Learning to Fly – Not

October 9, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

It’s no secret that the number of people who start learning to fly is down significantly. AOPA and other industry organizations have made several efforts over the lasts several decades to increase the student starts. The problem isn’t with starts, it’s with completions. The drop out rate is estimated at 70-80% .

This hasn’t changed much over years either. But since fewer people are starting out to learn to fly, we are getting fewer completions, and the numbers of new pilots is dropping faster than that needed to sustain even the present number of pilots.

So why such a drop out rate? There are many speculations as to why. Don’t have time, don’t have money, instructor was bad, airplanes were bad, it wasn’t what I thought it would be – too much work, etc.

Some may think this isn’t a big deal – WE all get to fly, and it means less traffic in the pattern if there are fewer pilots. The problem is twofold – the industry needs enough people coming into the business to keep it viable. Not enough people to buy aircraft, fuel, parts, etc. and support businesses close, as do small airports. Political numbers are critical. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t get to play.

How does all this relate to safety and safety education? One of ASF’s roles is pilot education, and the delivery system is certainly a part of that. Poor training haunts us AFTER the pilot finishes. How often have you heard that CFIs are the most important person in the business, but few seem to want to invest in them. More importantly what should we do about it?

I have my views, but I’d like to hear yours.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • http://avinos2cents.blogspot.com Andres Tejeda

    Hi Bruce,

    I completely agree with you that we need to get the number of student pilots who finish their training up. I myself am a student pilot approaching the magical 40 hours mark (im at 37.5). I have brought a couple of friends along on some cross country training flights with my CFI.

    One of the biggest obstacles when I talk about general aviation is the perception that it is not safe. Two of my friends are interested in GA and learning to fly, but they keep tuning into the news only to hear of a small aircraft going down somewhere. Yet, these very same friends ride their motorcycles almost every week. Since motorcycle accidents are not reported on as frequently as GA accidents, there is a perception that riding a motorcycle is much safer, in my opinion it is not.

    I digress from your question about investing in CFI’s. I myself would like to be a CFI someday, and if I found a flight school willing to pay for my training up to CFI in return I would contract to that school for a specified amount of time to compensate for their expense. Additionally, providing extra training to CFI’s in aviation at colleges and universities would also be a great perk of the job. Imagine teaching to fly, earning a degree and getting paid for it all at the same time.

    Now that would be a dream job.

  • Bruce


    You are correct that motorcycling is not safer. it is very hard to fully equate flying and cycling but as near as we can tell the fatality rate is about the same. that said, we as pilots have much more control over the environment in which we operate.

    Many thanks for your comments……Bruce

  • John Wilcox

    Bruce…I’m a commercial single, multi, instrument rated pilot. I would like to obtain my CFI, II and MEI….I DO NOT want to have my initial check ride with the FAA. The ones I know are not current, not teachers, and not forgiving. I hear horror stories all the time about 8 hour exams (4 or more oral). Is this really necessary. Let’s get these rides back where they belong with the people who give rides ALL the time. The DE’s….just my 2 cents.

  • Bob Di Giulio, M.D.

    Having read your blog and just finished a brief solo flight earlier today, I felt compelled to write. I’m a student nearing the end of my training, and have enjoyed most of it; I’ve had three instructors (yes, really)–the first left midway to become a regional jet pilot, and secured me enough to get my first solo flight; the second was good but very uptight and demanding, giving me sufficient levels of stress to inhibit learning; and the third has been very good and allowed me to continue progressing. I have also set the bar for myself on certain things (a perfect landing every time–is that too much to ask??) and may have contributed to the delayed and prolonged training I’ve had (about 90 hours now but I feel I’m very proficient and have done my XC flights without a hitch) due to the desire for perfection rather than good enough. I agree with previous comments about CFI’s being the most instrumental in continuing and completion of training; I also would like to add that the FAA has a convoluted and labyrinthine process that discourages people from pursuing these dreams. I’m a type 1 diabetic, a doctor, and hence have very good understanding of the disease and treatment, yet am required to perform onerous medical evals every three months, and maintain a class 3 medical that requires yearly recertification. Where is the sense in that? I am also completely unable to consider flying for a career because of that. It’s time for the FAA to reexamine their processes and make them more amenable to providing for a future for both GA and commercial training. Thanks for your forum–

  • George Horn

    While healthy numbers of pilot-starts are good for manufacturers and service providers…. it is not good for pilot salaries. And THAT is what drives pilot starts. Hobby flying is one thing (a good one, too) but the business of flying is business flying, either commercial, corporate, service, or training. Until pilot salaries are commensureate with the educational costs (to include ongoing/recurrent) and other professional risks involved, pilot numbers will continue to decline.
    There is not a shortage of pilots! (We’ve been hearing that for decades.) There is a shortage of pilot salaries and benefits!

  • Dave Van Horn

    I dropped out twice before getting my license on the third try, almost 25 years after my first start. And I never knew or cared what professional pilots got paid, that was never an issue.

    It’s a big issue but one aspect is that voices like ASF are part of the problem. Constantly harping on danger only reinforces the perception that flying is dangerous. Widely-read aviation mags talk about somebody dying at least once in every single issue. By contrast, motorcycle mags rarely mention fatalaties. As Bruce points out, motorcycling and GA are about the same level of risk, as they have been for decades. They’ve both gotten safer by about the same amount, so flying’s constant harping on danger hasn’t been any more effective at improving safety than the motorcycling industry’s much lower key approach. But it’s clear which approach has been better for the respective industry — which franchise would you rather have owned for the last 30 years, one for Piper or one for Harley-Davidson?

    Each time I got into aviation I was exposed to a constant drumbeat that it was all about risk management, never about fun. The highest goal, maybe the only goal, seemed to be just to survive. Well hey, the easiest way to do that is just to walk out the door.

  • http://www.FitchburgPilots.org charley valera

    We believe it starts with educating, marketing, then enticing new pilots to fly. One of our scholarships, for instance, deals with giving away ten, one hour duals. In other words, ten lucky winners receive a one our lesson from the local flight school. All we ask is an essay of 100 words or less, “Why I want to fly”. Basic and easy. Since we started this last year, we have given out approx 20 lessons.
    Of course, the winners tell their friends and relatives about their upcoming flight lesson. We get good press from the local papers. It keeps the monies local and helps, hopefully, with the local voters.
    The cost for us is in the $100 range per flight. $1,000 to raise is not too difficult for ten flights. We find this to be a win win situation for GA and we plan on continuing this new tradition at least semi annually.
    Maybe other pilots associations might like to copy this idea and spread the fun around.

    Charley Valera, President
    Fitchburg Pilots Assoc.

  • Michael H. Smith

    Dear Bruce:

    I share your concern about the decline in General Aviation — especially at the
    “bottom end.” During the great decline in the manufacturing of aircraft in the 1980’s the dollar figure remained about the same while the numbers plummeted. How could it be? Jets and turboprops made up in dollars for the loss in sales of piston aircraft. Corporations still had money to buy jets.

    The difference in 2008 is that both ends of the aircraft buying spectrum are being hit by economic uncertainty, high taxes and more and more regulation. Nine-Eleven was only one factor— though a big one. Mass reaction by an increasingly dependent populace to the occasional accident and subsequent pressures to, for example, to close local airports or tighten regulations on aircraft, pilots, schools– and so forth, play a role. In my case the government induced shrinkage of my needed dollars for necessities have prevented me from flying any more. Yet, for those who can up their income to counter inflation, the costs are not all that unrealistic when compared to other costs. Of course, as the market shrinks there are fewer and fewer convenient opportunities for us to go to a flight school or rent airplanes. The downward trend thus reinforces itself. I expect that we are reaching the European model of general aviation— with few able to afford or put up with severe regulation.

    Barring some major cultural reversal General Aviation will continue to shrink and the pool for even the airlines and military to get new pilots will become a serious problem.

    What demographic trend am I talking about? The calamitous decline in birthrates in America. It was noticed as long as 174 years ago by the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville that the U. S. had a much higher birthrate than Europe. That and the religious zeal and patriotism— rooted in moral freedom, are what fueled American progress. Sadly, that began to erode in the early 20th century.

    Our progress has been ended by a series of events occurring in the 20th century that have taken away the unique American spirit. We are entering a period of decline, not only in birthrate but also in the enthusiasm, optimism and community spirit that used to be our forte. It has been replaced by Big Government and a largely passive public who are afraid of everything.

    The state of general aviation will be among the least of our problems.

    The only way to restore the numbers of pilots would be to restore the American Culture— something far beyond the vision of your average pilot, or pilot’s association. In tacit recognition of the population problem both AOPA and EAA have lately begun to make noises about “family” and the involvement of spouses and children in our expensive hobby. The one area you will not address is —

    Birthrates began to decline long before Roe v. Wade but it and the feminist movement reduced further not only the birthrate but the success of families. I would bet you a study of recent pilots would show a disproportionate number of them to come from intact families— almost a rarity today. Many studies show children from broken homes— now becoming “normal” — do poorly in life. There are exceptions of course. Such children grow up with two strikes against them, less money and the lack of both parents. Few of them will even think of flying for a hobby— even for making a living.

    Immigration cannot make up for the internal population and family collapse. It takes two generations to assimilate. Immigrants today do not even want to assimilate but are here to take what the can before escaping from the coming collapse of America.

    Of course, I am voting for McCain and Palin but even their election will do little to stem the tide— the engulfing Culture of Death. Only a miracle will save us.

    I really cannot afford to continue my AOPA membership. It expires tomorrow. I will have to use the money for groceries.

    Though most Americans still consider themselves Christian only the kind of sacrifice enacted by the Romans will possibly restore real Christianity and save us from going the same way that Rome did. The real Good News in all of this is that faithful followers of Jesus Christ will soon be joined to each other and Him in heaven.

    Have a nice day!

    Michael H. Smith
    715 Grove Avenue
    Chase City, Virginia 23924

  • Randy Simonsen

    Your a better man than I….
    1.There is a great deal of pressure on CFI to provide income to the school. The easy answer is to maximise current resources (the students wallet). It is a good deal for the “school” and time builder types that leads to less than satisfied customers.
    2. Learning to fly is easy and fun! DROP THIS LINE. The physical act of manipulating an aircraft perhaps, but now throw in learning a new language, (abriviations and lingo), several new skills (radio communication, weather interpritation, a law degree (FAA regulations), navigation, and mechanics.
    3. Test taking. Many of us were glad to finish school…..How many prospects know how many people they must please after their first lesson?

    Who would be served by “fixing” this problem. It would mean fewer people would start taking lessons, thus lowering income for those who invest in equipment, training and service. If all you want to do is lower the drop out rate I would suggest that you require the CFI to provide an assesment of the students weakness and cost to address them. Up until this point they are not students, just passengers, in fact perhaps no one should be called a student until they solo, that might fix the statistics. So might a realistic estimate of cost.
    I however believe you ARE addressing the real problem, fewer people fly GA. Alas it is even worse, many who are merely see it as a career path.

    So do we make it easier to attain a ticket? There probably are some things that could be done. All a private pilot needs to know about A airspace is that they can’t go there. GPS could ease navigation and elimentate some other training…But this would really be more under the heading of fine tunning. No we do not wish more poorly trained people in the air.
    The only solution I can offer is less poor trainning. Every lesson should have a clear goal, in fact it could be rehearsed on a home computer prior to flying. Get the nuts and bolts out of the way early. Now you can learn critical thinking…and lets stop calling it that. IT IS COMMON SENSE. If you take off you must _____. How are you going to do that if you can not see the airport? Look for a reason not to fly when you are on the ground. Look for a reason to land when you are in the air. Why was I never taught or read this directly?
    Better instruction is the only answer I see. The only way to get better instruction is to reward the good instructors with a good living and great instructors with a great livning.
    I am part of the problem. I have rewarded poor teachers with my support. NO more. (currntly searching for instructor number 3. #1 could be a fantastic instructor, #2 should not have been instructing.)
    I feel I expressed enough negative thoughts,
    Sport pilot…. a great idea.
    Flight planner…. see what a computer can do!
    On line courses… exellent, ( well very good, my fault, dial up…)

  • Mike Roebuck

    I think most who drop out be fore solo is they find out it’s not what they thought it would be. For those after solo it is either not enough time or finantional reasons. I had to stop six years ago because of finantional reasons after an accident (not avaition related} I still have my airplane and plan to get back into flying again one day.

    If the airlines and some politions get their way, and user fees come, it will get a lot worse.

  • Jillian Greene

    I have just had to drop out of my pilot training because I can’t pass the medical. Not because I am unfit to fly, but because I take medication for depression (and have for about 8 years). Happily the depression has been in remission nearly all of that time. Yet the FAA refuses to consider that perhaps, like Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus that is controlled with medication, medications for depression may be equally effective and without side effects such as drowsiness. But I don’t have the opportunity to even be evaluated because the FAA rejects people like me out of hand. Adding insult to injury, I didn’t find out until I had already spent a significant amount of money, because the FAA doesn’t publicize this information readily. They instead say that each case is evaluated individually, which is untrue. I know of several people who have been through the same thing, and I imagine that there is a significant number who would benefit if the FAA really did what they claim and evaluated each person on an individual basis.

    Flying has been a lifelong dream of mine. I would jump through any hoops, and submit to any tests to be able to fly. I cannot tell you how disheartened I am. If I knew of a way to change the ruling I would work toward it.

  • instrctrpilot

    I’d submitted some ideas to AOPA that I’ll reiterate here

    · AOPA, EAA GAMA, NBAA and LAMA should fund an in depth study of pilot population , using SRI Psychographics (VALSTM) (http://www.sric-bi.com/VALS/projects.shtml) or similar modern demographic methodology to target clients with a specificity down to towns, zip codes and neighborhoods.
    · Increase effectiveness, saturation, and quantity of TV commercials. Current efforts seem, to me, few in quantity, amateurish, unfocused, and ineffectual. An example is EAA “Reach for the Sky” motto that reminds me of Black Bart holding up a stage coach in a Hopalong Cassidy serial movie (showing my age), or last years GAMA commercial showing an aircraft flying aimlessly among clouds and over grassy plains. Blah! How about commercials contrasting other forms of transportation, e.g. a full six place (Piper Saratoga/Six) plane flying over vast traffic jams to show GA utility.
    · Female pilots comprise 5% of the pilot population, if I remember correctly, so their numbers need to increase. Marketing to women will have an immediate effect, but marketing to women required a different approach then the male market, so get a marketing co. specializing in women. According to the books I’ve read, men would get the new approach also, so you get a twofer.
    · Make owning aircraft easier. AOPA, et al., should update current “how-to’s” and add turnkey contract and bylaw templates (with the usual caveats and disclaimers) for buying used aircraft, forming partnerships, flying clubs and fractional ownership agreements for used and lower value aircraft. The turnkey would include the ins and outs, advantages/disadvantages, and tax consequences between partnerships, LLC’s, or S corporation.
    · Owning and operating an airplane is too expensive for the average pilot. To stimulate aircraft production and support flight schools, flying clubs, etc., lobby to bring back the Investment Tax Credit on a sliding scale. 15% credit for new aircraft, avionics and accessories 75% of which are produced in the USA and used for business, and 5% for new aircraft, avionics, and accessories, produced in other countries and used for business. Add Accelerated Depreciation in the witches brew to complete the incentives.
    · An Industry standard rental aircraft checkout, supported by major insurance carriers, could facilitate increasing the utility of light planes. I realize variants of this have failed in the past, though I believe involving insurance carriers and AOPA, GAMA maybe NAFI with specific criteria and Approved Instructors (such as Cirrus certification) can add a fun dimension to a pilots vacation while adding income to FBO’s.
    · Current ground school courses such as King and Cessna integrated system (developed by King) are great, but more integrated systems need to be developed (or Cessna license theirs) for seamless learning.
    · Industry must setup easy student loan processes with long payback periods to enable more to fly cheaply.

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