Flight Instructors: The CFI Road Map
Finding a Path
For many pilots, it's difficult to get started on the FAA Flight Instructor Certificate (Airplane) because there isn't an obvious place to start. For the Private Pilot certificate, the training path often begins with a discovery flight. The Instrument Rating usually begins with a training flight "under the hood" to practice precision control. The Commercial Certificate often starts with Complex and High-Performance endorsements, followed by learning advanced maneuvers.
But the Flight Instructor Certificate is a different thing entirely, in part because it's made up of so many things. Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) candidates have to undertake a course of study in education psychology. They need to master aircraft control from the right seat. They have to review the Private and Commercial maneuvers, with an expertise in perfection and additional expertise in mistakes. They need to pass two knowledge tests, demonstrate proficiency in spins and spin recovery, have risk-management expertise, understand all of the job's legal and documentation requirements, and they have to get signed off for a practical test — which some CFIs can do for them, while others cannot.
And in addition to all of this, the oral exam can take several hours to complete, which means a CFI candidate might take weeks or months to prepare for it.
The truth? You can start anywhere in the CFI curriculum. It's best to start by understanding everything that's involved.
In brief, here are the things you will need in order to be eligible for a Certified Flight Instructor (Airplane) practical test:
That said, here's everything you will have to accomplish in order to pass the CFI checkride:
If you're wondering what will be expected of you on the Flight Instructor Practical test — oral and flight sections — it's all spelled out in the Practical Test Standards. The examiner isn't required to do everything in the PTS, which provides clear steps on what parts are required and which are optional. Furthermore, the examiner is required to know in advance what areas each test will cover, and the examiner is not permitted to tell the candidate what has been planned. The candidate is expected to be prepared for everything in the PTS, but some areas will not be included in order to limit the test to a reasonable length.
While the Airplane Flying Handbook is a suitable text for Private Pilot students, it includes information for flight instructors, including common errors. The PTS emphasizes that these errors will be demonstrated and discussed during the practical test.
Most of the information required to pass the knowledge test is in the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. This book is used at both the Private Pilot and Commercial Pilot level. The knowledge test includes questions that are part of the Private and Commercial curriculum. An online flight instruction ground school, with practice tests, is recommended. (Gleim is an excellent option.)
The PHAK doesn't cover everything. The knowledge test has questions that are regulatory in nature, so you'll need the FAR/AIM as a reference. Accident reporting is covered in 49 CFR Part 830. You don't have to memorize Part 61, but you need to be able to find information in it — quickly. Flight instruction regulations are covered in 14 CFR 61.185-195. You also need to be familiar with regulations that cover BasicMed and flight school security.
Because the regulations in the FAR/AIM are written in a legal format and difficult to read, a resource that states the regs in plain language will be of great value, such as the ASA's Flight Instructor Oral Exam Guide and Gleim's Flight Instructor Flight Maneuvers and Practical Test Prep.
You'll need the Aviation Instructor's Handbook (and probably an online ground school with practice tests) to study for the Fundamentals of Instruction written test. Even if you aren't required to pass the FOI (because you already have a Ground Instructor certificate, or you are employed as a teacher), you nonetheless are required to discuss education psychology during the oral portion of the practical test. Only CFIs who are adding a rating don't have to worry about FOI.
There are several excellent books for flight instructors from non-government sources, many of which are more engaging than the FAA texts. Jeppesen has a front-to-back CFI textbook and syllabus as part of its flight training system, which typically is targeted to fast-track flight schools. Gleim offers detailed books that cover the subject matter in line-by-line detail.
And since the FAA texts are in the public domain, there are audiobooks for sale as well, if you'd like a professional narrator to read the books to you.
Fundamentals of Instruction
The Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) is enormously valuable subject-matter for flight instructors, providing them with a foundation in both human psychology and educational theory that will improve their instructional experiences. A CFI with a strong understanding of FOI will be able to spot critical details and key milestones in the learning process — details that less-knowledgable CFIs can overlook.
That noted, FOI is difficult to master because the official FAA text is notoriously difficult to absorb. The overall theme of the Aviation Instructor's Handbook is that instructors should make learning experiences meaningful, memorable, and applicable. However, this is then conveyed to CFIs in a text that is none of these things at all. The Aviation Instructor's Handbook is colossally abstract, easy to forget, and offers nothing in the way of meaningful application.
The book also includes a startling number of photos of people sitting at tables and desks.
The Aviation Instructor's Handbook is presented in lecture format to a silent audience, while also acknowledging that most lectured subject matter is easily forgotten — especially information that's presented after the first 10-15 minutes of lecture. Therefore, attempting to read the Aviation Instructor's Handbook for an hour or two is a pointless activity. You've already been told that you won't remember it tomorrow.
It's no wonder that many CFI candidates simply purchase an online program to study for the FOI knowledge test and accept any passing score they can manage.
If possible, CFI candidates should locate an instructor or a flight school that specializes in Fundamentals of Instruction. The subject-matter can be meaningful, memorable, and applicable if it is presented in an activity-based, scenario-driven classroom environment . An interactive FOI course is well worth the money. It might even be fun. Once the course is complete, the FOI test should present no difficulty. Even better, the FOI section of the oral exam will be a breezy conversation, and the candidate will be on the road to becoming an excellent CFI.
Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) & Risk Management
Risk-management subject matter can be found in the FAA's Risk Management Handbook, as well as the Aviation Instructor's Handbook. It's a bit of an alphabet soup, and at some point it gets so convoluted that it risks contradicting itself. For example, is the PAVE checklist considered to be a component of Risk Assessment or Situational Awareness? (Answer: Depends which page you are on.)
That said, ADM and Risk Management questions appear on the CFI knowledge test, and they are a key component of the CFI oral exam. The ASA's Flight Instructor Oral Exam Guide is a reliable resource here.
CFI Duties & Legal Privileges
Some CFI candidates may wonder if they're actually studying for a bar exam. In addition to being aviation experts, they also must build expertise with the regulations. All pilots started learning the basics of 14 CFR Part 91 when their flight training started, since it defines the rules of the flight environment. However, CFI candidates can expect to spend some time studying 14 CFR Part 61, which covers pilot certification, knowledge tests, and endorsements.
CFI candidates can expect Part 61 topics in both the CFI knowledge test and the oral exam. Fortunately, the FAA maintains Advisory Circular 61-65, which de-mystifies Part 61 by assembling it in a readable format (well, more readable than Part 61, at least). The stated purpose of AC 61-65 is "guidance," and no candidate should arrive at a practical test without a copy. AC 61-65 also includes valuable examples of logbook endorsements, a subject that's guaranteed to come up on the oral exam.
In addition to AC 61-65, CFI candidates may want to access commercial training materials from vendors such as Gleim, Jeppesen, and King Schools that break out the legal topics in consumer-friendly formats. Each publisher will take its own approach by attempting to present Part 61 to CFI candidates so that the subject-matter is meaningful and useful.
Additional topics that can come up on the oral exam include TSA security awareness, BasicMed, and Flight Reviews. The FAA has published Advisory Circulars for these subjects.
CFI Knowledge Test
For many CFI candidates, the best plan is to find an online vendor (such as King Schools or Gleim) and enroll in the CFI Ground School course. You can expect reading material to be interspersed with stage-check tests, and then several practice tests in preparation for the 100-question test at a testing center. A ground-school would also be an excellent option, and these will be offered to students in fast-track environments. Otherwise, CFI candidates have prepared for, and passed, knowledge tests. This is just another one.
The Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, the Airplane Flying Handbook, and the FAR/AIM are key texts.
Become familiar with the spin content in the Airplane Flying Handbook, and be ready to answer a few questions. Then locate an instructor or flight school that conducts spin training. This training can be a one-hour flight, a multi-hour upset-recovery course, or even aerobatic training.
If you plan to do the minimum, you can expect that your instructor will ask you some questions about stalls, spins, and recovery before you leave the ground. You then will do several spins and recoveries. Some CFI candidates love the experience, while others are relieved when it's over. In any case, if you don't get this done you'll be required to demonstrate spin-recovery on your CFI flight test.
Pilots aren't required to take a CFI with them when they start flying from the right-seat, which doesn't require an endorsement or other FAA credential. However, it's best to start with one.
It may seem that using your right hand for the throttle quadrant is the most difficult part of learning to fly from the right seat, because it's the most obvious difference at first. However, for many pilots it's the new sight-picture that throws them off, leading to a lot of side-loaded landings.
While taxiing in the right seat, get a look at the cowling and its position in relation to the taxiway centerline. This is what the cowling will look like to you during the landing flare. Got it? Now that your brain has re-adjusted, you probably will be able to land without any issues.
The Flight Instructor Practical Test Standards use the same criteria as the Commercial Pilot Airman's Certification Standards. Therefore, if you can fly to the Commercial standard from the right seat, you're all set, right?
The Flight Instructor PTS requires that you should be able to describe each maneuver's key details while flying it, and you should be able to spot common learner errors. This means that the examiner may act as a student and fly some maneuvers poorly, requiring the CFI candidate to recognize mistakes and offer instruction. Also, if the candidate exceeds tolerances on any maneuver, s/he should point out the error and the corrective action.
Since this requires CFI candidates to develop a teaching technique, there is no reason why this work can't start in a flight simulator, such as a Redbird. The work at this point would be limited to:
Since most flight simulators only have one yoke, the CFI candidate and teaching CFI can switch seats when it's time for the teaching CFI to introduce common errors, which the CFI candidate can correct. Using a simulator presents a cost-savings, isn't limited by aircraft availability or weather, and permits the CFI candidate to develop a good teaching technique.
If a flight simulator is not available, CFI candidates should at least develop instructional materials and a teaching technique on the ground, using the Airplane Flying Handbook and possibly one or more commercial products (such as Gleim's Flight Instructor Flight Maneuvers book) before getting in the plane.
After the ground phase is complete, the CFI candidate and teaching CFI can then log flight hours, mostly to finesse the candidate's flight skills while integrating teaching techniques. Many Flight Instructor training programs (such as Jeppesen) recommend 10-15 flight hours before the flight test. For some CFI candidates, using a simulator may reduce these hours.
Technical Subject Areas and Preflight Preparation
These two categories cover several topics in the Flight Instructor Practical Test Standards. Pilots with Commercial certificates have seen most of this before — aerodynamics, flight controls, navigation, weight & balance, night ops, aeromedical factors, etc. Therefore, CFI candidates should enjoy going through all of these topics again, this time in more detail with a focus on how to communicate the subject matter to student pilots.
Examiners are not required to cover each task in the oral exam, but CFI candidates won't know beforehand if their examiner plans to skip any. That noted, there are two tasks that examiners are required to discuss: Runway incursions and endorsements. For CFI candidates, endorsements will be new subject matter, and they will want to spend some time getting a grasp of what's required. And while runway safety isn't a new concept, CFI candidates will want to spend time reviewing the Advisory Circular that's cited in the task.
Several other tasks in these two categories have Advisory Circulars in the referenced materials. Spend some time going through these for each task. If you are conversant in the material, and you have the ACs ready to reference during the oral exam, your odds of success should be high.
There is a lot of subject matter to cover in preparation for the CFI knowledge test and practical test. Anyone attempting a project of this size, on their own, is likely to be confused and a bit overwhelmed.
For pilots who want to get their CFI certificate as quickly as possible, there are several schools that offer fast-track training — typically in regions where VFR weather is predominant. Many of these schools boast track-records of success. Any pilot thinking of taking this route would be advised to do their due diligence. They need to have confidence in the training program, as well as their ability to undertake an immersive course for its duration.
Other pilots may connect with a mentor, be it a ground instructor or CFI, who can meet regularly and offer guidance through the various topics. A pilot with good study habits can unlock all of the material, provided they have some patience (and an above-average ability to focus). Meeting with a mentor and being "read-in" to the key topics is a better learning experience.
Finally, CFI candidates who don't plan to join a formal program and don't have access to a mentor will benefit if they can create a study group with other pilots who also are pursuing their CFI certificates. While a mentor is ideal, two or more commercial pilots can divide up the subject matter set forth in the Aviation Instructor's Handbook and various texts cited in the Practical Test Standards. Each person takes on the role of "instructor" at different times. As an instructor, you will be compelled to study a topic and teach it to the group. And as a learner, you will benefit when others in the group teach topics to you. The result will be long-form discussions that will be more memorable than studying alone. This type of study group can become an excellent ground school — and it's free.
The Practical Test
The Flight Instructor Practical Test has acquired a terrible reputation over many decades, in part because of the oral exam, which can go for hours. There are many horror stories out there about well-prepared, well-qualified candidates who fail the oral exam on a minor technicality.
The Flight Instructor PTS authorizes the examiner to probe into various areas that aren't everyday topics. Therefore, any examiner who wants to fail an unprepared candidate probably can find a reason to do so. Do you know how to do weight-shift algebra? Are you familiar with the care and storage of aviator's oxygen? Can you explain procedures for a flight emergency at night? If you are not conversant in these topics, with the ability to access specific information from reference materials, your examiner can conclude that you do not satisfy the requirements of the flight instructor practical test.
Some online sources suggest the fail-rate of the initial CFI flight test is 90%. Other sources say that it's possible that one FSDO, at one time, may have logged a 90% fail rate, but that the nationwide pass-rate on initial CFI flight tests isn't nearly that bad. What should you believe?
You can start by asking someone at your FSDO what the pass-rate is for initial CFI checkrides in their jurisdiction. If the majority of first-time candidates fail, and the FSDO says it's because the test is as hard as nails, "as it should be," then unfortunately you probably should plan to pay for two checkrides, which is deeply unfair to any candidate who is suitably prepared. A qualified applicant might consider finding a FSDO that permits better results and taking a checkride with an examiner in that jurisdiction.
If you are meeting with a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) to evaluate their services, you should ask about their pass/fail rate on initial CFI practical tests. If they fail the majority of these applicants, follow-up questions are warranted. An examiner might say that flight schools aren't teaching to the PTS and there's nothing that can be done other than to return these candidates to their instructors for more training. Or maybe an examiner will tell you that the test is as hard as nails, "as it should be."
You also should have a good idea of your flight school's track-record with initial CFI practical tests. If the majority of the school's signed-off candidates fail, it may be because their instructors are not covering the PTS requirements adequately — and the candidates themselves aren't doing their own due diligence. Furthermore, the flight school may not be conducting post-mortems on failed CFI practical tests to ensure that their CFI curriculum is a good fit for their local DPEs and FSDO.
Of course, the flight school may say that that the problem lies with the DPEs, making any post-mortem process a waste of time. And perhaps the DPEs have a problem with the flight school, or with the FSDO. It's fair to regard these as warning signs.
This level of dysfunction probably is rare. Furthermore, if you encounter it, you can't fix it.
That said, you should know your surroundings. No matter how well-prepared you are, you're not likely to pass your initial CFI checkride in an environment with an excessive fail-rate.
However, if a flight school and a DPE report that the majority of first-time applicants succeed, you can proceed with confidence that — while you are not guaranteed success — you have a very good chance of being both well-trained for the practical test and passing it on your first attempt.
Gleim's Flight Instructor Flight Maneuvers and Practical Test Prep is an in-depth book that sets out a detailed road-map. This includes information on:
The Gleim handbook states "The majority of applicants pass their flight instructor practical test the first time, and virtually all who experience difficulty on their first attempt pass the second time." Therefore, a high fail-rate from a flight school, DPE, or FSDO (or any combination of the three) should be a cause for concern.
Need more reassurance? In 2018, AOPA reported the initial pass-rate was roughly 70%, and had been so for at least a decade.
It's not an easy process, and it's true that nearly one of every three CFI applicants fail their initial flight test. However, the key to passing the initial test is to be well-prepared — and that requires working with a flight instructor or training staff who understands what's required of you and will not sign you off until you are ready. You want to be among the two that pass on the first attempt and not the one who fails.