The hangar door opens, and in walks the prospective flight student. He takes a look around, smiles at the airplane photos on the wall, and then asks brightly who to speak with about taking lessons … and so begins many an aviation career. But some end there too, based on the conversation that follows. I was once the student in that situation, and I asked a question I would later hear many times from the other side: How hard is flying?
It’s a highly subjective question, but our livelihood as flight instructors depends on how we answer. CFIs with an ounce of business sense will be as encouraging as possible, but also straightforward about the challenges ahead. I personally lean more toward encouragement because I believe that flying, in absolute terms, just isn’t that hard.
In the old days people soloed after just a few hours of instruction. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger soloed in 1967 after 7.6 hours of training. One of my students showed me his father’s logbook, showing he soloed after just 5.2 hours in 1946. Even with today’s more stringent regulations most students will solo between 12 and 20 hours. The fact is that taking off, flying around the pattern, and getting it back down just isn’t that difficult. Doing it smoothly and efficiently takes practice and experience, and passing a checkride requires some hoop jumping, but it’s not brain surgery. I firmly believe that anyone of basic intelligence can learn to fly an airplane and qualify for a sport or private pilot certificate.
Why is this important? Because a lot of people don’t think they can do it, which means this: It may stop them from trying, thereby taking business away from flight schools; and, if they take lessons and suffer a setback, they may quit.
What makes people think flying is so difficult? Ordinary people learn all sorts of tricky, esoteric skills (just look up “pen spinning” on YouTube if you don’t believe me). In absolute terms, hitting a fastball is probably much more difficult than controlling an aircraft. But because baseball is a familiar part of life, we tend to discount its complexity. Flying has acquired a mystique—an illusion of difficulty because it’s not typically a part of everyday experience. This is why discovery flights are so important. Getting people in the airplane and giving them a turn at the controls usually shows them it’s not as hard as they think. Or perhaps it’s enough fun to make them forget their concerns. Either way, get them in the air once and they’re probably coming back, in my experience.
Another common concern is facility with numbers. I’m often asked if you have to be good at math to be a pilot. My answer is a firm no, but I also make a distinction between mathematics and basic arithmetic. We don’t do much differential calculus in the airplane, but it’s useful if a student can add and subtract, understand what 45- and 90-degree angles look like, and have heard the terms “parallel” and “perpendicular.” But even if they haven’t, I’ll teach them. I once had a student who didn’t know right from left if he didn’t have time to think it over, and he got by.
A poor sense of direction sometimes causes a lot of hand wringing. “I’m always getting lost in my car,” they tell me. “What if I get lost in the airplane?” My answer is to admit I came to aviation with a terrible sense of direction. Learning to fly improved it immeasurably and made a night-and-day difference in how I locate myself in the world, in or out of an aircraft. Necessity is a great teacher.
All of this isn’t to say flying is easy, exactly. If pressed, I’ll say it’s challenging, but doable. Flying is a craft made up of several individual skills. Some are primarily cognitive, like communication and navigation. Some are psychomotor skills such as physical control of the aircraft, and some are affective, such as keeping calm when abnormalities arise. Speaking very generally, I see two kinds of flight students: those who are more adept at physical “stick and rudder” skills, and those who are better at the cognitive tasks. What brings it all together regardless of a student’s strengths and weaknesses? Good flight instruction.
Effective CFIs break down skills into component parts, provide practice opportunities, and help put them together into a coherent whole. This puts flying within reach of just about anyone, regardless of what the student brings to the table. This is why I feel completely justified in encouraging everyone who walks through the door.
Let’s conclude with a reality check. Despite my positive outlook on basic learning, I also believe in the limitations imposed by talent, or rather the lack thereof. Earlier I said flying is not brain surgery. I spoke with some actual brain surgeons to ask if it really is as hard as that expression suggests. A few seemed tempted to operate on me just for asking that question, but after some discussion most said something like this: A motivated person of average intelligence could probably make it through medical school, but it takes some innate ability to succeed in the more rigorous specialties. So yes, brain surgery is apparently pretty hard. Relating this to aviation, I believe anyone can become a private or sport pilot and perhaps even learn to fly instruments given sufficient time and motivation. But some talent may be necessary to move into aerobatics, crop dusting, or a Harrier jet.
Fortunately, basic flying isn’t brain surgery (or even rocket science, although it’s probably closer). Many students are flying for fun and don’t intend to progress much further than a private or sport certificate. Although they will be trained to the same standard as someone embarking on a professional aviation career, they don’t need to have talent. What they do need is encouragement to get past their initial fears, and a good flight instructor.