Freelance CFI – You’re a “Business!”

Thanks to Dave Wheeler for this article (expanded from a Facebook post) He is an ATP pilot with ASEL, AMEL, and SES. He holds all of the CFI certificates and ratings for airplane, and instrument. He also has the gold seal attached to the CFI certificate and is a four-time Master CFI. Total time is just a bit north of 14,000 hours with just short of 12,000 as CFI. Dave has owned three different flight schools throughout the years, buying the first one in 1978, a Grumman Pilot Center.  As aside, Dave got his ATP just to go through the process, as he never wanted to fly for the airlines.    

When you acquire that precious initial CFI certificate you are not only approved to teach flying, you have become a “business” (allowed to legally collect money for your services) and there are new “privileges and responsibilities” far beyond just flying. Here are a few pointers for the new CFI who is putting out their shingle to offer flight lessons to the public for the first time (as opposed to teaching for an established flight school). This is a new adventure that requires some training and information to succeed (and avoid economic peril)  “Going into business” is a great adventure and a learning experience that demands new skills and responsibilities and involves much more than just being a great CFI.

Among the many surprises and “learning opportunities” is business licensing. Where I teach, you will need a state business license, as the state collects sales tax. To collect the tax, the tracking vehicle is the business license number. So, we must collect the tax from the customer and pass it through to the state. Here it is call Business and Occupation tax, or B&O.   Depending on your business it may be collected monthly or quarterly. The state decides that for you based upon your application, and the dollar amount you specified as anticipated income. Then, depending on where you live there may be county and/or city taxes too. Here (by the way, “here” in my case is Washington State) the state collects both city and county tax and forwards it to the respective agency. Then there are other taxes that you pay to the state for whatever reason.

Once you are licensed, be sure to check with the airport upon which you desire to teach. More and more airports are adopting a Minimum Standards Document that spells out what you need to do to conduct business on their soil. In my case, I started out with one airplane and just me. I was listed as a freelance CFI (and it applies to A&Ps too) and needed to prove airworthiness of the Cherokee 140 I was going to use, and prove that it met their insurance requirements. I was going to be a “Through the fence” operator, so I convinced them that my office would be my motorhome that I would park outside next to my tie-down spot.

As a funny example of what you can learn, I got one of those big green signs from Sporty’s that says “Learn to Fly Here” and hung it out to attract business. Little did I know that there was a separate “Sign Requirements” document with which needed to comply. Sign came down. Once the state and airport are happy, you need to think about a business plan. How are you going to run your business?

Since you are now competing for customers with any inside the fence FBOs (and they are not going to be happy with since you are “poaching” their customers) and other businesses that are going after the customer’s hard earned dollars. If you think about it, you are in competition for recreational dollars with the local golf course, dive shop, and bowling alley, the movie theater, etc. The product you are selling is not so much flying but also “challenge and adventure”. So this is where you may want to look to hire some professionals to assist in your marketing and business plan. Like many unfortunate others, I did not take this route, but learned the hard way through the school of hard knocks. Though a professional, aviation-savvy CPA and attorney may cost some money, you save from the pain and heartache that every misstep costs. Their professional fees (like yours) are worth every penny.  In my case, I was going along fat dumb and happy, selling flight instruction, building my business, paying my taxes, and several years into the business I got a nice letter from the state department of revenue saying they wanted to do a B&O tax audit. I called one of my customers, a CPA and asked his advice and his first sentence was “Do NOT let anyone from that office onto your property!” Wow, OK. Why? He explained that they will not only audit your books, but your premises as well. He said that if they see a magazine lying on your table they will want to see where you paid the tax on the magazine. If you buy something for “resale” meaning you will pay the tax when you sell it, not when you buy it, they will want to see that paper trail.

Just like every other emergency in aviation, where the test comes first and the lesson and learning follow, I got smart quick. I put the CPA on retainer, and took my records to the CPA’s office and they did the audit there. They actually found that I had paid too much sales tax on a computer that I purchased out of state and I ultimately got a refund. Not enough to pay the CPA, but still…worth it and “lesson learned” (hire a professional!) Getting really comprehensive and “CFI specific” insurance from a professional (like SAFE offers) is another essential first step in business. Though you may not have assets to worry about starting out, all your future earnings are also be legally attached so professional CFI insurance is money well spent!

That is enough for today, but in a future issue, I’ll talk about some of the other things you will face as a freelance CFI.

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Right to Left (seat) and Back Again…Never Stop Learning!

Master Instructor (and SAFE Director) Michael Phillips on “Always Learning” and “Right Seat Rust!”

MIkePhillipsLogoFlying has been an important part of my life in one way or another for many, many years and I have had the opportunity to spend over 9000 hours sharing my passion with others from the right seat or the back seat of all types of airplanes. I love teaching, I love flying, but I especially love the challenge that comes with learning something new, and more times than not the learning is delivered from the pilot at the controls. As you read this comment you may ask yourself what can an instructor learn from the pilot training aren’t we the teacher? To truly seek answers, you must first challenge yourself: am I comfortable being uncomfortable? Sit pointed into that headwind for a moment and then ask: “how can I be a better teacher, mentor, and coach?” Embracing our role as instructors, push further and ask, “are we really teaching as effectively and ‘quietly’ as possible?”


Over the years there have been times that if I had only been quiet and listened to what the pilot training was trying to communicate in actions or words my success as a teacher would have been significantly improved. If I had stayed out of the way and “gently guided” the pilot training through their learning process as opposed to not-so-gently guiding them through my teaching process, had I been more patient as they struggled to master the airplane or the instruments, I am absolutely sure that I would have been a more effective teacher. When given the opportunity to guide other instructors I always mention that those of us that teach have the potential to be “an impediment to learning” and if we pack this thought in our flight bag, each time we share the cockpit with a pilot training, our chances of being a more effective, kind and patient instructor are significantly enhanced.


These thoughts are not new or unique to me. I have always held myself to a high standard of excellence in every pursuit, particularly that of flight instructor. I expect anyone with the title Certified Flight Instructor holds such a standard of excellence for themselves and their clients; as fellow stakeholders in the educational process, we all deserve such focus and dedication. This said, over the past twelve months I had two experiences that made me painfully aware that I still have work to do.


Interestingly enough both of these learning events came as a result of me becoming the student and not the teacher. The first was adding Single Engine Sea to my skill set and the other was transition training into a new and significantly powered and complex aircraft. Each challenge was fun and exciting because they required learning new skills as well as applying existing skills to new situations.

In the case of the Seaplane rating the instructor was a young, talented CFI that was as anxious about teaching a salty old instructor as I was about wanting not to embarrass myself. We had fun and challenged each other; me as the pilot training and he as the instructor trying to teach me the skills required to attain this new rating. I experimented with interesting ways not to fail and he tried to remind me that making mistakes is how we learn best (not his words but mine). He was laughing and challenging me as he guided me to the necessary level of competence to pass the checkride which was successfully accomplished. As I reflected back on this experience I asked myself if I were in his shoes how would I have handled my learning style and what did I learn from him? The answer was clear; be aware of the learning style of the pilot training, adjust as necessary, be playful and respect the person that you are training without making the hard work and pure joy of learning something new a negative event.


Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 11.59.25 AMThe transition training involved stepping up to a single engine turbine powered rocket-ship. I had been flying turbines for a while and felt comfortable managing the intricacies of the PT6 but in this case my comfort level did not translate into the level of performance that I had expected of myself. There were many factors that added to the challenge but none greater than personal expectations mixed with a good dose of “right seat rust”. The training was not a straight line and after a particularly challenging session my frustration was apparent and I shared it with my instructor pilot. It was nothing major or unsafe, just a lot of little things that showed a lack of proficiency that was keeping me from the factory sign-off. I departed knowing that it would be almost a month before we would be able to complete the training due to scheduling issues and I was in a funk. After returning home I received a note from my instructor that sounded exactly like what I have said to my students many, many times over the years.


“I just wanted to take the time to write you a note.  I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you during our training.  I see how serious you are taking it and really appreciate your desire and drive to get it right.  Please don’t be too hard on yourself.  I know that you will be successful with your goal with more training and seat time.  Holding yourself to high standards is the key to success.  After all, you will be riding around with Mark and Ryan watching over their decisions and performance.  The Epic is a fantastic airplane, as you know, demanding attention.  When we meet again, I know that you will be able to fly within PTS standards and hold the centerline”.


When I received this note I laughed and shook my head. As the tables were turned on me, I realized that while it is important to master this airplane, I’d missed the heart of the lesson I was learning. The real message, and the importance of this experience, was that we are all students. We all must be comfortable being uncomfortable. I am no different from the pilot I’m training. What really matters is that I need to be more patient, more kind, more peaceful and better at managing expectations, both for myself and those that ask for my guidance.


The reason that I am sharing these thoughts with you is that if my experiences can open your eyes to the importance of being patient, managing expectations, listening carefully and recognizing the value of regularly moving from teacher to student, as a way to grow personally and professionally, the experiences steadily compound over the years enriching the educational process for all.

Please “follow” our blog to receive notification of new articles and please write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute. We need more articles on aviation excellence or flight safety. There are many highly qualified SAFE members out there! If you are not yet a member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile fun (How about $66 off your annual ForeFlight subscription?)

Pilot Proficiency Symposium OSH 2016

SAFE-SymposiumIn 2011, SAFE and other key industry leaders took the initiative to develop and conduct the Pilot Training Symposium in Atlanta that focused on the myriad challenges that face general aviation. These included decreased student starts, increased student attrition, the flatlined fatal accident rate, and stagnated growth. This Symposium devoted equal time to the “Big Six” topics, but since much of the work that has followed has focused on Doctrine and Standards the focus must now shift to Curricula and Aviation Educators with the goal of elevating these areas to the level that Doctrine and Standards are reaching as a result of the SAFE initiative in Atlanta.

To meet this challenge, members of SAFE, along with other concerned educators in the aviation community, have come together to begin developing a new Symposium to focus on the critical elements of Curricula and the Educators responsible for teaching others to fly and to maintain their skills. The stubborn fatal accident rate remains a particular concern, so the upcoming symposium will focus on strategies designed to at drive the fatal accident rate downward.

This event will encourage collaboration among stakeholders to accomplish goals that are focused on learning and teaching best practices for all phases of flight, enhanced communication among Aviation Educators and to develop the foundation for this Symposium to become an annual “must attend” event for all Aviation Educators.

The overarching philosophy guiding the focus of this and future events is to provide guidance and training methods for all facets of the aviation training community which will

• Complement the new ACS system with training methods and curricula that will ensure that applicants are able to conduct safe operations in the real world. Examples include using effective risk management techniques and improving stick and rudder skills during maneuvering flight.
• Ensure that flight school operators, flight instructors, and designated pilot examiners hold applicants to the performance standards contained in the new ACS. This includes ensuring that operators, instructors, examiners, and others in the training delivery system themselves are held to high standards of professionalism and competency.
• Devise new approaches to reach the current pilot community to ensure they meet the standards in the ACS as well. This could include a more robust process for conducting flight reviews and improved delivery of safety information, seminars, and on-line courses.
The specific focus for the 2016 event will be:

1. Loss of Control and the “Learn, Do Fly” approach to applying the core curriculum and the need to create a culture of recurrent training and proficiency as the foundation for improving the safety metrics of General Aviation.

2. The importance of the CFI/DPE relationship and the role it plays in improving the quality of pilot training.

3. Best practices for preparing pilots pursuing their initial CFI designation as well as on-going training after the receipt of the certificate.

The event will be held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin just prior to AirVenture 2016 on Saturday and Sunday July 23-24 at the Fox Valley Technical College, S.J. Spanbauer Aviation & Industrial Center located on the east side of Wittman Field. There will also be follow-up seminars, offered at the Plot Proficiency Center located on the AirVenture venue, for educators incorporating simulation and discussions lead by subject matter experts.

The planning and execution of this event is a core principle of SAFE and is a tangible example of what we as Aviation Educators are committed to each and ever day. Take a look at your schedule and if you can put these dates on your calendar and plan to join us for this important event. Also, as we move forward with our planning we will be asking for volunteers to help us with both the Symposium and in the Pilot Proficiency Center. If you have questions, comments or would like to volunteer please email Michael Phillips at mcfimlp[a]gmail.com.

We are excited about the potential of this event and trust that many of you will be able to join us and contribute your collective genius to the success of this initiative.

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