President's Position

Seeking a new training paradigm

November 1, 2010

Craig Fuller Everywhere I travel these days, I hear a recurring question from the pilots I meet: “How are we going to grow the pilot population?”

This is a question that keeps us up at night, and it is one we must answer.

The past 20-plus years have been filled with dozens of well-intentioned attempts to solve the problem. Some have worked better than others, but none was the silver bullet people hoped to find.

We need a new approach.

Much of what has been tried has focused on getting new people into the training pipeline. But, as it turns out, the pipeline leaks, and just pulling in new flight students is simply not enough when the dropout rate is as high as 80 percent. The obvious question is “why?” And the fact is that we don’t yet have a complete answer.

So AOPA—through the AOPA Foundation—is reopening and reframing the discussion of how to build the pilot population, focusing on helping existing student pilots succeed. We are inviting stakeholders from across the flight training industry to share their ideas and experience as part of the new Flight Training Student Retention Initiative.

To begin, we’ve commissioned a research study to model the flight training process and identify the key factors that affect student retention. Surveys and focus groups with student pilots, including those who have quit training, certificated pilots, flight instructors, and flight school operators will help us find out more about why so many students drop out of training. We know that time and money are factors—but we know also that they are not the only factors, and our research is designed to dig deeper into the underlying causes.

Once we have the results of the research in hand, we’ll host a meeting of industry stakeholders directly involved in flight training to talk about our findings and identify best practices. To be effective, proposed solutions have to work in the real world, so we’ll be looking at the issues raised by the research from both an educational and a business standpoint. In the end, we will come up with informed, actionable ideas—and then work with others across the general aviation spectrum to put them into action.

It’s fair to ask how this approach is different from what has been done before—and it is different in several important ways:

The research will provide detailed, objective data, so we won’t be relying on old assumptions to try to formulate new solutions.

Instead of trying to entice new people to try flying, this effort focuses on keeping people engaged who have already proven their strong interest by starting training.

We are actively engaging the broadest possible spectrum of GA stakeholders to gather information and, ultimately, to implement solutions.

We are focusing on what works. As I said, solutions have to function in the real world—a world where weather can bring training to a halt and aircraft go down for maintenance.

All of us at AOPA recognize the importance of building the pilot population. There is strength in numbers. That’s why it is one of our key strategic initiatives and why we are devoting significant resources to uncovering the underlying challenges, identifying practical solutions, and implementing them broadly.

We’ll be sharing the results of our research at AOPA Aviation Summit, which takes place November 11 through 13 in Long Beach, California, and we’ll continue the conversation long after. Even if you can’t be there in person, I hope you’ll tune in to AOPA Live online to watch the Thursday, November 11 keynote address unveiling our research results.

As we’ve seen over the past 20 years, there is no quick fix. It will take time and considerable effort by people throughout the aviation community. At AOPA we do believe in finding a new flight training paradigm—something that shows how all of us can increase the chances of helping someone become a pilot who has the aspiration to experience the freedom to fly.

I am encouraged as we do the work necessary to develop well-researched and well-thought-out solutions because we find people and organizations across the country dedicated to successfully growing the pilot population.

Whatever we discover, I am confident that working together we can begin to change the alarming dropout rate and keep more students on track to earning a certificate. But I am equally confident we can’t do it in isolation. Your engagement in this issue is going to play a critical role in our ultimate success, and the future of general aviation.

AOPA President Craig Fuller began flying at age 16 and now pilots a Beechcraft Bonanza A36. E-mail AOPA President Craig Fuller at craig@aopa.org.

Join the fun

AOPA President Craig Fuller invites you to join him at the second annual AOPA Aviation Summit to be held November 11 through 13 in Long Beach, California. Fuller will lead the event through AOPA Live and at keynote general sessions and industry and social events during the three-day convention.