Five Steps for a New CFI; “Good to Great”

We have to be honest here, a brand-new CFI with perhaps 5 hours of real solo and maybe 250 hours total time (in only 2 or 3 aircraft) is not an impressive aviator or trusted educator. This is an opportunity for growth! These are the people who are teaching all our future pilots. Currently, 2/3rds of “active CFIs”have taught for less than one year, they are beginners. It takes some real humility, dedication, and work to grow into an effective educator that clients will trust and benefit from. Those who dig deep and learn the next steps more rapidly will be the successful job candidates for future employment with the airlines or charter operators.

Every experienced and successful aviation educator started in exactly the same place and successfully climbed this same ladder to professionalism.  Growth in all these areas also positions a CFI/pilot for future success as a professional crew member in an airline or a corporate flight department. These same essential (often introspective) skills are sought by every aviation employer during interviews for professional career positions. They seek broad-based professionals rather than limited “hour-builders.” Here are five proven steps that make the pathway to professionalism more focused and efficient. (Use these yourself or pass them on to a new CFI you know)

Understand and Embrace Your New Role as “Educator;” Turn Over the Controls!

Up to the level of the CFI temporary, all the FAA certificates and ratings are for piloting, which builds an obsession for personal precision and error-free control. With the new CFI certificate, that focus goes away and the new mission is becoming an educator (and the flying will be sloppy, these are usually beginners). The focus now switches entirely to empowering and successfully growing the knowledge and control of your learner in the left seat. Every new CFI must learn to relinquish the controls (and the radio) to the learner and empower them to experiment and practice – in a safe environment provided by the CFI. The student is now the most important person. Most problems they encounter are exactly the same problems you worked through in training. Patience, introspection, and compassion are key tools for a successful CFI.

Their flying will not be precise (by definition) which can be intensely frustrating for every new CFI. Understanding and commiserating with their struggle is a critical part of educator success. A caring and honest relationship is critical to motivating your learner’s progress and working through difficulties. An effective CFI is a “compassionate coach.” Every individual learner has different talents and needs which a savvy cfi must leverage to make progress. Their success is *your* success and if they are not progressing, the problem is almost always the CFI.

Grow Your Aviation Knowlege and Experience Aggressively

Take every opportunity (often unpaid) to broaden your aviation experience and knowledge of aviation. Most new CFIs have only experienced a small slice of the bigger world of aviation. Big academy graduates need to learn non-towered operations with self-fueling operations. Small-town CFIs need to play in the busy airspace. And everything you do to expand your knowledge and experience will make you more valuable as an educator and future professional aviator. Most new CFIs are a “minimum-viable-products” It is essential to build experience and value as quickly as you can. Fly (safely) with every different operator you can find and build your experience and resume. There are proven weak areas in all new CFIs, e.g. different airspaces, airworthiness, ACS standards. Hang out with experienced mechanics and educators and be ready to learn (that humility part). Every new experience will make you a better pilot and more valuable educator.

“Old School” Is Sometimes Wrong; Use Modern Methodology

Many of the methods still used in aviation education are ineffective and harmful; part of a persistent culture of “flight instructor techniques” from WWII pilot training.  This “drill Sergeant” methodology was based on the psychology of behaviorism (good dog, bad dog). Modern educational methodology embraces the whole learner as a fully functioning intelligent adult. The savvy CFI must deploy a whole toolkit of creative scenario-based methods to creatively achieve progress in flight training. Many unsuccessful assumptions, still in use in pilot training, inhibit learner progress and create a corrosive learning environment. Every educator needs to carefully reassess their own personal history and purge their methodology of techniques and assumptions that made their own progress less effective; flight training fallacies. If we only train the way we were taught we might be perpetuating half-truths of dangerous myths.

Build Your “Educator Tools” and Understanding of Psychology: Incremental Mastery.

The very brief introduction to the learning process in the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook is very good, but only the bare minimum to function as a CFI – remember “FAA minimums?” There are amazing (usually free) resources to build your understanding of the learning process and improve your critical role as an educator. Success largely hinges on the “soft skills” of emotional intelligence most pilots initially avoid. A successful educator needs to care about the success of your learners and also understand their motivations to successfully build their confidence and abilities step by step. All these skills pay you back in professional crew-based flying. You will find much better success employing “incremental mastery” to motivate and educate your clients.

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.

Deconstruction: Overcoming Plateaus

Every learner encounters learning plateaus and seemingly insurmountable roadblocks. One of the indicators of a truly professional CFI is their ability to work their learners through seemingly insurmountable difficulties. This skill is especially critical when doing flight reviews or advanced training with rated pilots. Many long-time habits (taught wrong or developed over time) need to be revisited and reconstructed to achieve better performance for advanced ratings. This requires deconstructing the difficult task into smaller components where the true problem lies. Just watch some really bad landings at your local airport and you will see an example of really bad instruction. Master CFIs deconstruct and rework basic component skills like airspeed control and ground tracking where the real problem lies.

LMK if these techniques work for you, and share these ideas with new CFIs you might know as you mentor their progress. The most important overall quality of a any professional instructor (or pilot) is a passion for learning. Every new experience is an opportunity to grow and improve. If you keep this fire alive you will inspire and motivate your own learners. Fly safely out there (and often)!

See “SAFE SOCIAL WALL” FOr more Resources

Join SAFE and get great benefits. You get 1/3 off ForeFlight and 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).  10 Tools for New CFIs Here


Author: David St. George

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

2 thoughts on “Five Steps for a New CFI; “Good to Great””

  1. Very insightful and important commentary… We employ many facets of this article at our school, and I love it when I point out to employees and potential customers that “none of this is actually revolutionary, nor my idea; the FAA wrote the book (FITS) on this decades ago but some of the ideas just haven’t penetrated the industry just yet.” Focusing on developing SRM, independence, understanding the role of PIC, “incremental mastery,” the (d)evolution of the CFI from teacher-to-mentor-observer-passenger, and much more are so important. We also have developed as a philosophy: “teach through positive reinforcement of positive outcomes.” If the outcome is not positive, then perhaps the task was not appropriate at the moment. Also the biggest “old-school” technique that I endeavor to minimize is rote level repetition when it leads to negative outcomes, particularly as related to practice landings.

    1. THanks for your comments (and educational persistence) We built the SAFE CFI-PRO™ on a very successful FAA program from the Orlando FSDO. Bringing back new CFIs into FSDO for an additional day of training reduced accidents in the district by 60% in two years (1990s)! Augmenting initial CFI training (bootcamp + mentoring) is essential to both safety and effective education👍

Tell us what *you* think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: