What is a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) and How to Become One?

What is a Flight Instructor?

A certified flight instructor is a pilot who teaches others to operate aircraft. Specific privileges granted to holders of a flight instructor qualification vary from country to country, but very generally, a flight instructor serves to enhance and evaluate the knowledge and skill level of an aviator in pursuit of a pilot's license, certificate or rating.

Certified Flight Instruction - Float Plane Rating ASES

The above picture shows an Alaska Float Ratings Certified Flight Instructor guiding a pilot through docking procedures in a float plane. 

At Alaska Float Ratings, the main goal of our instructors is to teach, guide and enhance the knowledge and skill level of pilot’s pursuing a higher certificate or rating, specifically in Airplane Single Engine Sea and back country flight operations. 

What does a Flight Instructor do?

Flight instructors play a vital role in the aviation community. They teach, instruct and guide aspiring pilots to earn their pilot’s certificate and help current pilots increase their knowledge, skills and abilities as they progress through acquiring more advance pilot certificates and ratings. They communicate information and techniques that might not appear in textbooks, ensuring their students understand the important lessons of aviation in ways that an automated system cannot. A CFI also acts as a role model to new pilots.

Each certified flight instructor (CFI) may bear the responsibility of guiding their student pilots from their first experience in an airplane to becoming a safe, conscious and confident aviator. The best flight instructors are experienced, hard working, professional and creative in their approach to teaching. 

Why Should I Become a Certified Flight Instructor?

There are many reasons why pilots choose to become a CFI, with the most common reason being to gain experience and build flight time. It is very common for aspiring pilots to consider earning their flight instructor certification as a way to progress their development as a pilot and to increase their flight time. Most aviation jobs, especially those jobs as a commercial airline pilot, require a minimum amount of flight time to be eligible. As a certificated flight instructor, you can build flight experience quickly to meet airline and corporate hiring minimums.

Many candidates opt to teach flight training to students due to the ability to quickly and steadily gain flight time hours. Flight instructing will also reinforce the knowledge you gain during your own flight training, as you spend time studying and teaching students how to safely and effectively operate aircraft. Through this process, flight instructors become very knowledgeable and skilled aviators who are endowed with the responsibility and privileged of training and endorsing other pilots to take FAA practical tests.

Being a certified flight instructor is a challenging and rewarding career that utilizes all you have learned during your own flight training. Flight instructors should aim to be role models of the aviation community by sharing their knowledge and experience with their students, in order to improve aviation as a whole. For many people it is the first job in aviation that earns them a paycheck, while others enjoy flight instruction so much that they make it a life long career. 

How to Become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)?

After earning the required prerequisite of a commercial pilot license, pilots must complete a flight instructor certificate program, which can be taken online or at a certified flight school or aviation college,  to learn the fundamentals of instruction (FOI) and complete the appropriate FAA knowledge tests and practical test demonstrating the ability to teach an individual how to fly. These fundamentals of instruction courses are designed to train you to understand the basics of how humans learn most effectively so that you can become an effective certified flight instructor. If a pilot has a previous background in teaching (school teacher, etc) they can often “test out” of this requirement due to the fact that they have already received training on effective teaching through the basic levels of learning and education objective. Pilots will learn the fundamentals of instruction, which help them develop an understanding of six principles of learning: Readiness, Exercise, Effect, Primacy, Intensity, and Recency.

With an understanding of how humans learn, CFIs will be able to gain the ability to effectively guide and teach other student pilots how to effectively and safely operate an aircraft. 

After successful completion of the FOI test, a pilot will then begin ground school a flight training to prepare him to teach other students the tasks required by the FAA for each specific pilot license, certificate or rating. This level of learning general takes place by allowing the pilot to practice teaching, in and out of an aircraft, with an already certified flight instructor who teaches them how to become a CFI themselves. 

Upon successful completion of CFI training, the pilot will receive the FAA required logbook endorsement and FAA Knowledge Tests to earn their flight instructor certificate, with the specific privileges of the particular training (eg. single-engine, multi-engine, or instrument privileges) which they completed. 

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Flight Instructor Certificate?

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not set a specific time requirement minimum to become a flight instructor, all flight instructors must obtain at least a commercial pilot license as part of their eligibility requirements. The commercial pilot license requires 250 hours of flight time as a pilot, with several associated sub-requirements (depending on the CFI certificate sought). A pilot who plans to become a flight instructor is essentially preparing for that role from the first day they begin flight training as a student pilot, meeting the demands of each rating, as checkpoints, along the way. 

Most flight instructor courses at certified flight schools take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the level of certification requested. 

What Are the Different Types of Flight Instructor Certifications?

There are multiple levels of flight instructor, which allow the CFI to perform training in different types of aircraft and scenarios.

Below are the three main levels of certification for CFIs:

  • Certified Flight Instructor (CFI): A flight instructor authorized to flight instruct in a single-engine aircraft
  • Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument (CFII): A flight instructor that is authorized to teach pilots to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), otherwise known as “the clouds” and other low visibility conditions
  • Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI): A flight instructor authorized to flight instruct in multi-engine aircraft
After a pilot has become certified to flight instruct, they can teach other pilots to fly in any aircraft category that they have received authorization to fly. Within each category there are other sub-categories or ratings or endorsement requirements that a pilot can obtain. For example, a CFI can only instruct a pilot in the operation of “tail-wheel aircraft” is that CFI has received the training and endorsement to fly tail-wheel aircraft himself. This also is true for “Airplane Single-Engine Sea”, often know as floatplane or seaplane flying. In order for a CFI to instruct in a single-engine floatplane that pilot must hold a commercial pilot certificate with single-engine sea privileges.

There are many possibilities for certified flight instructors to choose which types of flying and flight instructing they would like to perform. 

What Is a Certified Flight Instructor's Salary?

Salary for flight instructors varies from state to state and flight school to flight school. It is often also dependent on the type of training being provided by the certified flight instructor. More advanced courses often charge more than basic pilot training (advanced back country flying courses will charge more than basic private pilot flight training courses). While there are some companies that pay CFIs a yearly salary, most pay is earned as an hourly wage. Compensation at an hourly rate can also be payed at different rates for the different types of instruction you are providing. For example, one might earn a higher hourly rate for flights and a lower hourly rate for ground and simulator (AATD) instruction.

According to some of the most popular online recruiting providers, CFI pay ranges from $15 per hour to $60 per hour and anywhere from $28,000 per year to upwards of $75,000 per year. With varying types of pay structures, for a certified flight instructor to earn the highest income, it is important to have higher, more advanced qualifications and a large, consistent pool of students to provide instruction to. 

CFI Hourly Pay Range

$15/hr – $60/hr

CFI Annual Salary Range
$28,000 – $75,000

What Are the Eligibility Requirements to Become a CFI?

You must be at least 18 years of age and able to read and write in English. You will need a minimum of a commercial pilot certificate with 250 hours of flight time experience. You must receive a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor on the fundamentals of instructing and hold a 3rd Class Medical Certificate (or higher) from FAA.

Below is an overview of the basic requirements for obtaining a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) Certificate:

  • At least 18 years old by the date of your FAA Checkride.
  • Be able to read, speak, write and understand English
  • Hold at least a Commercial Pilot Certificate
  • Hold a valid FAA 3rd Class Medical Cerificate (or higher)
  • Hold an Instrument Rating
  • Must have logged at least 15 hours total flight time as a pilot in command in the aircraft category and class you wish to teach in
  • Have received “Spin Awareness” training from an authorized instructor
  • Exams Required for Certification
    • 2 Knowledge Tests (FOI and FIA)
      • Multiple choice exams administered by FAA-authorized facility
    • FAA Checkride
      • Oral Exam
      • Flight/Practical Exam

*Reference 14 CFR §61.183 for the entire list of eligibility requirements.


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