The gospel, according to Jobs

Of the many eulogies that have come out since Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ death last week, perhaps none is better than his own. At a 2005 commencement speech to graduates of Stanford University, Jobs told three stories, the events of which came to shape his life and beliefs.

The final story centered around Jobs’ battle with cancer. He said that when he was young he read a line that said something like, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” From that point on, Jobs said he looked in the mirror every day and asked himself if he wanted to do what he was about to do that day. If the answer was no too many days in a row, he changed.

Although Jobs’ story came from a somewhat fatalistic point of view, I think his message was incredibly poignant, and surprisingly relatable to flight training. The research on flight training that AOPA conducted about a year ago framed the ideal flight training experience. A series of major themes emerged, not the least of which was that the instructor is the key factor in flight training. This isn’t particularly surprising, but the level to which it was reinforced was.

It became crystal clear from the focus groups and extensive survey that a good instructor gets students through the process with ease, while a poor instructor does not. Other contributing factors included the performance of the flight school, training value, and how engaged in the aviation community the student is. But ultimately, it all boils down to the flight instructor.

Another thing that was readily apparent from the research is that the majority of people learn to fly for recreation. They have a friend who flies, they  are fulfilling a childhood dream, or they think taking an airplane on vacation would be a good time.

That’s important because it says to me we can emulate Jobs easily by simply asking ourselves if we are having fun. Do you still enjoy going to the airport? Do you enjoy reading about flight? Do you feel good  after a lesson, especially after paying the bill? Does all of this training seem worth it to you? If you look in the mirror before every lesson, and you don’t want to do (or spend) what you’re about to do, don’t quit training–quit your instructor or school. Thousands of pilots have great training experiences where they enjoy virtually every minute of the process, and come out the other end with a certificate and a smile. You can too. But you need to make sure you are learning in the right place and with the right person.

There’s no question it’s hard to “fire” someone who may be nice and honest, but who just doesn’t mesh with you. But here’s the secret: A professional instructor will likely agree with your decision. Instructors worth their salt know that a proper CFI/student match is vital, and they should willingly give up a student if it’s not working. Because a good instructor’s goal is to get you to the finish line, not pad his or her logbook.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun, and a means to an end. It will be worth it.

–Ian J. Twombly


  • Shawn

    Thanks Ian.. well said. I had a great CFI that was super knowledgeable and fun to train with. He certainly wasn’t trying to get rich off me! He had me taking my check-ride at 40.9hrs.. he only had 1 other active student during that time period also. I hear so many horror stories about instructors yelling at students or scaring them on early flights that I appreciate my training more and more.

  • Scott

    Thanks Ian, I agree. After a less-than-desirable experience with an instructor I found a school and a CFI that just “fit.” I only have a few hours but am VERY comfortable in the cockpit. And “fun” just isn’t a good enough description…

  • Thomas Boyle

    This almost deserves its own permanent spot, every month, in the AOPA magazine.

    Something like it should be included in any materials sent to prospective students.

    FWIW, when people talk to me about wanting to learn to fly I have a little canned speech:
    – Why do you want to learn to fly? What do you imagine yourself doing in an airplane, e.g., traveling for work vs flying for fun. This allows me to recommend the type of aircraft they should look into, and the type and cost of the equipment and training they’ll need.
    – Who do you expect you will fly with? Do you expect to take the spouse and kids and friends along? Are they enthusiastic about this? Or do you see yourself doing that only occasionally, and mostly flying with other flying enthusiasts? (I emphasize that, for most people, making flying friends is a major positive aspect of learning to fly; that flying friends are more likely companions than existing friends/family; and that if they fly alone they will stop flying.)
    – Spend time finding the right flight instructor. Sample several. Don’t worry too much about their paper qualifications: that’s the FAA’s job, and you don’t need a former test pilot for your Sport Pilot training. This person should have potential to become a friend (which may or may not happen), but certainly should be someone you respect, someone in whose hands you feel confident putting your life, who you feel you are learning from. Most of all, enjoying spending time in the cockpit with them is key.
    – Design your training program to be fun. Your flight training is not a prelude to your flying career, it is part of it. Design it that way. Ask your instructor to help you to do the things you ultimately want to do, as part of your training. If you want to travel, build a little more XC into the program than the regs require. If you aspire to do aerobatics some day, expand stall awareness/training to include 15 minutes of unusual attitudes, etc.