A friend of mine likes to say, “if you can’t fix it, feature it!” He usually says this with a smile, but it’s actually great advice, a reminder to play the hand you’re dealt instead of worrying about what could be. While this saying applies to many parts of life, I often think of it when talking about general aviation’s message to the wider world.
That’s because earning a pilot certificate is one of the most difficult things you can do as a hobby. While technology has made many activities easier these days, pilots still have to learn about magnetos and Morse code, bank angle and Bernoulli. There are no weekend courses at swanky resorts that check the box for “pilot” the way you can for scuba diving or off-road driving—it’s hard work. For some aviation boosters, that’s a problem; for others, it’s an opportunity.
So, should we fix it or feature it?
Richard Collins, who knew more about general aviation than any man I’ve ever known, firmly believed the challenge of learning to fly was a feature, not a bug. As he wrote some years ago on this site: “the best sales pitch is to offer flying as something that offers a challenge and then ask the question: ‘Do you have what it takes to be a good pilot and are you successful enough to afford flying?’ The cost and nature of flying makes it an elitist activity so why not sell it as such?”
In the other corner is Cirrus. This once-small startup has taken over the market for new piston airplanes by embracing an “anyone can do it” philosophy. As their website advertises, “Travel becomes efficient and effortless – whether you’re looking to streamline your work days or redefine your weekends.” This isn’t as naive as some detractors make it out to be. Through smart marketing, a fresh approach to training, and relentless improvements to their product, plenty of people have bought SR22s who have no romantic attachment to aviation. They believe they can both learn to fly and use a piston airplane for reliable transportation. Thousands of owners do just that, with an impressive safety record of late. Of course, it’s easy to say this when the airplane costs over $700,000, but other companies offer similar visions for far less money.
To me, this debate about making flying easy or hard is really a proxy war for the “old school vs. new school” camps. Are iPads a distracting gadget or a valuable tool for safe flying? Are autopilots a crutch for a new generation of pilots who don’t know how to hand-fly, or an essential part of an IFR cockpit? Do real pilots fly taildraggers? Where you come down on these barstool debates probably lines up with your philosophy about flying in general.
If you think being a pilot makes you part of an exclusive club, and thus the plastic certificate is a symbol of great skill and accomplishment, then you don’t want flying to be easy. For such pilots, flying is like sailing: the whole point is not to get somewhere in the most efficient manner, but to triumph over nature. Put away the technology and go on gut feel!
On the other hand, if you want to use an airplane for reliable family and business travel—or if you want general aviation to be a mass market activity—then you want flying to be as easy as it can be. Engines should be simple to start, a touchscreen GPS navigator is table stakes, and flight training with a whiz wheel from the 1950s just seems weird. Forget sailboats, let’s rent a jet ski!
Part of the reason general aviation struggles with this question is the strong influence of the military on the industry’s early growth. Quite simply, World War II cast a long shadow over flight training in the 20th century. By 1951 the US pilot population had grown from 34,000 just 12 years earlier to nearly 600,000, and a majority of those new aviators had been trained either by the US Army Air Force or in related programs like the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
As a result, the first generation of GA pilots (the ones who would found hundreds of flight schools and write dozens of training manuals) was made up almost exclusively of young men who believed a pilot’s license was something you had to earn, often by surviving demanding instructors and a culture that prioritized “washing out” anyone who couldn’t hack it. The Ercoupe was mocked by many at the time, because supposedly “real pilots use rudders.” This macho attitude might have been the right approach in 1944, when pilots were being trained to fly temperamental machines into combat, but it seems a lot less applicable to the average weekend warrior.
With World War II now 75 years in the rear view mirror, some of this culture has started to change, as a new generation of flight instructors adapts to the preferences of modern customers. And yet pilots still look to history for guidance and inspiration. Consider Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand, and Stars, an aviation classic that beautifully describes the appeal of flying for so many pilots. A friend of mine who flies big jets recently described it as “the last time flying was really an adventure!”
That may be true, but it’s also a rose-tinted view of the past. Sure, as Saint-Ex flies over remote stretches of African desert or the rugged peaks of the Andes, it’s easy to find yourself wishing for a return to this world of independence and high stakes flights. But as the book so carefully describes, challenge and risk are often two sides of the same coin: “Navigating by the compass in a sea of clouds over Spain is all very well, it is very dashing… But you want to remember that below the sea of clouds lies eternity.” Such passages are almost prophetic; remember this immensely talented writer died in a plane crash.
We should be realistic: this pioneering era is over and never coming back. Certainly in the airline world, any debate was settled long ago. Companies with financial targets to hit have no interest in making flying an exotic activity for a brave few. The whole point is to systematize everything so that going from New York to San Francisco is boringly safe for passengers and routine for the anonymous crew up front. While some of us might long for the glamor of Pan Am flying boats, I doubt anyone actually wants to travel to their next business meeting that way.
The right answer for general aviation isn’t quite so simple. Safety is still important (I would argue undervalued), but most pilots want some balance between challenge and practicality, between a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of relaxation. Striking that balance means considering technology, training curricula, industry marketing messages, and the difficult to define “pilot culture.” Each can impact how hard or easy personal aviation is, in practice and in perception.
One area that does a surprisingly good job of reflecting these tradeoffs is the Federal Aviation Regulations, which grant Part 91 pilots significant freedom and significant privileges. Should you fly that LPV approach to 250 feet at night in a 75-year old airplane? Should you file a flight plan for a 1000-mile VFR cross country? It’s up to the pilot in command to decide, but if you answer yes then the resources are available to use. The tools are provided but not required.
This seems like the right way to think about the “hard or easy” question—as with so many other things in life, it’s not an either/or decision. Under this philosophy flying should be as easy as we can make it, especially for new pilots, but we should also retain the option to take on more challenging flights if desired. One pilot may dream about flying taildraggers to remote airports and feel a rush of excitement when she masters that squirrely airplane. Another might have no use for such historical pursuits, preferring to enjoy the view from 8,000 feet as he cruises along on autopilot. Both are rewarding, and we shouldn’t pretend one is more authentic than the other.
This debate matters, because advancing technology will only pose harder questions in the years to come. I’m not talking about overhyped “urban mobility” drone plans here – the dronification of airplanes has already begun (Garmin ESP and Autoland being the two best known examples). That may not be your idea of fun flying, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for our industry.
One of the great strengths of general aviation is its variety—in airplanes, airports, people, and flying missions—and I’m all for celebrating that. Let’s just make sure we don’t scare off too many prospective pilots in the process.
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I don’t have an issue with making flying training easier assuming we could find a way to instill the appropriate cautionary instincts. This is a matter of personal values, and those are notoriously difficult to teach. Some pilots with limited training and experience understand they cannot safely do things more experience and better trained pilots can do, others, not so much. Close that gap and GA safety would improve exponentially.
I started flight lessons four years ago and have taken a break, trying to decide to restart flying again, 75 hours in,going to retake ground test
And prep for flying test so I will see how it goes,
Very nice article
The problem is already sorting itself out. The industry just hasn’t recognized it. For most people, the Sport Pilot license is all they need to fly an airplane for recreation. Is that the sales pitch you get when you go into a flight school? For the people that actually have a significant travel need (elitists as you call them) a Private license which includes an instrument rating and all the risk management stuff in the ACS is necessary. Cost should be no object.
We need both. The infrastructure cannot survive with just one or the other.
I’m inclined to agree with you, Stephen, but I don’t see the Sport license being promoted much. I think if you walked into 100 flight schools, 98 would tell you about the Private.
In justice to St.Expury it should be noted that he lost his life in the course of a combat mission, not an operational accident. The strong implication is that an Fw 190 shot him down while he flew an F5E on a photo reconnaissance mission on July 31, 1944. Wreckage from the aircraft has been recovered as an ID bracelet with his name engraved.
The article raises an excellent point. As a very young man many years ago I came strongly under the influence of several pilots who learned to fly in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
For years they have existed only in memory, but I vividly recall their strong emphasis on developing sound judgment through experience and the consistent demonstration excellent basic flying skills.
No amount of electronic gadgets will compensate for the lack of these qualities in a crisis.
I don’t think flying should be made too easy.
John Zimmerman’s article is: Brilliant!!!
He said so many things that I have been thinking about myself for years now. Too many pilots these days seem to think flying is just like driving a car. They’ve heard that so many times that they start to believe it. And even the people who say it seem to (in most cases) believe it.
Like Tom Matowitz (commenter above), I was influenced by three or four pilots who had learned to fly in the 1930 and 1940s. They were my heroes…my idols…I absorbed my flying ideas from them and also from the school library books that were mostly written in the 1930s and 1940s…and even though those guys I loved so much died years ago, they are still in my thoughts all the time, even though I’m not an active pilot anymore.
That all started in 1959 when I was 14 years old. In a few years I had my Commercial certificate…close to getting my instructor rating when I got drafted and sent to Vietnam…and when I got back home after three years in the Army, I never got back into flying…although I still read all the magazines.
So what? Right. But John Zimmerman’s article points out is that there still are two separate schools of flying, and I’m happy to see that a young guy like him realizes that fact most people seem unaware of and totally understands both sides.
P.S. I think flying *should* be hard…at least the learning part and the getting certified should be hard. You don’t have to read through many accident reports to see that lots of pilots don’t know what they’re doing and that’s mostly because the people training them were not interested in instructing, taught to low standards, and enjoyed repeating the mantra, “Flying is easy…anyone can do it.”
Beautiful! Just loved your article once more, John. I am inclined to think we might be making it too easy – starting your first flying lessons with a moving map already, for example, would prevent you to develop the skill of building a map in your head, an always useful and important feature not to fall into “children of the magenta’s” traps, just to give one example. I am totally democratic about being a pilot, though: if anyone is willing to take the privileges and responsibilities of it, I am here to help them through. But just to give it for underprepared people under an underprepared training program, would be too many “unders” to keep you above the game. Totally agree, no aviation is better than the other, they are just different, and most of us would transition seamless between them if given the chance to do it properly. For sure a qualified pilot has to be given as much tools as we have to make his flight safer (thus easier). But just to quote Exupéry once more, the “peasant truth” is still out there, there are some basics from the old days we can’t afford to forget. After all, quoting now Dan Gryder, “FAA is asking you the minimums, nature and karma are giving you the maximums”. We must be prepared.
Good observations, John.
I spent most of my life flying during the week and racing sailboats on the weekend. The flying was work thanks to my great luck of working at Flying Magazine. That position afforded me the latest and greatest equipment in the airplanes, and I always wanted flying to be “easy.” Richard Collins and I shared the same objective to travel on schedule with maximum safety and convenience in most any kind of weather.
On our sailboat the only electronics was a knot meter. As in airplanes, electronic advances made sailing instrumentation that calculated everything from optimum sailing angle, speed, tack and every other detail to help you win a race. Not for us.
The difference is that racing sail boats for me is a hobby. The objective was to beat the other boats on the water.
Flying, however, is a profession. The goal is maximum safety and utility. Traveling by air can never be too easy, and any equipment advantage available I want.
The answer to the question, John, is that for some flying is a hobby and should be hard. Make it like 230 yard par 3s in golf. An entire 18 hole course of them. For the rest of us when flying is a profession it can’t possibly be too easy, equipment too redundant, or electronic help be too much.
Your last sentence says it all. To appreciate and safely utilize all of the tools modern aircraft avionics and systems offer, the pilot has to be thoroughly versed in the underlying principles and theory. A few thousand hours of time spent continually learning with more experienced crew members doesn’t hurt either.
Whether you fly a Cirrus or a Stinson training to be a pilot is difficult. It takes discipline, follow-through, puzzling through navigation problems, learning systems, gaining proficiency and the coordination it takes to fly a machine through the air to a successful end. I appreciate how hard it is and how pilots really do have something that non-pilots don’t; if you put a non-pilot in a plane and let them fly it, a positive outcome is almost impossible.
That said, for safety and utility, I love GPS, moving maps, autopilot, traffic, weather, iPads etc. etc. They make flying much safer especially when bumping along in the clag. These advances also make it easier to go more places. Despite these advances, flying is still hard. It still requires discipline. It still requires skill. It still requires finesse.
Flying would be dead to me if neutered into fleets of super safe, auto-controlled, quad-copters with ballistic chutes. Flying then would no longer be a skill, pilots would just be operators. Any jerk could fly. Sure it would be safe, just no longer special.
I come down on the “should be hard” side. What happens when all the magic boxes die?
I’m ready to take my checkride–if only the weather would cooperate. :)
I’m going to be 64 next week; the biggest reason I wanted to learn to fly was that I relished the challenge to learn all this. The complexity of learning to fly an airplane can only be described, in my mind, as “delicious.” I’ve relished every second of it.
When I started training (back in May), my instructor said she believed there was value in learning “old school” approaches to flying. I’m 64, so my life wisdom agreed. I knew there were many tools that could make my life easier, but I didn’t want to learn them at first. I’m so glad I did it this way.
Now, I just bought an IPad, a Statux ADS-B IN receiver, and subscribed to Foreflight. Wow. Triple Wow.
But I’m glad I learned old-school first. If my IPad goes kaput in flight, if the Garmin 530 quits–I still have some tools.
It does seem to me that learning to fly simply for the convenience of it must be rare. For all the time and money, one might as well just hire it done.
If I were to promote GA to the general public, it would be in this way: it’s challenging to learn, probably more than you can imagine, but the satisfaction in having done it is perhaps greater than anything you’ve ever experienced. It has been that way for me, certainly.
I suppose it is not about making obtaining flying permit very difficult or very easy. It should be about practicality and safety and not about memorizing plenty of “old school” bureaucratic materials which you will never use in real life practice. My statement is not related directly to flying only but to education processes in general. I understand that conservative approach may claim more safety in GA. Is it really so? Particularly in Canada the exam materials hardly mention GPS. GPS is a very reliable tool particularly when used with extra battery pack. Why do we need to memorize so much stuff about construction of an airplane even if we cannot fix almost anything if we are not certified aviation technicians. We can multiply examples of bureaucratic burden on flying enthusiasts but I hope to just start the discussion on certification requirements for sport/recreational and private pilot.
What a great thought provoking article John. I soloed in 1963 but never experienced much joy at flight around the patch so hung it up until I discovered a business reason to use an airplane to grow my business. Business fell on hard times and had to sell my beloved 1977 Hawk XP II and go work for someone else as their VP of Sales & Marketing.
The new business took off and soon we had a T-210N followed by a TBM 700 which I flew to customer sites around the country as Chief Pilot – and yes, still wearing my VP business hat. During that 10 year period growing the business I also chaired the local airport commission while we built a new airport from scratch in Wisconsin.
Your excellent article triggered two thoughts based upon my conjoined business/aviation experience:
1. Flying was never easy or hard – rather, it was/is relaxing and natural and occasionally challenging (if you lose situational awareness in a flight simulator – you reboot. In a real airplane, you may die – thus the appeal of the challenge).
2. By contrast – my world of sales and marketing was often difficult & hard but the cockpit always became my magic carpet, a refuge from the intensity of the real world. I was able to enter 6,500+ hours into my logbook relaxing in this manner.
I think you hit on a key part of the appeal: flying is demanding, but that makes it engrossing. As a result, it’s often a relaxing break from “the real world.”
One of your best, and great look into the future.
This statement, “…a majority of those new aviators had been trained either by the US Army Air Force or in related programs…” is the tell. With all due respect to those WWII aviators – they won a war from inside the sky – the notion of training to select only those having the right stuff perpetuated the notion that only the best of the best sit in the left seat.
We are not at a point where even the those of us baby boomers that were trained by the greatest generation are slowly fading away.
Having learned my flying from fellow boomer and son of Wolfgang Langewiesche I got a healthy dose of tail wheel flying, ‘Hook the tail by God!’ Instrument flying, ‘Fast eyes, slow hands wins the day’ and of course, angle of attack.
I feel lucky. I learned stick and rudder flying from one of the best. Instrument flying from the same man whose own experience includes flying for Richard Collins. Some time later I went to work for Cirrus training pilots how to fly their new TAA.
It didn’t take long to realize that I was training the next generation of GA pilots. The right stuff not required. While washing out was not on the table, a healthy dose of what automation cannot do (Reading minds, the pilots or ATC) what the weather will always do (be unpredictable), and that at some point one, must pilot their airplane was.
Today, Garmin has given GA ‘safe return’. It is where GA is going for those that use personal airplanes – more or less – on a schedule. Safe return is the right term. I believe auto land implies autonomous. Incredibly the technology is close even if the FAA is not. But safe return is designed to make good choices regarding terrain, weather and runways. Private pilots, well, not so much.
Regardless, in a GA world where a pandemic has shifted business travelers focus from airline status to private pilot status, well equipped airplanes, serving at the pleasure of the pilot in command are not just a luxury but a necessity.
Will we see a drop in fatal accidents? Not likely. You see, there will always be some pilots who think they have the right stuff. The rest will travel safely using the best technology can offer. They’ll look for their challenges on 7000 yard golf courses, growing their businesses and being good citizens. And, perhaps, a zip line or bungee jump just to dip their toes in adrenaline.
Great article! Flying’s not difficult, learning to is. I’m of the opinion it should be hard. It filters out those whose judgement would be unsafe.
Population keeps growing, drones are becoming more useful and starting to claim airspace; Air taxis, and automatous aircraft could saturate the airspace making it difficult for human piloted aircraft to fit in safely.
I’m not against air taxis but I hope autonomous private aircraft stay unaffordable.
I believe it will happen eventually but hopefully not during my lifetime.
What a great perspective and such insightful comments. Thank you all. I started flying lessons during a time of whiz-wheels, DMEs and VORs, and most of my early instructors were ex military (WWII and Korea). When I could finally afford to complete my lessons, GPS was in every panel and NDBs were being removed. It was still challenging and earning my certificate was a highlight of personal achievement. But now that I’m flying my bride and grandchildren around, I want it easy. I want WAAS and magenta lines and an autopilot with a big blue – “auto-level” button. There’s nothing like a great cross-wind landing, and I still plan to get an IFR rating as well as conventional gear and seaplane endorsements, but with my family in the plane, no drama is the goal.
I think general aviation should be more *accessible* to those who are truly interested in it, but not necessarily easy. There’s a big difference there.
The cost barriers are a big problem; the privilege of flight should not necessarily be limited to those who have massive bank accounts, but should indeed be limited to those who have the dedication, intelligence, and personal responsibility to operate an aircraft.
An aircraft is not a car. If something goes wrong you are very likely to end up dead, and nearly as likely to take other people with you… either your passengers or innocent bystanders on the ground. This by definition makes operating an aircraft a far more significant risk profile than driving a car — even a high-performance car.
This should never come with the kind of cavalier attitude that point-and-click technology inevitably brings, however we’re already beginning to see exactly that attitude spread like a cancer. The airlines are fighting tooth-and-nail against skill deterioration and complacency in their pilot ranks thanks to technology. And those are professionals with decades of training and experience; they should understand the stakes better than anyone — and they mostly do — but even they fight a constant battle against technology-induced complacency.
GA faces similar challenges, but without the corporate/regulatory infrastructure and culture that airline pilots have to fall back on. It’s a problem.
On top of that is the dwindling number of new pilots who can afford the hobby and who also have the time and skills to see themselves through to long-term success as a private pilot.
Some in the industry see technology as the solution. Making the aircraft more user-friendly, automating the processes, and selling the experience to customers who may not have considered flying as an option previously. This could potentially open the door to new customers — which is good for business and could lower costs overall — but it will bring the overall pilot quality level down significantly, which will carry its own perils, some less obvious than others.
With a push to increase the popularity of general aviation through technologically-enabled lowering of pilot standards, we’re inviting two things. First is a serious decline in safety, and second is the resulting regulation that will come shortly thereafter. And neither of those two things will be good for GA in the long term.
Fact is that despite how it might seem sometimes, GA has blessedly escaped the government Eye of Sauron for a very long time. Our relatively low numbers and high barriers to entry (both in terms of money and skill) have enabled us to correctly and successfully assert that we don’t really need much more from the government than we already have. And because of this, the usual busybody groups which pressure government encroachment have more-or-less ignored us.
Swing open the doors to the general public any further though, and that can all change. Particularly if GA aircraft start falling out of the sky with greater frequency. With greater public access will come greater scrutiny from the government and the mainstream media. And then all bets are off. Mainstreaming general aviation is tempting from an economics standpoint in the short-term, but in the long term it will destroy us.
Industry leaders and advocacy groups should be focused on finding ways to reduce the cost of access that doesn’t include handing out tickets to everyone who can operate and Ipad and a few free weekends. Aviation should be something that more people from different economic backgrounds can enjoy, but remain only for those who are qualified for the immense responsibility that goes along with it.
I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of things, I have witnessed the very things you speak of in the model aviation sector because “technology” has let any idiot with the money “fly” drones and planes anywhere anytime invading people’s privacy and destroying others property with no real effort on their part.
When you had to build your own model from a kit spending countless hours it was a large incentive to respect other people’s property along with your own.
Flying and boating share similar, but different, environments. Both gobble up the foolish, be it high tech, low tech, rich or poor, equally well. Learning the nuts & bolts of each imprints a respect for both disciplines. Pushing buttons on a Garman makes you a programmer, or at best, a monitor.
The simple truth is, not everyone who wants to should be a pilot, sadly technology has enabled those with weak skills of poor judgement to proceed without fear, or judgement.
If we were to make aviation so safe, any child could perform it, of what use would it be? There would be so many gadgets and regulations required that only the very wealthy could afford it, and it would only suit the most mundane purposes.
I am not against good idea’s. GPS is a great tool for the VFR pilot, but we’ve become slaves to the magenta line. Pilotage is a skill set that is falling away, few pilots navigate with a well organized flight plan, nav log, and section on their lap anymore. There’s no penalty for doing so, until the magic box fails to work, the Ipad overheats, batteries die, with cables left at home etc. This example has proven that once we eliminate the need for a skill, the legislation will eliminate the utility. The VOR system being eliminated and all IFR will be conducted by GPS, (sure the MON – fly an extra 100 miles to your alternate and try to fly an ILS, that you probably won’t have flown since you got your rating) a great savings of money for a government that squanders the cost of maintaining a nationwide VOR system almost daily in waste and abuse. But now that the technology is relatively wide spread, there’s nothing from stopping a bunch of bureaucrats from imposing it as the only solution.
If you want the ultimate in aviation safety, simply fly a flight simulator, and let the autopilots run things in the air, An autonomous pilot, interconnected through GPS and ADS-B would be the ultimate in efficiency and safety. It won’t be long now before we’re seeing that, though I hope not in my lifetime.
As John said, being a pilot is not for everyone; it requires a higher level of decision making – often enough, split-seconds to make the right decision – that weeds out those who are lucky enough to decide to limit themselves before things become catastrophic. My first thoughts about the decline in general aviation activity since the frenzy of the 1960s and 70s were of sorrow. But now that I can no longer pass the physical exam, and can no longer afford to fly for fun even if I could pass the physical, I revel quietly in the knowledge that my skills and instincts were enough to gain the highest achievements I wished for and still have a long life ending (hopefully) peacefully in bed.
I thought about this article last night as I was using my fancy stud-finder while putting up some chair railing. I’m sure there are still plenty of old school folks out there that say that the only way to find a stud is to tap on the wall with your knuckles and listen to the sound change. “What happens when the batteries go dead in your fancy device,” they’ll ask. “You’ll just end up punching who knows how many holes into the wall then! You children of the sonar are all the same.”
I’m not knocking ded-reckoning and pilotage by any means – learning to navigate by what’s outside the window is a critical skill. I’m just saying that sometimes leaning toward change is a good thing.