How to be a “Great CFI”

The primary challenge to becoming an effective flight instructor is, ironically, to not fly and not talk on the radio (even though you desperately want to). Taking physical control in these two areas steals time and important learning opportunities from your student. Taking control also ruins their confidence and leads to frustration and demotivation (“I failed!”). Stated in a positive manner, your job and primary goal as CFI is to be an educator not pilot. Using only words and very occasional demonstrations, you must build skill and mastery in your student, incrementally turning over full control. Arms folded, stoic silence for three landings is my personal test for solo. One final landing after revealing the imminent solo (while signing the log) tests their nerves. No one said this was easy!

The objective of the instructor should be to achieve a minimum amount of time physically flying the airplane.

John Stickle, master of “stoic silence!”

It is perfectly natural as a CFI to want to fly and talk on the radio (and CFI training actually promotes these two bad habits). As pilots-in-training, we spent many hours developing precision when our job was “pilot.” Consequently, it is initially painful, as CFI,  to experience the plane wandering around the sky; we instinctively want to create precision. But student error correction is at the heart of learning, and it’s what you signed up for as an educator. Achieving control and then precision is their job. The CFI role is now educator not pilot. It helps to remember that you were also exactly this clueless and clumsy when you started this process – and look how good you turned out!

Anytime you have physically taken the airplane away from a student quickly, you have missed the opportunity to verbally correct and have also degraded the confidence of your student.

So at a basic level, the frustration of both CFI and learner, and interference from the CFI, can be the largest impediment to learning. How many times do you see a primary CFI and student exit a plane smiling – wouldn’t that be nice? The solution is creating (and maintaining) an honest and open relationship and managing expectations (a light tone and a little humor help too). Learning is a continuing process that requires patience and compassion; don’t expect initial perfection. The objective of every lesson is progress and “small wins.”  As progress is obtained, it is also critical to recognize success and celebrate mastery. This is hugely motivating and every successful maneuver becomes the domain of the learner; “you handle the preflight, taxi and take-off.” You moved the needle and are turning over control. Progress in learning is “motivation magic.”

The syllabus is an essential tool to organize flight training but often creates havoc with expectations. Just because it is the third time in the plane does not mean this is “Lesson 3.” It is critical to be patient with this process; every learner has unique abilities. Early advancement seems like a benefit but actually leads to frustration and dropouts if real skills are not honestly learned and reinforced. A syllabus can easily become a cruel master instead of a helpful guide.

If you have a simulator you should teach and reinforce the basics in this low-pressure environment to build procedural memory. Every pro-level pilot program does exactly this, with paper cutout cockpits (it’s fun to watch high-time ATPs tapping on posters at Flight Safety.) Watch a master describe this process in this webinar. Their rule at CHS Flight School is “teach in the sim, practice in the air.” Simulators or procedure trainers allow efficient repetition and rapid mastery (“chair flying” is the same idea). “Instant repeat” builds skills and fixes problem areas. You will be amazed how fast people progress without the confusion and time pressure of a running engine (and less CFI frustration too). And this is (mostly) not yet scenario time; the basics require repetition building muscle memory.

Another critical awareness as every CFI is eliminating the natural – but totally harmful – habit of stereotyping students; e.g. “another lesson three,” or worse “another housewife.” It is essential before every lesson to psychologically prepare and emphasize to your “CFI self” that this is a unique individual and this is their first time with this experience; opportunity! Care and compassion are critical to effective education. Successful aviation education requires a deep well of patience and understanding.

And this is another great reason keep learning and growing. It is essential to put yourself in the “struggle zone” as a CFI. Adding a rating or class/category to your certificate will help you commiserate with your students.  We all are struggling and confused when encountering new equipment and environments; make it fun. Fly safely out there (and 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).

About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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