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 al a necessary part of learning to fly. But at some point some caring person helped every successful pilot 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 responsible for success. But in our eagerness to sell flying we are doing damage by selling flying as “easy.” We all would benefit more by being honest and completing more pilots. This would help to insure the health of our industry and give us many more lifetime clients.

In our eagerness to sell flying we have  failed our future pilots- and it all starts with that initial interview. I personally think this is a major reason we see the 80% rate during initial pilot training; we need to more accurately establish 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.

I would encourage a more honest description of this project; “Learning to fly is a great challenge and provides amazing adventure and fun. The process does require hard work, effort and your time and money. In addition to acquiring the obvious physical skills it does require 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”

Obviously the aviation educator has to commit to be more than being a technician here. A great CFI is a coach, motivator and practical psychologist (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” any lawyer would write.  This tool should be part of any professional relationship involving a lot of time and money (and usually in writing). Unfortunately in flying, honesty is rare, and we sell sunshine and light and diminish the struggle. And if you promote the FAA “40 hour minimum” 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 (I don’t fly VFR in “one mile clear of clouds” either). Again AOPA survey data reveals that the reason people drop out is not the cost, it is the unrealistic expectations presented in the early interview. 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 your contractor promising your remodel for $20K then proceeding to charge $35K.

The real part in flight training that differs from these other professional models is the level of personal commitment and caring our aviation educator role requires. 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 this aptitude during initial training at our “puppy mill” CFI academies, it is acquired with life experience and comes with time. But it is an essential trait to be a professional aviation educator; you have to care- its the magic that makes flight training work. Fly safely out there (and often)


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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