“I took flying lessons years ago, but ….”
You’ve probably been in a few conversations that begin like this. It may even have been you who has spoken this sentence. I have lost count of how many times the conversation begins like this when someone finds out I am a flight instructor. The sentence usually ends with the person telling me they dropped out of flight training, often right after soloing. Sadly, this is very common.
According to research done by aviation advocacy groups such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the National Association of Flight Instructors, and the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators, the dropout rate for learner pilots is around 80 percent.
For the private pilot candidate, the first solo roughly marks the halfway point of their training. Most of the basic skills have been taught. The rest of the training involves learning specialty takeoffs and landings, night flight, and cross-country flying. There will be a lot of solo flights in this phase, followed by polishing up for the check ride. Yet many pilot applicants hang up their wings post solo—for a variety of reasons.
1: Running Out of Money for Training
Many learners find themselves out of money—or close to it—after their first solo. This is especially true when the path to solo has not been fast, as the lessons to learn the 15 things outlined in FAR 61.87 may have stretched out over several months because of weather, maintenance issues, and instructor and/or client availability.
The use of a syllabus can be helpful to keep training on track. The savvy instructor will help the learner actively seek multiple funding sources, such as scholarships to cover the cost of training. I gladly sit down with the learners and help them navigate the scholarship applications and write them letters of recommendation.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be of traditional school age or enrolled in an academic program to qualify for a training scholarship. Check with various aviation organizations at the national, state, and local levels to see what they have to offer. It may be just a few hundred dollars, but it is money put to good use as it is often paid directly to the flight school.
Pro tip: Post solo, it is a good idea for the instructor and learner to sit down and take a look at what the learner needs to do in order to finish their ticket, because this allows the learner to create a budget to get the job done.
2: Forced Repetition of training
The learner was enjoying training and had soloed; then their instructor left for another job. The replacement CFI at the school insisted that the learner repeat the pre-solo training. It is frustrating (and expensive) to have to repeat lessons. Some schools claim that repetition is required by their insurance carrier. (The wise learner will ask to see documentation of this.) Sometimes it is done because the replacement CFI wants the hours, not necessarily because the learner lacks skills.
Some learners bounce CFI to CFI, trying to regain solo privileges, then finally give up in disgust. Others plead their case with the chief instructor and ask for an evaluation flight with him or her to restore solo privileges.
3: Poor Guidance
Although the learner has been signed off and has completed their first solo, they don’t have a clue what to do when they fly by themselves. Often this is the result of a lack of syllabus use, or flying with a ‘check the box’ instructor. The learner may be reluctant to continue training because they don’t see the end of the process.
Learners can get very attached to their instructors, and when the instructor moves on or reduces their availability for whatever reason, some learners are reluctant to fly with anyone else and simply quit.
5: Life Gets in the Way
The learner soloed, then decided to take a break from flying to catch up on things that had been put on the back burner. Before you know it, that month you took off to remodel the bathroom, repaint the deck, or focus on your business or golf swing, has stretched into a year or more.
6: They Scare Themselves
Every pilot has done this at least once. Maybe it was poor rudder control during the practice of a power-on stall that put the airplane into an incipient spin. Or that time the turbulence batted you around like a cat toy, and you fought it all the way to the ground. It can be challenging to get back in the aircraft after an experience like that, and rather than asking a CFI to fly with them and help them regain their confidence, they simply hang up their wings.
7: Lack of Airplanes
The flight school has a limited number of airplanes. The learners pursuing the upper-tier tickets or VA funding get preference on the flight schedule. The only way to fix this situation is for the school to get more aircraft and use a first-come, first-serve method for scheduling.
As we grow older, one of the things we learn is that it is often the things that we didn’t do, rather than the things we did do, that we regret. Don’t be that person who stopped flying before they earned their certificate.