Flight Instructors


Exploring this Job

You can explore aspects of this field while you are still in high school. Begin by reading aviation magazines as well as more complex materials with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and other information. The FAA publishes study materials covering topics such as aviation weather, aeronautical knowledge, and weight and balance. Its Web site has information on how to get these study guides. You can also begin developing radio skills, which you will need as a pilot, by learning to use a ham radio.

Although you must be at least 16 to get a student pilot certificate for solo flying, you can start taking flying lessons even if you are younger. This will allow you to see how much you enjoy the flying experience as well as let you work with a flight instructor and, in that way, get a close up view of the instructor's job. If you can't afford lessons, you can still meet and interview a local flight instructor to get information about this type of work.

Another fun thing to do is to go to air shows, which are frequently held during the summers. Check for shows or "fly-ins" in your area or plan a trip to one. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) holds one of the largest such fly-ins each summer in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as well as other regional fly-ins across the country. At these shows you can meet other flying enthusiasts, see every kind of aircraft from homebuilts (those built by the pilots themselves) to sophisticated military aircraft, attend workshops, and watch flying demonstrations. The EAA also offers Air Academy Aviation Camps for those ages 12 to 18 as well as weekend "camps" for adults and a free Young Eagles Flight Program that matches young people between the ages of eight and 17 who are fascinated by flight with adult pilots eager to share their enthusiasm for aviation. Young Eagles actually fly with the pilots, and flights last 15–20 minutes. Membership is also available. For more information about these opportunities, visit http://www.eaa.org.

The Job

Simply put, the job of a flight instructor combines both the work of a pilot and the work of a teacher. In order to teach others how to fly, flight instructors must first become pilots themselves, learning how to command an aircraft in flight as well as taking care of responsibilities on the ground. Although flight instructors fly with students, it is the instructor who is ultimately responsible for making sure all appropriate preflight, in-flight, and after landing procedures are followed. Therefore, like any pilot, instructors must know how to complete such preflight duties as making sure the aircraft is properly maintained and has the right amount of fuel, preparing a flight plan and knowing the latest weather conditions, and testing the airplane's instruments and controls. In flight, the instructor's piloting duties include monitoring the airplane's systems, paying attention to weather conditions, and making sure there is communication with air traffic control. Some of the after-landing duties instructors must know include shutting down the airplane, explaining any problems to the maintenance crew, and updating their flight logbooks.

In addition to all the skill, knowledge, and experience needed to complete these and other pilot tasks, instructors have teaching responsibilities. Flight instructors may work on their own, offering private lessons, or at ground schools that are at an airport, part of a major airline, in the military, or part of a university. Their teaching duties include deciding what classes to offer, creating a syllabus, scheduling class times, and choosing the textbooks and other materials that the students will need. Instructors must know current federal aviation regulations so that they can teach correct rules to their students. Flight instructors should also be up to date on the latest teaching technologies available. Computer-based programs and flight simulators, for example, are often used in flight instruction, and instructors should be able to make use of these resources. Augmented and virtual reality software and hardware are increasingly being used in conjunction with flight simulators, so instructors should also be sure to learn about these emerging technologies.  

Flight instructors, like other kinds of teachers, spend time outside of the classroom preparing for what they will teach. They may write lectures, make PowerPoint presentations, arrange for demonstrations of equipment, and grade tests or otherwise keep track of each student's progress. Subjects that instructors cover during class meetings include principles of aerodynamics, the national airspace system, navigation, meteorology, instrument reading, and proper use of radio communications. They also demonstrate how to use equipment and discuss the functions of parts of an airplane, such as rudders, flaps, and elevators. Another important classroom activity is overseeing students' use of flight simulators. A flight simulator is made to look and feel like the cockpit of an airplane, with instrument panels and a pilot's seat. In the simulator, students can practice maneuvers such as taking off, flying, and landing. Instructors are able to monitor a student's actions while in the simulator, and they can use a control panel to change conditions during the student's simulated flight. This helps students develop skills they will need when faced with changing conditions in real-life flying situations. After a session in the flight simulator, the instructor and student review the student's actions and discuss what was done well, what needs improvement, and how to work on these areas.

Taking students on training flights is another important part of a flight instructor's work. Aircraft that are designed for training have two sets of controls and a cockpit arranged so that the student and instructor sit either side by side or one in front of the other. The instructor can observe the student's flying but also take back control of the plane if the student needs help. During training flights, instructors can show students how to handle the plane in different situations, how to use instruments like the altimeter and vertical speed indicator, and how to perform maneuvers that may help the student during a dangerous situation in the future. Safety is a top priority for instructors and they may take students through emergency situations, such as a stall, to teach them how to react. Flight instructors also teach students how to maintain a flight logbook. Each student must record information about the flights he or she makes, such as what was done on the flight, how long the flight took, and the flight's distance. In addition, instructors need to keep their own "teacher's logbook" with information on each student. These logbooks must be kept by instructors for at least three years after they have had a student.

Before flight instructors can let students make their first solo flight, the students must get a medical certificate (certifying they are in good health) and an instructor-endorsed student pilot certificate. In order to get the student pilot certificate, the student must pass a test given by the flight instructor. This test features questions about Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules as well as questions about the model and make of the aircraft the student will fly. If the student passes the test and the instructor feels the student is prepared to make a solo flight, the instructor will sign—or endorse—the student pilot certificate and the student logbook. The flight instructor's work isn't done yet, though; they continue to work with students until the students complete all their training and get their FAA pilot's certificate (sometimes called a license).

Not all students are beginners. Some students are already pilots who want to become certified as another type of pilot or for another type of aircraft. Someone with a recreational pilot's certificate, for example, may want to get a private pilot's certificate. Someone with a private pilot's certificate may want to get a commercial pilot's certificate. Someone else may want to earn a certificate for flying multi-engine planes. Flight instructors are only allowed to teach the categories for which they are already certified. Because of this, instructors are often students themselves, spending their spare time learning how to operate different aircraft and getting various certifications. Many instructors see this need to expand on their flying skills and certifications as an opportunity for both professional achievement and personal satisfaction.