Start With Basic Honesty!

As a flight instructor have you been guilty of telling eager beginners that “learning to fly is easy”? Do you personally really believe that often used phrase? If you think back to *your* initial training don’t you remember those dark moments of discouragement and disappointment that are inevitably part of this process? Learning anything complex is not all sunshine and light. Struggle, disappointment and personal growth are all a necessary part of learning to fly. But if you were successful, at some point some caring person helped you through those  dark times of doubt – a mentor or hopefully a compassionate, honest aviation educator? We know from survey data that a caring and compassionate CFI is  the essential magic element responsible for success in flight training. In our enthusiasm to sell flying we might be doing damage by describing learning to fly as “easy.” I think we all would benefit more by being honest; the result would be a better completion rate and more happy pilots in training. This would help to insure the health of our aviation industry and give us many more lifetime clients.

In our eagerness to sell flying we have  failed our future pilots- it all starts with that initial interview. I personally believe this is a major reason we see the 80% rate during initial pilot training; we need to more accurately communicate the challenges and control the expectations here.  Present the honest story, with the future benefits.  Certainly “sell the sizzle” but do not diminish the challenges.

My personal formula for introducing the subject goes something like this; “Learning to fly is a great challenge and provides amazing adventure and fun. This process does require hard work, effort and your time and money. In addition to acquiring the obvious physical skills it also requires personal growth and assuming responsibility; it rewards a ‘take charge’ personality and some courage. Your investment of time, money and effort will be paid back a hundred fold if you stay the course and work through the process; being a pilot opens up so many worlds of fun and adventure. And the learning and discovery can be fun and rewarding; we’ll work through the difficulties together”

The professional aviation educator has to commit to being more than just a technician in this learning process. A great CFI is a coach, motivator and practical psychologist in addition to guiding the skills part (did you know you signed up for this?). If you are a pilot seeking a CFI look beyond the badges, patches and accolades. Look for a true committed professional, a warm-hearted “people person” who cares about your success and has a track record of happy pilots.

Every initial interview between potential pilot and educator is similar to an “engagement letter” that any lawyer would write.  This tool should be part of any professional relationship involving a lot of time and money (and its usually in writing). Unfortunately in flying, honesty is rare, we tend to sell sunshine and light and diminish the struggle. And if we present the FAA “40 hour myth” we are also lying. I have certainly finished some very talented students in 35 hours (141 school), but we all know that is not the “average” and not an expectation I would promote to the general public. Doubling the 40 is a more reasonable target (and I don’t embrace other FAA minimums – like VFR in “one mile clear of clouds” either). Again AOPA survey data reveals that the reason people drop out of flying is not the cost, it is the unrealistic expectations presented in the early interview and a lack of value. If you initially told them $12K to be a pilot and we are passing $18K and still in X-C you are going to have problems. This is no different than  remodeling contractor promising your new bathroom for $20K then proceeding to charge $35K (and its still not done).

The critical part in flight training that differs from other professional models is the level of personal commitment and caring required of the effective aviation educator. We are not just technicians who perform a sterile service or twist a few screws to create a performance. We need to be personally involved and coaching our pilots in training to get them through the goal posts. It requires caring and compassion and that is rare in our modern world of aviation instruction. I don’t think they teach empathy or compassion during initial training at our “puppy mill” CFI academies. This is acquired with life experience and comes with time. But it is the essential trait if you want to be a successful aviation educator; you have to care. This is the magic that makes flight training work. Fly safely out there (and often)


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently flying 135 charter (again)

3 thoughts on “Start With Basic Honesty!”

  1. As a frustrated and stagnant (temporarily?) student, I can say from experience that this article hits the nail squarely on the head.

    1. I am so sorry for you Kent. As a DPE, I travel a lot and see this problem occurring everywhere. I hope you stick with it and give it another try. Shop carefully for a good educator that cares; best of luck!

    2. Kent,

      All I can say is, “Keep with it, man.” I’ve DEFINITELY had my fair share of moments where I’ve teetered on the edge of giving up. (My wife, who also wears the mantle of my psychologist at times, would back me up.)

      Plateaus are normal and expected. Everyone has something that bedevilled them. But the rewards are worth it. And just like a good wine, flying improves over time.

      I hope you have a supportive CFI. Every pilot deserves that. Look for the careerist, not the guy checking his logbook after every flight to see if he’s got his 1500.

      Good luck!

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