Training logistics—the forgotten problem with learning to fly

I have a grandson who is a little under two years old and is coming along nicely as a prospective airplane nut. One of the first words he learned to say was airplane, or “apane” in his language. When we visit, it’s not long before he’s pointing at my computer, saying “apane,” which is the request for me to go to YouTube and find videos of planes landing somewhere. He really prefers takeoffs. “Off” is how that comes out. But since there are more landing videos than takeoff videos, we usually end up grading the landings we see.

I preach to him about the need for stabilized approaches and how they usually result in good landings. Boeing and Airbus are both in his vocabulary, even if he can’t identify which is which yet.

Kid at airport fence
How do you take a kid from watching airplanes to flying them?

They live about a mile from Washington National airport, so when we get a chance, we go over and watch the planes. He occasionally will clap when one lands, while anxiously looking for the next one. With the number of regional jets landing there, we’re also having to work on him saying Embraer. I haven’t gotten brave enough to have him try Bombardier yet, but we talk about CRJs. We’re already making plans for Oshkosh in a couple of years. I’m pleased with his progress.

When I learned to fly, it was in Lubbock, Texas. The airport was maybe 20 minutes from where I lived and it was easy to get there. A new Cherokee rented for $14 an hour and the instructor was an additional $4.00. Of course, my salary from my part time work was $1.65 an hour, which was minimum wage, so it took a long time to save enough to afford an hour, but I persisted.

Obviously, you can add a zero to that $18 per hour wet rental rate today, but then minimum wage is a little more than $1.65. Airplane inflation has gone up more than wage inflation, but if my grandson wanted to learn to fly when he’s old enough, I suspect the money wouldn’t be an issue. The thing that has changed in his case—more than the money—is the logistics.

I mentioned they live close to DCA. Let’s assume he decides when he is 16 he wants to get his private license. The closest airport to where they live that he could train at is probably Manassas, Virginia (HEF), which is an hour’s drive each way, and that’s if there’s no traffic backup (which there usually is). There’s also Montgomery County (GAI), but it’s no closer. He could always go over to College Park, Maryland (CGS), which is probably closer but harder to get to, and it’s inside the restricted area around the capital, which presents challenges of its own. I’m not sure there is even a flight school there.

While the DC area is a unique place as far as traffic is concerned, it’s not the only one. A kid growing up in New York City or Boston would have the same challenge. While it’s a different issue, so would a kid growing up in the sparsely populated western states. There may be some airports, but when you have an area the size of some entire eastern seaboard states with populations that could fit inside a movie theatre, it’s unlikely there is going to be a flight school. And yes, there are some counties in the western part of Texas whose area would eclipse the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island, with populations of less than 500. I’ll guarantee you there’s no convenient flight school. Even where I grew up in Texas, which is reasonably populated, the closest flight school is probably 80 miles away.

Learn to fly sign 1960s
Prices have gone up, but the number of airports has gone down too.

We obviously have a pilot shortage, which shows no sign of abating. Steps are being taken to address this, but I have seen no one address the issue of local flight training availability. Sure, when a kid leaves home, they can go to a college or large metropolitan airport and get their ratings, but is there some way we can make airports and training more accessible on a local level? How do you even foster an interest in aviation that would lead a young person to want to fly? I’m not giving a solution. Just raising the question. How many young people might be attracted to aviation if there were a flight school in a small town that would work with the local school system to at least teach ground school and give a ride? There might even be some older people who would fly if there was a convenient opportunity.

Of course, there is idealism and there is economic reality. A flight school has to make money and you don’t do that without volume. Most small town airports can’t even support a full time FBO, let alone a flight school.

I would love for my grandson to know the joy that aviation has given me, and some day, perhaps he will live in a place where flight training is available. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to watching lots more “apanes” on the computer, teaching him more important words like “Beechcraft,” “Cessna,” “Mooney,” “Piper,” and “Bellanca.” His parents are cooperating. They took him to the Air and Space Museum recently, and they do occasionally take him to DCA to watch the planes when I’m not there. He probably knows as much or more about what he’s seeing as they do, but at least they take him. The Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles will be next. We’ll keep working on this and maybe, in 14 years, there will be a convenient flight school available.

At least I hope so. And I hope it for all kids who grow up loving airplanes, not just my grandson.

12 Comments

  • I live in Ohio and am fortunate enough to have at least 3 airports within 20 min where someone can train to fly. For the rest, I’d like to see the FAA catch up with the times and foster the possibility of more simulators. Imagine a simulator center in a strip mall near your grandson’s home where he could take ground school and then practice the skills he needs to move to a real airplane for a fraction of the cost. The time is right for someone to launch a business like this near major population centers.

  • I live in Eastern Idaho and have 6 airports within an hour of my house. Two airports have flight schools, as a freelance instructor I fly with clients at all of them. There is usually a waiting list for an instructor that can take a student on, which is limiting the growth, but the designated examiners are our real bottle neck.
    Our closest DPE is two hours away and some of them are charging $950 to come and do a ppl test! Last summer it was often 2-3 weeks before one would ever return a call and then 6 weeks to get on their schedule. We have resorted to sending students to other DPEs in other FSDOs to get a guy a license.
    Being a good citizen I decided to apply as a DPE but the FSDO said they don’t have a need for one in our area. Wtf? Doing a survey; in the last year, just from instructors I know in the local area we did 44 check rides, 30 of those were from DPEs outside of our FSDO. Many more students were ready but moved or gave up in the end.
    It seems like a cruel injustice to have a guy all ready but unable to get a pilot test done. Maybe your grandson will be fortunate to not live where he can spend thousands of dollars to not get a chance to test at the end of it all.

    • You hit the nail down b the head! The FS Dios are staffed with some of the worst arrogant useless lazy people on the face of the earth. And they don’t want to take the time to designate any DPE’s. Most of the DOE’s are treated horribly by the ops inspectors. The FAA was once noted for promoting Aviation. When I first began to fly the ops inspectors that we had in our local GADO would come to you and say ”I know something let me teach you.” Now they come to you and say “I know something and if you don’t find out what it is I’m gonna bust you.”
      People complain about the cost of a check ride, the DPE’s,s are under horrible pressure From local FSDO’s and it takes 6 to 8 hours to give a check ride. What do people expect. This is all unnecessary. But that’s the way the FAA works.
      AOPA, NATA, NBAA EAA And other aviation organizations need to address this issue immediately. Put pressure on the FAA to become the organization that it was designed to be and enhance aviation, not try to legislate it out of existence.

    • You hit the nail on the head! The FSDO’s are staffed with some of the worst arrogant useless lazy people on the face of the earth. And they don’t want to take the time to designate any DPE’s. Most of the DOE’s are treated horribly by the ops inspectors. The FAA was once noted for promoting Aviation. When I first began to fly the ops inspectors that we had in our local GADO would come to you and say ”I know something let me teach you.” Now they come to you and say “I know something and if you don’t find out what it is I’m gonna bust you.”
      People complain about the cost of a check ride, the DPE’s,s are under horrible pressure From local FSDO’s and it takes 6 to 8 hours to give a check ride. What do people expect. This is all unnecessary. But that’s the way the FAA works.
      AOPA, NATA, NBAA EAA And other aviation organizations need to address this issue immediately. Put pressure on the FAA to become the organization that it was designed to be and enhance aviation, not try to legislate it out of existence.

  • KVKX known as Potomac Airfield, a mere twenty minutes away just as when you were growing up. Check it out next time you visit your grandchild. We love visitors.

    • VKX is a great general aviation airport for you and your grandson to visit in the DC area. Lots of planes, activity, and friendly people. And, they have flight schools! You could take an intro flight with him.

  • You don’t need to wait to take him to Oshkosh! My grandson loved it starting around 5.
    And start him on flight simulators. The new Microsoft FS2020 will be out soon and promises cinematic realism.

    If you are still near DC, you and he can try your hand on a full motion B-737-800 simulator at a mall in Bethesda. Look up Dream Aero

  • Jay,
    Excellent post! That little boy could have been me 70 years ago. My dad was in the Air Force and sometimes I got to go to the air base and hang on the fence and watch the C-119’s and later the C-130’s takeoff and land. Not sure I could even pronounce Hercules?
    Long story short, this little boy got to fulfill his dream of flying. 50 years and 27,000 hours of accident free flying props and jets and still going!
    Lt.Col.Chuck Stone USAF/AUX/TWA/AA

  • Your grandson is very lucky to have you as a Grandad ….but for me the problem begins even before we start looking for airports to train at. It begins much earlier as most kids never even consider aviation careers. As a docent at a large DC area aviation museum, when I am not doing tours, I run a Space Shuttle sim. For many years now, when I see families with junior high/high school age kids who are clearly enjoying flying the sim, I always ask what their school guidance counselors say about aviation careers and I have NEVER had a positive response. I asked AOPA for handouts to provide info, and AOPA said they didn’t do that. Finally, Women In Aviation helped me out. So we in the industry really need to work hard, at younger ages to get them interested!

  • Beautiful underscore to a relevant question. I had my training done 4000 miles from my hometown, and it was not a bad idea: being far made me more focused on the task. But like you said, many people don’t get into aviation for a lack of nearby opportunity. That also happened to me: when I was 16, I used to live 50 miles from the closest airport, and although I wanted to be a pilot for over a decade by then, I didn’t even know how to. It took me another decade to become a flight attendant, and, flying in the airlines, figure out how, another decade later, become a pilot. There’s no easy way, and all are valid. I hope your grandson, with your gentle support, finds his.

  • Lack of airports might be a problem in many places, but here in central Iowa I have an excellent flight school 20 min away in Ankeny. My problem, as a 15 year old, is money! My family has one income, since I’m homeschooled, so that’s my struggle.

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