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”.

  42 comments for “The Third Rail

    • September 29, 2013 at 7:09 am

      Ron!! My Apologies, I was looking at something else and one of my two synapses misfired when I addressed my comment to Walt…

      • September 29, 2013 at 11:28 am

        No worries — done the same thing myself on more than one occasion. 🙂

  1. Jochen
    September 28, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    great post, thanks

  2. September 29, 2013 at 5:15 am

    Excellent post! You are so right about the “third rail.” I’m amazed I’ve never heard anyone else lament about how students need to take a more active role in their training. As a current student, I’m still doing this – it’s becomes expected as some level – but as an instructor I certainly taught both types of students.

    This is required reading for anyone learning (or teaching)!


    • September 29, 2013 at 11:32 am

      Ah, a very astute observation about how it becomes expected at some level. Perhaps that’s why the drop out rate is much higher for primary students than advanced ones. The neophytes haven’t yet learned how the aviation educational system works. Unlike traditional schooling, flight training is a one-on-one experience with an instructor. The concepts of stage checks, practical test standards, computerized knowledge exams, etc. are foreign to them. In other words, in aviation, there’s a lot to learn about how to learn.

  3. September 29, 2013 at 5:36 am

    Nice post! I think you articulated an important element of primary flight training that is critical but often over looked. Of course, while some responsibility lies with the student to “take charge” of their training, I do think the culture of some flight schools stymies student’s abilities to take charge. So, my take on this issue as student pilot is more cynical than yours (see: Please forgive the amateur cross-post!

  4. Michael
    September 29, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Excellent post!

  5. September 29, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    You never fail to open my eyes to issues I never even thought of! Looking back on flight training, I could very well have used much of your advice.

    I do believe 90% of CFI’s are merely building time to get to that airline job, but I also believe 90% of them are fairly conscientious about doing a good job of teaching. I certainly can look back on my 6 years of teaching and be proud of my very proactive involvement with my students.

    That said, not all personalities “gel,” so if a student pilot is frustrated over lack of progress, reviewing one’s environment and/or changing instructors may very well be the ticket.

    Ronald Reagan was fond of saying an old Russian proverb: “doveryai no proveryai”–“Trust, but verify.”

    Great post!

    Eric “Cap’n Aux” A.

    • September 29, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      True ‘dat. If it wasn’t 90% building time before, it surely will be in the future now that the 1500 hour rule is going into effect. Not many other ways to get those hours unless money is no object. I agree that most — let’s call it 90% — of instructors are conscientious. Unfortunately that the other 10% can do an awful lot of damage.

      Have you kept in touch with any of the students you taught? It’d be interesting to see where they are now. Minting a new pilot is like being a proud papa — no matter where they go in the world of aviation, you can always take pride in the fact that it was you who got them off to a proper start.

      Thanks for the kind words about the post!

  6. AK
    September 29, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    Hey Ron.
    First of all- great post, i’m working on my CFI cert to be a career flight instructor and your passion for teaching motivates me to become the best CFI i can be.
    I got a question for ya: do you consider the ground instructor certificates a must-have for a flight instructor? I am interested what your take is on that, if you dont mind sharing. I already expect to do a lot of ground instruction as a CFI, and am wondering if I need to have a separate certificate to do that.
    Thanks! Artem

    • September 29, 2013 at 11:24 pm

      No, the ground instructor certificates are not “must-haves” for a CFI. In fact, they don’t give you any additional privileges or skills beyond those you’ll already have with your flight instructor certificate. In fact, you don’t even have to be a pilot to get one! One only need pass a couple of FAA knowledge tests. No practical or oral exam.

      With that being said, you might wonder why a CFI would even be interested in obtaining a ground instructor certificate. I can tell you the reason I got mine: because it’s extremely easy. The AGI and IGI knowledge tests were identical to the CFI and CFI-I writtens, and since I was already studying for those, I figured why not take the same test twice and end up with an additional credential. For a CFI, the ground instructor certificates are simply an added line on one’s resume. But hey, every little bit helps! 🙂

      • Buck Rogers
        October 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm

        You need an Advanced or Instrument Ground Instructor certificate to qualify for Gold Seal CFI status with the FAA. So I’m not sure just how pointless you seem to make this certificate out to be.

        • October 1, 2013 at 4:42 pm

          Good catch, Buck. I forgot about that.

          I didn’t say, or mean to imply, that the AGI and IGI were pointless. They have their uses and there are many talented, valuable ground instructors.. However, AK asked whether they were a must-have for a CFI, and if he “needed to have a separate certificate” to provide ground instruction.

  7. Gramps
    September 30, 2013 at 9:10 am

    It is hard to argue with the valid points on instructors and schools, but I have always (50+ years) felt that the two big issues were TIME AND MONEY. If a person works at two jobs like I was doing way back, then the money was available but the time was not. If struggling along in one job then you have the time but no funding. I started and stopped flight training so many times in those days that I lost count. But finally, in my mid 30s, got my private. Many other ratings followed. I instructed. One of my sons instructed. One of my grandsons instructed. It’s a tough job and regardless if the instructor is there just to build time, I believe they never intentionally provide bad instruction or bad attitude. And even if they are faulty, the student with good motivation and attitude will find a way to work around them. If the student’s motivation is weak or they have a bad attitude, we shouldn’t miss them when dropping out.

    • September 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

      Yes! I immediately noticed that when I began instructing: students had the time but not the money — or vice versa. It makes sense, but it was still surprising to me because I had the luxury of having both when I went through training. That’s something I’ve always been thankful for.

      Motivated students are an instructor’s greatest blessing. I’ve had pilots breeze through training and make me look brilliant as a CFI. Others going through the same course will require ten times the effort on my part, and the final result is still not as good.

  8. September 30, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    I personally had a situation where I felt it was time that I went in a different direction with a CFI. I was fortunate enough that the flight school I was at cares enough about their students that I didn’t have to deal with this situation on my own. Because, if I did I doubt I’ll have my private pilot ticket today. Not only that, I met a CFI that I’ve respected and a few other people because of it.

    • October 1, 2013 at 8:02 am

      It’s refreshing to hear stories like yours, Keith, where things work out the way they’re supposed to and students are taken care of by instructor and FBO alike. Thanks for sharing that!

  9. October 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    In my opinion, the lack of professionalism to be found with part 61 schools and their instructors is the chief reason for the 80% drop-out rate.

    I had such a struggle getting my Private, I almost gave up! As a busy professional and mom of two teenagers, I didn’t have the luxury of scheduling three lessons for every one I needed; I just didn’t have three empty slots in my schedule! The school first assigned me a CFI who was out of town every other weekend, even though I told them I was mainly available on weekends. Then, the CFIs I got were like a litany of bad-CFI stories: The yeller, who screamed at me till I went rigid during every landing; the commercial, who cancelled 60% of our possible sessions due to commercial jobs which came up unexpectedly; and finally, the worst one of all. This last guy was just trying to generate a little retirement income with as little effort as possible. He deliberately undermined my confidence and kept telling me I needed more time in the traffic pattern, and refused to renew my solo endorsement so I’d have to pay him to fly with me. After I fired him, I learned that he was not night current and had let his instrument rating lapse.

    The former school (since closed down) in my area did not keep up with maintenance schedules. I can understand cancelling at the last minute due to a 100-hour service, because a plane can reach 100 hours somewhat unpredictably. But I had a lesson cancelled without notice (ie: I walked into the school and was told the plane was unavailable) due to annuals. Annuals are totally predictable and there was no reason to allow a plane to be scheduled when it was due to be out of annual! The school sold me a King curriculum as a requirement for “enrollment”, but none of the four CFIs I worked with had even looked at the curriculum. Each one had a different set of books and study materials which he insisted I buy.

    After wasting $9,000, I finally took two weeks’ vacation to “finish up” with American Flyers, a part 141 school, but operating under part 61 for finish up courses, and what difference! Every second of instruction was valuable and was geared to achieving a specific requirement of my Private Pilot certificate. Each lesson was completed according to a checklist that each CFI had on hand; until I had mastered each item, the lesson was not over. It cost me $6,000 more to finish up, but I went into my flight test confident and self-assured.

    After I got my Private, I went up for a solo cross-country flight in one of the part 61 school’s planes just to “burn up” my dollars of credit with them. Thunderstorms popped up earlier than usual that day, and while trying to pick my way among them, I discovered that both Nav radios and the GPS in the plane were completely out or wildly inaccurate! Flight Watch helped me find which Center I was under, and I landed at my home airport as lightning struck half a mile from the runway! When I turned in the keys, the school manager said, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you the Nav and GPS were out on that plane!”

    There needs to be a system of accountability for CFIs under part 61 schools. Each student who drops out should have his or her log book reviewed, and each hour a CFI spent with that student should count as a point against the CFI. Similarly, any student who completes his or her certificate should have hours credited as points in favor. Any CFI with less than a certain number of points should lose his or her certificate. At the very least, those hours should be tallied and the numbers published on a website for students to see, so they can make their own decisions about whom to trust.

    • October 1, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      What an awful experience you had, Terry! It sounds like you were fairly proactive in changing instructors and, eventually, FBOs. Sadly, many of us will recognize the archetypes you were saddled with during your time at the 61 school.

      Your idea for a point system is an interesting one. I’ve heard a lot of ideas about how to fix this, but your “better business bureau” model — for lack of a better phrase — is a new one to me. I’m not sure how it would work with independent instructors who do not operate out of an FBO. Perhaps something like a Yelp or could help separate the wheat from the chaff.

      I admire you for overcoming those obstacles and becoming one of the 20% who do complete their training. Hopefully your future aviation experiences will be far more positive and uplifting!

      • Mike
        October 11, 2013 at 2:14 pm

        Another consideration … shop around for a “Gold Seal” flight instructor, (a proven track record of past success). [Circular AC61-65D] Congratulations on the private certificate!

  10. AK
    October 4, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    I appreciate your input on flight and ground instructor issue. Now i see that with it being ”extremely easy”- theres no reason not to get it! Coincidentally, i was driven by the very same reason 😉 So i went and passed the FIA and AGI tests today.
    However, the story did have a bit of a twist to it. A couple of days prior, i get a call from a very courteous CATS site proctor who informed me that my tests scheduled on Monday (2 days from now) are cancelleled due to the FAA folding the CATS program following this highly controversial government shutdown. Needless to say, for not wanting my exhibited efforts to go to waste i chose to cram like a madman and ended up taking the writtens 3 days earlier then planned (still walked away with high 90s :)). But here i am, still needing an FOI, and no place to test as CATS and LaserGrade are shut down until indefinitely. I know this is temporary, yet still inconvenient. I’ve had my share of paperwork difficulties courtesy of the FAA, but not to the point where the progress is completely stalled. At this point i feel like im ready to nominate the gov-t (FAA) as The Fourth Rail of instruction.
    What are your thoughts?

    • October 5, 2013 at 7:13 pm

      Government as the Fourth Rail? Even without the shutdown, doubtless there are plenty of folks both in and outside of the aviation world who would second that nomination.

      Congrats on passing two of the three knowledge tests. You’re on your way! Unless you’re ready to take your CFI checkride in the next couple of weeks, I wouldn’t worry too much about the FOI. The impasse in Washington will probably be resolved before the lack of an FOI would prevent your scheduling the practical exam. Besides, something or other always gets in the way. For example, I was working toward my commercial certificate in September of 2001 when… well, we all know what happened that month. The entire aviation system was shut down, and even when it came back, there were all sorts of weird rules. Ever heard of “enhanced Class Bravo” airspace? It was a mess.

      As they say, this too shall pass. You’ll be an instructor before you know it. 🙂

      • AK
        October 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm

        Never heard of “enhanced” class B airspace! Granted, i was an outsider to the aviation world at the time, but sounds like one of the rules that appeared overnight following the 9.11.
        And yes, im not checkride ready yet, so while waiting on the FOI ill get an early jump on the lesson plans and related prep. Speaking of initial CFI checks- i’ve heard of nothing but horror stories such as 8 hr orals and rather comprehensive flight portions, so that only adds to the gravity of the situation. I’ll go ahead and will read through your write-up of your CFI school experience, but if you’ve got any related advise for all of us aspiring CFIs out there, it is much appreciated.

        • October 6, 2013 at 4:53 pm

          My CFI checkride experience was atypical. The oral was quite short. Of course, the month after I finished the program, the local FSDO began requiring all initial instructor certificate applicants to take their practical exams with an FAA examiner rather than the DPE.

          I’m pretty sure your experience will be quite different. Expect a long and in-depth oral. The minting of new instructors is taken very seriously — a good thing in my opinion. Your checkride experience will probably consume the whole day. Wish I had some advice for you. All I can say is be overly prepared and try to roll with the punches.

          Get in touch after your ride and let us know how it goes!

          • AK
            October 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm

            Will do that!

  11. Graeme
    October 6, 2013 at 5:47 am

    80% – “It’s to expensive.”

    I don’t buy it. (Pun intended). “It is too expensive” can also be used as a face saver for “I’ve determined this is not for me”; “I am self selecting that I don’t have what it takes” and “I soloed – that was what I really wanted to achieve – now I’m going to try (name another sport)”.

    I trained and recurrent train at a Part 141 school that provides a friendly disposition as you walk through the door and a crystal clear information package with a real world cost breakdown based on their average hours to PPL and not the more optimistic minimum 40 hours. People know exactly what they are committing to cost wise. They still (only) hit around 25% completion with their “in off the street” inquiries..

    In the UK (where I have also flown and trained) the costs are eye watering compared to the US and yes GA is a much smaller part flying over there – but they have a COMPLETION rate of around 80%. Cost can’t be it. Commitment certainly is.

    It can’t be a co-incidence that the military training wash out rate during WWII was 80% and hasn’t changed much. Maybe only 20% actually have what it takes. Back then and now.

    YES take command of your training and become Pilot in COMMAND. However not everyone has what it takes to command. 80% drop out seems about right to me. I used to examine for command at sea. Equates roughly to a DPE (only for sea command). By the time people arrived aboard for a command qualification – the drop out rate had been 80% or so. You knew within 5 mins if a candidate had what it took. After that it was just an exercise in working through the evolutions and making sure that technically they could perform. Funnily enough when I went for my PPL checkride the DPE told me (long afterwards) that I passed the moment I stepped up to him (deliberately standing diffidently in the corner) and introduced myself. As long as I could answer the questions and fly the plane to PTS – he had no concern about my ability to “command”. I know exactly what he meant. It was the same at sea.

    YES – be more outgoing, friendly and welcoming and help retain the small percentage that waver who might otherwise enter.

    But I don’t think you are going to change the underlying issue. Only 20% of people have what it takes.

    • October 6, 2013 at 8:38 pm

      All this 80-20 argument tells us that everyone in the British Isles knows that aviation is utterly unaffordable, while some people in America still harbour delusions about it, and then they quit when realization sets in. Perhaps because some people still remember the 1970s.

  12. Rik
    October 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    From the point of view of someone who is wanting to gain their PPL, take this for what’s worth. Speaking with CFI’s and others it seems that none of the CFI’s I’ve spoken to have a 20 hr plan… Meaning as I’ve read it, the student is required to have 20 hrs of dual instruction and 20 hrs of solo experience. No CFI seems to want the student to finish on a 20/20 plan. Rather they all say that the student should be able to solo after 15-20 hrs of dual and that they will need 60-80 hrs of time before they are ready to pass they PPL check ride.

    Maybe I’m to cheap but 3-4 times the FAA recommendations seems like a bit of a fleecing.

    Be this to be viewed as a school or a contractor I think people (customers) deserve to see how the instructor is trying to achieve the goal of getting the student to the finish line at the FAA recommendations which I also understand might not the most beneficial thing financially for the CFI.

    A carefully planned out syllabus of how to reach the goal with a combined 20 hrs of dual and 20 hrs of solo should be the plan up front. Of course there is going to be a huge asterisk that notes you need to have X amount of talent in order to achieve this in this amount of time. I get the feeling that CFI’s don’t want to be the bad guy and inform a student that “your not that good at driving a car, bicycle, nor a plane so it is going to take a while longer and it’s going to cost you X $ more than you have budgeted”…

    I have planned upon doing my own ground school reading and take the test and then go to a flight school for the flying. Hence be more prepared for the 20/20 plan but this has not been smiled upon by the majority of the CFI’s I’ve spoken to.

    • October 28, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Did they ever say WHY the estimate was 60-80 hours to get through the checkride? I tell students that the national average is something like 55 hours, and training in a highly congested airspace and a Class C airport does add even more time. On the other hand, it also builds the skill and confidence to fly to any airport no matter how busy. If you train in a very simple aircraft and fly in a rural area, your training time will be reduced.

      The 40 hour requirement has been in the FARs for more than half a century. Today, flying is more complex. TFRs, airspace, advanced avionics, and higher expectations of a candidate’s skill and knowledge level is what adds so much time to the private pilot training. There may be inefficiencies you can overcome, and I’m not saying you can’t do it in 40 hours, but today’s private pilot candidate is not like those from the 1950s because flying today is not like it was back then.

      I think you’re on the right track by studying in advance and taking charge of your learning. I can’t say how many hours it will take you to reach your checkride, but your attitude seems similar to those of students who have been successful in minimizing their time and expense. So even thought you may not have officially started, you’re on the right track!

      • Rik
        October 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm


  13. Rik
    October 28, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Everyone puts it onto the student and the between lessons and the re-teaching that has to be done after the previous lesson. Meaning that the students often forget what they were taught on their previous lesson so the instructor has to go over everything twice.

    I thought that learning take off’s and landings was of vital importance (one cannot solo without knowing this!) but some CFI think that that’s the last thing that needs to be taught as control, dead reckoning and slow speed skills are more important as one has to be able to find the airport before one can land at it.. Guess it’s easy to loose site of the place.. Seen one seen them all right.

    The sooner one can solo, I feel the faster they can learn as it can the learning can double up and thus all come together faster rather than just doing one sole thing at a time.

    I’ve been told there are CFI’s that believe one should be trained to the standards as if they were going to become commercial airline pilots when my needs are just to be able to be able to fly so that I commute faster than I currently can on South West Airlines.

    But then again, I do not know anything yet, I’ve got to go through it. At the same time and through some small experience, flying seems to be the easy part. The rest of it is the difficult part. With today’s complications come today’s technology which from the outside has seemed to really dumb down the flying experience as the Ipad and forflight can make anyone think they are a lot smarter than they actually are.

    Thank god for YOUTUBE.. One can learn brain surgery from that site! 🙂

  14. Tom Yarsley
    February 22, 2014 at 9:36 am

    “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.”

    Actually, that’s not true at all. They drop out before they reach the goal that YOU have in mind for them (obtaining a private pilot certificate). These pilot-wannabees fall into two general categories:

    1. “This isn’t what I thought it would be, but I’m glad that I tried it.”
    2. “I always wanted to fly an airplane, and I did it! Next challenge!!”

    Both of these are exemplary of unaligned expectations. In the first example, the student’s expectations (unrealistic or otherwise) were unmet by the student’s experience. In the other example, the instructor’s expectations (or at least desires) were unmet by the student’s assessment of the experience.

    Properly framing evolving expectations may be the biggest part of any sales job — including the sale of flying. The post-solo phase often is where we need to get students excited about the prospect of doing more with an airplane than just touch-and-goes at home base. But not every student will buy into that. While providers typically will be disappointed if a student who starts never attains a private certificate, they should remain aware that the “dropout” still may be an excellent ambassador for general aviation — proudly singing (and even bragging) about the joys of flight. If we just stop characterizing them as “failures,” they may even send dozens of others our way — some of whom surely will go further in their training. Food for thought.

    • February 23, 2014 at 9:06 am

      Fair enough. Not everyone who begins flying necessarily wants to reach the private level. Some have achieved their goal once they solo. Others modify their objective once they get into the flight training process. But in my experience those are the exceptions, not the rule. Almost every student I’ve known who stopped flying did so because they claimed a lacked of money and/or time.

  15. Rebekah W.
    May 21, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    It looks like it’s been a while since anyone commented on this post…just wanted to say that’s a good idea about booking extra lessons! I’ve been trying to take helicopter lessons since March, and due to my work schedule and many cancellations because of various inspections, weather, etc., I’ve only gotten in 12 hours so far!

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time, but this is my first time to comment. I did not know anyone in aviation at all, or have any idea about what to expect, when I walked into my school last December. They were the only helicopter school near Nashville, so my only option, and I had only ever been in a helicopter once, while on vacation in Gatlinburg. The chief flight instructor and several of the other instructors were there, took the time to sit down and talk with me, answered all my questions, and were very helpful and encouraging. Truthfully, I was surprised, because I really expected them to be too busy, or not really have time to talk to a girl that had no clue! 🙂 My flight instructor is a great teacher, and it has definitely been an awesome experience so far!!

    • May 21, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Welcome, Rebekah! And thanks for the comment. It’s never to late to chime in!

      It sounds like your flight training experience has been uniformly positive. I love hearing stories like yours, because they demonstrate the power of a friendly smile and a bit of customer service. For a few minutes of their time, they’ve not only brought someone new into aviation, but also secured thousands of dollars of revenue for their company. I hope your training experience continues to be just as enjoyable!

  16. AK
    August 27, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Hi Ron! I think this article is mandatory reading for students and CFI’s as well. It really focuses on the main rail of the flight instruction- the student, who should be the drive behind the whole process.
    As a CFI-in-training, i asked about the AGI cert and a checkride tips from you a few comments earlier, and as a newly minted CFI and i’d like to fullfill my promise to leave a little gouge here so maybe someone could benefit.
    Just as in your case, my ride was also with a DPE, which is a bit of a surprise because these days CFI applicants fly with the feds, but that week las fsdo was a little too busy and my checkride got farmed out:) my examiner was a very nice guy, and even though the oral was very brief (3 hours), the nonstop talking turned my brain into a mush, so i was glad when it was time to fly! The flight was 2-part due to mechanical discontinuance(failed mag), but overall i managed to pass the checkride on the first go.
    So here i am, with 50hrs of dual given:) and what brought me to this article is some frustrations with students that are lacking motivation, and it was a good reminder that while as a CFI i might do everything i possibly can to drag them along, if the student is not willing to work around obstacles, he/she does not want it bad enough.

    • Thomas Yarsley
      August 28, 2014 at 9:20 am


      You’re making the same false presumption that so many in this industry make. You’re conflating “I want to learn how to fly” with “I want to get a pilot’s license.” The student holds the first objective; you hold the second. You may not even be aware of the difference.

      Pre-solo dropouts most often occur due to student disappointment. Managing students’ expectations is one part of your job that nobody likely told you about – certainly the FAA didn’t.

      While post-solo dropouts also result from disappointments, just as often they result from the student’s sense of accomplishment – “I did it – I learned how to fly!” This is where their objective runs head-on into yours.

      At this stage of your instructing career, you’ve probably got your hands full, just making sure that your students are safe and competent. You’ve probably figured out that a lot of what you do is manage their task-level, so they can learn without being overwhelmed. Nothing wrong with that! Now it’s time to increase YOUR task-level – to include framing and managing students’ objectives and expectations.

      And frankly, it’s unrealistic to even hope that all or even most of your students will obtain a Private certificate. Regardless of their level of achievement, try to have them “walk away” from their training experience with a sense of accomplishment, rather than one of failure. They may come back. They also are certain to talk about their toe-dipping experience, and thus spread a positive – or a negative – impression/recommendation to many others. I think we can agree about the kind of assessments we want them to make.

      Congratulations for your most recent achievement!


      • August 29, 2014 at 12:42 pm

        It can be difficult for a CFI to feel like he or she was truly successful if the student drops out before what we typically thing of as the “end” of training, even if that student achieved their own objective.

        I think you bring up a good point though, and that’s that communication is extremely important. Before you start training someone, it’s helpful to know what their goals are and why they want to learn. Are they enroute to a professional career as a pilot? Just doing it for fun? Do they simply want to solo in order to achieve something on their bucket-list? Is dad pushing them into it because he was a pilot? Knowing this can help an instructor introduce flight training elements from an angle that will best suit the student.

        I too congratulate you on your achievement, AK! I have the utmost respect for those who provide primary training. It’s a tough thing to take someone who doesn’t even know how to open the door and shepherd them through the process of becoming a fully-qualified pilot-in-command.

  17. AK
    September 2, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Yars- good point- i was completely unaware of such differences in flight training objectives. I dont want to discount such great accomplishment as a first solo- but i dont consider a pilot who soloed as one who fully learned how to fly. No passenger carriage, and as soon as 90 day endorsement runs out it’s time to fold the wings, unless re-endorsed. Just like you said, I guess it’s because i look at having learned how to fly is actually holding the cert to actually be able to continue to fly. Thanks for the encouragement and good advice:)
    I do strive to provide to my students the positive learning experience, and feed their sense of accomplishment when they make progress. All of my three current students are learning to fly for fun and are proven achievers in their proffesional careers. They have no issues as far as whether to continue or not, just a lack of progress due to not flying often enough. Ron described it perfectly earlier- sometimes students have money to spend, sometimes they have plenty of time. On rare occasions the two overlap:)

  18. November 2, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks Ron for sharing your insight and making me feel less alone in the endeavor of learning to fly. Reading through this article and the comments I realize my story is still something of a fairy-tale so far. BUT in many ways, it’s because I was fortunate enough to have advice from you and other great pilots along my journey. At first I thought “why would these licensed pilots care enough to follow my blog and write me advice and encouragement?” but now I get it. The drop out rate is so high, the odds against a student are so many, and therefore the comraderie among those who love to fly is so great. Thanks for showing me what this community is all about!

    • November 2, 2015 at 9:35 pm

      Happy to help! I bet some day you’ll pay it forward by helping someone else in aviation make it through what the Brits call the “sticky wickets”. It *is* a great community, isn’t it? 🙂

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