happened was they asked if they could move me to a different CFI so my other CFI could accommodate more of the university student schedules. My time for lessons is more flexible than some of the students. I said yes, and began with the new CFI. I was nervous but found out that the new CFI along with the new syllabus seem to be moving me through the syllabus and training more efficiently. Also the new CFI spends a little time before each flight to discuss exactly what we will be doing during our flight and then after our flight we discuss good and bad aspects of the flight. Before I leave from my lesson I know what our next flight will be covering or what ground lesson we will have if weather doesn’t allow a flight.

    Whether or not your flight instructor is organized or not will affect the overall cost and time to achieve your certificate.

    Thanks for all your valuable information, Jeanne

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