Safety Pilot: Guide for the future

Introducing AOPA's field guides to flight training

April 1, 2013

Bruce Landsberg

­­Good news! You’ve identified someone who’s showed real interest in becoming a pilot. If you’re lucky, there’s a good flight school or flying club nearby, with solid aircraft and experienced instruction, run by people who understand customer service. Alas, it’s not always that easy. Sometimes the local flight emporium is long on enthusiasm but a bit short on the aforementioned qualities. You can act as an escort to get the aspiring pilot to the right place, but that can take considerable time and effort. Suppose there was a field guide for flight students that was based on some in-depth research, not someone’s opinion on what a good flight instruction experience should be? Such a guide exists.

AOPA has been researching into the declining pilot population over the past several years and decided that it was time to do something about it. But rather than just jump right in with preconceived notions and prejudices—not that aviation people would ever have such a problem—we commissioned an independent study to either confirm or deny some long-held beliefs. Forty-six factors emerged that make up a quality training experience. This has been distilled into a set of field guides that is now available ( www.aopa.org/publications/ebooks).

There is a flight training guide for the student pilot, a guide for flight schools, and one for instructors. Based on the research, these booklets provide suggestions from each perspective on what it takes be successful. There is really only one standard of success: a new private or sport pilot who is enthusiastic about aviation after his or her training experience, and the right mindset to safely pursue whatever goals he or she may have.

Currently, only about 20 percent of students who go to the trouble of getting a medical certificate (not required for Sport Pilot) make it through the system. There likely are others who give up even before getting a medical. How come? While cost is sometimes cited, most people generally knew the cost when they started—provided they weren’t “low balled” with the minimums that typically understate the flight time it will take for the average student. For some reason, learning to fly didn’t turn out to be the “wow” experience we know it can and should be. Perhaps it turned into a drudge with too much time, time not well used, multiple instructors, and all of the other negatives that we spend time lamenting. Time to fix that!

The guides are AOPA’s first step—with considerable industry collaboration—into helping the customer learn what good training looks like, helping CFIs understand what’s expected of them—and, likewise, for schools to be sure that the experience is worthy of the cost.

Shocker alert: The goal of a flight school is not to make money, although many schools unintentionally excel at this. The proper business objective is to get and keep customers and, if you follow that rule, the money happens automatically. However, too many schools milk the customer for flight hours and add-ons. A pilot completion is worth orders of magnitude more in industry value than a short-time student who drops out early because they didn’t get the experience they thought they were buying. Disney’s theme parks charge a high price, but the guests keep coming back.

Good flight simulators/training devices—and CFIs who know how to use them—are a significant plus. It doesn’t require a $100,000 machine, but so much can be learned so quickly with even a part-task trainer, it’s a wonder that more schools don’t use today’s technology.

Simulators used to be expensive and complex, but computer horsepower and flat-screen visuals have changed all that. There is less risk and a quicker transition into the aircraft than by trying to do everything in the “world’s worst classroom.” But the instructor has to believe in the value of simulation and make it interesting. As for instructors, one doesn’t need a 5,000-hour veteran. Primary training requires seasoned instructors at certain points in the curriculum. Solid supervision for new CFIs, a good understanding of different learning styles and—most important—a customer-oriented attitude regardless of experience is essential. Periodic phase checks, irrespective of whether the school operates under FAR Part 141 or Part 61, are a good idea. It allows consultation between instructors, exposes the student to different teaching styles, and can be most effective in spotting gaps.

Can the training experience for new pilots be improved? Of course! There are successful schools. Last year AOPA introduced the Flight Training Excellence Awards, where students got to vote for their favorite. There were more than 2,500 nominations and that was just the beginning of the program. It’s time that GA held itself accountable for a better training experience—and the AOPA field guides are one way to quantify what that means.