How to choose a flight instructor

By Mordechai Levin

Think back through your academic career. You can probably count the number of truly exceptional teachers on one hand. By following the steps outlined below, your next teacher, your flight instructor, may be able to join that exclusive group. Which finger do you want him/her to be?

Flight training is neither spontaneous nor effortless. Your flight instructor should share the same traits and values that make you successful – Experience, Leadership, Performance, Quality, and Commitment. 

# Step One

Choose the type of flight instructor you want

— An Expert Flight Instructor 

The expert flight instructor is recognized as the best. Compare your search for a flight instructor to searching for a dentist, knee surgeon, architect, lawyer, or financial planner. Do you look for the cheapest, closest, dentist whose hours are the most convenient? Your life, the lives of your future passengers and all who love you and them depend upon the quality of training you receive now. It will last a lifetime. 

Contact your local Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Standards District Office and ask for a list of local FAA Designated Examiners (DEs). DEs are independent contractors to the FAA that provide the Pilot Certificate oral examinations and certifying (flight) checkrides. They are the best qualified to vouch for the quality of pilot candidate preparation in the area. 

Contact at least two DEs in the area and ask them: “If you had to choose a flight instructor for your daughter/son, who would you choose?” and: “Which flight instructor sends you the most proficient Pilot Certificate candidates?”

— A Professional Flight Instructor

The professional flight instructor makes a career out of his/her passion – teaching others to fly. This is his/her ‘real’ job, and their only focus while they are with you is providing the safest and best educational experience possible. Ask your professional flight instructor how much he/she is compensated for the services provided. If their hourly rate is less than $120 from the beginning to the end of the session (including briefings and pre/post flight inspections) maybe you should keep looking for a successful professional flight instructor. 

— An Hour Builder (Less than $120/hr)

Many flight schools use aviation transport career oriented pilots whose flight instruction is merely a stepping stone to accumulate flight time before applying for transport pilot positions. While recognizing that many of these less experienced instructors are dedicated to provide quality instruction until they are hired for their next transport aviation job, professional and expert educators are more likely to provide you with an inspired flight training experience.

— A Hobbyist (Cost Varies)

Some flight instructors teach in their spare time. They may do it because they genuinely like to teach, or they may just like to fly on somebody else’s dime. There is great variety in the quality of training provided by those who don’t consider flight instruction their ‘real’ job. 

# Step Two

Compile a list of potential flight instructors

— Limit your search to FAA Gold Seal Instructors. An FAA Gold Seal Instructor holds a ground instructor certificate with an Advanced or Instrument Ground Instructor rating and (most importantly) trained and recommended within a 24 month period of time at least 10 applicants for a practical test, at least 8 of whom passed their test on the first attempt.

— Make sure they teach at airports within 100 miles of your home/office. Good instructors are hard to come by. It is worth traveling this far to get the right instructor for you.

— Schedule an introductory lesson with the top few candidates on your list. Explain to the flight instructor your intention to use this lesson as one of the steps in researching and evaluating your choice. Ask specifically for a first lesson from each flight instructor. This will enable you to compare similar experiences. Next, print the following checklist and make sure that you fill it out soon after the lesson is completed (and certainly within 24 hours of the lesson).

Checklist for “How to find a Flight Instructor”

During the introductory lesson:

  • Before you go to the aircraft, are you thoroughly briefed on what will occur during the lesson? 
  • Are you guided through an official weather briefing and told that you will be expected to obtain an official weather briefing prior to each flight out of the traffic pattern?
  • Are you guided through using an app that uses real-time weather and your aircraft’s performance for density altitude and crosswind information for computing performance calculations including weight and balance and runway takeoff and landing lengths? You should be expected to prepare these calculations (takes less than one minute) prior to each and every flight.
  • Does the flight instructor conduct a thorough preflight inspection, explaining what each item is and why it is being inspected? 
  • Is the instructor holding a checklist, or even better, are you given a checklist to hold and call off each item? 
  • Are you introduced to the cockpit, and given at least a brief description of the instrumentation? 
  • Are you introduced to and instructed to make the requisite radio communications? 
  • Are you as close to being the sole manipulator of the flight controls throughout the taxi, take-off, flight, and approach to landing and landing? 
  • Are you learning and having fun? 
  • Do you believe this flight instructor is focusing on your needs and understanding – pushing you to the limits of your envelope (not too much, and not too little), while extolling the thrill and enchantment of flying? Flight training is demanding and intense, and if you are not having fun while you are doing it, it will not progress as quickly. 
  • Is your instructor taking notes on your performance? 
  • If you are having difficulty with an item in the training mission, does the instructor try different approaches (visual, verbal, kinesthetic, etc.) to explain and demonstrate the maneuver? 

When you return:

  • Is the entire flight performance captured GPS/Digitally through Stratus/ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, Jeppesen Mobile Flight Deck/JEPPVIEW, Spidertracks or other GPS enabled flight data recorder?
  • Do you receive a thorough debriefing of the training session including analysis of all flight segments using analytic software, e.g. Cloud Ahoy? 
  • Does the instructor guide you through the post flight evaluation forms? 
  • Does the instructor use and explain objective standards (vs. subjective e.g. Excellent/Above Average/Below Average/ etc.) while entering each item in your training record? 
  • How many items are in each record/flight? (The standard Pilot Maneuvers and Procedures Student Record that I use contains up to 65 items per flight.) 
  • Do you and the instructor both sign the evaluation?  
  • Does the instructor tell you what preparation will be expected before your next lesson? 
  • Do you know how you rate, and what you will need to accomplish to become a certified pilot? 
  • Does the instructor explain the entire training program, showing you the training materials used, the simulator, the syllabus, and the records maintained? 
  • Does this instructor, and the teaching that was provided inspire you? 
  • Do you think this is the best flight instruction that you can get? 
  • Can you think of anything better than spending many hours in the classroom, simulator, and cockpit with this instructor?
How affordable is flying?

Believe it or not, flying is not just a hobby of the idle rich. In fact, compared to many other recreational and business pursuits, learning to fly may be one of life’s all-time great bargains! Not all pilots own their own airplanes; some rent, just as one would a car, or share ownership through a flight club. And learning to fly (like purchasing a new SUV) is within your reach. 

Your initial investment buys you the necessary skills to safely enjoy an extraordinary activity for years to come.

A quick note on flight training costs: You will be quoted a wide array of costs often comparing apples with oranges (FAA minimum required times vs. the real world, training to proficiency vs. training for a test, training by professional educators vs. hour builders). Some of the university programs are good, and you can get scholarships – but some are very expensive and take much longer than intensive focused flight training. Some places will offer financing – some pay as you go, some want it all up front. 

Like Flight training itself, finding the right flight instructor and flight-training program takes time and effort. Remember: you, your passengers and the folks who matter to you will depend on the quality of the equipment you fly and the quality of flight training you choose.