Lessons from a later bloomer CFI – and why you should be one too

I guess you could call me a late bloomer in life. As I write this, I’m 63 years of age and only a little over a year and a half into my flight instructor career. I’ve been aviating in some form or other since 1970 when I first took a flight lesson in a red-and-white candy-striped 1946 Aeronca Champ from our family’s grass strip in Ohio and, after we landed, my flight instructor would take me to school.

I went on to solo four days after my sixteenty birthday. My dad was a successful dairy farmer and owned two Skylanes, a 1969 and a 1975 model, which is what I would learn to fly next. It was on those IFR trips that I would develop an interest in air traffic control, and a visit to that vast windowless building called Cleveland Center in Oberlin, Ohio, sealed the deal for me.

I joined the US Air Force and, after basic training and ATC school at Keesler AFB in Mississippi, I spent the next four years working the VFR tower at Wright Patterson AFB. Of course, a career in the FAA was next and, after being notified of my acceptance in December of 1978, I headed to Oklahoma City for FAA terminal air traffic control school.

Alas, life took an unexpected turn. I decided to leave ATC for a career in broadcasting and after obtaining a degree in radio/TV/marketing and advertising, I spent many years behind the microphone. Like many of us, I was like a human pinball in my career, gravitating from one place to the next.

But it was in 2016, after a dozen years building homes, that I had an epiphany of sorts and decided to see what opportunities might lie in flying. After having spent a few years as a substitute teacher in mostly high school classes, I found that I had the knack for teaching and motivating people. The opportunity to stand in front of those high school students is partly what motivated me next.

John Wise CFI
Becoming a CFI in your 60s? It has many benefits.

I had heard about the pilot shortage and especially the shortage of CFIs and, with 500-plus hours, a commercial certificate with instrument and multi ratings, all I had to do was take the two written tests and, of course, fulfill the practical flying portion. Like most of us, I exaggerated my flying abilities and it took me twice as many hours to finish as I assumed. However, on New Year’s morning 2017, my examiner gave the two thumbs up and turned me loose. I can’t express here what a feeling that was for me. A true fist pump moment as I left KPWA that morning.

A CFI friend who worked with me on this rating told me that I would probably ruin the lives of my students for the first 100 hours that I instructed. It was true, but hopefully not that bad. As of this writing, I have over 700 instructing hours in most every single-engine trainer out there, and I have evolved in my thinking about this whole business of training homo sapiens to safely take to the skies. Here are some of my observations.

First, after soloing several students, I have decided, that, if I were king, I would make a decree that every person in America would be required to learn to fly and at least land the airplane unassisted. The look on a person’s face and their demeanor at that moment is priceless. I always make a point on the rollout to put my hands in the air and tell them. “That was all you, buddy (girl), I didn’t touch a thing.” Of course, they say, “Really?”

Secondly, I have started taking a more holistic view and stance and I consider what I do as more like being an instructor of an airborne ropes course. Our culture is one where people tend to watch other people do things instead of taking the risk of doing it them themselves. This is important. Flying airplanes successfully is a huge confidence-building exercise. I applaud every student’s successful turn, stall, landing etc. I teach confidence and decision making. I just happen to use a big piece of aluminum called an airplane to do it.

Third, flying is an art more than a science. The skills involved since those days on my dad’s grass strip have remained but because of technology, flight planning is much easier. Flying airplanes is not that difficult if you have enough repetition. Having said that, my least favorite type of student is the bucket list or I’ve-always-wanted-to-try-this person. There is a good amount of study and commitment involved in this activity and anyone doing it requires a good level of discipline.

I am six months into having passed my CFII check ride, which at my age will most likely be my last. On December 10, 2017, performing the job and service of being a CFII is even more special now, since it was on that night that I suffered an unexpected heart attack. It took 211 days of waiting, but my medical is now restored.

Want to make a difference? I encourage anyone my age to consider getting back into the game and teaching the next generation. We sure do need you.

31 Comments

  • ​My first solo was in a Piper Cherokee from a grass strip in Pennsylvania. I later flew an Aeronca Camp out of that same field. Most of my training came in the US Navy flying T34b, T28 and S2 aircraft to prepare me for joining an operational squadron to become a P3c Mission Commander. Following that tour I became a Navy Flight Instructor in the T34c with over 1000 hours teaching primary, basic instruments, radio instruments and aerobatics in Pensacola. After a hiatus from aviation to pursue a business career, I came back to fly AA5, C172, Sr20, and finally my own PiperSport. I have specialized in Sport Pilot training since 2015. You should consider teaching in an LSA.

  • LOVE reading this. Some similarities. I’m also 63, finishing up Commercial so I can jump into working on CFI. Got my ticket in 1976, then a career in TV broadcast production and raising a family left no time for flying. Started back up in 2001, and I’m excited about teaching. Sitting on 1200 hours now. CFI and CFII, my final career. 🙂

    • I am very happy to read facts like yours. I am turning 48 this January and thinking going back to finish what i left behind back in 1997. I had made all the flying of PPL, IR and Commercial ground and CFI ground. I do have 180 total FT. My aim is to stay CFI as i was a computer instructor for 6+ years and i do like teaching. I assume that good money management and patience is needed when family oblications are along with.

  • This was a greatly motivating article. I have been wishing to fly since I was 12 and I finally made this wish a reality at the age of 56. Now that this has been accomplished, I have decided that becoming a CFI to help others achieve this dream is what I was meant to do. It will be a challenge, but then again, what isn’t?

    Congratulation and keep flying safely. A good pilot learns every day.

  • There is a severe shortage of CFI’s who are in it to teach and not just accumulate hours to move on to the airlines. I have over 300 hours over 2.5 years with the same flight school but have had 9 instructors. Every new instructor made me basically start over. There was no curriculum or syllabus as each lesson was basically “What do you want to do today?”. Several lessons were to fly to an airport so that the CFI could check on a student’s check ride. It was my goal to make being a CFI my encore career but when I found out I was losing another instructor and that the school had not even put me in the Cessna/King Schools computer system so the CFI’s could review my ground school progress, I threw in the towel. One less CFI who would have taken an interest in helping someone achieve their goal.

    • Jim,

      I’m sorry to hear about this. Fortunately that is not my experience nor do we treat people that way. At Sundance we are completely the opposite. I actually consider my flight students my boss. They are the ones who pay the bills and if they’re paying that much money per hour they deserve a good experience, but that’s just me.

    • Jim,

      It makes me sad to hear about your NEGATIVE experience with that flight school.
      I hope you reconsider and continue. Find another school and DEMAND they use a training syllabus and stick to it like glue! AOPA has a complete syllabus for free. You can download it and follow it. It will produce what you need. Pass your written as soon as possible. Get your own ground school course. If the instructor EVER asks what do you want to do today? Get out of the plane and tell the instructor its his job to provide continuity in trading. Don’t give.

      I have been flying for 50 years. I have 24K hours. I have seen the same thing happen to others that have happened to you.

  • Jim,

    I’m sorry to hear about this. Fortunately that is not my experience nor do we treat people that way. At Sundance we are completely the opposite. I actually consider my flight students my boss. They are the ones who pay the bills and if they’re paying that much money per hour they deserve a good experience, but that’s just me.

  • Great article! I just past my CFI-initial practical last week and will be turning 60 in July. My motivations were and are very similar to yours, additionally our Civil Air Patrol squadron has several cadets that want to become pilots, but we have not had an instructor to teach them.

    I’m still 5 or 6 years from retiring from my “day job” as a professional engineer, but during that time will be building experience as an instructor. I am mindful of the fact that I will be learning simultaneously with my students and hopefully the first ones won’t suffer too much. It was quite a relief to get the initial practical behind me, nevertheless I’ve already begun studying for the CFII written and plan to get that rating added later this year.

    • I’d love to take on the stalled, disenchanted student. I became a CFI after having similar difficulties. That’s why I do what I do.

  • Great perspective. I hope a whole bunch of folks consider this as a second career. I know as a young CFI I blew folks off when I had to fly a charter, and I know I got blown off too. Nature of the game at certain types of FBOs.
    Keeping my instructor certificates, maybe someday circumstances will let me teach again.

  • Inspiring article. We have only 1 CFI/CFII in the area, and he’s good, but the only one. As a 59-year-old student (but life-long coach, manager, mentor, “teacher”), it makes me wonder if I should consider this down the road after getting the needed training and experience. Thanks for sharing.

  • Can’t begin to tell you how encouraging this article is! I started working on my commercial in the early 90s. I was in Lubbock Aero talking with my CFI when a pilot, who had been given the boot by the military, came in. We got to talking. He had 2500 hrs and couldn’t find a job as a cfi. At that time, there was a glut of pilots. Times have changed! I’m working on my commercial again to be followed by cfi/cfii. I will teach until they make me not do it any longer. Hopefully because of dying!

  • I too am in the middle of becoming a CFI/II at age 51. My love of flying started at 14, and continued as an Air Force Navigator on B-52’s, C-130’s and a small surveillance plane. My motivation is to pass on the hard lessons that I learned while accumulating over 8,000 hours flying in the military. As I work my way through the ratings it’s become painfully obvious that flying experience of any kind is a rare commodity in the CFI world these days. Those instructors who have that much experience are truly rare, and in high demand as a result. When you find one, buy him or her a coffee and be prepared for lessons not taught by a book.

  • John

    You hit the nail on the head with instructors. The rating was always used as a stepping stone for most pilots to build time.

    I started instructing back in 1973 on Long Island and still do it today privately with students that own their own aircraft. As a mechanic, I also teach them how to take care of their aircraft with owner assisted annuals….

    Instructing is rewarding but a steady diet is hard. Liability also is a problem and the days of the 15 hour solo are long gone if the instructor is looking for problems. It is hard on the equipment also!

    I like soloing a student for the first time and proficiency training and Flight reviews are always interesting.

    I could say I have seen just about all the problems that aviation can dish up and there are always new ones too!

    Thanks again for the article I am sure the comments will be interesting………

  • Not with the current crop of bastard bureaucrats at FAA medical. I was ready to obtain the PPL in my fifties (soloed at 16] and they demanded way more information than they legitimately needed. So to them all my response is very simple:

  • John,
    Enjoyed the article very much. I am one who did not begin my flying career until I was 59. Because of work schedule, weather, and the age factor, I did not get my private until age 62. I was determined and also motivated by those who told encouraging stories like yours. I love teaching and would enjoy having the opportunity to acquire a CFI, but for now, I’ll just enjoy the “views” of my labor. Clear days my friend.
    Frank

  • John,

    Excellent, excellent, piece! Your perspective is “spot on”, and I really appreciate your reference to the “art and science” part of flight instruction.

    I teach in-person Flight Instructor Refresher Courses (FIRC) for AOPA’s Air Safety Institute.

    The typical demographic mix for these classes (which are now down to roughly 25-35 students, and shrinking) includes lots of folks north of 50, and a fair number over 60. I’ve also had many in their late 70s and 80s.

    The wisdom and experience represented in these groups is incredible.

    They come for a lot of reasons: The overall camaraderie, seeing old friends, and hearing what’s new in the world of flight instruction, are all part of it. I’ve never heard any of them complain that they’re there because “it’s an FAA requirement”.

    They worked hard to earn their CFI that first time, and they’ve decided (thankfully) to not let it lapse. They take pride in what it represents, not only as a tremendous personal accomplishment, but that it also makes them part of an ‘elite’ cadre in aviation. Even if flight training industry CFI pay scales don’t reflect that.

    What I find is a that lot of these older CFIs haven’t even flown in many years, let alone Instructed. But it’s not for the reason you’d suspect—medical. If they do have a significant medical issue, they’re very pragmatic about it, and don’t come to the FIRC looking for an easy way around their circumstances.

    They’ve also figured out that they can instruct using BasIc Med, and many have switched to that path. Of course, they don’t need any type of medical to instruct, as long as their student/client is current and can act as PIC.

    So, the number one reason a lot of them have faded from the flight instruction scene: Technology.

    “I can’t keep up with all this new stuff.”

    “I don’t know anything about how to use a Garmin XZY…”

    My answer: “Then don’t!” There’s a whole generation of pilots/CFIs (going on a couple now) that absolutely thrive on it: They live, eat, breathe and sleep how to manage magenta lines on a moving map display. So, let them do it.

    Unfortunately, I’ve flown with a fair number of CFIs, who didn’t know the difference between a slip and a skid, and who’s basic stick and rudder skills absolutely stunk! Many of them can’t teach someone how to fly a ‘stable’ approach, by hand, and consistently put the airplane down where they want it. But they can talk WAAS GPS all day long….

    Anyway.

    The most enjoyable part for me, is pointing out that there’re tremendous opportunities
    for these ladies and gents, and that their ‘gray hair’ is a Bonus!!!! Even if they never get back into the right, or rear, seat to flight instruct, there are loads of opportunities for them to get involved with schools, groups, organizations, clubs, etc., that would love to have someone that’s passionate about aviation just come and talk to them.

    On the other hand:
    Maybe finding a school with a staff of ‘on-my-way-to-the-airlines-as-soon-as-I-hit-ATP-minimums’ CFIs, and letting some of your real world wisdom rub off on them, will benefit us all. Think about it.

    BTW: I’m 61.

    • Tom,
      Thanks for your nice comments. My dad was an AOPA member since the late 60s and I’ve been a member since the late 80s and to have that come from someone who represents AOPA is awfully nice. Interesting thought about mentoring younger CFI‘s. The thing is we are part 61 and part 141 is just a different animal which is where most of the younger kids go like Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma State and yes they are on their way to their 1000 hour mark. Having said that, I’m open to anything

  • Well gents, I got my license at age 66 after dreaming about it for decades, while raising a family, chasing a career, etc etc. but finally got it done. Now I own a plane, fly a lot but never enough, am working on my IFR rating, and then will dive into the commercial, on my way to CFI within the next year, while I’m still only 70. I’m blessed with great health and like John, I really enjoy teaching and exciting others about the wonders of aviation. Unfortunately I too had one of those young time building instructors who had no interest in teaching but had to until he could get on with a regional. He took all the fun out of it, but I knew it was something I wanted and had waited for a long time, so I hung in there, and today have lots of aviation buddies and look forward to encouraging others to pursue aviation!

  • From the time I started taking lessons in 1992, and receiving my ticket in 1993, I wanted to instruct. Unfortunately, with the demands of work and home life I do not have the time to even earn my instrument rating, much less my CFII. With a little more than four years to go before I retire at age 60 (Lord willing!), I am looking at going into flight instruction when I have more time on my hands.

    Even though I cannot officially instruct, I have been mentoring several young men who I know and giving them instruction on various aspects of aviation, as well as giving them encouragement to pursue their dreams. I hope that, some day, I will be able to do it as a part-time retirement job.

  • I loved this article — but wanted more! My wife and I (Get Inspired Flight) are both fairly new SIAs also going for FIA — for the joy of it, not to build time — and I’d love to learn from others and shorten that first hundred hours to become the best I can be 🙂 What did you learn and what do you now do differently?

  • I was very interested in your article. I learned to fly in college, then joined the Navy and racked up 2000 hours in props, jets and rotary wing aircraft as a ferry pilot and test pilot. I left flying when I started having children, and before I knew it 20 years had passed! I decided to get current a few years ago, and expressed an interest in getting a CFI rating. I experienced the same problem as several others here. The small FBO did not set up any clear plan for currency, biannual flight review or training, even though I asked. I believe they were hesitant to take the instructor role in deference to all my past experience. I have stopped flying with them and thought that my window of opportunity had passed me by but now am hearing that gray-haired CFI’s are desirable.
    You have encouraged me to find another flight school and try this again! I am 64.

  • I much prefer older flight instructors age 60+ I have had 5 instructors now two over sixty. Both older instructors were better all the away around. One had 10,000 plus hours of military experience in B52’sand B1’s as flight instructor and serviced active duty in Vietnam and Balken Crisis of 1990’s. The other instructor has 30,000 plus hours in everything from piper cub to 777 and helicopters. He served in the US army as a helicopter pilot. He was later the owner of a piper cub. Both of these instructors had enormous real world experience and were the calmest and most relaxed instructors I have had. They and had a lot knowledge and tips to pass on that younger and newer instructors just do not have. You could tell they had a real interest in teaching and passing on the knowledge and information they have learned and were not just their for purpose building time.

  • I, too, started instructing later in life. After a thirty-two year career in oceanography – that included a fair bit of flying airplanes and helicopters, as well as ship command – I was nearing retirement and wondered what I’d do next. I decided, at age 60, to get all of my instructor certifications and began part-time instructing for a large, well established flight school in Seattle. My initial motivation was to stay active in aviation (and not drive my wife nuts by being home all of the time), but I rapidly came to the realization that I enjoyed the teaching part as much or even more than the flying! Under the mentorship of some superb Chief Pilots and colleagues, I probably learned more about flying in the next five years than in the previous twenty-five. I even earned my multi-engine ATP at 65. Now, at age 70, I have moved to the San Juan Islands where I still instruct (mostly instruments) along with some Part 135 charter flying. Any pilot reading this article, and these comments, should take the plunge and get into instruction. What a terrific legacy to leave, preparing the next generation of pilots!
    Dan S

  • John,

    Thanks for the article. I read articles like this and it continues to inspire me. Im currently employed by the FAA as a controller and am seeking a flying career after i retire (if the faa working me like a dog doesn’t kill me first). All jokes aside I have met many folks, non-controllers and controllers who flew after they retired as CFI’s and non-cfi’s. It’s making me realize my dream of flying as a career is becoming more reachable by the day. Thanks for all you do and being dedicated to the future of aviation.

  • Quite an inspirational story. Thank you.. It helped me cross the finish line.. Age 65 in June, CFI check ride passed on Aug 6..Have a great day!

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