11 min read

Much of the blame for general aviation’s current weakness falls on flight schools. An AOPA study found the dropout rate among student pilots as high as 80% at some flight schools. But while miracle cures abound, from all-simulator training to new airplanes to different training styles, we thought we would check in with a flight school that is successful in today’s tough market. Sporty’s Academy President Eric Radtke says his school is busier than ever, and it doesn’t require huge investments or gimmicks. His school’s 100% student completion rate backs it up.

John was a confident, successful businessman whose sights were set on earning a pilot certificate. Flying his own airplane was something that had always been in the back of John’s mind, and the prospect of purchasing a light airplane for business use was the practical nudge needed to bring John to his local airport for flying lessons.

Already overloaded with commitments (work, family, hobbies, etc.), he took lessons only when his busy schedule meshed with that of the instructor he had been assigned. Needless to say, John never really gained any traction or continuity in his training. Worse, he never was able to develop a meaningful relationship with any flight instructor, given the predictably short tenure of most of the staff. Accustomed to success in so many other areas of his life, John became frustrated by his lack of progress and gravitated to other interests competing for his time and discretionary dollars.

First solo

Move the goal posts – the first solo is a critical milestone, but overlooked by many flight schools.

On this particular day, though, John’s typically neat appearance and serious demeanor were replaced with a slightly disheveled look, some beads of sweat across his brow, and an air of tremendous satisfaction. John had just completed his first solo flight at Sporty’s–the traditional three laps around the traffic pattern with full-stop landings in the utterly tranquil environment of an instructor-less cockpit. I was there following his third landing, and knowing his history and how important this day was to him, I offered my sincerest congratulations along with about twenty other flight school employees and fellow students. A round of applause and some pats on the back were exactly what John needed to know that he was indeed a valued member of the Sporty’s community and that so many shared in the pride of his accomplishment.

Later, we cut John’s shirttail, displayed it at the flight school for a few weeks, then framed it to create a memento John will cherish forever. In addition, it will be a great marketing tool when people ask him about the framed shirttail with the markings, “First Solo, June 12, Clermont County Airport.”

John journeyed back to aviation in response to a description of “finish-up” programs at Sporty’s flight school–Sporty’s Academy. The description wasn’t fancy, but it offered a service that responded to John’s individual needs. By taking into account his past experiences and end goal, Sporty’s formulated a plan of action to see him through to his pilot certificate in a timely manner.

We believe that John’s success was the result of a collection of strategies we have implemented at Sporty’s Academy. After examining areas of our business that needed improvement, we took ownership of the total training experience by nurturing a company-wide appreciation for the fact that providing a quality product with broad appeal trumps any marketing campaign—and you don’t have to write a check!

Here is what we do to create a positive, customer-centric experience:

Modular Training – manageable goals make it fun and keep training focused

Modern consumers are seeking less commitment, not more. Sporty’s extensive experience in aviation education, including more than 20 years managing its own flight school, demonstrates that customers learn most effectively when the training process is divided into manageable steps. These steps, or modules, should connect to previous information, creating a building-block approach to pilot experiences, ultimately saving time and money. For a practical application of this principle, consider that regardless of one’s ultimate goal in flying, everyone must solo. So focus training efforts on this most important milestone and be open to what the next step may be.

In simpler times, the private license was the “gateway” certificate, allowing a pilot to add “advanced degrees,” such as an instrument rating, as it became necessary. However, the requirements are greater for the private certificate today than for a commercial certificate half a century ago. For many people, this is more than what they need to accomplish their aviation goals.

Private certificate

It’s not all about the Private Pilot certificate – using the Recreational or Sport as a stepping stone can pay benefits.

A private certificate alone may take at least 6 months and 70+ hours of flying time. The journey is filled with ups and downs before a pilot is able to begin enjoying the fruits of his/her labor. Today, a more reasonable approach, and an approach more likely to result in success, is to aim for the solo first and then to utilize the recreational or sport pilot certificate as the gateway.

Pilot candidates pursuing these licenses learn how to control the aircraft, master simple navigation techniques, and safely take off and land on a nice afternoon. Once certified, they can show a friend his house from the air, look at the mountains, view the city, or cruise over a beach–in other words, experience the simple pleasures of flight that likely attracted them to aviation in the first place.

The sport or recreational training curriculum helps to develop habits and instincts that will increase a pilot’s likelihood of success in more advanced training courses and will allow that pilot to build valuable PIC experience along the way. Flight experience may be credited toward advanced privileges, so enjoying the moment contributes to the next goal.

Pilot training is a very personal experience, and each individual will need to consider how he/she learns most effectively and what best fits with long-term goals and current lifestyle. There is no wrong answer to how one begins. The important first step: get to the initial solo.

Finish-Up Programs – give identity to something you already do

Finish-up or completion programs are a marketer’s dream, as these customized course offerings are generally nothing more than taking something you likely are doing already and giving it a face and a name. If you believe (or even partially believe) the troubling statistics regarding retention rates at flight schools, there’s a massive market of consumers who have already identified themselves as likely candidates for a pilot certificate. At some point in the past, they took the time to come to an airport and seek training. Somewhere along the way, for reasons unimportant now, they did not reach that goal.

Simply identifying yourself as an instructor or flight school that recognizes this student as unique, in terms of past experience, demonstrates confidence and understanding; however, it would be a disservice to deliver this message if you weren’t committed to seeing it through.

Patience, persistence and flexibility must be in your skill set to make this training work for your customers. Instructors must be adaptable, and management supportive, to deliver a dynamic strategy in a generally narrow window of opportunity. Further, our experience has shown that if a customer’s departure from a previous flight school was the result of a negative experience (which it often is), more counsel and encouragement may be necessary than with a traditional student. Schedules must remain fluid; and it’s imperative, as in any training program, to adhere to a written syllabus to ensure that any instructor can step in to take responsibility for the training program with no noticeable disruption.

Simulation Integration – used the right way, this will enhance the flight training experience

Frasca Mentor simulator

Simulators, when used properly, can play a critical role.

A great deal of attention has been given to the benefits of simulation. In the Midwest, where Sporty’s Academy is located, it is a vital tool to success and to continuity of training, especially during the winter months when cloudy, flightless days can linger for weeks.

It doesn’t have to entail elaborate devices and hours of programming, but a plan for the use of simulation is a must. A simple list of tasks, maneuvers, or even complete lessons from your current syllabus will create a simulation package for the simplest of devices. A menu of training tasks provides enough autonomy to allow instructors to create unique learning experiences for their students, but with sufficient structure to keep training focused and within the established curriculum and company guidelines.

The tougher task is determining the right mix of flight and simulation. While the choice may seem fairly obvious if the weather outside doesn’t permit an aircraft lesson, keep in mind that most of your students are at the flight school to fly aircraft, not simulators. The key is to be mindful of your students’ individual needs and motivation. Flight simulation is certainly not a one-size-fits-all program, and despite the promise of cost savings, previous AOPA research suggests that consumers may not be quite as price sensitive as you might think. Remember, the universal language of product/service appeal is not dollars, but value.

Community atmosphere – make the airport a destination

The airport has to be a fun place to visit or guess what? They won’t come! There are several easy, high-impact strategies to employ that won’t cost a dime.

Ensure that your students know their way around campus so it doesn’t look and feel like a strange place when they return for the second lesson. Make introductions to other staff and students and emphasize that the airport is a place to come anytime–not just on lesson day. You don’t want the airport to be perceived solely as a training location.

A) You want your students coming to the airport to fly (sounds more fun than to train).

B) Your students will be much better equipped for success knowing they’re part of the group and not an outsider.

The airport should be a place where a flight student can meet friends; learn about the success, motivation and even struggles of others; and garner support from like-minded individuals. It also must be a welcoming place to non-aviators who may be part of that student’s support network (friends and/or family). A comfortable, inviting and clean facility will enhance the airport experience for visitors and encourage them to return, even participate. You have the opportunity to create lifelong airport advocates who will recommend your school and facility.

Seminar at airport

Airport open houses and seminars are a great way to create a community of pilots and keep student motivated.

Fly-ins, open houses, seminars and other social events provide venues to attract customers, disseminate information, and learn more about the needs of the aviation community. Slightly less personal, but vitally important, is utilizing your website, electronic communications and/or blogs to serve the same ongoing purpose. These media outlets can offer encouragement to would-be aviators and reminders to everyone about what’s happening at your airport.

Equally important is taking advantage of social media platforms, which allow customers to interact, share ideas and experiences, and celebrate their accomplishments. While it may seem like a monumental task to manage Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google+, and Pinterest accounts, the fact is that it has already become an expectation of customers to be able to communicate and interact via these outlets. Social media outlets also offer prime space to provide recognition of accomplishments and milestones. Today, we mustn’t expect our customers to be where we want them to be; rather, we need to be everywhere our customers are. 

More about John…

After John’s impromptu solo celebration in the lobby, news of his accomplishment and related pictures were distributed not only to local media outlets (many of which have online submission forms and appreciate the content), but also to social media outlets and directly to John, with the recommendation that he share them with friends and family. His picture, marking the occasion, still hangs on the “solo” wall, very close to a more recent picture of his checkride celebration.

Renewing your focus in flight training on the customer doesn’t require a brand manager or marketing consultant to be successful. Review your procedures and processes with a critical eye or even enlist the help of a non-aviator to gather feedback on what your customer’s expectations should be when they walk through the door.

A healthy exercise is to examine your personal interaction with other businesses across a variety of consumer products and services. Create lists of positive and negative experiences and determine which of those positive experiences can be replicated in some manner in flight training. Equally important is how to avoid the unpleasant experiences.

The first step in becoming a customer-centric entity is an honest acknowledgement of areas requiring improvement. The second is an organization-wide commitment to positive change.

Eric Radtke
12 replies
  1. Edward Todd
    Edward Todd says:

    I still want to know why we keep saying 70+ hours? Are instructors padding the time to make more from each student or are students just trying to fly once a month and so lose the ‘feel’ of it between lessons? I flew about once a week at a Part 141 school and within six months passed my PPL with the minimum 36 hours. I AM NOT bragging about my ability. I wasn’t any better than anyone else. Most everyone else I knew in the school was doing the same. This was back in the ’70s …. but many students are still flying those same planes today. Studying the same material. There is a HUGE difference in costs between 70+ hours and 36-40.

  2. Frank
    Frank says:

    When reading about John I thought I was listening to my own story. Being a businessman with little time but highest motivation to fly I managed to solo after one year and get my written exam after two. I completed all necessary solo cross country and night flights for the practical test about 8 months ago and still don’t see an end of my training. Based in Las Vegas with very challenging conditions in the summer and a flight school that provided me 8 instructors in 2.5 year I am frustrated more than ever and getting comfortable with the idea of quitting completely. In my flight school instructors see their job just as an intermediate step in their aviation career lacking commitment to teach and educational skills. Forced to accept a new teacher every 4 months I literally have to start from zero each time again because of the totally different approach of every instructor. Unfortunately due to my tight time schedule I can’t use any other school since it is the only one located close to my neighborhood with the plane I want to fly. I am so short of my goal but it seems to be further away than ever. I highly appreciate any advice.

    • Paul
      Paul says:

      Hi Frank,

      I just read this article and your response really hit home with me! I started flying almost 30 years ago – but didn’t really get anywhere with my training in the first couple of years for all the same reasons you outlined. I stuck with my flight school, however and started kinda forcing the issue of wanting to get finished by making more frequent flights or lessons. I was lucky to finally get a couple of older instructors who were truly interested in MY training and not just building time (they each had over 10,000 hrs in small planes). I have been a private pilot now for 20 years and I still remember the frustration of trying to complete my training like it was yesterday. Please don’t give up! The best instructors I had kept a running tally of how many students they graduated not how many hours they were racking up.

  3. Gary Pirnat
    Gary Pirnat says:

    At age 61 I decided last year to finish what I had started back when I was 19… earn my private pilot’s license. With the same thoughts in mind as noted in the article first I’d solo, then earn my Sport Pilot License and advance from there. One would think that with so many flight schools throughout the Los Angeles area there would be at least a half dozen or more that would offer training for the sport pilot certificate. I actually found two within reasonable driving distance who at the onset appeared to be interested is my gaining my sport license. But, eventually each one did their best to discourage me from the sport license and to go for the PP. This to me is one of the issues at hand. As with most other endeavors it just makes good sense to start with the basics and advance from there, which is what your program appears to offer. Others should read this article and act accordingly.


    John Zimmerman, the claim that 80% of the drop-out rate is due to flight schools or flight instructors is incredibly wrong. There is no reason to perpetuate this mistaken belief. In 2010, AOPA came out with this “study” based on opinion not research, it is a baseless fallacy. It was nothing more than an exageration of fact finalizing as a disservice to the flight training community.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I’m not sure I believe the stat or not, but it’s absolutely true that some flight schools have very high dropout rates and others have almost no dropout rate. We can (and should) debate the cause of that difference, but it should make us all think.

  5. Duane
    Duane says:

    In my opinion, flight schools are a dinosaur, with most of their functions (except aircraft rentals) easily replaced by computer and online training. I don’t believe simulators should be used for primary flight training – they’re fine for type training in expensive airframes, but there is no substitute for flying an actual airplane when one is simply learning to fly. Simulators mainly serve as a revenue generator for flight schools during periods of inclement weather – but they don’t serve the students, however.

    The key to effective flight training, which is vastly more important than any gimmicks that Sporty’s or any other flight schools can gin up, is effective, professional flight instructors who love to fly and who love to teach, and who are not just timebuilders waiting to hire on with the regional airlines or get a corporate gig.

    A great professional flight instructor will train generations of pilots to fly successfully and to love the experience. On the other hand, a terrible flight instructor (of which apparently there are far too many today) can easily ruin dozens of aspiring flight students before they move on to their real career.

    The ideal model for flight training should not be oriented around the concept of a “flight school”. Rather, flight training should be oriented around a cadre of great professional flight instructors. The flight school business model has probably done more to cause the decline of GA flying than anything except the high costs of flying … and most flight schools have greatly exacerbated the high costs of flight training by tolerating bad flight instructors and of course, profiting directly from extended, 70-100+ hour PP training slogs.

  6. anon
    anon says:

    The notion that the sport pilot license is quicker to acquire than a PPL is false. The SPL knowledge test includes 95% of the same questions as the PPL test. And the PTS for sport pilot and private pilot is the same, except the sport PTS lacks VOR navigation. In the end, I can’t imagine that a sport license saves more than 10 hours (from no night flying requirements and fewer cross country hours). A student who is ready to pass the sport PTS is ready to pass the private PTS.

    Given the cost of the knowledge test is $150, and a ride with a DPE is $300, the “reduced” sport pilot hours aren’t saving anyone much money.

    Of course, if you’re a former pilot who lost your medical, the sport pilot is great.


    October 9, 2013.

    John, I have been in the flight instruction business for many years, I am 71, I am married to a recently retired female Air Traffic Controller, I have given thousands of hours of dual flight and ground instruction, for pay and for free, I keep an open mind learning new technologies and equipment and I am sensitive to the intricacies of human factors involved in the flight instruction process and aviation in general.

    Although I can say that my home and business life is all about aviation I recognize that I am not aviation perfect – I don’t have all the answers, therefore I try to remain teachable while confident of my skills and ability to effectively and pragmatically serve as a mentor to a variety of flight students, young and old, male or female, clients from many nations, with different educational and work backgrounds. I teach well adapting to my pupils’ learning rate and developing abilities. I am a passionate flyer, believing that I am just one of many with the same ardor. My students and colleagues.

    Student drop-outs. In my work’s experience and that of my flight school’s, the drop-out rate tally could not amount to more than two percent of the student enrollment for training. Maybe it is because of the Palm Springs demographics, maybe it’s the school’s happy demeanor or our wonderful personalities and experience, I don’t know for sure and I doubt anyone else can define this. What I am sure of is that I love what I do and at the end of the day I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction. And I am not alone on this, many of my comrades feel the same way even working under pay that ends at or below the poverty level and sometimes not even meeting the overhead costs or hangar rent.

    After the AOPA 2010 “study” was published, one of my colleagues commented that we had just been thrown under the bus and that he felt as if we were the most under-appreciated mentors on earth. On that day, all the passion we nurtured for flying would have not made us feel any better as we were angry and disillusioned. AOPA was wrong and irresponsible – they had just slapped all of us across the face. After reading more about Fuller’s approach I understood their marketing strategy but still would not agree on sacrificing the flight instruction core. I did not like the thought of it then and has been harder to tolerate as time goes by. Their premise was indeed a fallacy, an ill spirited call to action now being made a fact. I hope that you understand my position – there is nothing to gain by rekindling this. The blame game needs to end, the solutions will flow after we gather with singleness of purpose in enhancing what we have, arresting the pilot decline and increasing new starts.

  8. Dallas j
    Dallas j says:

    Start with a sensible curriculum for the instructors to teach, something newer than 1978. Or maybe newer planes that aren’t a joke (lsa) or over priced.

    Many times during my (recent) flight training I questioned if I wanted to get any closer to the FAA.


    This report is based on the S.M. Thesis of Kamala I. Shetty submitted to the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Report No. ICAT-2012-6
    August 2012

    MIT International Center for Air Transportation (ICAT)
    Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Cambridge, MA 02139 USA

    ” …An exploratory survey of 1,250 general aviation pilots was conducted as a way to give context to these trends and to help shed light as to what factors affect an individual pilot’s flying activity. As also seen in the historical trends, fuel costs and costs in general have had a major influence on the activity levels of those surveyed.

    The results of the survey echoed what the trends implied – economic recessions and fuel costs are major factors that impede the growth of activity. An interesting result of the survey that was not clearly evident in the data indicated that available free time has also been a major factor in affecting activity levels.

    Another goal of the survey was to gain perspective on the future of general aviation. When asked what would help stimulate their activity in the future, pilots wished for less cumbersome regulations, better access to aircraft through rentals or flying clubs, and an overall decrease in costs.

    In the responses of the surveyed pilots,increasing costs, increased regulation, lack of public understanding of the role of general aviation, and the declining pilot population stand out as the biggest challenges that general aviation faces.”

    John Zimmerman, this is a relatively recent survey with a conclusion based on good and balance research. Cost is one of the major factors affecting the decline of the pilot population while the flight instruction core is not. Where is the 2010 AOPA’s “Pilot Retention Initiative” now?

  10. Smart Flight Training
    Smart Flight Training says:

    “Remember, the universal language of product/service appeal is not dollars, but value.”

    Holy cow is that ever true – how many people buy boats or jet skis or a sports car or a motorcycle or an ATV (or two) or a snowmobile (or two) or the newest golf equipment (or skiing / snowboarding, etc.)? Do they complain that it is “too expensive?” NO! They just see a better immediate value in those things than in flying. That’s it.

    So the question is: how do we better show the value in learning to fly?

    Andrew Hartley

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