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It's a car payment

Showcasing value in learning to fly

No matter how big the dream, the size of the wallet must approve the pursuit. For some, learning to fly equals the mortgage, utilities, and groceries for a month--it's just too big of a slice out of the family budget. For others, the cost of a one-hour lesson is unfathomable compared to their hourly wage. Yet, many of those same people fork out $300 to $500 per month in car payments over 36 to 60 months. When I average the cost of flight training for my sport pilot certificate over just 12 months, it falls right in that range. Wow, I live my dream for a short-term car payment!

I am a professional musician and have worked for many years helping the music products industry grow its market. When I decided to learn to fly earlier this year, I found myself not only pursuing my other lifelong dream, but also facing yet another industry that struggles to recruit new students. It's ironic that music and aviation--two activities that embody "cool" and have an aura of magic--are struggling to grow. Yet, the pilot population is aging, and the new generation that unknowingly sacrifices dreaming for instant gratification isn't eager to inherit the torch.

In both cases, success is about selling the dream, providing the appropriate access, and showcasing the value by focusing on the experience rather than the certificate. Like most students, I started flying on day one and was instantly living my dream.

Additionally, I started learning skills that enhance virtually all aspects of life--including mental/physical coordination, sequencing and flows, troubleshooting and problem solving, recognizing and intercepting error chains, deductive reasoning, exercising good judgment, and true multi-tasking. I am now more conscious of my own well-being and personal limitations when engaging in potentially dangerous activities including driving, sports, operating power tools, and seemingly benign household chores where safety is easy to overlook. My preparation and organization skills have improved, which make me more efficient in completing routine daily tasks. Plus, I make more contingency plans and consequently achieve desired results in virtually everything despite unforeseen challenges. For example, since airline baggage policies make traveling with multiple guitars cumbersome, I've rewired my favorite ones with a "dual magneto" switch so that I can bypass most of the circuitry in the event of a switch or soldering failure on stage. It's show business; the show must go on!

Moreover, I finally use all that information drilled into my head in school: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, geography, meteorology, physics, biology, and the like. Applying this knowledge in order to fulfill a dream (and stay alive!) makes one really understand it, and enjoy studying it. Imagine if learning to fly were a requirement to graduate high school! American education probably wouldn't be falling behind on the world's stage. Why don't CFIs go into local schools for a couple of hours each year and inspire kids for a lifetime? Once word travels back to parents, enrolling junior in the local flight school might just become the preferred summer or after-school activity.

It also sounds ideal for the businessman, doesn't it? He can improve his productivity and bypass the misery of today's airline travel by flying himself on business trips. The airlines make this argument easier every day by "nickel and diming" customers, adding inconvenience, and reducing comforts. General aviation should take advantage of it, especially since that target customer is often only a stone's throw away in the commercial terminal. Just hanging a "Learn to Fly Here" banner outside the hangar may attract frustrated passengers staring out the window during an ATC delay.

Still, the biggest obstacle once the budding pilot enters a flight school is the commitment of time and funds, and then weighing the value. This is why the car-payment concept makes sense--make a comparison that the consumer can relate to, and then illustrate it with realistic numbers. I used the Gleim Sport Pilot kit available from my flight school for $99, and rented the airplane wet at $90 per hour for 35 hours, with instruction at $45 per hour for 50 hours. That equals $5,499. Break that down into a fixed monthly payment over one year and voilà, you have $458.25 per month--for many, a car payment. Just presenting the cost comparison will help many to reconcile the overall expense.

However, flight schools could actually implement the concept by scheduling lessons once a week for 12 months. That would put the time commitment and cash flow within reach of even more potential aviators. Some students may frown upon only one 60- to 90-minute lesson per week (an hour on the Hobbs plus brief and debrief), and it likely will take them more total hours to earn the certificate with an elongated schedule.

Yet, many students are busy and already stretch training well beyond what they anticipated--despite any caveat given by flight schools, the FAA 20-hour minimum requirement for the sport certificate, like the minimums for other entry-level pilot certificates, becomes a very misleading goal. One can accomplish a great deal just by visualizing and simulating each flight lesson during the off days, and regular ground school (online, books, and/or CD-ROM) takes up quite a bit of time. Besides, if a student really wants to increase his pace after a few flights, he will find the money.

While earlier months consisting of entirely dual instruction might amount to more billable time than later ones with solo hours, this could be balanced by an occasional ground-only lesson (for example, preflight inspection or cross-country planning). Alternatively, why not contract students for a year and collect a fixed monthly payment? Any early shortages would be recouped on the back end or could otherwise be covered by taking a deposit or implementing an early termination fee. This would be relatively easy to orchestrate for any school that runs their operation like a professional business, and a great service to potential customers.

The reasons for learning to fly are plentiful as long as the GA industry regularly promotes them. There will always be dreamers like me who simply won't be fulfilled without his wings, and more than a few frequent travelers would welcome an alternative to the airlines. However, one cannot rely on potential students showing up at the airport. With professional airline careers enduring bad press and every flat surface known to man soliciting consumers' time and money, CFIs and flight schools must plant the dream and keep the access within practical reach. Only then will the value of learning to fly be obvious enough to find its way into the family budget, and only then will general aviation reverse course and survive.

Ravi tours the country performing music and lecturing on the music and aviation industries. The former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson has performed at the White House and had his tour journal published by Simon & Schuster. He is a sport pilot with plans to pursue higher ratings. E-mail the author.

By Ravi

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