Commercial Pilots and the CFI Crossroads

By Scott Spangler on April 3rd, 2023

Talking last week to a 30-something professional pilot about his journey to a Gulfstream cockpit, he brought my interrogation to a dead silent stop with his answer to one question. After he summarized the chronology of his pilot certificates and ratings, I asked about the one he didn’t mention, the CFI—certificated flight instructor.

Like a lot of younger pilots striving for paying careers, he said, given the pilot job market, the CFI is a crossroads between spending a lot more money and time to earn the most demanding and challenging pilot certification in all of aviation, and getting a job that pays money. The answer is clear, he said, especially if a new commercial pilot also has a multiengine rating.

In three decades of interrogating professional pilots, the only ones who typically didn’t have a CFI earned their wings in the military (but many of them earned their CFI after they transitioned to their airline life). I’m sure there are some professional pilots who clawed their way up the civilian ladder who skipped the CFI rung, but I don’t remember ever talking to any of them.

Talking to one who might be an exception does not define a new rule in today’s training and professional pilot markets without some quantification. Absent the resources to survey today’s population of pro pilots, I turned to the FAA’s U.S. Civil Airman Statistics. Among the many tables in each year’s spreadsheet is one that gives a 10-year look at initial certificates issued.

Here is the table of the initial issuance of commercial and flight instructor certificates earned in 2013 to 2022. (I added the yellow to remind me of the pandemic disruption.) At first glance, the numbers don’t seem to support that the CFI crossroads is trending no CFI. And without a doubt, the pilot job market is much better now than it was a decade ago.

What’s interesting is that the number of commercial certificates peaked in 2020, the year the CDC shutdown the nation on March 15, a shutdown that continued through the end of April 2020. The initial CFI issuances peaked last year. Equally interesting is the shared trend of increasing totals of issued certificates, which only took a short step back during the shutdown.

The low numbers in the early teens are surely the nagging consequences of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. But an equally important trend is the difference between those issued a commercial and a CFI. It was roughly 50/50 in 2017, the year my subject graduated from college. Naturally, this isn’t the best measure of a pilot’s crossroads’ decision, but it’s the best one readily available.

The number of commercial pilots who didn’t earn a CFI trended higher until the pandemic, so maybe there’s something to my pro pilot’s crossroads observation. Certainly, this topic might make an excellent survey and statistics project for someone now enrolled in an aviation degree program. What decision did you make at the CFI crossroads. – Scott Spangler, Editor


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