CFI

I was one of those lucky kids who grew up with a “flying dad.” Just about every Sunday afternoon, you could find the two of us hanging out at the Mattituck Airport, located on the eastern end of Long Island. Back in those days (for me the weekly forays began in 1960), if Dad wasn’t inside the FBO shooting the breeze with his buddies, you could generally find us flying around the East End in a rented 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ, with me in the back seat. The whole flying experience was quite intriguing, and the proverbial seeds had thus been planted. Before long, flying became about as normal an activity for me growing up as going to the ballpark was for other kids my age.

Old 182

Sometimes the best way to build a career in aviation is to start flying—in whatever airplane you have access to.

When I made the decision to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1973, the aviation journey just continued onward. My first solo happened in a Schweizer SGS 2-33 while stationed in the hot desert sands of Twentynine Palms, California. I was only 18 at the time and thought the whole concept of flying without an engine to be very cool indeed. Orders “back East” found me scratching that flying itch at Marine Corps Base Quantico’s Aero Club. I easily made the transition to powered planes and subsequently earned my Private Pilot certificate in early 1976.

After flying for a few years and even starting to train for both Commercial and Instrument privileges, I ended up being bitten by a different kind of bug: love. For the next 21 years flying simply became a “thing of the past,” an interesting conversational topic. Between the demands of marriage, work, raising kids, and trying to make ends meet, there simply wasn’t any time or money for flying—so I wrote it off. But as is true with so many other things in life, circumstances change. The marriage ultimately took a hard turn south, and after 21 years I was faced with the reality of starting all over again.

Very fortunately, the woman I should have married the first time around happened along, and thus started a pattern of going on impromptu dates at a couple of local general aviation airports in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, kickstarting the second chapter of a story that began a long time ago. It’s a story which in the aftermath I’ve heard numerous times since from others. Now at age 65, I’d like to share a few highlights of that second chapter, with the hope that someone out there might be encouraged to perhaps pursue their dream and find their true calling, without dealing with all the drama and seeds of indecision.

Everything started out so quickly. Following a five hour flight review, there I was, sitting behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 again. This was late 1999, and my flight instructor at the time implored me to start preparing for a career in aviation. But what kind of career? I only had about 300 hours in my logbook. In those pre-9/11 days, aviation was booming but I needed to finish up the Commercial, Instrument, and Multiengine ratings. I did have a good paying job, so the cost of acquiring all of those ratings wasn’t too big a deal.

By the time I had all of the required ratings complete, 9/11 happened and everything changed. Flying jobs for a low-timer were just about non-existent. If you were fortunate enough to land one (through a good connection), it was very likely to be a super low paying job or perhaps even no pay! Back then “indentured servitude” was common practice. The struggle I had was seeing my way clear of walking away from a job that paid exceptionally well to one that paid next to nothing. I reassured myself that “I’d be flying,” but in the end I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not only that, I didn’t want to drag my new wife through what would surely become a financial quagmire.

The solution ended up being a simple one. We purchased a 1959 Cessna 182B, and for the next 16 years we flew “Old Girl” all over the country. I added a bunch of hours and practical experience to my logbook. It ended up serving me well down the road. This was my way of having my cake and eating it too.

Somewhere in that time period I became obsessed with the notion of doing something useful with aviation. I got involved with Angel Flight and the Young Eagles program but something still was missing. It occurred to me that becoming a CFI might very well fit that bill. After procrastinating for several years, I finally got it done in July of 2009 (my new part time career was more of an undertaking than what I figured). By then I had nearly 1200 hours or so in my logbook and I really thought quite highly of myself. Why with that kind of time it should be easy finding a part time gig.

CFI

The rewards of flight instructing go far beyond the paycheck.

It took some doing but finally I found my first CFI job, or should I say it found me. Being the “super salesperson” that I was, the call came one day from a local flight school I had previously canvassed. Their regular CFIs all found employment elsewhere and a replacement was desperately needed. I took the job, and as the saying goes, let the learning begin. Indeed, I learned quite a bit from that first flight instructing job—enough to know that I truly had a lot more to learn.

Since that first paying gig as a CFI I’ve moved a couple more times, first to South Carolina and then to Colorado. With those moves came more opportunities in aviation. I had a couple of misses, but looking back now I’d say the hits outnumbered the misses.

In reviewing the path I took I came away with a few notable observations:

  1. Follow your heart, but also trust your gut instincts.
  2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket—have a backup plan.
  3. Don’t let aviation drive you into the poorhouse—hold your powder dry.
  4. Plan, prepare, and then execute.

Here’s what else I learned: there’s no greater path to joy and satisfaction than being able to utilize your gift and passion in terms of helping others. Specifically, I’m referring to becoming a professional flight instructor. I had a lot of false starts and took a number of unnecessary detours. It wasn’t until I was finally able to retire from a profession that paid the bills and allowed me to save enough for the life I really wanted that I found my true calling. It took a long time to get there, but I did have plenty of fun along the way. The 182 belongs to someone else now and I get paid to fly other people’s airplanes and teach folks how to fly, all without worrying about losing my shirt in the process. How good is that?

Tom Slavonik
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24 replies
  1. Roca
    Roca says:

    Unfortunately I think that it’s difficult for anyone to be a full time flight instructor as a career unless they have a pension or second job. With very few exceptions, everyone at my flight school is either a 25 year old heading to the airlines, or a 60 year old with a pension “doing it for fun.” It’s still treated as a stepping stone or retirement job and not a career with reasonable hours, pay, or benefits. People complain constantly about the price of flight training but I think we are still not charging enough.

    Reply
  2. Tom Slavonik
    Tom Slavonik says:

    Hi Roca, thanks commenting; I appreciate it. I agree with what you said. Some flight schools even avoid the 60+ crowd altogether. Even with a logbook full of time and experience, many will still opt for the younger CFI’s, in spite of the fact they won’t be around long. Go figure…

    Reply
    • Gary
      Gary says:

      “avoid the 60+ crowd”. Go figure is right. I’m in the 70+ crowd with aspirations of becoming a CFI. Our age groups aren’t headed up the aviation ladder of the airline job goal. We’re going to be around for a number of golden years. We’re available to pass on to others our wisdom gained from our own mistakes and experiences the 20+ crowd have yet to incur.

      Reply
      • Tom Slavonik
        Tom Slavonik says:

        Gary, I’m glad to hear you are pursuing your CFI. Age is just a number. I know a Chief CFI at a 141 School that is 85 and still going strong. Best wishes to you and thanks for the feedback.

        Reply
  3. Vinton Land
    Vinton Land says:

    Nicely written Tom. It’s been a while since I’ve visited Air Facts, but I happened to stop by on the day you published your story, which also happened to be my birthday. It’s rather coincidental, thatI learned to fly many years ago at the Chesapeake/Portsmouth Airport {PVG), now known as Hampton Roads.
    Like you, I worked for many years in a career outside of aviation. It was only upon retiring that I decided to go for the CFI two years ago. My first student just passed his PPL practical test. I don’t make enough money to worry much about the income, but seeing the student’s parents waiting for him at the completion of his checkride brought a tear to my eye and made the journey worthwhile.

    Thank you for the guidance contained in your recommendations. They are spot on…..Good luck to you.. I sometimes feel like a Lone Ranger pursuing CFI work at this age but it is worth the effort. It’s good to know that others are doing the same.

    Reply
    • Tom Slavonik
      Tom Slavonik says:

      Hi Vinton, thank you for those kind words. Congratulations on your student passing the PPL checkride! It’s always a great day when you’re able to see that happen!
      Lot’s of great memories from PVG and CPK, not to mention SFQ and FKN as well. It’s a great area and I think about it often. Best wishes to you for your continued success as a CFI!

      Reply
  4. Deanna
    Deanna says:

    I think the schools avoiding the 60+ crowd are missing a massive resource. When I started looking for a flight school to earn my PPL, it seemed obvious to me that the youngsters who were “just passing through” were not who I wanted teaching me the life-saving skills I needed as I earned my PPL. I chose a school with a number of old timers who were teaching because they really love flying (and teaching!). To be clear, I have flown with a couple of younger CFIs who were excellent, but it’s worth noting that they were not on their way to the airlines – they, too, were teaching for the love of flying and teaching. Not everyone is a good teacher, and people who are only using flight instructing as a means to an end are less likely than most to put in the time and effort to master the skills needed to successfully teach. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you’re working towards your PPL and struggling, consider trying out other instructors if you can. It may not be you…

    Reply
    • Tom Slavonik
      Tom Slavonik says:

      Hi Deanna, thanks for your insightful comments, I appreciate it. Yes, there are good and bad in nearly all professions, but I think having a passion and love for what you do is truly what makes all the difference. Good luck to you in your Aviation journey.

      Reply
  5. John Trimble
    John Trimble says:

    Thanks for sharing, Tom. I identified a lot with your story. I earned my private and instrument in the early 2000s but stopped short of my commercial and CFI because I didn’t feel secure enough to quit my job, and the flight school wasn’t interested in part-timers. 20 years later, I got my commercial earlier this year and am going after my CFI, looking forward to instructing part time. Looking forward to being able to watch others learn and learn more about flying myself.

    Reply
  6. Tom Slavonik
    Tom Slavonik says:

    Hello John, thanks for commenting. Congratulations on earning your Commercial ticket! Better a little late than not at all. Stay focused on getting that CFI ticket, you’ll be glad you did as it is totally worth it in the end. Best wishes!

    Reply
  7. mike
    mike says:

    What a great story! I was thinking of maybe doing the same thing. I’m in the same boat, I flew commercial for a few years at low paying jobs and I ended up quiting when a well paying truck driving job came along. 10. years later I got back into flying and bought my own plane but I feel I want to do something meaningfull with flying, being a CFI part time I think is a a great idea!

    Reply
  8. Tom Slavonik
    Tom Slavonik says:

    Mike, I’m glad you liked the story. The only regret I have is procrastinating for so long and not getting it done sooner! It will be one of the best days of your life when you pass that CFI checkride! There’s nothing like it. Good luck, and by all means – go for it! Take care.

    Reply
  9. Steve
    Steve says:

    Thanks for the story, Tom! I’m one who started out with some training in my teens (from my father), but had to put it aside for life. A few years ago (after some similar life changes) I was finally able to get back to flying and finish my PPL. At almost 61, I’m also considering becoming a CFI when I retire. I really appreciated my CFI, a 75 year old retired airline pilot. He wasn’t just earning hours to get to the airlines (having “been there, done that”!), had an incredible amount of skill, and kept his rates quite low to encourage people to learn to fly (not having to worry about finances). Seems like a great way to “give back” in retirement!

    Reply
    • Tom Slavonik
      Tom Slavonik says:

      Hi Steve, thanks for the great feedback, I appreciate it. I hope you do decide to get your CFI; it truly is a nice way to give back and help people. Believe me on this, retirement would be extremely boring without doing Flight Training. I consider it my 2nd career. I particularly like working with younger people and not letting money get in the way of doing the right thing. Best wishes to you, and have a happy 4th of July.

      Reply
  10. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Tom, Thanks for sharing your experiences. We have been to many of the same places — while in the Air Force, I was stationed at Langley AFB and lived in Hampton, I went to the Marine Command & Staff College at Quantico, and I was stationed at Myrtle Beach, SC. After retiring, I worked for Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in Colorado Springs supporting the Air Force’s Initial Flight Screening program run by Doss Aviation at the Pueblo airport. I was fortunate that my Air Force career as a pilot, paid for me to learn how to fly and then accumulate 3100 hours. I was fortunate to instruct in each of the 4 primary aircraft I flew plus be an evaluator in one of them. Like you, being in such a position taught me a great deal about flying and made me work that much harder to sharpen my own skills.

    Reply
    • Tom Slavonik
      Tom Slavonik says:

      Hey Dale, what a small world it is indeed! Yes we have traveled many of the same roads. As an HVAC Contractor I even worked with CE at LAFB from 2004 to 2013 and spent a little time with Doss in Pueblo during 2017. Who knows, perhaps we’ll bump into each other one day! Blue Skies!!

      Reply
  11. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Very nice article, thank you.
    I’ve thought for years about becoming a CFI, even made a couple of half hearted attempts at beginning the process, but pulled back. I’m 66 and will probably be retiring within a year or so. Once again I am thinking about flight instructing. Your article is encouraging

    Reply
    • Tom Slavonik
      Tom Slavonik says:

      Hello Jeff, thanks for responding to the article. I hope you do consider giving Flight Instructing a shot. It’s a great 2nd career that you can do for a very long time. Keep working towards it and before you know it you’ll have your ticket. Best wishes to you!

      Reply
  12. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    Your story in some ways parallels mine. Only a couple years younger than you, and got my PPL in 1981. Bought a ‘46 Champ and flew it until I got married. 6 months later, it was gone. Building a house, then having a kide, wife’s health issues, career, etc. got in the way and could not afford it. 28 yrs later, after a successful career, I got current, and bought a Beedh Sundowner. Young Eagles, Pilots n Paws, fly-outs, $100 burgers…. Got my Instrument and ASES. Working on my Commercial license just for skill building. I also take just about anyone flying to share the joy of flight.

    But, Ive been an adult educator my entire adult life. My retirement ‘job’ is teaching at the local Community College. Now, it as finally dawned on me that I can combine my teaching with the love of flying and i hope to complete my CFI by this Fall. I look forward to watching my first student get their PPL checkride!

    Reply
  13. Tom Slavonik
    Tom Slavonik says:

    Hi Sandy, and thanks for your great comments. There are quite a few Community Colleges, as well as 4 year Schools that offer Aviation Training. Being an Educator places you in perfect position to augment your upcoming CFI credential into an existing or future program. There are also many available opportunities with CAP as well as High Schools offering a STEM based curriculum. I’m sure you’ll find it very rewarding and satisfying. Take care and good luck to you!

    Reply
  14. William Pinney
    William Pinney says:

    Great article…
    I would add a #5 to your list: Go where the job is. That is, be prepared to move for your professional growth.

    And I totally agree that flight schools are missing out if they don’t hire a few older instructors; in my experience, young low-time inexperienced instructors often results in poorly trained students, which results in poor instructors, which results in poor…. you see my point!

    Reply
    • Tom Slavonik
      Tom Slavonik says:

      Bill, I totally agree with #5, and thanks for the suggestion! It can be very frustrating to live in a place where there’s not much going on. I’ve done a lot of moving in my time in order to find the right job. Take care and thanks for the feedback!

      Reply
  15. JoAnn Stype
    JoAnn Stype says:

    My husband learned to fly several years after we were married (and already had two children) My original motivation to learn was safety and survival of the boys and I in case he became incapacitated in flight. (Pinch-hitter) The learning process became like an incurable disease. From my first lesson in November 1960, through November 2020 —Private Pilot–commercial, Instrument, CFI, CFII, CFIMEL I participated actively in aviation until October 2019 when a serious fall laid me up..
    I gave my first Dual Instruction in 1977. (also had two more children in 1964 and 1968) and with four children and a full time job as wife and mother managed to squeeze in over 11,000 hours of dual instruction given–Powder Puff Derbies–International Air Races and 20 years of flying a Beech Baron for a local businessman and his employees. All of this was done as contract work and was able to be integrated with a reasonable schedule.
    No–I did not have to make a living for a family–but was paid professional rates whenever I worked.
    I certainly feel fortunate for the opportunities I have had to be involved in the aviation community–and share the joy of flying with many students,
    I have always encouraged women and others who want to have a great professional part time job to teach others what you love to do.
    JoAnn Stype 1562935 CFII

    Reply
    • Tom Slavonik
      Tom Slavonik says:

      Hello JoAnn, and thank you for sharing that wonderful and inspiring story! It does my heart well to read about great aviation careers like yours! Yes, becoming a CFI is a great career choice for guys and gals alike, both full and part time. CFI’s are the backbone of aviation, now and in the years ahead. Best wishes to you!

      Reply

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