features A day in the life of a flight instructor

An instructor tells us what it’s like to teach would-be pilots for a living.
Avatar for Chris Cox By Chris Cox | March 28, 2022

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 48 seconds.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on therotorbreak.com

On May 11, 2016, my life changed forever. My five-day-old son, Porter, had gone to the doctor for a checkup, and was diagnosed as potentially suffering from liver failure. He was to be flown to a neonatal ICU at a hospital about two hours north of our home, and my wife and I decided I should go with him. I found myself sitting next to a pilot in an Agusta 109, and we talked about the operation of a helicopter. I inquired about his path to becoming a helicopter pilot, and I was hooked. On arrival at the hospital, a team of doctors and nurses surrounded us. After days of tests and care, my son started to turn around, and thankfully made a full recovery.

SUU’s rotary wing program takes five semesters to complete.

Fast forward to August 2018, and I left my job as a coal miner, my wife and I sold our house, packed our things, and away we went. I would soon be starting a collegiate flight program. I instantly fell in love with helicopters and their capabilities. 

As a father of two, I was anxious to get through the program and back to the workforce. I studied hard and trained harder. Each semester I received a new instructor, and I admired so many of them. I was inspired by their dedication to their students — so inspired that I aimed to be like them one day. 

SUU also offers a night vision course as part of its aviation program.

I finished my certificates and ratings in March 2020 — just as Covid lockdowns began to be imposed. However, by June, a couple of flight instructor positions opened, giving me my opportunity. I was poised and prepared for the opportunity to interview — and I got the job! Here’s what a typical day involves…

The alarm rings at 4:30 a.m., marking the start of my day. I reluctantly hop out of bed and head for the gym. If I don’t take care of myself, how can I take care of my students? I learned very quickly to take the time necessary for self-care, even if that means gym sessions at 5 a.m.

On my way to the gym, I call for weather. I’m looking for current conditions and how they fit the forecast. After the gym, I race home; it’s time to get ready for the 7:00 a.m. block. 

This morning, I am working with a private student. I head to the airport and brief them. We discuss the goals for the day, and what our objectives are. Now that we are both on the same page, I send them to pre-flight while I finish my weather briefing. It’s almost time for takeoff!

I grab the can for the aircraft and my headset, and head to the machine. I check the fuel sample, walk through a pre-flight with my student, and push the helicopter out. We start up, and away we go. 

Starting with normal approaches, it is easy to tell where this student is and what we need to work on. As we continue to work through approaches, I constantly evaluate the student’s attentiveness to instruments, traffic, and aircraft control. 

I love instructing private-level students. Most of the time, they know just enough to maintain proper control, but still have a little way to go. It is so rewarding to see them advance from the solo stage to a well-rounded private pilot.

An instructor and student complete a pre-flight inspection of an R44.

After the flight, it’s on to ground school. This is one of the most important parts of my day. Would I rather be flying? Probably, but if students are not proficient on the ground, they will not perform well in the air. 

It is imperative to provide adequate ground instruction for the success of my students. As part of a collegiate program, our students take a ground class on campus that provides an in-depth overview of the material required for the certificate they are seeking. This is a great starting place, but more often than not, they don’t quite grasp it all after just hearing it one time. A job as a flight instructor does become quite repetitive, often teaching the same thing or repeating yourself multiple times throughout the day.

12 p.m. rolls around, and I slam a quick lunch. It’s time to fly again. This time, I get to fly with an instrument student! I absolutely love instrument flight. I know, weird — a helicopter pilot that enjoys instrument flight. Instrument instruction is even more rewarding than taking a private student from zero to successfully flying solo. Taking a freshly minted private student from making huge corrections and various altitude deviations to perfectly flying an instrument landing system (ILS) approach or a hold is incredibly satisfying. 

A Bell 505 joined the SUU fleet in August 2020.

At 2:30 p.m., it’s time to finish. Today, I get to finish the day early, and that was the last flight. 

As a flight instructor, the schedule changes daily. Some days I work until 5 p.m., and others start a little later and involve flying into the night. It all comes down to what the student needs to fulfill a certificate or rating requirement.

As the day winds down, I spend time with my wife and kids. I enjoy dinner with them and hopefully get to play a bit before it’s time for bed. Before my head hits the pillow, I look at the forecast and prepare myself for the day ahead. Each day provides new opportunities and challenges. Let’s make the best of it!

For the author, fight instruction is the most fulfilling position he has ever had.

Flight instruction, in all honesty, is the most fulfilling position I’ve ever had. It’s also one of the most challenging positions I’ve ever had. Many instructors would attest that the student who works hard and flies well makes the job of a flight instructor fairly simple and much more enjoyable. The opposite is also true: some students make the job more arduous than others. Their dream is to fly, but they are often reluctant to put in the time necessary to study while outside the aircraft. Although these students may be more difficult, they just need a bit more TLC. With these students, I insist on doing more ground in an attempt to help them succeed. As instructors, we can’t want it more than the student does, but it’s also my responsibility not to give up on these students. I was fortunate enough to have some amazing instructors and mentors, and I owe it to my students to pay it forward. 

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