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Have you ever noticed that once they’ve earned their wings, many of our students seem to fly the coop? 

Increasing pilot retention is a troubling topic. Why would someone who just spent months, or even years, working toward a pilot certificate just stop flying once he or she had reached the goal? When polled, many new pilots admit that while they may feel elated at no longer being required to have a CFI, they feel trepidation at the realization that the CFI is no longer there for their added sense of security. In fact, some don’t feel confident enough in their skills to plan a trip outside of their own home territory, let alone take friends or loved ones into unfamiliar airspace and risk showing their lack of experience.

You’ve heard of discovery flights for prospective students, but what about offering your new private pilots excursion flights? Much like a field trip for classrooms or adventures for Boy Scouts, these excursion flights expose a new pilot to the real world of general aviation.

Trips can be monthly, seasonally, quarterly, semi-annually—whatever you think would be manageable and marketable for your school’s unique situation. Plan trips well ahead of time and include as many aircraft as possible, whether they’re from your own fleet or someone else’s. Some pilots may choose to go on the trip using their own aircraft or one from their flying club, so pricing would obviously be adjusted based on whatever services you are providing. 

Since these are primarily instructional trips, there should be two participating pilots per aircraft to split legs, and one of your CFIs present in the right seat of each aircraft as well. Too many airplanes and not enough CFIs? If it’s not possible to schedule another trip soon or the destination event is limited, then consider working cooperatively with another local flight school to make it a community event.

When planning excursion trips, they should be specifically designed to challenge a new pilot’s comfort level, placing them in an environment where they can use their new skills on practical applications, while still acquiring new skills to build their confidence.

You may want to start out simply, such as a one-day trip to an aviation museum, airshow, aviation-related seminar, or to tour an ATC facility. Further trips may include overnight events, such as a special NFL game, theme parks, or theatre productions.

When possible, a multi-day trip should be planned to another country, such as Canada. This experience will help your pilots understand the process of clearing Customs and Border Protection, and it will help them obtain their radio operator’s license and other documents. Varying levels of experience also can dictate destinations, as could aircraft type.

Organizing all-inclusive packages is paramount to the success of building your excursion flights program. Contact the FBO at the destination airport, most will be happy to make the hotel and ground transportation arrangements for you, often at their negotiated discount rates. Some FBOs and hotels have courtesy vans to transport your group so no car rentals or taxis are necessary. You might even get a group fuel discount.

Advertising for these excursion trips should include all local airports, not just your own. Create excitement, get people talking about how much fun it will be, the camaraderie it will build, and how space is limited. Send emails to everyone in your database, expand the information on your website, submit to all airport newsletters; post flyers in and around all airport facilities, local college bulletin boards, and aviation-related and local news releases (ask to be interviewed about the upcoming event). If you are a member of AOPA, you can add an aviation event to the calendar on their homepage. Don’t forget to follow-up with the newspapers, providing pictures of the event with lots of happy pilots; better yet—offer to take a high-profile reporter along on a trip.

Excursion trips get people excited about flying, gives them more confidence in their skills and abilities, and can inspire them to continue their flight training beyond their private pilot certificate. Flight schools will not only gain priceless positive public exposure for the events, but should see increased rentals, and a recommitment of pilots to further their training with additional ratings.

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