The Third Rail
Let’s face it, nobody wants a lousy instructional experience when they seek out flight training. But one of the many sad statistics about general aviation today is that eighty percent of student pilots — four out of five — quit flying before they’ve reached their goal. Ask the industry wags why and they’ll most often point to 1) cost and 2) poor instructors as root causes, but I think there’s an equally important element that not many folks talk about: the student and their own attitude toward training.
The Usual Suspects
I’ve gone on record many times in stating my belief that cost is the major factor in washing people out. This comes from personal experience accrued during a decade and a half of verbally polling pilots about why they’ve quit.
But a more typical whipping boy is the lowly GA flight instructor, that individual who’s working a 60 hour week to bring home 20 hours of pay. And that’s on a good week, mind you. I marvel at individuals who can sustain that kind of punishment for years on end in an industry that accords them the compensation and prestige of a homeless man begging for spare change by a freeway off-ramp. Is it any wonder that the level of service and quality they provide may decline over time?
That’s why quality CFIs have always had my utmost respect. They work in the toughest segment of an already unforgiving business. It brings a smile to my face to see organizations like AOPA honoring the best of the best with their Flight Training Excellence program, or the FAA lifting the occasional CFI to elevated status with the General Aviation Awards. In the same vein are professional accreditations like the Master CFI, which recognizes instructors whose activities, education, experience, and volunteerism are a step above.
Sure, there are some terrible CFIs out there. You’ll find ones that don’t care, are in it for the wrong reasons, never learned to teach, have no talent for it, and even some who simply don’t fly well. But just as often, they are hard-working professionals who give their students every possible chance for success by coming in early, staying late, doing a little (or a lot of) extra hand-holding, and adapt lesson plans and teaching styles to accommodate their student’s needs. Some trainees are visual learners. Others are auditory and don’t do as well with written tasks. Still others are kinesthetic and need to get the “big picture” before they can focus on details. It’s not always easy coming up with solutions.
I’ve always sort of envied military instructors because their trainees must reach proficiency in a timely fashion or that seat in the cockpit will quickly morph into a permanent seat at some office desk. In the civilian realm, as long as a student has the financial resources to continue, they needn’t worry about washing out. That’s good for the student — it gives them every possible chance — but it can be tough on the CFI.
The FBO Barrier
Even if the instructor is top-shelf, the flight school itself can be a show-stopping impediment which keeps the customer from becoming a student at all. Andrew Hartley summed it up quite nicely:
Flight schools are generally NOT customer friendly. For such a social industry, I’m always a little amazed at the suspicion in which we hold people who don’t fly (yet). I imagine my students walking into a flight school or airport, knowing no one, knowing nothing about the industry or flight training at all, not really knowing what it is going to take to become a pilot, and not getting any help or greeting from the person at the “front desk.” They just get completely ignored.
And yet, they push through and get out of their comfort zone and ASK. Someone. Anyone. And at some point, they get to the right person, who sets them up with an instructor. And then the instructor meets them… maybe cordially, maybe not, and so it goes.
I’m beginning to think that aviation self-selects people who are decision-makers and risk-takers not because flying requires it (it does), but because people who do not have these qualities won’t make it past the front door! I know that I wouldn’t have, if I had not already had an aviation background.
But I’m disturbed and saddened by the HUGE number of people who possibly just need that one bit of information – the right person to talk to at the airport – to get into the left seat of a small plane and start the process of learning to fly. If they could just get that far… just take that ONE EXTRA LITTLE STEP and ask the question, this entire aviation world of wonder would open up for them! But they might be too shy or too afraid to step out of their comfort zone that one little extra bit. And it’s AVIATION’S loss, not just their own.
He’s right. Aviation is kind of like opera in that regard, a foreign and exotic world to those on the outside. It’s surprisingly easy to scare prospective students — even truly interested ones — away with a negative experience on their first visit to the airfield.
The Third Rail of Instruction
So far we’ve considered the expense, the instructor, and the school. There’s one element left: the student themselves.
One of the things I discovered after years of training — private, instrument, commercial, tailwheel, multi-engine, formation, aerobatic, turboprop, sea plane, glider, and jet type rating courses, plus regular recurrent training, of course — was that I needed to take charge of my own progress. And I eventually did. It’s empowering! A student has tremendous power to mold their learning experience into something that works for them, right down to changing instructors if necessary. Remember, they’re not just learners, but customers as well.
Learning to fly is much like being a medical patient. There are those who simply put themselves at the mercy of their physician and take whatever they’re told at face value, never questioning, researching, or double checking anything. That little voice in the back of your head that says something is wrong? Ignore it — the doctor said it’s nothing. Right?
I’ll tell you a story about that. My wife and I had a wonderful 93 year old neighbor who recently passed away from cancer. She was a real gem, loved by everyone in the neighborhood, and despite her age had a clear mind and the ability to get around. She even lived on her own. Anyway, for years she had been telling doctors that something didn’t feel right, and she was repeatedly brushed off by her physician as a hypochondriac. “Oh, it’s just normal aches and pains for someone your age,” they said. She also heard, “It’s just a side effect of your medication.” And the definitive-sounding proclamation that “You’re fine.”
It turns out she was right all along. And last year — on Mother’s Day, no less — she received a diagnosis of cancer in the exact spot that she had been complaining about. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they concluded by informing her that she was too old for any treatment and sent her away with nothing more than a reference for hospice care.
That’s a pretty harsh tale. But being a student pilot is quite similar. If you want to be successful you have become pilot-in-command of your own training, because as hard as a CFI might try, they will never know you as well as you know yourself. Your weaknesses, your strengths, your personality type. Likewise, just as instructors are taught to insist on proper performance from their students during maneuvers and tasks while flying, so the student must insist on quality service from those providing the training. It’s a two-way street, but in the presence of an authority figure, it’s human nature to assume they must know better than you do.
I recall the day a light bulb went off for me about this. During primary training, I was experiencing a great deal of frustration with my progress because runway construction, 100 hour inspections, maintenance issues, instructor schedules, aircraft availability, and weather kept getting in the way. Sound familiar? Then I realized that this is simply part of the game, and it was grating against a personality characteristic of mine which prefers to immerse myself with total focus until the goal is reached.
The solution was to book more lessons than required, because a certain percentage would always be scrubbed due to factors beyond my control. My new policy was to schedule three lessons for every one that I needed. It worked — I was able to fly more frequently, and cancellations didn’t stress me at all because I always had a back-up lesson planned. In fact, to this day it’s what I advise my own students to do if they want to reach the critical mass of recent flight experience necessary to make serious progress.
Taking charge of my own training also means never walking away at the end of a lesson without knowing what to read, memorize, or prepare for the next session. Showing up unprepared is one of the easiest ways to waste time and money. Any instructor worth their salt should provide a concise plan for the next flight without prompting. Does your CFI greet you by asking “So what are we doing today?” If so, you need to find a new instructor pronto.
Sometimes the hitch in a student’s giddy-up is not anyone’s fault, but just a consequence of clashing personalities. I don’t mind admitting that the very first primary student I ever taught ended up leaving me to fly with a different instructor who had a contrasting disposition. A bit of pride had to be swallowed, no doubt about it. But in the end, we were both better off. Today that guy is an active GA pilot rather than one of those who fell by the wayside. As the Templar Knight said, he chose wisely.
The dropout rate among rookies may be 80%, but I have to wonder how many of those failures could have ended with a checkride triumph if only the neophyte had taken a more active role in the instructor/student relationship. It’s not enough to merely show up for class. The engaged, proactive student represents the best prospect for beating the odds and joining the fraternity of aviators. The day I took on that responsibility remains one of my finest instructional moments.
This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.