My first pilot job, like many fresh pilots in the United States, was as a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). Back when I was first hooked on flying helicopters, I did thorough research to find the steps I wanted to take to achieve my goal of making a career as a helicopter pilot. The end goal was to be either a utility pilot or emergency medical service pilot. Figuring out how to get there was the challenge.
Already having my Private Pilot Certificate for Airplane Single-Engine-Land, I was familiar with the common order of certificates to achieve: Private, Instrument, Commercial, CFI, and CFI-Instrument (CFII). A few of these can be done in a different order, but this is the order I chose, and I had funding squared away.
Next, I had to figure out where I wanted to fly. Originally I wanted to train in Hawaii, as that is where I had my first real introductory flight in a helicopter (Robinson R22). Plus, Hawaii is just awesome anyway. But, I also found out that high altitude experience (operations higher than 5,000’ DA) in the mountains is a very valuable skillset to have as it requires much finer power management than flight at sea level, especially in piston trainer helicopters—my career experience has proven this to be the case.
I started looking at schools in the western United States, and contacted several of them through their web sites for additional information. Two schools responded initially, but only one of these schools actually conversed with me back-and-forth answering my questions. I then booked an airline flight out to visit this school and verify that I wanted to put my money there. I was hooked.
I have a lot of skill sets. In order to make this work as a career and advance quickly, I knew that I needed to put all my effort towards getting my ratings and getting a job. I had to make myself valuable.
I knocked out all the certificates in about 13 months, flying approximately five flights per week and dedicating a few hours of study time per day. While in training, I took a temporary position with the flight school in recruiting military veterans (I’m a Marine Corps vet), which got me some cash and an opportunity to demonstrate my value to the company. Not two months later, I interviewed for and got a job with the school’s associated university, working on their side of the rotorcraft portion of the flight program (I also had a Bachelor’s Degree already). After I earned my CFI certificate, I also taught some of the ground and aviation-subject classes for a few semesters. I was moving up.
The flight school I attended hired me right after I passed my CFI practical exam, and I went to work. After approximately six or seven months of teaching, I was promoted to a Check Instructor position under Part 141, and eventually worked on various other parts of the operation for the next three years. I’m telling you all this simply as background for the rest of this article.
The helicopter flight school world is similar to the helicopter tour industry: there are some major players with large fleets and student bases, and some small operations that just have one or two instructors and a handful of students. You can be successful working at either of these extremes, however there are advantages to working for the larger operations, if able.
Our flight school had over 200 students at one point. We typically had four or five students per instructor, which meant a full-time work load for everyone, especially since the majority of these students were working through a university program, and thus on deadlines for each certificate/stage per semester. If one student stuck through the program, you could expect to fly nearly 250 hours with them, assuming they went through Private to CFII.
In this large school, we had some instructors fly over 1,000 hours in just a year, and then typically move on to jobs in the tour industry. To contrast this, I know instructors at smaller schools that took two or three years to reach the first 1,000 hour mark and move on to other jobs. I didn’t fly quite as much as the other instructors, primarily because I took on so many other tasks to work on my management skill set, but I stayed with the company well after the magic 1,000 hour mark.
Another advantage of the larger school was the prevalence of experienced instructors and management. Our senior check instructors and management had thousands of hours between them in fire fighting, utility, air ambulance, tours, and military operations. These experiences were shared and passed down in all forms of training, making a better “product” out of the students/instructors compared to a school full of freshly-minted instructors merely regurgitating what they read in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handbooks. A flight school that can attract and keep experienced instructors on their staff is a good sign.
Part 141 Flight Training Operations
Part 141 schools are subject to many regulations that all instructors need to be familiar with. These schools are inspected often by the FAA (14 CFR 141.21). In my time working for one, I dealt with inspectors monthly. Inspectors won’t just talk with management either: they will question instructors, conduct ramp checks, and review physical and digital records. You’ve got to be on top of your game working for a Part 141 school, or else you risk fines being incurred for violations.
- The school’s 141 certificate must be displayed and not obscured (§141.19).
- Flight training programs must contain the following:
- An approved syllabus for each course that meets the applicable ground/flight training requirements for the pilot certificate/rating sought (§141.53 and §141.55).
- This approved syllabus MUST be provided to the student at the time of enrollment (§141.93).
- Students enrolled in a course MUST be given a certificate of enrollment (§141.93).
- A copy of the safety procedures and practices for the school must also be provided, and must meet the requirements of §141.93(a)(3).
- Students that graduate the course must be provided with a copy of the graduation certificate (§141.95).
- Flight instructors require initial training in each aircraft they are going to be approved to conduct instruction in, specific to each course they are approved to teach, and must take recurrent training every 12 months (§141.79). For example, an instructor might be approved to teach only Private and Instrument courses in a Robinson R44, but able to teach Private and Commercial in the R22.
- You aren’t going to be able to go to a coffee shop and conduct ground. The school must have approved facilities (§141.45).
- Records must be kept for each student per course they are taking/graduated from for at least one year (§141.101). So, in addition to filling out their logbook, you are also keeping strict records at the school.
Stick To The Syllabus
One thing that trips up new flight instructors is following the syllabus.
Each appendix of Part 141 contains the requirements for ground and flight training for each certificate, and the hours are different than the requirements of Part 61. A syllabus will break these hours down into individual lessons, grouped under stages. Each stage requires a ground and flight exam with a Check Instructor at the end that the student must pass satisfactorily to the standards set for that stage in the syllabus. If the student does not pass the stage, the student will have to remediate training until they can pass before continuing.
For example, a Private Pilot course might be setup as such (though written more extensively):
- Stage I
- Lesson 1: Straight and Level (1.5hrs flight, 2.0hrs ground minimum)
- Lesson 2: Steep Turns and Intro to Hovering (2.0hrs flight, 2.0hrs ground minimum)
- Lesson 10: Stage I Check (all maneuvers learned in previous lessons to standard acceptable to solo)
- Stage II
- Lesson 11: First Solo Flight (1.0hrs flight, 1.0hrs ground minimum)
- Lesson 20: Stage II Check (higher standard)
- Stage III
- Lesson 21…
- Lesson 30: End-Of-Course Check (all content to practical test standards)
- Graduation Certificate issued, followed by Practical Exam with Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) if the 141 school doesn’t have own examining authority.
As a flight instructor, you are expected to follow the syllabus in order. The only time you could deviate would be perhaps to conduct a cross-country lesson at a more convenient time or reschedule due to weather: conducting a different lesson in its place. But, you can’t jump across stages. You must remain within the stage. Additionally, you must meet or exceed the hours for each lesson listed in the syllabus. You can’t do less than the minimum: that’s why it’s called a minimum.
The Work Experience
It certainly took a few weeks of instructing and making mistakes to get the hang of all the paperwork generated by complying with Part 141. But once I got into the swing of things, it was simple to follow. The real key is to know the syllabus. Read it a few times. Nitpick it. If you aren’t sure of something you are about to do or write: ask! Double check training log entries and compare them to the lesson’s content. Audit all of the paperwork related to your student frequently. If you let another instructor conduct a lesson with your student, check that instructor’s entries for accuracy, as you will certainly work with a few instructors that fail to follow the rules accurately.
Fortunately the school I worked for had a good number of experienced instructors who had previously worked in fire-fighting, utility, helicopter air ambulance, and the tour industry. This experience was shared and passed on to students, giving everyone an edge on understanding the job market, understanding how commercial Part 133 and Part 135 operations are conducted, and receiving general advice on being successful in the industry. I have worked with flight instructors in other schools that don’t have employees with these backgrounds, and the knowledge gap is noticeable.
If you have the opportunity, moving up to the position of Check Instructor will push you to be an even more knowledgeable. You have to be fluent with the Part 141 regulations so as to be able to adequately audit and quality-check student records. You also have to be fluent with the Practical Test Standards set by the FAA and the standards of each lesson and stage described in each course’s syllabus, and know how to apply these.
You also have to be tough and fair: students will try many things to “slide by” on a maneuver or knowledge standard that isn’t up to spec. The flight school can only keep Part 141 certification with a minimum initial pass rate of 80% or higher (§141.5[d]), which means you must hold the students to the standard of the lesson and not waiver. If you pass a student and they go take the practical exam and fail, that hurts the school’s pass rate, your personal pass rate (care about that Gold Seal?), and your own reputation. I only ever had one student fail a practical exam after I passed them on an end-of-course stage check—they messed up an autorotation recovery pretty badly, which isn’t really an issue I could’ve foreseen since they did just fine on the stage check. Despite that one hiccup, the perception was that if you could pass a stage check with me, you would pass the practical exam given by the DPE. That’s a good standard to hold.
Outside of having to learn and follow the extra regulations, it’s just like flight instructing under Part 61. While I think that other countries’ requirements of having more experience before you can become a flight instructor as a good model, the United States model of instructing early on does teach you a lot, quickly, about being truly in command of the flight—your life and the student’s life depends on it.
Flight instruction is one of the most flexible helicopter jobs available, as you, the instructor, get to decide where to go and what to work on—within the syllabus guidelines, of course. No other job lets you decide the mission that way. I enjoyed that freedom back then, as I also enjoy teaching in general. But working for an organization with a specific mission is also satisfying, and part of career progression.