How “Masterful” is Your CFI? (Do *You* Qualify?)

GA pilots tend to regard *all* CFIs with godlike respect – which is gratifying (as a CFI) but often undeserved – and sometimes can even be dangerous. When the Corey Lidel accident happened in the East River Corridor, many people were incredulous this accident was even possible “with a CFI on board” ( misplaced trust?) The FAA has no standard for CFI excellence, just minimum standards for initial certification and a 16-hour online course every two years!Gold Seal” is certainly busy, but no high bar. There has been some discussion of CFI standards and oversight by the NTSB after the recent horrific accident in Hawaii.

A brand new CFI may only have only 5 hours of total real solo time under their belt (not “ride-along”) and may never have even fueled an airplane (or been in a cloud or on a grass strip). Other blogs have enumerated the consequences of FAA minimum training. New CFIs (in the US) also have no required mentoring or supervision when they start teaching. They are essentially “student teaching” on the job (often with the newest students). Other flight instructors may have been teaching for years and unfortunately never improved past this entry-level of skill and knowledge (except getting grumpier?) A Gold Seal is a good one-time “busy CFI” honor (only specifying an 80% pass rate – the industry average) and is certainly a great sign for a student shopping for a pro. But it is also “one and done” renewing with your CFI forever. True professionalism in aviation is only achieved through continuous personal commitment and defined by voluntary industry accreditation standards;  Master Instructor Certification. Instructor professionalism was one of the critical necessary safety pillars emphasized for aviation improvement in the SAFE Pilot Reform report– professional CFIs “raise all boats” – planes!

It is not uncommon for new academy CFI graduates to lack even the most basic “real life” skills like aircraft fueling or tie-down knots – it is not in the “shake and bake” syllabus. Some new CFIs have been pilots for less than a year; no seasoning or cultural acquisition here. Think of what else they might not know. Current FAA statistics reveal that 2/3 of active FAA CFIs have taught less than a year. And this is a steady-state condition in our aviation industry as new CFIs continually build hours and move on to professional careers.

It is a bigger mistake to assume that some age or gray hair is an indicator of quality since many people now retire young and get all their ratings “while senior” (gray-haired and brand new!) Some of these senior retired CFIs are the scariest I have seen since they bring an “implied aviation gravitas” from their mastery in another profession. Surprisingly, there are only an estimated 2,500 professional, continuously full-time, CFIs in the US. How does a flight student or pilot seeking an excellent instructor determine the “masters” of flight education?

One way to find a veteran aviation educator and access that valuable wealth of experience is to select a “Master Instructor.”  The original Master Instructor Program was created by Sandy and JoAnn Hill of Colorado in 1997. Both lifelong professional educators and CFIs, they saw the need for a voluntary industry accreditation program to raise the professional standards for aviation educators. The flight instructor’s Model Code of Conduct lays out the aspirational goals for every flight instructor seeking to become better. This AeroNews podcast interviews the Hills in 2011 and explains in detail the CFI industry problems and solutions.

Now celebrating 24 years and thousands of designations, the Master Instructors accreditation program represents what former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey called “the best the right seat has to offer” in aviation. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt called the assembled Master Instructors at the GAS “the movers and shakers of the flight training community.” The Master Instructor Continuing Education ProgramTM (MICEP) is now part of SAFE with a new website and simpler online accreditation form created and maintained by Submittable (going live on Monday).

Most experienced instructors probably already qualify for a Master designation! The major challenge is organizing their vast experience into the five required categories and digging up documentation for volunteer reviewers (worksheet). Less than half of 1% of all educators earn this honor. But not surprisingly, this illustrious group is overrepresented in professional activities and in earning FAA honors – 43% of National GA Award Winners are Master Instructors. Though voluntary industry improvement is the heart of this program, the vast majority of Master educators acknowledge that the program not only improved them by challenging them to become better educators, it dramatically increased their earnings from surveyed 10-40%. Several reported more than a 100% hike in their sustainable hourly rates. Additionally, several flight schools provide incentive packages to their Masters worth more than $8,000 annually. Some premier training facilities like Aviation Performance Solutions, require all their instructors to earn Master qualifications.MasterInstructorLogo

We are very pleased to now have the original Master Instructor Program as part of SAFE. The core values are entirely consistent with our SAFE mission of professionalism. Fly SAFE out there (and often) and get started on that Master certification!

You Probably Qualify Already! - Get Started!

For those with many years of teaching experience, you are probably already qualified for Master certification! Your major challenge is finding and submitting documentation of all your experiences and activities. You build an application online (through our Submitable portal) which organizes the validating evidence for the volunteer reviewers. There are five categories of experience: Educator (applicant as teacher), Service (applicant helping others in aviation activities), Creator of Media, Continuing Education (applicant as learner), and Participant.(examples here)

Once you are through the process the first time, you learn to save all activity items and create a dedicated file (like taxes) that organize all the certificates and letters and makes the process much easier. 

For newer educators (flight, ground, helicopter, aerobatic) knowing the categories allows you to direct your efforts into these areas and work toward a worthy goal, saving the documentation for each activity. For the aviation industry, Master Certification sets a known high bar of solid professionalism which truly inspires and rewards your achievement. The increased income from this recognition as well as savings on insurance easily pay for the application fee.

Join SAFE and receive great benefits while supporting the mission of safety. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight immediately and a try new discounted CFI Bootcamp Resources.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI Insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

5 thoughts on “How “Masterful” is Your CFI? (Do *You* Qualify?)”

  1. Over several thousand hours, lotsa check rides, BFRs, and many years I’ve learned that ‘Caveat Emptor’ applies to CFI’s, A&P’s, PMA, and every other aspect of aviation. Some highly experience (aka ‘old’) CFIs are indeed Golden. But time marches on. Yes, we have ultramarathon educators who remain on top of the material even late in life. However, I have found that a freshly minted CFI may offer a useful ‘new perspective’ that highly experienced pilots may lack. With a little seasoning, inexperienced recent mints become valued contributors to growing safe, new aviators.

    FAA minimums are just that. What is the ‘rest of the story’ here? Do many aspiring CFIs actually pass the check rides with minimum hours? What does the data say?

    IMHO, we should be careful of exalting experience (and years in the profession) without also considering ongoing CE and meaningful, current experience.

    As I read the latest blog I wondered if the topic was really about elevating CFI income rather than acheiving substantive improvement in primary student and recurrent training outcomes.

    1. Great ideas John, thank-you for writing. And you are absolutely correct, no certificate of any kind guarantees performance. Hopefully, though, more people will ask important questions (and not ASS-U-ME!)

      The greatest benefit from the Master program for me was making me get out and learn something new every year (new rating, more training) preventing the bored/stale attitude you see in many high-time CFIs. If you are continually learning you empathize with your fellow learners (not “sage on the stage” attitude). Eager, engaged educators that put the client at the center of the learning process is the one important key to diminishing the awful drop-out rate we see in aviation.

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