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Question of the Month: What can flying clubs do about the CFI shortage?

An often-posed question at regional fly-ins and other events concerns the shortage of Certified Flight Instructors (CFI).  Along with “How can we attract new members to our club?” (see the April 2019 Question of the Month: "Beyond the Honeymoon"), the CFI question is high on the collective minds of many flying clubs, and we hear of situations where clubs struggle to find instructors for such fundamental needs such as flight reviews and insurance check-outs.  With that in mind, this Question of the Month digs into the issue of the CFI shortage and what clubs can do about it.

To be perfectly honest, the question is most often asked as: “What is the AOPA doing about the CFI shortage?”, so we’ve taken some license to steer it towards flying clubs, and what they can do to help control their own destiny.

Before we suggest a few things that clubs may try to help solve the CFI shortage, we must also remind ourselves of the fundamental rules and requirements for flying clubs regarding flight instruction.  A comprehensive discussion of this can be found in an earlier Club Connector  article, but in summary, based on FAA definitions and rules, a flying club is a non-profit entity, it is not a commercial operator, and it cannot provide an aircraft for purposes of flight instruction, nor may it provide a CFI be used by its members.   Of course, clubs can, and many do allow members to use club aircraft for purposes of individual flight training, currency and proficiency, and clubs and can and do allow members to train with a CFI of the member's choice.  But it is the member that decides to use the plane for a training mission, and it is the member who selects (and directly pays) the CFI.

Here are a few suggestions for clubs to consider regarding CFIs:

Retiring airline pilots: We hear about the imminent retirement of many airline pilots who are approaching 65 years of age.  From earlier AOPA “Back to your Roots” seminars, we know that many such pilots are interested in returning to general aviation—whether for recreational flying or to “give back” as mentors and instructors.  Also, from anecdotal data, many are interested in joining flying clubs for three well-known reasons: access to airplanes, affordable flying, and camaraderie.  The advantage back to a club is also clear; access to years of aviation experience and wisdom. So, use your networks to identify professional pilots who are thinking this way.  Try posting a flier at larger FBOs in your area, stating that the club is looking for new members from non-pilots to experienced pilots, but please do avoid “holding-out” which is explained in the earlier article.

Help find CFIs:  If you are lucky enough to have an aviation college nearby, contact the careers office to determine if any of the students with CFI qualifications might be interested in working as an airport CFI.  You absolutely must talk with your airport operator about this, as they ultimately determine who can provide flight training at their airport.  Note that we say “as an airport CFI” and not “as a club CFI”.  Indeed, there is really no such thing as a “club CFI” as the club cannot mandate the use of any particular instructor, although it is quite usual, and acceptable for insurance reasons, for a club to maintain a list of approved CFIs. Now, a club member who is also a CFI may, with approval from the club and the airport operator, act as CFI for other club members, but it is the member who decides which CFI to use.  Again, this is getting a bit deep into the rules, so please do refer to the earlier Club Connector article for the full story and the fundamental FAA references for flying clubs regarding flight training.   

Grow your own CFI:  Clubs naturally have pilots with varying levels of experience, but what if you have a member who is interested in working towards an instructor certificate? A club cannot legally subsidize a club member to become a CFI, either by paying for their training, or by using club aircraft at lower rates, as to do so would advantage that member over overs, with actual or in-kind benefits.

We spoke to one flying club that was having a difficult time finding CFIs for flight reviews and so on. So, in 2015, they created a scheme that effectively loans money for commercial and CFI training to a successful member-applicant.  Let’s be quite clear here.  This is not a free-ride and successful candidates are bound to repay the full cost of training, including use of aircraft at the standard club rates. The club essentially loans the money, in order for training to be started and completed in a timely—and so cost effective—manner, which is a win-win for all.

The president of this flying club who is also a club CFI explained their process to Steve Bateman, Director of AOPA’s Flying Clubs Initiative, himself a CFI:

  • Members with an interest or an identified aptitude for being a CFI are approached by other CFIs and/or the club’s board of directors.
  • Candidates are encouraged to complete and submit a detailed application form. Note that in order to be considered, applicants must have already achieved at least the level of private pilot with an instrument rating.
  • A selection committee then considers the applications, followed by an interview for those who get past the first hurdle.
  • Candidates are then required to fly with an experienced CFI to be sure that they have the mettle and aptitude to become an instructor. In Jim’s words, “they must be a good stick”, meaning having good stick and rudder skills, and also a talent for instruction.
  • If successful, the club essentially issues a loan to the candidate such that training can commence as soon as possible, and at a pace that maximizes training effectiveness. All training hours and costs are carefully logged.
  • The loan is just that—a loan. The CFI-in-training must sign a binding contract stating that they will repay the loan within three years after becoming a certified flight instructor, and that during that period, they will be available to all club members that wish to use their services. As required by the rules, members directly pay the CFI, and, over time, the CFI repays the loan to the club. 
  • The result is that the club now has 7 CFIs on their approved instructor list.

Please do let us know if you adopt any of these ideas, and if you have other thoughts.  We’d love to share your ideas with other Club Connector readers.

Stephen Bateman

Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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