When you begin looking into career paths to becoming an airline pilot, you will confront a confusing array of numbers — representing flight hours, costs, regulations, etc. But you’ll find that one number stands out among the rest: 1500. That’s the “magic number” of flight hours that most major airlines, both US-based and international, need to see in a logbook in order to consider a candidate for pilot employment.
But then you might be equally confused by the big gap between that magic number and the typical number of flight hours to earn a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) — about 190 to 250, depending on the program type. There are many ways that aspiring commercial pilots fill that gap (and that’s a topic for another blog post), but the most common path is to complete the additional flight instructor training needed to become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), and then to work as a CFI while building those hours.
Becoming a CFI is such a reliable means of hours-building that it creates a dilemma for students who complete their commercial training at flight schools that do not offer CFI ratings; these students can find themselves in career limbo, with the sunk cost of their commercial pilot license but no means to advance toward an airline career. We recently reintroduced our CFI Completion Program to help these students advance. But for students starting their training with us, we always recommend that a full program should include all three CFI ratings: Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), Certified Flight Instructor Instrument (CFII), and Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI). This full set of ratings gives you your best chance at being hired as a CFI and advancing your career quickly.
Working as a CFI is usually the most reliable way to build flight hours, because it’s where supply meets demand: you need the time in the air, and so do your students. But it’s not just about working toward that big number; being a CFI is, for most pilots, a deeply rewarding phase of their careers. Why?
The most obvious reason is that you’re getting your first taste of what set you on this career path in the first place: getting paid to do what you love. You’re spending all your time in the company of those who share your passions and aspirations: your fellow CFIs, and your excited and motivated students.
You’re also deepening your skills in a way that’s going to be very important to your future airline employer, through the concept of “learning by teaching.” Also known as “The Protege Effect” and supported by decades of educational research, this concept holds that we learn better when we have to explain what we know to others — it deepens our own understanding of why we follow certain steps and procedures, and it will unquestionably make you a better pilot.
We always make sure that our flight program applicants understand that while we give priority to our own graduates in hiring CFIs, completing your flight instructor training is not by itself a guarantee of employment. As with any degree or certification, it’s a benchmark, and the rest is up to you. CFI-rated pilots that demonstrate not only technical skills, but teaching abilities and the common attributes of great pilots have the best chance of success.