License to Learn

The ‘Frequent Quitters Club’

July 1, 2010

At some time or another we’re all quitters. Take, for example, an acquaintance of mine who began piano lessons because he’d always dreamed of tickling the ivories. Apparently his piano wasn’t ticklish, because he gave up after only three lessons. For him, learning music theory was more work than fun, which explains why the only musical instrument he can play is the radio.

The “Frequent Quitters Club” has lots of members. None of them set out to join its ranks when they began learning new skills such as tennis, a foreign language, or martial arts. But as we all know, quit happens. There are many reasons, including lack of time and/or money, or a pleasure-to-pain ratio that saps their enthusiasm for the enterprise.

So why is it that, according to a recent statistic, 70 percent of the people who begin flight training today fail to earn a pilot certificate? Well, before you attribute a modern cause for the exodus, consider that the same percentage was being bantered around when disco music hit the scene in the 1970s. The problem isn’t a new one. So what’s the main obstacle to certificate completion? The obvious answer is, “money,” but I wouldn’t double down on that bet.

People know going in that aviation is an expensive activity. It’s fair to say that anyone who gets as far as signing up for flight lessons knows the costs involved. They don’t sign up saying, “I’ve only got $29.95 to spend, but maybe they’ll have a blue plate special.” They do sign up. And then 70 percent of them do not finish. Experience tells me that if someone wants to fly, he or she will find the money to do so.

There is, however, one obstacle that most people can’t overcome on their own, and I believe it to be one of the biggest reasons people become frequent quitters. What is that? It’s an unfavorable comfort-to-discomfort ratio experienced during flight training. For many folks, learning to fly isn’t as satisfying as it could or should be.

I’m thinking of a young lady I recently met who had 32 flight instructors before finally earning her private pilot certificate. When she finally took her first flight as a private pilot, she had over 170 hours of flight time. Sure, there are always folks whose hamster spins their wheel slower than normal, but this lady wasn’t one of them. She was sharp. It turns out that the flight instructors at her flight school came and went just a bit faster than people employed as javelin catchers at an Olympic training field. Who could imagine that the string of flight instructors she’d have would match the number of teeth in her mouth?

Then there’s my friend, Ben, whose flight instructor only shows up for every other scheduled lesson. Apparently this CFI is an “even day” instructor, despite the behavior being strikingly odd. And what about a fellow named Tom, who quit flying after his instructor introduced him to spins on his demo (or demolition) flight?

I could go on and on about how and why people are turned off to aviation by poorly run FBOs and flight instructors behaving badly, but that wouldn’t be fair to all the really fantastic FBOs and flight instructors in the business. If students are fortunate enough to train at one of these locations, it’s a good bet that their enthusiasm is less likely to wane during their course of instruction. Therein lies the rub.

Our industry’s recent marketing objective has been to attract more people to aviation, but little emphasis is placed on keeping and satisfying the people who are already attracted to flight training. Even without marketing to prospective pilots, there is and will always be a large number of people interested in learning to fly. Several million people didn’t purchase Microsoft Flight Simulator because they wanted to give Bill Gates a little extra spending money. They did so because airplanes turn them on. If we want to sustain and perhaps grow the pilot ranks, we need to ensure that their flight training experience is a satisfying one. The best way to do this is by making them educated consumers. In this way we let market forces elevate the performance of those in the flight training business.

To complement aviation’s current marketing strategy, we should inform prospective students that they need to find an instructor who best suits their personality, learning style, and training expectations. We need to remind them that flight instructors can be like doctors, teachers, and accountants in that not everyone is created equal. Some people just do their jobs better than others. Some instructors just love to teach, some just teach, and some just can’t teach. This idea is best expressed by an old Chinese saying that posits it’s better to look for a good teacher for three years than to spend even three minutes with a bad one. Nothing— nothing!—is more important than finding a good flight instructor in terms of having a successful flight training experience. Nothing!

What does it mean to find the right instructor? It means a greater likelihood that students will experience more satisfaction and less dissatisfaction during flight training. It increases the likelihood that those who start flight training will earn a pilot certificate. It also increases the chance that a student will finish with the same instructor that he or she began with.

That sure beats having your dentist pull out all but one tooth in an attempt to reduce the number of instructors you’re likely to have.

Rod Machado has taught flying since 1973—and hasn’t quit yet. Visit the author’s blog (www.rodmachado.com).