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Flight Instructor

The Real Poop

"Aieee. Splat."  These terms are not the name of a fancy Indonesian dish at a Hollywood restaurant. Rather, they are the nightmarish elements you fight against as a certified flight instructor, or CFI. Your job is to teach pilots not only how to fly—but how to fly well.

Why are there so many idiots on the highways? Our guess: Most have had lousy training. They don't have to renew their licenses every two years, they don't need to pass medical exams every few years, and…well, many are just…idiots.

In the skies, things are different.

Being a pilot is "hard" in that it's a big commitment. And it should be—if something goes wrong you can't just pull over to the side of the road, take a whiz, and call Triple A. And even more stressful is the fact that there are a finite number of airports in the world on which to land your plane—so in and around those airports, traffic is usually congested. Dangerous. (Aieee splat kind of dangerous.)

Some background: People learn to fly in a few structured ways—in the military, as relatively rich civilians who just pay for lessons, and as part of a corporate training program for a shipper like FedEx. Obviously, each element has vastly different foci, but the idea of "reject risk" is a core ethos in any of the efforts.

Pilots are team players at heart—other people are always involved even though it may seem that flying "solo" is a unitary activity. In fact, not only do pilots have to avoid traffic, but the airplanes are owned by others—and it's expensive if you aieee splat or even just damage the craft. And usually pilots ferry other people or products, so there is a deep responsibility to the safety of themselves and others—a responsibility that becomes ingrained as the various levels of license increase in complexity and freedom.

Those licenses start with getting a VFR or "visual flight rules" license to fly a single engine piston plane. Think: propellor-driven 4-seater. "Kites with wings."

These awesome little planes are relatively easy to fly—not a ton of dials and buttons, so it's less likely that things will go wrong. The undercarriage (wheels) doesn’t retract so you don’t even need to remember to put them down to land. They don't fly that high so you don't have to pressurize the cabin as you increase your altitude—or depressurize upon landing. And they fly slowly.

And speed matters—it kills. Speed is like a time machine—slow down and you get more of it (time). The coolest thing about the single-engine piston planes is that they stall (meaning that they can't hold their nose up anymore because they are flying too slowly) at a very slow speed. It is the stall speed that meters the speed at which the wheels touch down on a runway.

Why is a slow stall speed good? Because it means that you don't need a very long runway to stop. The shorter the runway needed, the more places you can land, making the country a very granular place for small airplanes. Tiny airport access means that you can land just five miles from Aunt Betty Sue's, buzz her house on the way in so she knows to come get ya, and have an easy trek relative to having to take Southwest to the big metro airport 45 miles away.

CFIs start as pilots themselves and progress through a range of skills:

  • VFR rating in single engine
  • IFR (instrument flight rules) rating in a single engine
  • Then repeat in multi-engine
  • Then licensing to fly jets
  • Then licensing to fly complex jets

However, there are tons of little factoid-y tweaks that make the seemingly simple above list really complicated. For example:

There are really cool small jets for $2-4 million available on the market now. Those are a separate "class" of jet called VLJs (very light jets). They require a different licensing system than a "normal" twin jet.

The "ultimate"ish VLJ

An awesome "starter kit" basic jet

Why such a big diff? Their flight dynamics and controls are almost identical, relative to everything else (where there are vast differences between a single-engine piston plane and any jet). Insurance. Risk.

If you aieee splat, somebody has to pay for it…usually an insurance company. So…if YOU were the insurance company, it's likely you'd be really picky about how you'll risk $25 million of your own capital. And if you require separate licensing, then so be it.

And there's a soul toll here as well; as an instructor, if someone you train crashes, it could be worse than crashing a plane yourself. You’ll have to live with knowing you maybe didn't provide the victim with the tools he needed to survive. Which is really the (cock)pits.

The progression to becoming a good pilot (who then becomes a CFI) starts with just VFR licensing—that is, you can fly when you only need to visually identify things. Think: no clouds in the sky at your take-off point and where you're going to land. And if the weather (abbrev: "wx" in pilotland) report shows that there is likelihood of clouds at your destination, you can't go with only a VFR license; or you have to find nearby airports that are projected to be clear.

A bunch of other restrictions happen with VFR flight ratings—various airspaces through which you can't fly and other relationships and obligations you'll have in communicating with the Tower or the local Approach radio systems who guide you from the air into their airspace and airports.

But what do you do if you want to fly through a few morning clouds and you only have the VFR "training wheels" license?

You upgrade to IFR. "Instrument flight rules" mean that you can navigate the plane to within pretty tight tolerances, even in total IMC ("inclement meteorological conditions"). "Tight" means that, as you descend to a given airport (with its specific and narrow requirements based on the terrain around it—i.e., with lots of mountains the structures and approach maps are different vs. flatlands), your tolerance to failure is that you never deviate outside of 100 feet up or down or side to side from the "cone" into which you fly.

As a CFI, your tolerances are tighter—the deviation max is 50 feet. Go outside of those ranges on your test flight and you fail.

You get your CFI license to teach at a given level. That is, you have to demonstrate mastery of the airplane for VFR flight conditions and then can get certified to license VFR pilots. You then upgrade and move onward and upward to more complex airplanes and more complex situations. Even though you may be required to have your own IFR license, you might not be certified to TEACH it.

Multi-engine training is a whole 'nother beast.


Because if an engine goes out, the plane does oh so funny things. More or less, if the right engine dies, the plane is going to fly very…left. Think: Obama. And engines do go out. So you have to learn how to deal. It means that you angle the stick and rudder system to "crab" the opposite direction/i.e., kind of turning right. But if you do that, many bets are off—like the stall speed. The aerodynamics of many planes are very different with an engine out versus when two are working. So you have to account for those issues. It’s a long, ugly process and you have to "learn each plane."

Zip forward from flying a zippy 6-seater that goes 1,500 miles before running out of fuel to a Boeing Dreamliner, which can fly 9,000 miles before it poops out. In that case, there are massively complex systems and 12-15 hour hauls, which require pilots to take shifts and generally think about flying differently. You can imagine that an airplane that costs $75 million is just a fundamentally different beast than that 10-year-old used piston engine plane you bought for $75,000.

More or less, at each of these levels, a CFI has two key things she learns:

  1. How to fly the plane with great mastery; and 
  2. How to teach nervous students how to fly the plane with great mastery.

Those two skills are often diametrically opposed. Great pilots are often selfish, focused, almost "rude" because they know that they work for the plane, for physics, for the safety of the people around them. But being a great teacher requires compassion, awareness of the mood, and connection to the student sitting next to them. There is more to teaching than simply knowing your subject matter. Those you are teaching are bound to be nervous at first—it helps to be understanding about someone's reservations and be able to build confidence, answer their questions, and make them feel generally comfortable up there. The job requires patience, the ability to communicate information clearly, and a grasp on all necessary information you must impart throughout the course of instruction. You can't just jump up and down like an idiot, point and shout, "Ze plane, boss! Ze plane!" Gotta have a head on your shoulders.

So it's a rare bird who can do both. But if you can, it's an awfully rewarding feeling: You're basically granting wings to angels so that they can fly. Safely. With angels, there's no aieee splat—or if there is, they don’t have far to go. With your clients, there will be.