Start Honest; “Engagement Letter!”

An “engagement letter” is a simple statement of professional responsibilities, duties and expectations. Most often lawyers insist on these agreements as a first step before beginning any professional relationship. And that is because most lawyers have extensive experience with human suffering and “misunderstandings.” Start with the facts and expected outcome but also imagine what might go wrong.

The primary purpose of an engagement letter is to assure a clear understanding on both sides; standards and expectations. We know every person’s perspective is different several months into any relationship – but especially after lots of time, money and effort are invested. I think a document like this could go a long way toward curing the ridiculous 80% dropout rate in aviation training (it can provide protections on both sides if properly constructed). Better to start honest with defined terms and also a commitment toward a mutually agreeable outcome.

The flight training relationship is almost comically one-sided favoring the flight training provider. They have significant overhead and capital investment, bonded with a very thin margin in an unstable business environment. The over-eager flight student, usually ignorant of the true difficulties and hidden expenses can be an “easy mark.” Unfortunately, it is also easy to fool yourself (the provider), into believing you are helping an eager client by getting them flying immediately. But aviation is a long game, for everyone involved, and I recommend serious honest appraisal and planning at the start. Lay out the facts, but also sell the sizzle – we all became pilots and obviously still love it.

The whole aviation industry suffers when you promulgate the “big lie” of “faster/cheaper/easier.” People sold a bill of goods quit as quickly as they start and give our business a bad reputation. And sometimes blood gets shed when incomplete learning and lower standards lead to stupid accidents. Ultimately, educators do better with honesty – working with students who fully “buy in.” An honest relationship from the start builds clients who do their homework and ask for another hour to really master control. The good students accept responsibility and honestly want to be better (not just “get by”)! These are the people you actually like and want to fly with.

So “start honest” and reveal the wonderful opportunities; the challenge and adventure, the satisfaction of real achievement. Share the passion and some amazing experiences. But also reveal the facts; it costs a lot, takes real effort and the at times mother nature holds all the cards. Appeal to their sense of happy longevity and safety; it kinda sucks to suffer in a hospital bed.

In the final analysis, honesty is the essential ingredient for safe flying, for both yourself and others. Physics is not “bendable” or “forgiving.” Pilots who are sold a lie and succeed anyway often display “magical thinking” in their flying activities. These are the pilots who try to “stretch gas” and “cheat weather.” And we all know this only works for so long until the luck runs out -“what were they thinking?” They got sold a lie right from the beginning. Start honest with real numbers. It wasn’t easy, or cheap, but it was worth every penny. Fly safely out there (and often).


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

5 thoughts on “Start Honest; “Engagement Letter!””

  1. Good article. It reminded me of some CFIs (and some flight school owners) I know who are good, but not as transparent and truthful as they could be about the managed risks of aviation.

    For example, I participated in a recent seminar that examined engine failure after takeoff. It was attended by several student pilots and a large number of existing pilots. The very accomplish CFI was very frank about personal lessons learned from an engine malfunction event he experienced on takeoff from a short runway. With partial power he made a successful, no-damage/injuries return to the recently departed runway.

    To his credit he made several changes in both how he teaches and how he flys as a result of his experience. I have no doubt he and his students will be much safer pilots as a resut.

    However, he also admitted that in the first 4 – 5 flights with a primary student he is very careful to present only a very positive view of learning to fly. This includes avoiding discussion of manageable (and un manageable) risk.

    While one of his learnings from his low elevation engine malfunction was the imperative for a pre-takeoff brief of what exactly he will do in a power loss event he refrains from vocalizing his anticipated actions (while reviewing them only in his mind) before pushing the throttle forward. To me, the act of vocalizing how an unlikely, but consequential risk of every flight will be managed should be modelled at every opportunity. We model other desirable behaviors, like doing a pre-flight of the aircraft, effective use of flows and checklists, assuring the area is “clear” before starting our engines, looking for traffic, good radio use, and careful aircraft control. Vocalizing what we’ll do if whe are faced with either partial or complete power loss is no different.

    1. A positive and comfortable first impression is essential to overcome unwarranted (culturally imposed) fear. Once a learner is comfortable and feels a sense of control, I gently introduce “what ifs” answering natural, rational questions (we can glide…) Unfortunately, I have seen logbooks with spins and power failures demonstrated/logged in the very first hour of flight. Amazingly, these – very committed – students continued to their flight tests.

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