It is often said there is only one chance to make a good first impression. With a major AOPA 2010 study placing the overall student dropout rate at 70 to 80 percent, this is especially true for flight training. How we as CFIs approach our first lessons with a new student may well mean the difference between a lifelong member of the aviation community and another failed student pilot.
There are several things we can do to help ensure our new students become our future fellow pilots. While considerations such as time and money account for many dropouts, the ability of each of us to communicate and to teach effectively has also been shown to impact student retention. According to the AOPA study, students report that they value clear information, excellent instructor performance, and becoming part of an “aviation community.” They want realistic estimates of time and money commitments, organized lessons, information about pilot resources, and recognition of their accomplishments. All of these can be addressed starting on Day 1 so long as we consider them priorities as well.
The first lesson is a critical piece of successful flight instruction. Initially, it is important to instill in our students both an expectation of success and a realistic understanding of the training process. For example, knowing up front that learning plateaus are a normal part of flight training and that you have strategies to manage them will prevent students from becoming discouraged when they occur. Likewise, recognizing from the start that weather and aircraft maintenance may unexpectedly turn a training flight into a ground lesson will prevent disappointment and model coping with this fundamental truth of aviation.
When starting with new students, be sure to first understand their motives for learning to fly and their short- and long-term aviation goals. The recreational pilot’s needs will differ from those of the student who aspires to a career in aviation, and talking about this will help students know that you understand and value their goals. Students who feel their needs are well understood are more likely to persevere through the inevitable ups and downs of flight training. In addition, people who feel that they have been treated competently and professionally are less likely to blame others for bad outcomes, which is also important in today’s litigious climate.
Next, it is useful to learn about students’ concerns about learning to fly, and to be alert to when these factors interfere with their progress. For example, if you know that finances are tight, you can discuss up front how to apply for aviation scholarships or how best to get the most from each lesson before the money runs out. If family members are concerned about safety, you can consider having them come out to the airport to see how all flight decisions focus on safety above all else. Addressing concerns directly and offering suggestions for managing them will provide the greatest chance for success.
Be sure that you have a training plan, and that both you and the student agree to that plan. The act of forming a clear agreement, in and of itself, improves the chances that both of you will stick to it. Clearly outline flight training, including both what you expect from the student and what she or he may expect from you. Ideally, this includes the importance of ground lessons in efficiently utilizing flight time, frequency of lessons, average time to get the rating, costs, and the importance of identifying medical concerns before the solo. Also, if the flight school has cancellation policies, you are less likely to have trouble smoothly enforcing them if you reviewed them when training began. It is far better to have these discussions up front than to have your student feel “ambushed” when they arise. While we may fear that such frankness will scare students away, the chances of retaining them are likely improved when everyone understands the rules from the start.
Finally, do not forget to share your love of flying and serve as a good role model! Often, you are the first pilot your students spend time with, and they will notice aspects of your behavior you take for granted. Do you seem happy and enthusiastic about lessons and the learning process? Do you share ideas from articles you read or stories you hear in the course of your week? Do you thoroughly preflight the aircraft before each flight? A motto such as “Do as I do” from Day 1 will allow you to effectively mentor your future aviation colleagues, and also help keep your schedule filled with committed students.