Steps To Becoming A Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) A Step-by-Step Guide

Steps To Becoming A Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) A Step-by-Step Guide

By Jordan Bullock CFI, Boeing 737 Pilot

Traditionally, becoming a Certified Flight Instructor (commonly abbreviated as CFI) has been a required step to build hours before inevitably leaving for a coveted airline gig. With instructor pay increasing and more people becoming instructors as a way to scratch their aviation itch, the CFI world is becoming more and more popular. But how do you become a CFI? And what makes a CFI good, or bad? Let's take a look at the steps required to becoming a Certified Flight Instructor, and some tips for being a good one!

Step One: Obtain Your Commercial License

This may seem obvious, but let's start here. One of the few requirements of the CFI ticket is to hold a Commercial license. Pretty straightforward. Afterall, you will be paid (hopefully) for your teaching. So, knock out that Commercial checkride, and hopefully in a relatively fast timeline, start on the CFI prep.

Step Two: FOI and FIA Written Exam

Your CFI ticket is going to require two written exams: the Fundamentals of Instructing exam (FOI) and the Flight Instructor Airplane (FIA) exam. The Fundamentals of Instructing exam gets the popular vote as the most discussed written. That's primarily because it's less aviation related and more psychology based. It’s also the only new material you’ll have to look over. The Flight Instructor Airplane exam is essentially a more in depth Commercial written exam. Much of the same principles and categories apply.

Step Three: Get Right-Seat Experience

This is a big one. I know many students who did a simple 10 hours or so in the right seat and went into their checkride. Some passed, some didn’t. Personally, I ensure my CFI students spend not only ample time in the right seat, but they gain impactful experience.

Remember, once you take your checkride and pass, you can legally start instructing right away. Making you PIC with a student almost instantly. Is 10 hours enough to handle max demonstrated crosswind from the right seat? Can you save the landing when a zero timer is fighting you on the controls? Oftentimes, CFI candidates just focus on doing the required checkride maneuvers from the right seat. But in reality, you will be talking, correcting and flying all at the same time. Personally, I ensure that my students have practice with me playing the role of “Inexperienced, nervous first timer” in the left seat. It's fun for me, and it teaches them to constantly pay attention and watch for everything!

Step Four: Oral Prep

Now that you've got some time in the right seat, the oral prep should begin. While none of this material will be new for a CFI candidate, it’s about the level of knowledge and your ability to explain it. In the first few sessions with an aspiring CFI student, I start simple. I ask them to teach me how an airplane flies. It sounds simple, but when you throw in questions and aerodynamics laws, it can go sideways fast! The point of this exercise is two fold: First, it gets the student experience teaching. Second, it’s designed to imprint on the aspiring teacher to not make things up. Don’t be afraid of saying “I'm not sure, let's look that up”. The worst thing you can do is tell a new student something incorrect.

This “teach me ___” method I use allows my students to create their own footprint of teaching as well as dive into the regulations. Aside from the FOI’s, logbook endorsements and regulations are the only new thing a CFI should be learning. Even that can get tricky, but thankfully all the answers are in the FAR/AIM, which you can purchase pre-tabbed from Northstar VFR to make your studying more efficient, and don’t forget to check out our oral prep guides! They’re awesome and help focus your learning.

Step Five: Checkride Prep

It’s no secret that the CFI ride is the most dreaded aviation checkride in the industry (at least till you go for Captain upgrade at a Major Airline). This is due to the low pass rate and the length of the exam. Personally, mine was an all day affair. I’ve heard of some going until just before sunset. But honestly, I enjoyed mine. The flying is fairly easy if you’ve prepared properly, and the oral is just long. But it’s also extremely similar to ACTUAL instructing.

Most Designated Pilot Examiners (DPE’s) require the student to bring in pre-made lesson plans for the checkride, which they will teach to the examiner. They will also be asked to cover the Fundamentals of Instructing curriculum as well as regulations and systems. The good thing about the checkride, is you’ll have a ton of material to cover which means you can bring in a ton of resources with you, just make sure you know how to use it!

A quick tip on your checkride: be prepared, be confident, and don’t forget lunch. If you know what you’re doing, and you KNOW that you know what you’re doing and aren't arrogant about it, you’ll be fine. Also, please eat. Food is important, and hanger is real. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Most examiners will bring lunch as well. It’s a long day.

Step Six: Checkride

Obviously, the last step in obtaining your CFI certificate is to pass the checkride. You’ve gotten this far with adequate prep, just remember to take your time and if you’ve done the proper leg work, this should be a review of your knowledge and flying skill set.

How to Be a Good CFI

I figured I’d end this article with a few tips. I like to think of myself as a pretty good CFI. Not because of my stick and rudder skills (we all plant them every now and then), not because of my immense knowledge (I have to look a TON of stuff up), but because I care about my students' time, money and overall constant progression as a safe pilot. Oh- and I prioritize having fun. We do get to fly airplanes afterall. It's pretty cool!

  • Justify your time. I think we all know how expensive flying can be. A single lesson can cost almost $500 in some places. So make sure you’re giving your students their money’s worth. If you’re charging them, be with them.
  • Don’t rush. Some students take more time learning certain things than other students, that's okay. Learn to assess each student's individual strengths and weaknesses.
  • Keep a structure. Make sure to pre-flight brief and post-flight brief. With 4 students a day, it's easy to constantly rush and think about the next student. Spend a little less time in the air and a little more on the ground if that helps your pace and keeps you AND the student organized.
  • Give your students quality experience. As you gain more and more instructor time, your skills will undoubtedly improve. As this happens, be sure to improve your teaching. Show students some things you didn’t get to see as a student yourself, but encountered later. Prepare them for all kinds of scenarios. With different rating levels this will change, but there is always something you can show them that’s not necessarily going to be on the checkride but could come up in real life.
  • Don’t just build hours. Instructing is filled with pilots looking to build hours and then move to their first 121 airline. That’s fine. Recently, everyone has been getting hired right at 1,500 hours to their airline of choice. Awesome! But soon it’ll stop and we’ll be back to the days of 2,000 hour instructors. Either way, stay professional, respect your students and don't just be a passenger.
  • Have fun. The amount of students that either quit after a decent amount of hours or get burnt out and stop showing up is extremely high. So remember to have fun. Whether they’re trying to become an airline pilot, or a weekend warrior, flying airplanes is fun. Keep that way. Pop the windows open, go to a grass strip and enjoy the bird.

I hope this article has helped lay out the required steps to becoming a Certified Flight Instructor in an efficient manner. Hopefully you heed my advice and become the best instructor you can be, whether it's for a year or five. Stay safe out there and never forget to have fun, flying airplanes is the best gig in the world!

By Jordan Bullock CFI, Boeing 737 Pilot

Northstar Aviation References brings you the Pre-Tabbed ASA FAR/AIMDIY tabs for your FAR/AIM and other pilot resources so that you can more easily study the regulations that form the foundation of your flying career or hobby. Have any questions? Check out our FAQs page or contact us. Check out other blog posts here.