“You can fly a plane? Are you in the military?” I’ve actually heard this from nonpilot friends. I know others have heard variations of the same sentiment. The recreational side of general aviation seems to be a mystery to some people, and that’s a problem.
It’s more history than irony that despite powered flight beginning in what we today call a general aviation setting, our culture is somewhat militaristic. The military and commercial aviation have for decades dominated the national conversation on aviation. So much so that today, many people are surprised that general aviation is a vibrant community that crosses many socio-economic lines.
Flight school owners are the front line of that community, so it behooves them to present it in a way that highlights the benefits of belonging. For many pilots, that reason is fun. They may use the airplane occasionally for business, or they may be training for a career, but beneath all of that is the joy of flight and the freedom and sense of satisfaction that it brings. We must resist the temptation to overwhelm those with an interest in flight with regulations, pilot speak, and procedures. Rather, it is our job to show them the benefits that go along with being a pilot, especially when trying to sell them on a training course.
AOPA’s research into flight training found that 65 percent of students are drawn to aviation solely for recreational reasons. Another 29 percent are seeking a career, and only five percent are learning to fly for business reasons. That is reason enough to make sure and show the recreational side of aviation. The fact that of those who have quit flight training, 81 percent were doing it purely for recreational reasons is an even stronger case.
The problem is that a flight school’s primary job is to make a safe and competent pilot. And “safe” and “fun” can seem at odds sometimes. But they certainly don’t have to be. Even if your school caters to career students, fun can be a part of the equation. Here are a few ways to ingrain the idea in to any flight school, while also maintaining safety and other core missions.
1. Foster a sense of community—Set up study groups, pair students to fly off cross-country time for the instrument, introduce students who have common interests, have barbecues, encourage participation in aviation community events, or create a chapter of women in aviation, the Ninety-Nines, EAA, or any other group. Whatever it is, be creative and get people together. This is a critical component to keeping people in training and getting them flying afterward. It makes aviation fun.
2. Get competitive—Whether it’s poker runs, ground school quiz night, a flying scavenger hunt, or a free hour of flying to the student with the highest written score each month, competitions are a sure way to keep students engaged and having fun. As they get to know each other through the events you’ll grow a dedicated group of students and future friends.
3. Make it mandatory—Flight instructors are often too busy to be creative in their lessons. So help them. Build in lessons in the school’s syllabus that show the benefits of general aviation. Make the dual cross-country to a mountain resort, beach town, or a serene grass strip. Do some toilet paper cutting, or make the short-field practice at a real short field. If not in the syllabus, ask your instructors to come up with a list and then circulate it for future reference.
4. Teach for post-certificate—So much of the curriculum is filled with maneuvers that it seems like there’s no time for anything else. There is. Make sure your instructors teach for after the checkride by experiencing the crew car, how to pick an FBO, how to properly take passengers, real weight and balance considerations, and so on. Many new pilots don’t even know how to park an airplane at a different airport overnight. That’s a shame.
5. Tailor the experience—Most important, it’s imperative that the school and instructor tailor the experience to the student. Ask a student why he or she is learning to fly. Answers such as, “I’ve always wanted to,” “It seems like fun,” and other similar vague answers indicate the student is there to learn a life skill and have a good time. Show him how. Ask him where he plans to go after getting the certificate and take him there.
Throughout the training, it should be obvious to the students why they are doing this and how they will do it after the training is over. Learning to fly is a wonderful experience, but it’s a means to an end. Make it easy for the students to see the result while they’re still in training, and they’re more likely to stick around to experience it first-hand.