Flight instruction
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Americans seem to be especially gloomy right now. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently released a book packed with worrying statistics about a “teen mental illness epidemic,” sparking a lively debate among academics, parents, and politicians. Lest you think this is only a problem for kids, the US Surgeon General has a recent report on adult loneliness that paints a similarly dark picture. For a less scientific but more vivid survey, you could just turn on cable news or open up TikTok.

It’s clear that something is happening, but the cause is up for debate: social media, Covid-19, intensive parenting, economic conditions, and even climate change have all been blamed. Any problem this complex almost certainly has multiple causes and multiple possible solutions, so we are well beyond the world of miracle cures and quick fixes. I have none of those to offer and I will not pretend to solve major societal problems with a blog post. But in reading some of the proposals above, I was struck by how becoming a pilot can provide many of the positive experiences these experts recommend.

Four key benefits

No, I’m not suggesting the federal government mandate flight training to make American teenagers happy, but consider some specific benefits from learning to fly.

1. Flying happens in the real world.

One of Haidt’s central points is that we micromanage teenagers’ physical worlds while largely ignoring their digital worlds, which is exactly backwards. We worry about strangers abducting our kids (which is extremely rare) but think nothing of giving a 10-year-old an Instagram account. The result is much less time spent with friends and much more time spent on social media—which inevitably leads to depression and anxiety. Haidt’s suggestion is more free play and in-person socializing, or as some extremely online people might write “touch grass.”

Flight instruction

Learning to fly means interacting with other people—in the real world.

Learning to fly is the ultimate “touch grass” experience. Sure, you can watch YouTube videos about airplanes and join social media groups to talk about flight training, but to actually earn a pilot certificate you must put the phone down and get in an airplane—with another person! It is not a simulated world with anonymous avatars and ever-changing algorithms, and that’s quite refreshing these days. The laws of physics remain unchanged since the days of the Wright brothers.

A related point is that flight training isn’t something you can fake; there are real checkrides and real consequences for not meeting standards. This is an increasingly rare experience for many young people who grew up playing immersive video games, with their extra lives and power-ups. In the airplane there are no cheat codes.

Speaking of cheating, it’s a depressingly common problem in schools these days, as a recent report showed: “In surveys this year of more than 40 U.S. high schools, some 60 to 70 percent of students said they had recently engaged in cheating.” That is a staggering number, but such a dishonest strategy won’t get you very far in aviation, since everyone takes the same tests and must meet the same FAA standards. Good luck cheating on the crosswind landing portion of your Private checkride, much less a type rating checkride.

Once again, this isn’t just a youth problem—lots of jobs these days can be done remotely with nothing more than a laptop. That’s great, but with constant access to Chat GPT and Microsoft Word’s undo button, it’s easy to get lazy. Flying will quickly remind you that such luxuries aren’t always available.

2. Flying teaches independence.

Because the stakes are high and the standards are unforgiving, piloting an airplane demands responsibility and maturity. I can clearly remember my first solo cross-country as a student pilot, at the tender age of 16, when it hit me that mom and dad were not coming to help me. The only way I was going to stay alive that day was for me—and only me—to get that beat-up old 172 back to the airport and make a good landing. After a moment of panic, I felt a much more satisfying emotion take over: independence. I wasn’t worried, because I knew I could do it, and that made me feel really good.

That’s a dramatically different learning environment from the one most kids live in today, where packed school and sports schedules make free play or exploration nearly impossible. Even if such an opportunity presented itself, it’s likely that helicopter parents would swoop in to make sure nobody ever experienced failure or injury. It would be hard to design a more effective system for preventing independence.

Psychology profession Peter Gray has written extensively about the importance of developing a sense of agency: “Research shows that people of all ages who have a strong internal locus of control (internal LOC), that is, a strong sense of being able to solve their own problems and take charge of their own lives, are much less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.” Learning to fly an airplane by yourself has to be one of the most effective ways to do this—your life is literally in your hands.

3. Flying is about community, not competition.

Learning to fly is certainly not the only activity that happens in the real world and teaches independence—music and sports would also fit—but aviation typically has a more collaborative, less cutthroat atmosphere. That’s important because competition seems to be a defining characteristic of modern life: kids are competing with each other to make the travel baseball team or get into the right college, while adults are trying to get that promotion at work or just keep up with the Joneses on social media.

flying club skycatcher

Flying clubs and airport events create a sense of community.

Flying, on the other hand, is not a competitive activity. We all pass the same tests to earn the same certificates, and if you become an airline pilot the pay is based on seniority, not the score on your Private Pilot Knowledge Test or the university you went to. A little light-hearted competition between friends about who can make the best short field landing is fine, but flying should never be a primarily competitive activity. There are no “select flying teams,” after all.

What should we focus on instead? The Surgeon General’s report stresses the importance of community, a group of people you can connect with and a place to feel welcome. That’s always been a strength of the aviation family, and an essential part of building an enjoyable flying career (whether that means $100 hamburgers or Boeing 787s). Some pilots like to tell me this was better “back in the good old days,” but I still see a very welcoming spirit every time I go to a pancake breakfast or talk to a stranger at Oshkosh. Mention you’re a pilot to a group of strangers at the airport and you are almost guaranteed to get a handshake and some friendly questions. None of those will concern politics, religion, or other nasty topics either.

When in doubt, close YouTube, turn off cable TV, and go meet a friend at the airport. You don’t even have to be a current pilot to take part in this.

4. Flying rewards focus.

One final modern trend that flight training can helpfully fight is the shortening of our attention spans, or what writer Ted Gioia has called “the rise of dopamine culture.” Technological progress seems to have forced media into shorter, more addictive formats: newspapers turned into blog posts and then tweets; two-hour vinyl albums turned into single digital downloads and then 10-second TikToks. Each “innovation” seems to make us feel worse, with the result that many adults admit their brains literally won’t let them sit still for half an hour to read a book.

Aviation is a strict teacher, though, and has no sympathy for our dopamine-addicted brains. It demands that we focus, often for hours at a time, whether it’s learning all the material to pass the test or monitoring the weather and engine on a long cross-country. Flying is a craft as much as it’s a skill, and no one masters it overnight.

Far from being boring, all this focus can be immensely rewarding, like the exhilaration you feel at the end of a long movie or concert that has sucked you in. Entrepreneur and writer Derek Sivers sums it up well in his book How to Live: “Pick one thing and spend the rest of your life getting deeper into it. Mastery is the best goal because the rich can’t buy it, the impatient can’t rush it, the privileged can’t inherit it, and nobody can steal it. You can only earn it through hard work. Mastery is the ultimate status.”

If it’s so good…

So why don’t more people, especially kids, learn to fly? That’s the subject for another article (or you can read one of the dozens we’ve already run on the topic). For all the handwringing about “kids these days,” it’s not a lack of interest: I see lots of enthusiastic kids when we fly Young Eagles every month at Sporty’s and airshows bring in kids by the thousands. Anecdotal evidence (talking to my 15-year old daughter’s friends) reveals that many teenagers are interested in learning to fly and they love watching YouTube videos of flying. Most aren’t scared of the work or the risk, and one kid in particular seemed close to signing up for lessons.

Youth soccer team

The competition for kids’ time is fierce, and they start early.

I’m not convinced money is the main problem either. Flying is definitely expensive, but have you seen the cost of travel baseball or select soccer? Between team fees, equipment, private lessons, and travel expenses, a family can easily spend $5000 per year, and $10,000 per year is not unheard of for elite teams (private equity is investing in youth sports, if that gives you a hint). All that money so Johnny can chase the 0.03% chance of being an NBA basketball player? That would buy a lot of flight training!

The bigger problem is priorities—the same forces making kids unhappy make learning to fly harder. The rat race starts early these days, so many kids are fully booked by age 14, when they might consider starting lessons. By the time they might solo an airplane, their lives belong to coaches and helicopter parents. They increasingly don’t belong to employers, since just 30% of teenagers have a job. No job means less money, but it also means the potential to be a line boy job at the local airport is gone, and with it the social connections from the informal network of pilots you meet there.

Our best bet is to appeal to those helicopter parents who are so worried about their kids’ future prospects. Fortunately, the headlines about airline hiring right now are as good as they’ve ever been. A 21-year-old has a much better chance of getting a job as a pilot than a pro athlete, and the pay isn’t as far off as it once was. The career also lasts longer than five years (the average for NBA and NFL players). Sorry about your dreams, dad, but aviation is a better bet.

More importantly, though, we should brag about the lasting impact becoming a pilot can have on a person. Whether you become a pro or just fly for fun, the mental health benefits of flight training are at least suggestive and possibly quite compelling. It can make you a more resilient person and a better decision maker, building that all-important internal locus of control. It can connect you to a community of like-minded people. And it can teach the discipline to engage deeply with big ideas.

As for your financial health after learning to fly… you get what you pay for.

John Zimmerman
13 replies
  1. Rick Armellino
    Rick Armellino says:

    Excellent article and very true. Many of today’s youth face way too many artificial distractions to build the attention span and discipline necessary to make honest accomplishments. Flying provides so much that’s real, with a future, it’s amazingly overlooked.

  2. Dave Miller
    Dave Miller says:

    Excellent article. However, I’d like to mention that kids whose families don’t have the financial wherewithal can also start young. I’m 87 years old and my actual multi-engine instrument rated flying days are far behind me. So I recently built a simulator which is a full sized version of the Cessna 340 I last owned and flew 25 years ago. All controls and instruments are the real thing – no mouse or keyboard required. I now have a 17 year old student from Trenton, NJ who is originally from Liberia coming to my house twice a week making great beginning progress toward becoming an airline pilot someday. He can’t afford the real thing at this point, but the local community college has an aviation program using the Trenton airport which with scholarship assistance he could soon attend. His “whistle is well wetted” by the simulator as are his piloting skills now soloing making long cross country trips using both VOR and GPS navigation. I plan to continue offering my simulator and instruction to other such youngsters as the word gets around.

  3. Gary Wolfelt
    Gary Wolfelt says:

    Great article John. Well written. Wonderful advice. My wife and I don’t have any kids. But we have both stayed away from ANY social media. And we couldn’t be happier. Two 72 year old retired people (physically falling apart), but both mentally in tact. Still hoping for world peace. ☮️❤️. GHW

  4. Meghan Moorhouse
    Meghan Moorhouse says:

    Great article! As someone who works with high school students, many who have been interested in aviation (including my own son), I’d also add that there are a wealth of scholarships for students who want to fly. My son was awarded an AOPA You Can Fly scholarship that covered the large majority of his PPL, and some of my students have earned other scholarships or spots in programs that also paid entirely for their flight training. My son continues to apply for scholarships to help pay for hours and additional licenses, too. Flying is expensive but there are resources available to help pay for flight training!

  5. Charles
    Charles says:

    I started reading the book you refer to as it was recommended by our grandaughters ( 15,12 and 10) school counselor. The stats are depressing and your reasons for teaching flying all line up with getting kids out of a “screen based life”. My grands live under the pattern at KJKA and I’m doing my best to keep them looking up. Hope it works one day soon!
    Tyler Hibbard has a new song out and it refers to needing “a little more back then, right now”. That sums up a lot.
    Thanks for the insights as always.

  6. George C
    George C says:

    Thanks so much for the terrific article! I agree that kids would well benefit from flying, but a lot of the obstacles I see these days are those helicopter parents that you refer to. The kid may be excited to go for a ride, but the parent is too “protective” to let them do it. I would love to hear how that can be overcome, but I fear that the real reason for that not happening is all of the screen time and social media that the parents consume.

  7. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I had a different experience and take on this. I found indifferent instructors who only viewed me as their paycheck and meal ticket.

    I met people who flat out lied to me and dragged out my training. Because I was a recurring paying customer.

    Then I got involved with a flying club that was a clique. And when I called them out on their own bylaws, they said that they were a private club and organization. And that they were going to interpret their own bylaws as they saw fit.

    I wouldn’t and don’t recommend flying to anyone due to what I went through.

    • Jan Squillace
      Jan Squillace says:

      Karrpilot – It breaks my heart to hear about your experiences with General Aviation Flying.
      My experience was 180 degrees off from that here in the Raleigh NC area.
      I started as an older pilot (then age 53) and worked my way along to CFI/CFII. Now the general manager of a flying club
      There are flight schools that treat student pilots as yours did and I hope they go out of business soon.
      If you’re still interested in flying, please email me with your geographic location. I would be happy to help you locate a better fight school.

      • Karrpilot
        Karrpilot says:

        I finally got my ticket. From a different flight school, out in Colorado. The group that I originally joined up with, has long disbanded. I just go up perhaps once a month to stay current. I am one of those 10-15 hour a year pilots. Health issues have taken my priority recently, and unfortunately, flying is on the back burner for me.

  8. Marlies Campi
    Marlies Campi says:

    Interesting article.
    I’ve the theory that flying prevents Alzheimer (no scientific evidence). Acting as a PIC demands constant mental exercise and being a pilot means never stop learning (new plane or rating, new rules, new app’s or instruments, …). In my 30 years of flying I’ve met many pilots and as far as I know none suffers from Alzheimer.

  9. Sean Dwyer
    Sean Dwyer says:

    Excellent article. Kids who might not be interested in STEM can still be motivated by aviation. At the end of a week long camp (Young Aviators) that we ran for 14-18 year old boys and girls, the mother of one of the kids said “Normally he hates math but he really got into your home work. But why did he need to know my weight?”
    I explained that it wasn’t ‘home work’, he was ‘flight planning’, and the assignment was to determine the maximum amount of fuel he could have when flying with various members of his family.
    China and India each graduate about 800,000 engineers every year. America graduates about 80,000. We have to do a better job with STEM education. Use aviation as an appetizer, but make STEM the main course.


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