The truth about learning to fly

Better and worse than we admit

Like many pilots, I love flying Young Eagles. It’s a chance to get in the air, which is always a good thing, but it’s also a chance to fly with a purpose. That keeps me coming back for more, in ways even the best $100 hamburger can’t.

Young Eagles
How do you answer a Young Eagle when she asks, “what’s it like to learn to fly?”

Beyond the joy of giving back, I really enjoy meeting the kids and talking to them about their perceptions and dreams of flying. Usually I learn as much from the questions the kids ask as they do from my answers. One of the most common ones is, naturally, “What’s it like to learn to fly?”

The first two or three times I got this question, I recited the industry boilerplate: “Oh, it’s thrilling, fun and life-changing. Go for it!” My message was unrelentingly positive—after all, we are trying to encourage Young Eagles to pursue a life in aviation.

But recently I’ve changed my answer. It started with a very curious and well-informed 15-year old wouldn’t accept my stock answer. She wanted to know details. How long did it take? Did you ever get discouraged? What was the hardest part?

After about 5 minutes, I could tell this impressive young woman was a real candidate for a career in aviation, so I quit the pep talk and gave her the truth: “Bad news and good news. Learning to fly is challenging and occasionally frustrating, there is no instant gratification, and more than once I considered quitting.”

I could see a frown start to appear on her face, so I closed with the good news: “But, it was absolutely worth it and I’m not being dramatic when I say earning a pilot’s license changed my life.”

Our conversation brought back a lot of memories about my own flight training. It was some 20 years ago, long enough to gain perspective, but recent enough to remember some moments quite vividly. Like many Air Facts readers, I suspect, I learned to fly in high school, spending my weekends at the airport. Even as a spoiled 16-year old kid, I understood how unique the journey was, but it certainly wasn’t all roses.

In addition to the usual mix of nervousness and anticipation, I remember feeling the flight school’s 172 was just plain worn out. To a kid in the mid-90s, faded chocolate brown paint and ragged vinyl seats were like something out of a time capsule. When my instructor started talking about a carburetor, all I could think of was antique cars—were they really on an airplane? And no air conditioning? Is that legal?

Overall, my lessons were fun, but there was nothing glamorous about sweating through 1.1 hours of slow flight and stalls in the summer heat. And there was so much to learn, from weather to regulations to engines. It felt an awful lot like work.

The timeline was also a tough match for a high school kid. With a busy schedule of school and sports (and fickle Ohio weather), it took nearly two years for me to earn my license. That’s an eternity for a teenager.

So after hitting one of those inevitable plateaus in training (will I ever be able to land this thing?!), I quietly wondered if it was really worth it. Maybe flying isn’t something normal people should do. But as a driven kid whose identity was increasingly wrapped up in aviation, I decided to push on.

I’m eternally grateful that I did.

My first solo was an event to remember, for sure, but it wasn’t my wow moment. That happened on my first cross-country flight with a passenger, after my checkride. Freedom is a word we use a lot to describe the benefits of aviation, and that is part of it. But so is responsibility, and I found that even more alluring. Somewhere on that first “revenue flight,” it hit me that I was the only person responsible for bringing this 130 mph machine and my passenger back to the ground safely. No do-overs, no restarting the game—this was serious business. For a 17-year old, that’s both frightening and, yes, thrilling.

Learn to Fly Here sign
It’s worth it, but let’s be honest about what it takes to succeed.

That’s how flying can change who you are and how you approach life. Just like a good steak satisfies you long after a candy bar wears off, my pilot’s license delivered accomplishment and enjoyment that no video game could ever match. The act of taking off itself wasn’t thrilling, but the power and responsibility that came with being Pilot In Command was. It forces you to grow up, to be independent, to focus on results instead of petty everyday concerns. It’s boot camp, without the PT.

Thinking about my flight training and the dreams of this motivated Young Eagle also made me think about how we advertise our “product” of learning to fly.

As a community, pilots do a pretty good job of getting kids interested in flying. Ask any 8-year-old boy about airplanes and his face will light up—no tablet or social network can change that. What we struggle with oftentimes is acting upon that spark and finishing the process.

In this regard, I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we tell prospective pilots that learning to fly is all fun and excitement. It’s not, and we know it’s not. In spite of what some overconfident pilots suggest, you do not have to be a superhero to earn a pilot’s license, but it certainly isn’t easy or fast.

This is nothing to be ashamed of! Flying is rewarding precisely because it’s such a challenge—one of the last big challenges we can take on in a virtual world.

Truthfully, flying is probably less thrilling than ever for a young person. In a world of HDTV and Playstation, taking flight can seem pedestrian (I know, kids today…). So if a young person takes a first lesson and isn’t overcome by excitement, it’s easy for him to feel disappointed—as if something is wrong with him.

This same problem of unrealistic expectations often afflicts new parents, too. Everyone is told that kids are “bundles of joy,” and we all see movies about new mothers instantly bonding with their newborn, knowing that “this is what they were meant to do.” As any parent knows, this is usually baloney. Kids are exhausting, frustrating and sometimes downright annoying. But, just like flying, they are life-changing, immensely rewarding and completely worth it. We do parents no favors by misleading them.

Don’t get me wrong: we must keep encouraging the next generation of pilots. It’s something about which I’m truly passionate. But let’s do it honestly and send them into the air with their eyes wide open. In the end, we actually undersell aviation if we pretend it’s just a flight simulator or an extreme sport.

So what’s it like to learn to fly? It definitely wasn’t what I thought it would be like—not even close. It was much, much better.

12 Comments

  • Speaking for at least a segment of the “older generation,” I have to say that my first flight from a now abandoned airport was a nauseating experience. Those days there was no “Young Eagles” program.
    When I got around to flying seriously it was because I needed an outlet that was fully absorbing. Boats didn’t do it for me. Aviating was what I needed. It was challenging and completely engrossing.There was a lot of new stuff to learn, and it involved control in three dimensions.
    As time passed I came to enoy the aviating experience for many other reasons, but it’s always the challenge of the next flight that continues to get me excited.

  • Great article.

    I think there’s a difference in encouraging someone to take up flying lessons and being realistic about the challenges they’ll face once they start.

    I’m not sure what the drop out rate is in private training, but I reckon it’s nowhere as high as the percentage of people who’d like to learn to fly but feel they can’t because of perceived barriers such as cost or the impression they need a high level of maths to get through the theory stages.

    They key is encouraging people to be exposed to the bug. Once they get it even the worst lesson will be followed by that time a day or two later when all they want to do is be up in the air again.

  • John,
    Great article! I agree there is some truth in advertising that should go on – in a positive way. Learning to fly, like any great endeavor, will be punctuated by any and all emotions. The punchline, as you describe, is that it’s worth it in spades!
    Brent

  • John,

    This was one of the finest articles I’ve read in a while. It is absolutely true. This should be mandatory reading for student pilots. In this day and age, with the pilot population shrinking, we need to be honest about the challenges and the rewards of aviation. I believe this approach would be the best way to retain students and their pursuit of the true reward of flying. Well done, sir!

  • Well said Andy. One of the problems I’ve seen is the “ace of the base” strutting around blowing hot air trying to convince newbies they must solo in 4 hours and flight test in 40. Ten to 16 hours to solo and about 60 hours to flight test is closer to the truth.

    • The “ace of the base” is an all too common problem. Used to know a flight school owner, who would call students into his office, if they hadn’t soloed in 10 hours. “You’re wasting your money, because you can’t learn to fly”. Lord knows how many young people he scarred for life, and aviation, with that statement. Not to mention his CFI staff was made up of itinerant time builders, with inferior teaching skills.

  • This is spot-on. I just wish I had been in the financial position back then to remain current.
    I learned to fly in 1997, while a college student, getting my license around June 1997. I took my girlfriend (now wife) up flying; I flew to a job interview. But just two months after getting my license, I was ground-bound by that stickiest of glues: lack of funds.
    Now, 15 years later, I’m finally current again. Still yet to exercise that solo, but expect to do so soon.
    For me, it was much the same impact of being PIC, solely responsible… everything. It still comes to me as a simple wiggling of the wings. That’s me. I’m doing that. Nothing else.
    I’ve driven some exceptional cars: Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Aston, Lamborghini, and open-wheel 600+ HP formula car at over 150 MPH. Nothing (except perhaps the formula car) comes close to the flying experience. I encourage anyone with the interest to give it a shot.

  • I liked your article. It is hard to know just how much “truth” in advertising needs to be told to prospective pilots. Lean on the difficulty too much and you will scare them off. Learning plateaus do not sound like fun either. There is enough strangeness about airplanes that do not need added complexity mixed in. Your average airplane has a 60 to 70 year old engine design that requires a throttle and a mixture control to operate it. If it has a carburetor, there is probably a primer to boot. When has anyone outside of aviation seen anything like that? What about that business of steering with your feet when on the ground? Then there is that issue of being able to stall at any speed and any attitude. I think that is one statement that should be left unsaid during primary training. While it is true, the accident record shows that stalling is far more likely in the traffic pattern or while maneuvering (buzzing your girlfriends house). Learning to fly is a challenge is about as truthful as you need to be when introducing someone to flying. Offering to mentor them while they train is a good use of your experience and will help smooth out those darn plateaus.

    • David, you make an excellent point. I am definitely NOT an advocate for the “scare em” approach, where we try to impress new pilots with how unsafe it is. I hate that attitude. I just think we should set realistic expectations about the time and work involved. People will work hard, but especially if it matches their expectations.

  • I suppose I’m going to have to be devil’s advocate/voice of dissent amongst those commenting, however, I couldn’t disagree more with your article and I don’t think I would ever give the advice you’re advocating to children interested in flying. I’m still struggling to find the actual message you’re trying to convey, as well. And I actually do work with high school students, granted in a program completely unrelated to flight, but I’ve taken several up in airplanes or just out to the airport and shown them how everything works on the plane, what everything does, etc. Including one of my best students who has 30 hours and has been working towards his PPL, but can’t afford to finish. And he genuinely wants to be a pilot in the military.

    In essence your entire article never says anything except that flying is rewarding, but a license isn’t just handed to you. Well, not to sound flippant, but anyone could figure that out. And let’s face it, it’s not that challenging to get your PPL, at the very least. I honestly couldn’t tell if your tactics were designed to encourage kids to fly or to discourage those that might not have a die hard interest in it right out of the box. You give one specific instance where you decided not to lie to a child, and I applaud you for that, but I cannot fathom how that brings you to what I think is your conclusion of pushing away kids with the challenges of flying. You also bring up things like playstations and HDTV making actual flight pedestrian and it just sounds like you’re out of touch with kids more than anything else.

    To quote your own article, you said you had been saying to kids ” Oh, it’s thrilling, fun and life-changing. Go for it!.” At what point in that statement were you lying to kids and saying it’s easy? Every single thing you said is 100% spot on. It is thrilling, it is fun, and it is life changing. And anyone that wants to fly should go for it.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with playing up how rewarding flying is. Now, I think if someone is seriously considering it as a career vs. just a past time there may be some wildly different advice that they should be given, but I can honestly say I’d rather be flying than doing almost anything else whether it’s doing aerobatics, getting from point A to point B at 400 knots, or putting around in a 152. I’d like to think every other pilot can, as well. People are always enticed by the allure of something. You either love it enough to tough it out or you don’t. There’s no advice regarding the challenges of flying that will change that. I think you’re doing a much greater disservice to youth interested in flying if you try to intimidate them with the challenges of flying. No one at a career fair extols the horrors of organic chemistry on would be doctors.

    If anyone, of any age, was interested in flying and getting their PPL; I’d tell them how amazing it is and to go for it. Sure people quit, for a variety of reasons, but whatever happened to telling people to shoot for their dreams? which is one of the reasons I brought up my student struggling to get his PPL. I mainly work with very poor students and we were actually travelling for a competition and we stopped to do some aerobatic flying with a friend of mine, and an ex-air force pilot was there in his bi-plane. And he was really in awe of some of the stuff we do and bringing the kids to the airport, and he made sure to say to my student “never stop chasing your dreams and you’ll make it happen.” Or something to that effect anyway, which I genuinely got as the antithesis to your article.

    If I was going to be honest with a student learning to fly some of the best and most seriously advice I’d give them would revolve around the biggest challenge facing most normal people looking to fly which is money. Let’s face it, you better have a trust fund devoted to flying, or join the military if you really want to fly. At the same time, some of the best advice I was ever given was: “No one can afford to fly. If you wait until you can afford a license, you’ll never get a license.” It’s really true too, if you want something enough, you make it happen and sometimes the rest of your life suffers, that’s the way it is.

    I’m sorry, but if you’d suggested a revision of the entire flight training system, or a way to make flying in some way available to underprivileged or at-risk youth, a new way to entice children to get into flying, or some suggestion that might be an improvement on flight training I could praise this article, but I really don’t even understand what the point of the article was after reading it. If anything it was really discouraging to read from the point of view of someone who actively tries to get youth involved in things like flying.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Andy. Let’s get one thing clear: I think we should all encourage young people, and I do it all the time. I am completely against the attitude some pilots have where they try to scare kids away. As I said, “we must keep encouraging the next generation of pilots.” Period.

      But there’s a huge difference between encouraging kids to pursue flight training and telling them it’s easy. Yet I hear many pilots do exactly that. We rewrite our own histories to pretend it was destiny: “I took one flight and it was magic; I solo’d at 16 and have been flying ever since.” That’s often BS, and it makes it sound like you were either born a pilot or you weren’t. I love flying more than anything, but not because it’s easy or some kind of extreme sport.

      I think there is a realistic way to encourage kids (or anyone for that matter) that is neither naive nor scary. We do it with college, at least I think most parents do. We tell them it will be fun, life-changing and exciting, but it will take work and sacrifice. Same for marriage. Good things in life take work and sacrifice, and don’t offer instant gratification. That reality check all I’m asking for here.

      As for suggestions, there are plenty of places to start. I shared a few ideas in an older article: http://airfactsjournal.com/2012/03/want-to-fix-flight-training-have-some-fun/

      I know we’re all desperate to get more pilots in this country, but we can’t let that desperation lead us into distorting reality. I’d like to see a little less cheer-leading and a little more mentoring.

  • I took up flying at a late age (late 50’s). Some friends took me flying and I was hooked.
    It took me a long time and many hours to solo as financial obligations caused me to stop and start. Some of my CFI’s moved on to flying larger aircraft for livelihoods. Some of the airplanes were absolute rattletraps and it’s miraculous that they didn’t fall apart.
    I finally found a school where the airplanes and instructors are top notch.
    There were several occasions when I wanted to throw my flight bag in the dumpster and pack it in-usually because of the last landing or a botched maneuver such as approach-to-landing stall.
    I finally passed my check ride on the second attempt after an unbelievable number of hours and years of instruction.

    My advice to young people is if you really want it there will be difficulties but don’t give up. Hang in there-keep studying for your written test, read all you can on the subject, take the AOPA Safety and FAA Wings courses and don’t forget your training when in the plane.

    My DPE suggested ‘chair flying’ in which you sit at a chair and simulate your flying-reaching for the correct control(s), practicing emergency procedures such as engine failure (going through the checklist) as well as cross-controlled slips and stalls.

    Getting my private pilot certificate has been one of my very proudest moments.

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