Ageless wonder

Now’s the time to fly

December 28, 2010

Wanted: Mature adult to take flying lessons. No aviation experience required. Must be able to meet basic medical standards, and be motivated to pursue a lively course of ground study and flight lessons culminating in a pilot certificate. Applicant can expect to learn multiple fascinating subjects and skills, make friends, and enjoy an unmatched sense of accomplishment.

If those words sound unlikely as an ad for student pilot recruitment, think again. Many people long nurture an unfulfilled dream of becoming a pilot. And while it may come as a surprise, teachers of many subjects will tell you that older students—nontraditional students, as they are known in academia—possess characteristics that give you bright prospects for success.

Once you get started on a learning project, the example you set for your classmates or fellow flight trainees may also come as a surprise. That’s why teachers often say that they enjoy having seasoned learners sprinkled in among the population of their classes. Whether they teach an evening course at the local college, coach a senior team at the local tennis club, or prep ground-school classes for a pilot certificate knowledge test, having older students in the room is a definite plus. That’s especially true when dividing the students up into groups for problem-solving exercises or presentations.

Why is your age an asset in the learning environment? For one thing, as an older student you are there by choice to learn. It is a goal-oriented decision to take up flying. That commitment and decisiveness will serve as an example to others as you tackle your flight and ground lessons.

When you have a question, you won’t be afraid to ask; if you feel a twinge of embarrassment at asking “a dumb question,” some self-effacing humor disarms the situation and even encourages others to speak up.

Younger students will likely gravitate to you as a leader of study sessions, and to take the initiative in organizing group assignments. But you are still also a member of a peer group with your fellow flight students. It’s a fun and dynamic bond.

Just as colleges, graduate programs, and vocational classes welcome a diverse group of enrollees, the aviation world welcomes new students from teenagers on up, and is prepared to meet their needs. The AOPA Pilot Information Center has prepared an extensive catalog of resources, Older Students: Never Too Old, where you can look up everything from medical questions to discussions of the age-based differences in the way people learn. The page also contains links to moving and inspiring articles. Read about everything from an instructor teaching his mom to fly, to a veteran instructor dispensing tips to colleagues about how to teach older students.

Get acquainted with senior aviators like AOPA’s own Ray Costello, who at 90 still exemplifies the motto of Flight Training magazine that “a good pilot is always learning.”

If you are self-conscious about starting a flight training program at middle age or older, remember that many practical considerations keep people from pursuing their dreams until later in life. Family, career, financial flexibility all play a role. You have the opportunity, so go for it! You’ll likely meet others who faced similar circumstances.

Here’s a testimonial that you may find encouraging: “People of all shapes and sizes, ages and abilities have learned to fly. It's fun, and from the beginning of your training, you get to do most of the actual flying!”

That’s not a flight school sales pitch. It’s from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Frequently Asked Questions about becoming a pilot.

Confessions of a later learner

I was a decade older than my first flight instructor. Neither of us was very old back then but it was a new experience for both of us. It was obvious that he was knowledgeable, confident, and well-trained. That meant a lot to me; I was greener than the grass on the FBO’s lawn about aviation, and my youthful instructor never strayed from a calm, respectful approach to his work and his students. My apprehensions vanished, and in eight months I was a pilot.

I was in my mid-forties when life provided me with the opportunity and the resources to enter graduate school. Some of my classmates and faculty were older, but most were considerably younger. Team projects had become popular in MBA programs, and the diversity of ages and nationalities in class made it fun to tackle our assignments. Everyone had something to offer—sort of like the real world. The math whiz in the group crunched our numbers, the graphics person put together our glitzy PowerPoint presentations; I took care of the progress-memo and report writing. We got the job done and everybody got an A.

One professor my own age made a habit of asking me to distribute the day’s handouts to the class. I thought it was because of where I was sitting in the room, but some of my classmates teased me as the teacher’s pet.

That notion would have astonished my teachers from my schoolboy days. But in my adult role as a nontraditional student, I was in school by choice, in thrall of what I was learning, and eager to excel. What teacher wouldn’t want a roomful of students like that?

I haven’t stopped being a student. There are always new aircraft to fly, foreign languages to master, sports, hobbies—the list is endless.

I won’t rush the projects. That will keep pressure to a minimum and elevate the fun factor to astonishing levels.

Like they say, it’s the journey. The only mistake would be to stay home.

AOPA contributor Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990, he resides in Maine.