Why do some customers succeed inobtaining their pilot certificates while others fail to make it to the first solo stage—let alone get through the checkride? I am not speaking here of the obvious reasons, like blaming flight instructors, weather delays, or the cost of learning to fly. I was a customer once and I can attest that there has always been flight instructor turnover and weather delays, and that flying has never been cheap. So if those factors are more or less the same, then what other reasons might make one person finish and another not? I believe this question is can be answered by something much less obvious then these external factors.
The flight training business is unlike any other. Oh sure, we are in a service business and like all service-oriented business sectors we have good customers and bad, excellent employees, and not so good ones. We strive to make our services safe, enjoyable, and meaningful, and we want our customers leaving satisfied and coming back for more. But this business also requires a lot of emotional mettle from our customers and that’s not in our control.
Recently a fairly new customer sent us an email saying, “I am a dreamer. Dreamed I would find the time to become a pilot…. It’s just not happening even on the book studying. For now please stop my membership …” So, there are dreamers and there are doers. They are not mutually exclusive, as has been shown time and time again by people of ordinary means and abilities doing the extraordinary, and played out in every “if you can dream it you can do it” movie on the planet. But to become a pilot you must be both a dreamer and a doer—a dream-doer.
When our customers walk in excited and hopeful, with wide game day grins on their faces, they are eager to accomplish their dream but then something changes. I see an almost imperceptible transition occur as they begin to see the actual effort it takes to learn a higher-order skill. I know when I started learning to fly, more than once I asked myself: Do I really want to keep doing this? Am I going to make a good pilot?
I think the distinctive trait of a dream-doer is what I call “sticktoitness.” People may have different reasons for sticking with learning to fly. For me, it was about being determined not to give in to massive amounts of self-doubt in my abilities to pilot an airplane. Even on the day I took my private pilot checkride I was absolutely sure the examiner had made a mistake—fortunately I didn’t give in.
There doesn’t seem to be a test that I can use to tell me who has sticktoitness and who doesn’t, who is going to be a dream-doer and who isn’t. Or at least I haven’t found it yet. The trait shows up in all ages and genders.
I was 80-percent sure the customer who sent me the recent email would finish. He had the time, money, and ability to be a pilot, but I was wrong about him. On the other hand there is Grace. The first time I spoke with Grace she called to ask about learning to fly. It was only after a lengthy discussion with her about our programs that I discovered she lived in the state next door. I encouraged her to find a nearby flight school and take a discovery flight, and then let me know how it went. To my surprise she called me back several weeks later. Yes, she had taken a discovery flight but when I queried her more about the details, I discovered she never actually flew the airplane and she felt overwhelmed by the whole experience. I attributed this to either an inexperienced instructor, very busy airspace, or both, and again encouraged her to try another school or instructor. “Just don’t give up,” I said, but I figured the chances were she wouldn’t continue. Surprise again, several months later Grace called back, this time to say she had moved to our area and she wanted to begin learning to fly with me.
If you had asked me to evaluate Grace’s odds of finishing her private pilot certificate after our first several lessons I may have given her a 25-percent chance, and that would have been charitable. Grace had problems with compass directions and a good dose of getting lost-itis, which began as soon as our wheels left the pavement!� Learning to land made her spill more than a few real tears. But she kept at it, and slowly, lesson-by-lesson, Grace moved forward. How wrong I was about Grace, she passed her checkride flawlessly and is now capably flying a C182.
When a customer quits it hurts, not because of the loss of revenue or shifting schedules but because I feel like I have failed them in some way. Was it our service or was it that they didn’t have enough sticktoitness? How do I know when someone is fighting the psychological effects of self-doubt or other similar kind of mental or emotional states? Which if we are honest with ourselves lie under the surface of every high achiever. Is there anything I can do to overcome something that is seemingly out of my control?
Maybe the answer is simply reinforcing the truth: that everyone has moments of wondering if he or she should continue because learning to fly takes a lot of emotional mettle. Talking about this with my customers may not solve the problem but it can’t hurt. Add to that taking them on a fun flight that goes somewhere other than the practice area, and it lets them see that they really can achieve their dream if they can only stick to it. Then again maybe not, because if someone is a dreamer that doesn’t make him or her a dream-doer.