There are endless questions, comments, and suggestions online and in advertisements as to what makes the most effective flight training experience. But extensive data reveals that the biggest source of variance in student achievement is the quality of the educator (not the equipment, school or environment). You can have the best school with super equipment, but if your CFI is not a good fit or up to the job, your training is going to be slow and painful (and largely unsuccessful). And it takes years to overcome inadequate training (remember primacy?)
We should focus on the greatest source of variance that can make the difference – the teacher. We need to ensure that this greatest influence is optimized to have powerful and sensationally positive effects on the learner. Excellence in teaching is the single most powerful influence on achievement. Dr. John Hattie
So instead of shopping for shiny new planes and sparkling facilities with fancy extras, every new flight candidate should instead interview the potential educator more carefully and get feedback on the quality of their instruction. You need to get beyond the front office and interview the people doing the actual teaching.
We have elsewhere explained that an FAA CFI you trust your life to may have as few as 5 hours of actual solo time in the aircraft, only 200 total hours, and flown for less than a year. A brand new FAA CFI may lack even the most basic aviation knowledge; never fueled a plane, or even tied one down. The point is, the FAA certificate by itself is no guarantee of quality. If your new CFI grew up in an aviation family, and began flying at 12, they may be an amazing resource and inspire great success. The essential point is you have to dig in and ask a lot of questions of a lot of people.
If you are learning in an SLSA, your Sport Instructor could be only a private pilot; that is all the FAA requires. Despite this, their instruction counts toward a private pilot certificate. There is no requirement for a commercial or instrument rating at the sport instructor level, and the instructor total time could be as low as 125 hours. This does not mean they are not good, only that their experience level may be a bit superficial.
So how do you find a great CFI?
This is a job every student should take very seriously (given the data above) and it is largely a networking effort. Try asking recently graduated pilots, local DPEs and even your FAA SPM. These are people without a “dog in the fight” who will objectively share their experiences. The FAA finally has actual pass/fail and activity statistics on every flight instructor the US. And it is also critical to get a good personality match, so interview and spend time with your potential educator.
Master Instructor accreditation is a sure sign of well-rounded educator experience and achievement. Finding someone at this level assures that the CFI is the top of their game and also cares enough about their personal level of excellence to pursue advanced certification. The Master Instructor program challenges every CFI to continually learn, contribute broadly to the aviation community, and continue to advance their knowledge and skill. You still want to assure a personality match and also the kind of experience in your area of interest. Every experienced CFI should pursue Master Instructor Accreditation. Stay safe out there and fly often!
Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education. 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).
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