Being a CFI - A Day on the Job

By Jason Catanzariti, CFII

I've been a certificated flight instructor (CFI) long enough to have trained other flight instructors. Since my background is in education, I give a lot of thought to instructional methods. This article lays out some of my thoughts on conducting good flight instruction, and gives an idea of what a typical day on the job is like.


Many instructors, probably most of them, know more about flying than I do. But I've always felt my strength as a CFI comes from my experience as a teacher, and this has been borne out by comments from my students. Several of them tried other instructors and then stayed with me because they liked my teaching style. I've always been able to relate to beginners, and my main interest is still teaching new pilots.

I was comfortable with the idea of teaching in the airplane from the start. But I did have some concerns about my judgment of flight safety, especially in the landing phase. In teaching someone to fly I have two main goals.

1. Every flight must be conducted safely and legally.
2. The student must do as much of the flying as possible, and be permitted to make mistakes in order to learn from them.

It's easy to see how these goals can be contradictory. Experience and repetition are the keys to learning, so it's not helpful to students for me to be grabbing the controls away from them at the first hint of trouble. But crashing the plane would be, well... bad.. So it becomes a careful act of judgment: allow the student to go as far as possible in a given situation before intervening. On every practice landing I have to judge which mistakes the student can be allowed to make, and when I need to assist or take over to prevent damage to the aircraft.

This was a major worry to me at first. But much to my surprise it quickly became a non-issue. I found I was pretty good at judging when I needed to step in, and even then I could often "make the save" with only a nudge of elevator or rudder pressure. I estimate that I've supervised nearly 2000 landings as a CFI, and only once or twice has the aircraft touched down harder than I would have liked.

So I felt good about teaching landings, but other things didn't come so quickly. I found it difficult to relax and permit minor mistakes during cross country flights when in contact with air traffic control (ATC), at unfamiliar airports, and especially at night. Some of our training flights take us into busy airspace like the New York Class B, so there's a fine line as to how much leeway to give a student. After all, I'm the pilot-in-command (PIC) whenever I'm instructing a private pilot trainee. If a student makes an airspace incursion or causes problems with ATC, in the end, it's my responsibility. Over time I was able to relax. I now make it a point to slide back my seat and be very quiet during these flights whenever possible - I think it shows I have confidence in them.


The job was interesting beginning with my very first flight as a CFI. My first student was one who decided to take lessons to overcome a fear of flight. He has since soloed and will earn his license soon, and it's been enjoyable watching him progress.

Over time I've flown with a lot of colorful characters. I seem to be a magnet for students with medical issues: diabetics, a cancer survivor, an amputee, a guy with one eye, several cases of color blindness, and a person with an inner-ear problem which once required a diversionary landing. I've gotten good at helping students obtain their medical clearances.

I've had a number of students switch to our flight school after training elsewhere for a time. One had a fair amount of hours but hadn't yet soloed. He communicated a lack of confidence to me and I expected to find he needed work on procedures or skills. But on our first flight I found him quite capable in the aircraft - I would have soloed him then and there if not for some necessary paperwork. On our second flight I signed him off to solo and he went on to be one of my finest students. His case showed me why it's important not to hold back students from soloing longer than absolutely necessary. Soloing provides a confidence boost they can't get in any other way.

And I've had some memorable flights. Night flying is always to be undertaken carefully, as my student and I found out one evening on a trip to Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, NY. I frequently fly into Stewart for training and I know the field well - or so I thought. ATC had asked us to fly a straight-in approach to runway 9, and everything looked good. We were lined up and coming down in a stabilized descent, so I was surprised when the tower asked us for a position check. Two-mile final, we said. ATC replied that they didn't see us and suggested we might have already passed the field. Slightly irritated, I began to say that we definitely had the runway lights right in front of us, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. It was the airport, behind us and slightly to our right. My mind suddenly lurched with the realization that the "runway" in front of us was actually the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge! It spans the Hudson River just east of the airport on roughly the same bearing as runway 9/27. At night, its lights strongly resemble a runway. Good call ATC - we don't have EZ-Pass installed on our aircraft.

A somewhat less dangerous incident happened on another night flight. My student Fred was doing well, but a little nervous about talking to ATC. We were descending toward Hartford, Connecticut when we began to experience communication problems. ATC said they had trouble hearing us, although we received them clearly. I began scanning instruments - if we were losing the alternator and battery it could be a real problem on a night flight. While checking our equipment I realized we were no longer receiving ATC on the radio, which was not good. I scanned the electrical instruments again and suddenly stopped. "Fred, are you holding down the mic button?" As his workload piled up, Fred had mistakenly kept his finger on the button after his last radio call. This meant we were transmitting continuously on his mic, blocking the frequency. This is something I would have noticed immediately during the day, but at night I couldn't see his hand!

Another radio incident was more funny than dangerous. I make a point of teaching good radio procedures and have had a number of pilots come to me for instruction in this area. Even some experienced flyers are shy with the radio, which limits the places they can go. One gentleman came to me with about 25 years of flight experience, all of it in airspace that didn't require ATC communication. He wanted to learn to land at a towered airport, so we spent a couple of hours on the ground practicing the procedures. We then went up in his airplane for a flight to Dutchess County Airport in Poughkeepsie, a fairly quiet Class D airport.

Upon entering Ralph's airplane I realized we were in trouble - there was no headset jack. We would have to use a hand-held mic and speaker. Ralph was an excellent stick-and-rudder pilot, so I hoped he would be comfortable enough flying to concentrate on the radio, but I could tell he had already forgotten our practice on the ground. As we neared the Poughkeepsie airspace Ralph held up the mic and called the tower. His voice was tinny and nearly inaudible. ATC replied with a terse, "Aircraft calling Dutchess, say again." I nudged Ralph and he haltingly repeated his transmission. ATC still couldn't make it out. Ralph turned to me and said he thought something was wrong with the radio.

I took the mic: "Dutchess tower, Cessna 12345, instructor speaking. How do you hear us now?"

"Loud and clear Cessna 12345."

"OK, I'm going to give it back to my student. Stand by."

Ralph tried again, even more flustered. ATC replied, "Cessna 12345, you're unreadable." Shaking his head, Ralph frowned at the mic.

I took it again. "Dutchess, Cessna 12345, how about now?"

"Loud and clear."

"I'm giving my student one more try - thanks for your patience."

Ralph took over, shouting into the mic, and stammered through a call to the tower. We got our clearance with some difficulty, did a touch-and-go and then departed the airspace. I repeated my thanks to the controller when we left his frequency. After landing I signed Ralph's logbook. He had enjoyed the flight, but realized he had more work to do on this. Handing his book back to him I said, "Ralph, you fly a good plane. But you need to promise me you won't go into that kind of airspace again without somebody with you."


Probably the most difficult aspect of the job, for me, is managing the logistics of everyday business at a flight school. We're a small "Mom & Pop" type operation with just two airplanes. But despite that, I find the vagaries of weather, scheduling and diverse student needs makes it a challenging job to coordinate. Here is a typical day for me at the flight school.

7:30 AM:

I have three students coming to fly with me today, plus a sightseeing ride in the afternoon. Additionally, one of of the other instructors has some flights scheduled, and also reserved an airplane for a solo student to practice in the morning. I check the fuel levels - one plane is about 3/4 full, the other about half. I decide to give the fuller aircraft to the solo student, while I will gas up the other plane for myself. Normally I'd wait for my student to help me push the plane to the gas pump, but since we're booked solid I don't want to waste time and I do it myself.

8:05 AM:

I get a DUATs weather briefing just after 8:00 so the forecast is updated and current. It will be in the 90's today, with a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Winds are light now, but forecast to get stronger. There is also a NOTAM for aerobatic activity at a private airport near the practice area I normally use for air work. My student Ed arrives and we go into the briefing room to discuss our flight. Today we'll be reviewing slow flight and then doing a stall series. While we're talking the solo student arrives. I inform him which plane he's using, and remind him to get a weather briefing. Both students go outside to pre-flight their airplanes.

8:30 AM:

I gather my flight gear: Headset, map, fuel timer, pen, sunglasses, airsickness bag, wallet (with my license and medical inside), keys and cell phone. I never fly without a map, even when staying local. And I never fly without a sick bag if I'm carrying a passenger. The phone is turned off, but comes along in case we have to divert to another airport and call for a pickup. I go out to the flight line to find both students finishing their pre-flight inspections and I begin my own. Although I train my students to do a good pre-flight, I always do one too since I'm the PIC. Oil and fuel quantity, chocks removed, covers off, flight controls moveable, tire tread and brake pads. I climb into the right-hand seat, strap in and plug in my headset. After we taxi to the run-up area I start my fuel timer a few moments before the checklist directs Ed to do the same. This way I'll know when it's time to switch tanks and can check to see that Ed hears his timer.

This is Ed's fourth flight, which means he has some familiarity with normal operations. But I'm vigilant and ready to act during the takeoff, although I try not to advertise this state of readiness to Ed. I put my feet near the rudder pedals and keep my hands in my lap palms up below the yoke. I affect as casual a posture as possible because I want students to try to fix problems themselves instead of immediately looking to me to get them out of jams.

As we climb for altitude I'm careful to make sure we're well clear of the active aerobatic area. Upon reaching 4500' Ed begins his clearing turns in preparation for slow flight. I scan the area with him, and then watch as he begins slowing the airspeed. He does well, although he needs a few reminders to keep the ball in the center. I'm always alert for an accidental stall and spin entry despite the fact that this has never happened to me in a Piper Warrior. I give Ed some turns, climbs and descents, and then we prepare for our stall series. Ed has seen me demonstrate a stall before, but this is the first time he'll try it himself. Like most students, he's a little timid when it comes to stalls. But with some encouragement he completes the maneuvers quite well. After talking Ed through power-off and power-on stalls I demonstrate a cross-controlled stall entry and then ask Ed to fly us back to the airport. My watch chimes and I check to see that Ed notices his timer a moment later. He does, and we switch fuel tanks.

I check my watch and see that I'll be on time for my next flight. As we enter the pattern I take note of our solo student on the base leg and try to watch his landing. Ed completes the landing checklist as I talk him through the downwind and base legs. He does well and I let him keep control through most of final approach. I take the controls on short final and land the plane, pointing out some of my control inputs to Ed as we flare and touch down. Ed takes control again on the rollout and I ask him to taxi over to the gas pump. I estimate we have about half fuel, but my next lesson will be longer and I'd prefer to tank it up now.

We pull up to the pump and Ed runs the engine stop checklist. I make sure he allows the prop to come to a complete stop before turning off the anti-collision lights. We'll debrief in the hangar, but I take a moment to tell Ed that he flew very well. We gas up the airplane, push it away from the pump and head inside, taking the keys with us.

10:15 AM

As Ed and I go into the hangar to debrief our lesson we meet my next student, Frank. He recently soloed, and today will be learning performance takeoffs and landings in preparation for cross country flights. I sign Ed's logbook and then enter the briefing room with Frank. Using a small model airplane I explain short and soft field takeoffs and departures, and that we would do this work at the nearby Sullivan County Airport. There is a dual purpose to this flight - we will practice the required takeoffs and landings, but also show Frank the route so I can sign him off for a solo trip. Sullivan County's big runway is good for student practice, and we also use it as an escape route. If a student comes back from a cross country and the winds pick up, they sometimes have difficulty landing on Cherry Ridge's 2400' foot strip. So Sullivan County is their alternate.

10:30 AM

After the briefing I send Frank out to preflight while I get a weather update, check phone messages, and fill in my own logbook. Frank is sitting in the left seat when I come out to do another walk-around. After strapping in I realize we left the keys and time clipboard inside. I gently chide Frank, since our preflight checklist calls for checking the Hobbs time listed on the clipboard. But I forgot too, and since I'm sitting on the side with the door I unstrap and run in to get it.

We perform a short-field takeoff, during which I'm alert for a departure stall since we have the nose up quite high. Frank sometimes has trouble separating his hands from his feet, which is common in student pilots. I help with some right rudder input and remind him that with the engine at full power and the high angle-of-attack the plane will veer left forcefully.

Frank levels us off nicely at 3500', but needs a reminder to perform the cruise checklist. He's a little quick pulling the mixture back and the engine sputters briefly. This startled me the first time a student did it, but I'm used to it now. I point out some landmarks as we cruise toward Sullivan County, prompt Frank for some radio calls as we prepare to enter the pattern, and scan carefully for traffic. He flies the pattern well as we prepare for a short-field landing, but doesn't trim the airplane early enough to get the speed where it belongs. We're about 5 knots fast on final approach, causing us to float a bit before landing. We come to a stop and he taxis us back for another takeoff and landing. He performs both with minimal help from me and does better on the landing.

After landing I taxi the airplane to give him a break while we review soft-field takeoffs and landings. I demonstrate both with Frank following on the controls and flying the pattern, then it's his turn. This is probably the hardest type of takeoff for students, and I need to be careful. Failure to come in with enough right rudder would quickly send us to the left side of the runway. Poor timing on the push down with the yoke will either bring us back into contact with the runway or up too high and out of ground effect. So I've got my hands lightly touching the yoke and feet on the pedals. Like many students, Frank is reluctant to pull the nose up high enough and pushes too soon. I make sure we don't bash the nosewheel into the pavement, and Frank recovers in time to fly us out of ground effect.

Several more patterns follow, with Frank doing better and better. These are maneuvers we will revisit every so often, so we quit after about half an hour. On the return trip I have Frank pull out the emergency checklist and review the procedures for an engine failure at cruising altitude. Next time I will pull the throttle on him, but I judge that he's absorbed enough for today.

12:00 PM

After landing I check the fuel tanks and see that we have about 2/3 of a tank. I was hoping we would burn more since I have to give a sightseeing ride next, and there are usually three passengers. I'd prefer the plane was a bit below half fuel, but perhaps I'll get lucky and it will be a mom with two small, light kids.

The sightseers come in while I'm signing Frank's logbook with one hand and eating a granola bar with the other. I wince when I see it's three guys, two of whom are pretty big. Giving them my best smile I ask them to wait a moment while I finish with Frank. Actually Frank and I are done, but I want time to think. I know the plane can normally handle this much weight, but it's over 90 degrees out. High density altitude, a heavy airplane, and only 2400' of runway are not a good combination. I begin to get the book out to calculate weight & balance and takeoff distance, estimating an average of 260 pounds each for the passengers.

At that moment Stu, our other instructor, walks in with his student. I ask him how much fuel he has in his plane, and he replies that it's well below half and he was about to gas it up. I explain the situation and suggest we swap airplanes. He agrees, and I quickly compute my takeoff distance with these new numbers. It's acceptable, but we'll still use up a lot of pavement.

I help the guys into the aircraft, give them the briefing and settle myself into the right seat. I used to fly sightseeing rides from the left, but now prefer the right since it gives me control of the door. Time is money on this kind of ride, so I start my watch immediately after firing up the engine. I complete the checklist and quickly taxi into position using as little runway as possible. Holding the brakes I give it full power, check the engine instruments and then begin the roll.

Airspeed is everything with this much weight in the plane. I allow it to accelerate about 10 mph higher than usual before rotating, and we use up most of the runway. The plane climbs sluggishly and the stall horn gives a few preemptory chirps. I nurse it to the pattern altitude and then above, only relaxing somewhat when we reach 3000'. We agreed on my standard thirty-minute ride: direct to the big wind turbines near Carbondale, over to Lake Wallenpaupack and then back to the airport. I keep an eye on the clock to make sure we're back on time. I'm careful on the approach not to get slow with the plane so heavy, and the door is opened during the rollout. All four of us relish the breeze.

Most sightseers bring a camera with them and I offer to take a picture of the group next to the plane. It's rare that I don't play photographer after these flights. After saying goodbye I enter the hangar to find my next student engrossed in navigation planning. Tom is going on his first dual cross country flight with me today. We spent an hour on the ground recently to go over the planning procedures, and he's sweating through them now.

12:45 PM

I help Tom make wind calculations with his E6-B flight computer and then watch as he begins to determine our speed and time to his checkpoints on the trip to Bradford County Airport. When I'm satisfied he's on the right track I go outside to fuel the airplane, taking a can of soda with me. This time I tank up the airplane completely since it will be just two of us and we'll be out for at least 90 minutes. This will put the plane at about 2/3 fuel for tomorrow's first flight, which will save time.

When I'm done I check back on Tom and find him poring over runway diagrams. He's been good about doing his flight planning so I don't ask him to show me every last detail of his work. I'll check while we're flying since we're going to an airport I'm familiar with. Even so, I retrieve my GPS from my flight bag just in case. You never know when a diversion might be necessary, and the GPS is a cheap form of insurance. Well, not so cheap - it's a Garmin 296. But it's worth it to have along as backup.

I urge Tom to take his time getting organized in the cockpit. There are maps, flight plans, writing tools, a plotter and other equipment around. Getting it all in order is paramount before going flying. Having looked at Tom's DUATs weather report I know there is the possibility of isolated thunderstorms on our route. Nothing seems to be happening yet, but we'll watch it carefully. I stay quiet as Tom taxis us out, does the run-up, and prepares to take off.

Once in the air Tom flies a good departure from the pattern, but forgets to take note of the time for his navigation. I wait to see if he'll catch it, but after a few minutes he's already engrossed in checking his course on the map. At the five minute mark I bring it to his attention and he berates himself. I tell him to relax and fly the plane, he's doing fine. At the same time I tune the radio to Wilkes-Barre Approach to get us on flight following. I've asked Tom to try to listen unless he gets overloaded with his navigation tasks. Hopefully he'll be able to try talking to ATC on the return leg.

When the controller reports us in radar contact I check to see that Tom does the cruise checklist and I slide my seat back just before he trims the airplane. Tom successfully identifies his first checkpoint and writes it down. We're on course and speed, but I know the checkpoints will get harder to spot as the flight progresses.

We enter a brief period of stillness. No ATC chatter, no immediate tasks for Tom to complete. I take the opportunity to say and do absolutely nothing. I sometimes tend to talk too much while instructing and I am trying to be more quiet when students have things well in hand.

The spell is broken when ATC hands us off to Binghamton Approach, and Tom begins working on his map again. I see that he's looking in the wrong place for his next checkpoint. He's hoping it will be off to his left, but we've drifted a bit and now the lake he's searching for is almost directly beneath us. It's easy to get tunnel vision in this situation, and I hope he'll look around for a cross check. When it's clear he's going to miss it completely I explain what happened, but caution him that I'm going to clam up on the way home.

The rest of the ride is good. Tom uses the map better and flies the plane nicely. Many students briefly forget how to fly the airplane when they start learning to navigate, but Tom is doing well. He prudently keeps some altitude until he's sure of where the airport's landing pattern is located, and I nod my approval. I ask the controller to discontinue radar service and tell Tom to resume making position reports as he usually does during a landing.

Things start to come unglued a bit as we fly the pattern. While double-checking that he's flying the right direction for his selected runway, Tom lets the plane sink below the pattern altitude. This is bad since the terrain is a bit high here at Bradford. I tap on the altimeter until he makes a power adjustment.

Despite this being a bigger runway than he is used to, the novelty of the situation may be enough to throw Tom off on his landing. I'm ready to help, but Tom greases it on nicely. We taxi to the ramp and I give Tom the option of stopping for a rest or turning around and going home. He chooses to keep going and takes a moment to shuffle his flight plan papers.

We've delayed switching fuel tanks a few minutes in order to do it on the ground. That's much better than doing it while we're busy (and low) flying the pattern and accidentally putting the selector in the "off" position, which I did just once and will never ever do again. So I make sure Tom remembers to switch tanks and ask if he's ready to try dealing with ATC. He's game, and we taxi out after he sets up the radios.

Tom does well on the return trip. The thunderstorms that had been forecast have not developed, so I'm able to keep my seat slid back for most of the flight. However, I do help with the radio from time to time. Although Tom does well, it's still intimidating the first time one keys the mic to address a controller. And of course I'm always scanning for traffic. But I can see that Tom will be ready when he does this trip by himself.

Lake Wallenpaupack is soon at our 1:00 position, giving Tom his bearings in our local area and he lands us back at Cherry Ridge. An excellent first cross country trip - soon he'll do it solo!

It's about 4:00 at this point and I'll go home after filling out logbooks, tieing down the airplanes, writing receipts and locking up the office. On a busier day I'd have some night flying to look forward to, but this was a pretty typical day in the life of Jason Catanzariti, CFI.

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