A Rather Elegant Statement of Fact

From Lyn Burks on Just Helicopters, talking about how the market for low-time helicopter pilots has changed post-Silver State:

A record number of helicopter pilots were produced from 2005 to 2008. At the exact same time, the collapse in the economy in 2008 brought the traditional pilot pipelines to a screeching halt. More pilots with less upward mobility = fierce competition.

It’s absolutely true: with the booming economy several years ago, you could get hired as a CFI outside of the school you trained at, you could build 100 hrs a month as an instructor, and you could get hired off to your first job flying a turbine helicopter at 1200 hrs and 2 years from when you started. I personally witnessed it happen, and was optimistic that things were going to be the same for me. Weren’t we all?  These days, I’ve had school owners ask me why they’d hire me when I’d be taking away a job from one of their CFIs, the school I went to has cut back on their instructor staff, and 1200 hr pilots are getting laid off from their CFI positions rather than getting hired away. Sorry, I too want to be irrationally exuberant again.

Radio Navigation

The basic model for flight schools is to get students to take their CFII right after their CFI. This makes sense for the school for a few reasons, but in the long run, it ends up costing students. The school’s reasoning is that a CFII is a more marketable job candidate than a CFI, and that CFIIs are more likely to get hired. When schools do hire from the outside, they also subscribe to this rationale. Personally, I’d rather spend my CFII training where I’d be teaching, and it wouldn’t hurt to have that actual flight time to familiarize a new instructor with the school’s SOPs and the environment, but that’s the way the industry works. As a prospective instructor, you’ll have to buy into this logic and finish your CFII before you start looking for work.

Here’s the downside that I see: R22 instrument trainers are in short supply and have a more restrictive CG envelope (from what I hear anyway–I’ve only seen 1, and it was a glass cockpit trainer). Because of this, many schools rely on the R44 for instrument and CFII training. No problem there. But, insurance companies aren’t thrilled about low-time CFIIs instructing in R44s, and at least some of them will stick a 500 hr TT restriction on their policies. There are, of course, exceptions and ways schools can get around this, but if your school uses an R44, find out.

Why does this matter? A CFII operating in this system will fly for several months before he’s at 500 hrs TT and cleared to teach in the R44. All that time, he won’t have given a moment’s thought to instrument flight or procedures, and the teaching methods he learned to pass his CFII check ride will be fuzzy memories. Depending on your school, he may not be IFR current, and his R44 time in the last 60 days may only be 1-2 hrs. Even if you land a CFII that’s close to his 1000 hrs and has been teaching IFR for a while, at best, he’s probably only taken 3-5 students through their instrument rating–not much practice, considering the amount of knowledge that has to be learned during the instrument rating. So, if your school was anything like the school I went to, any instructor you get will be struggling to remember how to fly IFR and to develop effective teaching methods. As his student, you’ll be paying for your instructor to get up to speed.

The best thing for students would be for schools to offer CFII training only once their instructors have the aeronautical experience they need to perform the duties of a CFII. This won’t happen, since there’s an economic incentive for schools to take every student as far along in their training as they can before the student runs out of money or leaves to teach somewhere else. As a student, you can reduce the cost and time you need for your instrument rating by learning as much as you can at home. Obviously you can do more ground training at home. I’d recommend ditching the Jeppesen Instrument/Commercial textbook altogether, and using the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook as a back-up source. For books, I personally liked Instrument Flying by Richard Taylor. I picked up the 4th edition for less than it cost the seller to ship it to me. A book like this is pretty worthless for learning regs, and I think he still had a  section on the recently decommissioned LORAN network. But he provides a common sense, practical approach to learning instrument procedures based on the experience that your instructor just doesn’t have. I’m not saying you should run out and by that book, but look into some of the video programs and books that are out there. Go over to your local fixed wing flight school, talk to one of their 2000-hr part-time instructors, and ask him what his recommendations are (when I finally did this, the FW instructor slapped his forehead when I told him all I was using was the FAA books).

You can also sit on your couch and learn the skills you’d be paying almost $500/hr for in the cockpit. That was the spirit behind this lesson on how to use Tim’s VOR Simulator, but I know that others before me have done a better job explaining radio navigation, so I didn’t want to duplicate effort there. And here’s one of those others, doing a lecture on VOR Basics. This is a very clear and organized lesson from a well-spoken and well-prepared instructor–I didn’t hear an Ummm… or Uhhhh… in the whole lesson, which gives you an idea of how much forethought went into his presentation.


When the Other Shoe Drops

Several friends and I got some bad news last week. The school that we went to contacted the 8 of us that finished our CFIs over a year ago to tell us that they would not be hiring any of us, and would only be considering more recent CFI graduates. The news hit us pretty hard, but I knew this was coming. The market is flooded with CFIs and schools are still training new ones up. At the same time, Sallie Mae has pretty much stopped lending to flight students. This has been a 1-2 punch to the CFI market. As the supply of CFIs has increased, the supply of students with financing–and therefore the demand for CFIs–has collapsed. This isn’t even considering the trouble 1000-hr CFIs are having finding jobs. Some schools have resorted to firing 1000-hr CFIs to artificially inflate the demand for their low-time CFIs. Other schools are keeping their CFIs on longer. Somebody loses in either scenario.

Even though the school I went to routinely hired guys who had been out for >6 months, I think they’ve reach the point where they have so many CFIs looking for work that they had to start cutting some of us off. They laid off two 1000-hr instructors and didn’t replace them, and the school is still having trouble filling their schedule. There just aren’t enough students out there who can get the money to start training. This is an industry-wide problem, and contraction in the flight instruction market is going to continue for a while.

For those of us who didn’t get a job right out of school, this is probably where our aviation careers will end. Even though I’ve spent the time furthering my education in other ways (like taking HAI courses), our cockpit skills have been slowly degrading. A good student and pilot who hasn’t flown much in the last year stands no chance against even a marginal student who just got his certificate and whose skills are sharp. That’s what it means when an old timer tells you that timing is everything in this industry.The tragedy for 2 of my friends is that both had 6-month breaks in their training (one for an instructor he wasn’t progressing with, and the other to take a job to save up for her Commercial and CFI tickets). In all probability, they’d at least be at 1000 hrs now.

This is also a harbinger for the future. Everybody that I’ve talked to in the industry has been saying that Sallie Mae is very reluctant to start lending again. As long as that’s the case, the flight instruction industry is going to be reliant on money from the VA and GI Bill, and from foreign students or students who have saved up enough on their own. This is a small slice of the student pie compared to what flight schools were getting from Sallie Mae and other lenders several years ago. Schools that can’t tap those other student pools are going to fail, and they’ll be dumping their medium-time CFIs onto the market. When schools start hiring again, their CFIs that just recently finished will be first in line, and those medium-time CFIs from failed schools are going to be the next most attractive candidates. You can see this in the few advertised CFI jobs–the ones that are out there are asking for a minimum of 500 hrs TT.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do. At the Vegas career seminar 2 years ago, I talked to BoatPix but didn’t follow up on it thinking that I’d make the cut and get hired at my school. My timing couldn’t be worse: Silverstate had just failed, and I graduated right after 6 other students; 2 of them had just gotten hired. It was months before any of the other instructors got jobs and left, and 2 that left weren’t replaced. Especially in this economy, getting hired by another school is an improbable event, and last year at HAI half the schools I talked to wouldn’t even take a resume from me (I’m sure the others pitched my resumes before they left the building). BoatPix is now also swamped with CFIs who got on before the economy crashed. That leaves me with approximately zero options for now.

Guidance Counseling for Student Pilots

This bit of advice is often kicked around on the forums:

There is nothing that requires you to do all your training at one school or in one type of helicopter. Having at least 50 hours in each of the two most popular trainers H300 & R22) will be beneficial to you when you go looking for your first flying job.

In theory, this is a great idea, and if this was any other industry, this breadth of experience would be viewed as a bonus by any employer. However, in helicopters, the companies (ie, flight schools) that are providing training are also gateway employers: you have to go through them to make it to a more normal career environment (one where experience and qualifications dominate hiring decisions).

Any single flight school can’t hire all of the CFIs it trains. It just isn’t mathematically possible. This is a bit of a problem for the industry, and it affects who a flight school will hire. As an external candidate–a CFI trained at another school–you have significant disadvantages compared to a student coming from within. Probably the greatest disadvantage is that the school doesn’t know you as well, and you aren’t familiar with the school’s procedures or the local training environment. You are also taking a job away from one of the students that was loyal to the school, and unemployed flight instructors can’t help a school’s image. Overcoming these barriers with previous experience–whether it’s experience in several different aircraft or transferable skills that you acquired outside of aviation–is very difficult.

Another reason having time in both Robinson and Schweizer/Hughes models doesn’t matter is that they are very different aircraft. An instructor that has 200 hours in an R22 is still learning to fly it, and I don’t see how reducing his experience in that aircraft by 25% is going to make him a better instructor or pilot. With so little experience, it’s better to build one skill rather than acquiring a portfolio of skills that you are unable to do with proficiency or consistency. With 50 hours of R22 time, you’re also sitting at the SFAR-73 minimums for instructing, and the Schweizer school’s that I’ve talked to believe the required minimums specified in 61.195(f)–5 hours PIC in the specific make and model–are insufficient.

Finally, there are very few schools who fly both Robinsons and Schweizers. You might be a good candidate for one of those schools, if they didn’t have a large pool of internally-trained candidates. But you wouldn’t be a good candidate for a school flying R22s if you were coming in with 150 hours of Schweizer time, or vice versa.

Maybe this broader experience will help you when you finish your CFI and start applying for turbine jobs. Not so. One operator I talked to basically said that R22, R44, 269/300, Hiller, Brantley, Enstrom, or whatever other piston time you have is just that: other piston time. For an applicant with significant turbine time, listing your time in all those piston aircraft isn’t even necessary.

So I’m going to call Bullshit! on the advice that you should get time in both Robinson and Schweizer airframes, and that it’s okay to switch schools mid-training. I’d advise that a student stick with a single school and single manufacturer. Doing anything else won’t improve your chances of getting hired on as a CFI, and may actually hurt them.