The harm certain types of pilots do to our collective reputation outweighs their contribution as members of the population. These include not only the people whose lack of skill or judgment makes it clear that they shouldn’t be flying in the first place, but also those who can’t reconcile their goals with the innate limitations of light general aviation aircraft.
Recent efforts to explain the high drop-out rate among student pilots seem to have ignored one uncomfortable possibility: Perhaps many students who are capable of passing the checkride come to realize that it’s unlikely the skills they are learning will ever serve them the way they’d originally intended. Those for whom flying is just plain fun may be thwarted by family or financial pressures, but aren’t likely to quit unless forced. On the other hand, students who are chiefly interested in efficient personal transportation on a reliable schedule are apt to notice the gap between the kind of equipment this requires and the kind they can actually afford. If you don’t already love aviation for its own sake, that’s not a bad reason to cut your losses. Those who stay in anyway learn to deal with the attendant uncertainties and frustrations, or begin trying to crowd those limits, sometimes with unfortunate results.
While it’s hard to quantify, it’s widely accepted that many of the most serious accidents arise from the gap between the utility the pilot or owner wants to obtain from the aircraft and what that team can realistically be expected to provide. Within the industry, it’s no secret that safely extracting all the limited capability of owner-flown aircraft requires a level of proficiency that can only be gained from long experience or intensive training. Even after thousands of hours, regular practice is required to stay that sharp, and less experienced pilots need more frequent refreshers, whether in a training environment or in actual travel. Pilots who depend on day jobs to pay for hangars, gas, and maintenance can find it hard to put in the necessary time, and even the best pilots still have to respect the physical limits of their aircraft. Those who don’t recognize that they shouldn’t expect to fly themselves if the schedule’s tight, or fail to respond to uncertainty about flight conditions by committing to an alternative while there’s still time to make it work, have a way of showing up in NTSB investigations.
Their reasons aren’t always compelling. The occupants of the Cirrus that flew into the trees running scud in Minnesota (and whose heirs went on to sue the manufacturer) were on their way to a hockey game. The two victims of an Arizona VFR-into-IMC in a Cessna 182 were going to a meeting they saw as crucial to the survival of their business. It probably would have gone better if they’d actually arrived; survival of the business probably wasn’t as important as survival of the owners. The Piper PA-32R that crashed attempting to take off from a grass strip in Arkansas with five on board was returning home from a fishing trip. Getting a couple of the passengers a ride so they could be picked up at some other airport with paved (and longer) runways might have been a nuisance, but no more so than the accident that killed two of them and the pilot.
Perhaps part of the answer to reducing both the drop-out and accident rates is to take greater pains to make sure that prospective students understand what they can and can’t expect to do as new private or instrument-rated pilots, and to be blunt about the investments of time and money required to expand that envelope. While it may not seem like good business practice to risk discouraging prospective students, there’s an argument to be made for concentrating your efforts on those who are more likely to stay with you—and less likely to push the envelope after they leave.