|By Russ Still
January 11, 2020
Perhaps you have been considering becoming a pilot for a while. Most people dream about it long before actually getting started. If you aren’t familiar with general aviation or small airplanes, you first step will likely be a “discovery flight” with an instructor. See for yourself what it is like to fly. It is an experience that cannot be described in words.
Once you have determined that flying is for you, the next step will be to select a flight instructor. He or she may be an independent CFI (Certificated Flight Instructor) or may work for a flight school.
Selecting a Flight Instructor
You've made the decision - you've determined that you want to become a pilot. Now you’ll need to decide how you will do it. Is a flight school your best choice or would you prefer to work with an independent flight instructor? You can be successful with either option. The pros and cons are really based on the availability of schools and instructors in your area.
Part 61 or Part 141?
Flight Schools conduct their training under Federal regulations Part 61 or 141. Basically, Part 141 schools operate under a rigid curriculum, audited by the FAA. Part 61 schools do not. But that doesn't mean you don't get the same quality of training.
Regardless of where a student goes to school, each must learn the same material and demonstrate the same skills in order to complete the program. In a Part 141 school, every student is taught exactly the same way. Thus, if you need to change instructors, the impact on your progress should be minimal. On the other hand, Part 61 schools offer more flexibility. In the end, though, you probably should not choose a school based entirely on the regulation that it operates under.
Look around at several schools before choosing one. The airport manager's office can probably provide you with a list. Visit them, talk to a few of the instructors, meet the owners, and take a good look at their airplanes. Cosmetically challenged airplanes may be in perfectly good mechanical condition, but this may indicate that the school is having financial difficulties. That is extremely commonplace. Costs are high and profit margins razor thin in the flight training business. Select a school that looks like it will be around for a while.
An independent CFI can be an excellent choice. These folks may be more concerned about their reputations as good teachers since much of their business comes from word-of-mouth. When you interview independent instructors, ask about the curriculum and particularly the syllabus. If you think an independent is your best choice, make sure that he or she has access to good airplanes and has some type of facility in which to meet with you - even if it's the conference room at the local FBO (fixed base operator).
Gold Seal has an excellent resource for you. Click the link at the top of this page labeled "Find a CFI". That lists instructors already affiliated with Gold Seal, along with their contact information, sorted by city within state. Pick a few in your area and give them a call. A major benefit of choosing a Gold Seal affiliated instructor is that they are already in the system. They can monitor your progress and guide you through the program online. It's a huge plus!
Did you know that a flight instructor could have as little as 300 hours total flying time? Although that isn't much, it doesn't mean that a low time CFI can't give you great training. But keep in mind that what your instructor teaches you is based on his or her own experience. It only makes sense that a low-timer will likely have less experience than someone with more hours.
Of real significance to you is the amount of experience the prospective CFI has actually teaching. The best pilot in the world may be a lousy teacher, and a newly minted CFI might be a phenomenal one. It is very hard to tell based solely on an interview. To boost your odds of getting a really good instructor, ask those that you interview how many people they have soloed, how many they have taken all the way through to their checkrides, and how many of those passed on the first try. If a CFI indicates that he or she is an FAA Gold Seal instructor, this means the Federal Aviation Administration has given him a special designation identifying him as a very experienced instructor with a high first-time pass rate.
One common problem that students experience is the loss of a flight instructor midstream. Especially with younger CFIs, many use instructing as a short-term way to increase their hours. They may aspire to bigger jobs with charter operators or airlines and flight instructing may simply be a stepping stone. Now that doesn't mean that a young instructor might not give you the best training. But it does indicate that he or she may not be around long enough for you to complete your training. Make sure to ask any prospective instructors, whether independent or with a school, what their goals are for the next two years.
A Match Made In...
Whoever you choose, it's going to be a person that you will spend a lot of time with in close quarters. Try to select an instructor whose personality and style meshes easily with yours. An instructor who doesn't enjoy giving ground instruction is possibly someone who won't be as patient when the inevitable little problems come up. Pick someone who smiles easily and seems experienced and passionate about his job. Pick someone who clearly loves to talk about aviation!
Once you have chosen an instructor, make sure to point out that he or she can join Gold Seal for free. This puts them in the loop with all of your flight training - on the ground and in the air. Certificated Flight Instructors have free access to the entire ground school program. The result is more efficient teaching for them, and faster progress for you!