The last few weeks have been hectic and have offered precious little time for writing blog posts. A trip to SoCal, some pressing house projects, and a busy teaching schedule all conspired to keep me otherwise occupied. Nevertheless, I've been reading, flying and teaching and have been making mental notes about blog-worthy topics.
CFI Punching Bag
Two of the current hot topics in GA are the shrinking number of pilots and the effectiveness of flight training. The newly revised Flight Instructors Model Code of Conduct is the latest installment in the "what's wrong with flight training" discussion. AOPA started banging this drum at one of their conventions and has been repeatedly mentioning it in virtually all of its publications and emails.
Like it or not, we live in an age where public discourse and debate often involve a peculiar use of language and a reliance on repetition to manufacture consent. Whether you call it double-speak, framis, or baffle-gab, we are bombarded with repetitive slogans designed to appeal to emotion rather than intellect. Using logic and reasoning requires us to get our thoughts in order, assemble the facts that are known, consider competing claims, and simultaneously hold conflicting ideas in our minds so that we may evaluate them: In short, it's hard work. The fact that someone saw the need to create a model code of conduct for flight instructors (there's one for mechanics and others, too) would indicate that there are problems within the flight instruction community. Just what those problems are depends on one's perspective.
The code addresses instructor responsibilities, training and proficiency, security, environmental issues, using technology, and promoting aviation instruction. Just a few of the stated benefits of adopting this model include improved pilot training, personal responsibility, instructor contributions to society at large, self-regulation as an alternative to regulations, and promoting recognition of instruction as a highly respected and rewarding profession. The code encourages instructors to be respectful of the risks and dangers of flying, act like professionals, manage stress and fatigue, conduct their flights like airline pilots, and not have sex with their students. The opposite of this sounds like pretty average behavior for 17 to 22 year olds and though I don't have the data to back this up, this is likely the average age range for the majority of active aviation instructors.
What the Market will Bear
The most important aspects of aviation safety start with flight instruction, yet CFIs are enduring low pay and long hours. Regulations allow CFIs to give up to 8 hours of flight instruction per 24 hour period, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and that's what many instructors do just to make ends meet. By the time an instructor has finished teaching his or her second flight lesson of the day, the instructor's ability to provide quality instruction has likely been exhausted. Income levels that encourage instructors to teach three or more lesson per day do not contribute to high-quality learning experiences or professional behavior. The mere existence of a model code of conduct is not going to change the situation.
Most pilots become instructors because they dream of a better flying job and to get that dream job, a young pilot needs to log flight time. So many instructors are a young, motivated group at the bottom of the aviation food chain desperate to provide low-cost labor in exchange for flight time. This is an aviation tradition that the FAA has long supported if not enabled outright.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with pilots who do a stint as an instructor so that they can move on, but let's not cloak it in high flautin' talk about professionalism, high levels of proficiency and customer service. This is a business relationship between employers and employees, plain and simple. The profit margins in aviation are so razor thin there is no way to pay instructors like professionals. The mere existence of a model code of conduct is not going to change the situation. One benefit of the current flight training model is that it separates the wheat from the chaff because by the time an instructor is ready to move on to an airline job, they will have already been acclimated to long hours and low pay.
Flight instructors are the most active pilots in the GA community, they fly more hours than the average GA pilot, and they are crucial to training the next generation of pilots. The impact of flight instruction on the pilot population is unmistakable, but there are many reasons why student pilots decide to drop out. AOPA says that the cost of flight training, aircraft rental, and aviation fuel are not important factors. I find this claim to be utterly fantastic and unsupported: The folks they are sampling in their research must travel in different circles than the pilots I talk to.
While AOPA and others are busy trying to "fix" the flight training model so that fewer pilots drop out, little is being done to improve the average flight instructor's day-to-day life. Quite the opposite, from where I sit the solutions being put forth simply perpetuate the status quo with regard to flight instructors' working conditions.
Flight instruction, like all aviation endeavors, is a tough business. Learning to fly is a difficult, complicated, and expensive proposition. Those who stick with it, whether we're instructors or weekend flyers, do so because we love aviation. I'm all for making the flight training experience as rewarding and efficient as possible. I strive to do my best as an instructor because I enjoy teaching, mentoring other instructors, and helping pilots reach their flying goals. Being a CFI is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done, in spite of the hardships that come with living at the bottom of the food chain. From my perspective the model code of conduct is, at its best, a distraction and, at its worst, insulting. The efforts of AOPA and the folks who authored the Flight Instructor's Model Code of conduct may be based on good intentions, but good intentions can also lead to a decidedly undesirable destination.