Flight Instructing Is a Real Job!
I spend a fair amount of time traveling the world to visit with both our members and those operators and organizations who I think should be HAI members. One segment that I enjoy spending time with is training operations, especially entry-level flight schools.
Flight training comes in all forms and shapes, but no matter the level — basic, advanced, simulator, recurrent, mission-specific, or military — the one element critical to a high-quality training program is an instructor who, along with flight skills, teaches and practices safety and professionalism.
I can still see my first helicopter instructor, Larry Shields, sitting next to me in an Army OH-23 Hiller, displaying great patience as he watched my pathetic struggle to hover. Besides teaching me how to fly a helicopter, Larry also gave me sage advice that I have put to good use in my career: do the right thing when flying, be safe and professional, and always consider the well-being of my passengers.
The behavior and advice of Larry and my other flight instructors affected how I conducted myself when I took over the left seat and became a flight instructor myself. In fact, I felt their influence throughout my flying and management career — and was all the better for it.
Knowing what a big influence my instructors had on me, I am concerned by what I hear from a significant number of entry-level flight instructors. One told me, “I don’t like instructing, but it is the only opportunity available to me to advance my career.” Many others make it plain that they are just marking time, saying, “I am only doing this until I can get a real job.”
Instructing is a real job and it’s one of the most important in our industry. Instructors shape each student’s approach to flying — including decision making, risk assessment, regulatory compliance, and general exercise of their duties and responsibilities as a pilot. They will have a lifelong effect on their students’ attitudes and habits.
Yes, I know that entry-level flight instructing is not for everyone. In many cases, it is not financially rewarding, which is one reason why most flight instructors see it as a penalty they have to pay before they start their “real” career. However, it is in no one’s best interest — our industry, the instructors, or their students — to ignore this situation.
My first piece of advice is for the instructors: at this point in your lives, flight instructing may look like a barrier blocking you from a rewarding career in aviation. But talk to some experienced pilots. They’ll tell you that those years spent as instructors gave them a chance to hone their flight knowledge and skills.
After all, to teach a subject, you really have to know it — inside and out, backwards and forwards. An instructor who takes that responsibility seriously will be a better pilot — and person — for it.
On the industry side, let’s work together to develop alternative career paths for pilots with a shorter time line and less financial struggle. Here are some of the things we at HAI are exploring:
- Reduce the hour level required for employment in some low-risk industry sectors
- Develop intern and mentor programs with larger operators
- Examine the flight-school business model to create a rewarding career path for instructors, with financial incentives in all training segments
- Create an industry-managed loan program for initial-entry flight students (this could be extended to airframe and powerplant students as well).
Becoming a helicopter pilot, like entering any profession, isn’t the easiest thing in the world. But when I hear stories of aspiring pilots taking on six-figure debt or wondering each month how they will feed and house their families, I have to think that our system is out of whack. Becoming a helicopter pilot should be based on your dedication to mastering flight skills and professionalism, not on your bank account or your willingness to eat ramen noodles four nights a week.
When I run across flight instructors with that sparkle in their eyes, passion in their voices, and enthusiasm for the future, I am excited to think about what they can accomplish in our industry. Let’s do a better job to assist them in joining our ranks and staying with us for a lifetime.
Look for HAI initiatives in this area, but it’s not something that we can do alone. We will be asking for your help to turn this around and make flight instruction a rewarding career in every sense.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, fly safe — fly neighborly.