I want to make the most of my time and budget. There are ton of flight instructors and the quality has to vary widely. Besides being a competent pilot, what should I look for in a CFI? What are the warning signs of a poor CFI?
This is an excellent question and at the same time, very broad. Every student and pilot can give you a ton of advice about what qualities the best CFI must have. I will list a few qualities to look for and then guide you to a few resources which can further elaborate the topic.
I presume you are going for Part 61 (14CFR61.159). I also presume that you have selected a flight school or will choose from a few around your.
Once you get to a flight school, normally you will be assigned a CFI by them. They will interview you and you should do the same.
Ask the CFI why they are teaching and what their goals are
Generally speaking, one half of CFIs are doing it for their future career goals (i.e. to get a job in an airline) and others are doing just because they earned the CFI rating and hence are earning money by teaching.
Once you start flying with a CFI, see how they respond to your mistakes
You are a student and are learning something new. There is no way that you will master everything taught just once. (Maybe you can, I'm not just that smart.) Observe how the CFI will notice your mistake, bring it your attention, rectifies it themselves or gives you instructions to do it, and most importantly, how your mistake affects their mood?
Before and after each lesson, notice how they answer your questions and explain to you what you guys will be doing and have done
Some people (like me) would ask a million questions. Often times, you will find teachers/instructors who don't like to be questioned a lot. All your questions are genuine, you just need to see how they are answered.
Ask your pilot friends to guide you, or check with other students at your flight school.
Your friends can give you a very honest feedback. You can benefit from other students too, but if a CFI works for someone else, they may not work for you. You are the one to judge and make the call.
Naturally, you cannot know about a CFI's style unless you take a few lessons with them. That will definitely cost you money. But spending a little money to learn a valuable lesson is not wasting money. It is an investment.
I am not talking about some other details as they are discussed thoroughly in the references below.
Here are some resources which have answered this same question in more detail.
Farhan gave a comprehensive overview. I'd just like to add, picking a suitable instructor can be a personality issue.
Have a chat with him, ask yourself:
- Do you trust this person?
- Do you find it comfortable to be with him (or her) in the confined space of the small airplane as you drill your way towards your license?
- Are you comfortable at the way he (or she) points out your mistakes?
Some people like harsh comments, some like a gentle reminder. Perhaps an experienced instructor in the 50s make you feel confident. Perhaps a more passionate instructor in his (her) younger years makes you feel more connected. We end up being closer to some friends and colleagues the same way.
It's you who's spending a great deal of time (and money) with the instructor. Besides the objective factors Farhan has listed, don't forget to pick one that you like.
Farhan's answer is very good, the only thing I can add is the way your CFI explains you something new.
This is the moment when you can understand if (s)he knows his/her business good or not. Just ask to clarify something for the second or third time and see, if (s)he tries to explain it in different words, if (s)he can think of another example, if (s)he has a good metaphor from another area for that.
If "yes" to all the questions - then yes, (s)he is a good instructor. If no - it can mean two things:
(s)he is a good pilot and understands all this stuff, but (s)he is just not able to teach others
- rarely, (s)he knows a lot of facts by heart but can not see the whole picture and does not have fundamental understanding
Young vs. Older: I've noticed the younger CFIs tend to be more familiar with the current FARs and PTS than an older CFI. This isn't always the case but it makes sense because a younger CFI recently went through the whole process. However, the older CFIs have more experience and can explain things a few different ways or talk about a time they learned an important lesson in the jet that maybe isn't required under a formal training syllabus.
School vs. Freelancer: I've done both (not what you typically think of as a school however) and I will say I learned different things from each one. Not contradicting but I feel like I have a wider array of knowledge in aviation. A school is going to be more expensive but it's also going to be more formal. A freelancer will be cheaper and he may not have to abide by a strict formal syllabus like the school.
If you want to maximize your budget including saving valuable time, make sure you like him or her and their teaching style fits your learning style but more importantly if the instructor ever had a student fail a checkride. How many students has he or she recommended who have passed THE FIRST TIME.
Each checkride can cost $500 or more. That usually applies to retakes. A students performance in the checkride is a direct reflection of the instructor. Things happen, retakes or partial retakes happen. But quite frankly, CFIs who work independently often leave gaps in the students' learning. The checkride examiner shouldn't be the one to find the deficiency.
It always pays to have a good instructor, a good syllabus, and a structured environment in which to learn. One in which there are several experienced instructors who contribute to the student's success.
Selecting the CFI is in part a matter of style. Try to find someone who you are relaxed and comfortable talking with because that will aid in the learning process.
I would suggest that you avoid generalizations. For example, I am rather long in the tooth, but I have preped almost 100 CFIs for their initial checkride, and I am pretty sharp on the regs and current practices. Also I have quite different goals than many younger CFIs looking to advance their career, and I am quite willing to terminate a lesson when the learning outcome starts to dwindle (fatigue, student had a bad day, etc.)
There is nothing wrong with trying different CFIs and if you get stuck on a concept, I would try to get someone else to explain it to you.
In the end, you are the customer, and you should go where you get the best value.