There are two questions your CFI should always ask you during the debrief: “Did you learn anything today?” followed by “Did you have fun?” The answer to these questions should be “Yes”—especially to the latter. Flight training doesn’t have to be all giggles and grins, but when you spend so much time and money on an activity, it should be enjoyable.
Flight training, like life in general, has its good days and bad days. However, there are some learners who move through their flight training where the bad outweighs the good and training is a tedious chore. It’s a means to an end—they may be looking for a job as a pilot for an airline.
These learners do not seem to be enjoying the training experience, rather they have what CFI/designated pilot examiner and airline pilot Jim Pitman calls “I will be happy…when” syndrome. “I will be happy when I solo.” “I will be happy when I earn my commercial certificate.” “I will be happy when I land the job at the airline.” Yet this happiness remains elusive.
Pitman, who was interviewed as part of the National Association of Flight Instructors 10 Question Challenge, noted that people who have this mindset can move through their whole lives thinking happiness is just around the corner. “Then they realize, after a 20-year career at the airlines, that they were never happy.”
Aviation is a combination of goals and accomplishments, and it’s normal to have challenges and plateaus during training. It’s also normal to have good days—the day you soloed for example, or passed the check ride for a certificate or rating—or got that first aviation job, which for the airline-bound is often becoming a CFI.
‘I’ll Be Happy When…’
“I’ll be happy when” syndrome hits some CFIs particularly hard. The CFI certificate is often the first rung on a very tall career ladder. Some CFIs become frustrated and unhappy because frankly, teaching is not what they want to do. They are there to build their hours. You probably know someone like this. If this is you, please recognize that your distaste for this phase of your career may negatively impact the learners you work with.
That being said, it is easy to feel discouraged when you’ve spent thousands of dollars to acquire the CFI certification and it’s met with disrespect and low pay. Flight school owners can argue that they have a business to run so they have to keep their costs down, yet they complain when the CFIs move on, sometimes to other flight schools—often taking their clients with them.
If you are living with “I will be happy when” syndrome, ask yourself what would make you happy? Be realistic and serious here—think small, attainable goals. It could be getting in your favorite airplane for a flight lesson. Or filling up another page in your logbook, or visiting that airport diner where the pie is spoken of in hushed, reverent tones. Or it could be as simple as making a commitment to take care of yourself, e.g.: I will not schedule after 5 p.m. so I can be home for dinner with the family—or I will not answer my phone on my days off.
If fulfillment involves a check ride, or if you are a CFI moving to another job, make a plan to get there. Sometimes having a plan—and being in control of that plan–is a big part of happiness. It could mean researching and applying for scholarships to pay for an accelerated program to get the hours and certifications you need in a hurry
If you’re the CFI, can you take pride in the success of your learners? You might find that helping them succeed does wonders for your morale. You may also notice that the CFIs who are the happiest in what they do and take the most joy in the success of their learners often have the most clients.
Does the Learner Want To Be Here?
Being forced to do something you don’t want to do is a sure-fire way to become unhappy—some learners manifest this too. These learners often show up late, do not do the ground study, and, when you ask, “why do you want to learn to fly?” you get vague answers or they avoid eye contact and shrug.
It could be that you are not the right instructor for them—be a professional and suggest a change of instructor in these cases, as the only thing you have control of in the paradigm is you, and it could be that your teaching style and their learning style aren’t a good fit.
The worst is when they are being “made to learn to fly” because someone else wants them to be a pilot. Often it is a relative who is a pilot and wants them to follow in their footsteps and have the same career. That issue is outside of the CFI/learner relationship—it’s up to the learner to address it.
Or it could be the dissatisfaction that comes from over-training—take a week off—but only a week. You may find this improves your disposition and performance greatly.
If you are in a training slump or plateau, break training, and go out and fly for fun.
Fly out to breakfast, fly along the coast, up a river, hunt for corn mazes—do something fun that puts hours in your logbook and makes your heart sing.
Enjoy the process as much as you can. Flying is something that so many people want to do, but very few people can do. Remember, only you are responsible for your own happiness.