How Not to Learn to Fly

To make the most of your time in the cockpit, plan for about four hours of study time for each hour you fly. istock/vuk8691

I learned to fly about 25 years ago, and it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life. I started flight training as a fairly immature teenager and ended it as a confident and independent young adult. I learned a lot about engines and weather, but much more important were the lessons on self-reliance, problem-solving and hard work. If you’re a pilot, I’m sure you can relate.

In spite of that rosy assessment—and it’s true, I can’t imagine life outside aviation—my flight training was hardly easy or painless. While I eventually earned my private pilot certificate, it took two frustrating years before I passed the check ride. Sure, the weather often stunk and some of the flight-school airplanes were a little rough, but my flight instructors were enthusiastic and supportive. Most of the blame lies with me—I made a lot of mistakes.

I can’t go back and redo my flight training, but I can help new students avoid the same fate. Because I work at Sporty’s, I often get asked how to become a pilot, and my advice is simple: “Don’t do what I did.” Specifically, I made four key mistakes.

1. I didn’t fly often enough. As a busy high school kid, I didn’t have a lot of free time for flight lessons. Between classes, homework, football practice and the occasional (ahem) social event, Sunday afternoon was the only time left for flying. I thought that was a good plan—a whole day devoted to flying—but it turned out to be naive. With the fickle Ohio weather and occasional airplane squawks, I would often go weeks between lessons. By the time I got back in the cockpit, I had forgotten much of the previous lesson, so we spent more time reviewing than learning new material.

Of course, the real problem was not weather or maintenance schedules but rather my plan. Everyone is busy, and it always snows in January. The solution is to build more flexibility into the schedule and fly as often as possible.

Years later, when I pursued my commercial certificate, I vowed to train smarter. I sketched out a plan before I took my first lesson, and I flew two to three times per week. That meant a lot of very early morning lessons, but that had a side benefit: The weather was typically better than late afternoon, so we had fewer weather cancellations. I knocked out my commercial check ride in less than a month.

Long experience has proven that the more often you fly, the more efficient your training will be. I consider twice a week to be the minimum pace, and three or even four lessons per week can pay off even more. That’s the same advice we give to students at Sporty’s Academy, where our dropout rate is essentially zero and most students pass the private check ride at 55 hours—20 percent fewer than the nationwide average.

2. I didn’t use a syllabus. This might seem shocking to pilots who learned in the structured environment of a Part 141 flight school, but one reason my training took so long is I had no formal syllabus or lesson plans. My instructors knew what they wanted to cover each lesson, but I rarely had any sense of where I was on the learning curve or what I should be studying. It was not unusual to show up and ask, “What are we working on today?”

That is a recipe for frustration. While a syllabus should not be a straitjacket, it can add needed structure to a flight-training program. If you know the next lesson will cover steep turns and stalls, it is a tremendous help to spend the night before reading up on those maneuvers and “chair flying” them, either on the couch or with a home flight simulator. It’s also critical for maintaining momentum if you experience a change in flight instructor, as many students do.

Even if you don’t have a printed syllabus—and you really should—the Airman Certification Standards can be something of a guide. While it’s intended as a checklist for the practical test, it’s also a useful list of topics and procedures you’ll be tested on with the examiner. I used it on my pre-check-ride lesson, but I should have looked at it earlier.

3. I didn’t use an at-home study course. The options for video training in the mid-1990s weren’t quite as vast as they are today, with beautiful HD video and powerful test-prep apps, but there were still plenty of resources. I know because I considered them all—unfortunately, I didn’t use any of them.

Much like a syllabus, a home-study course is a great bridge between the relatively brief in-airplane lessons. I know I would have understood VOR navigation months earlier if I had seen a good 3D graphic instead of trying to figure it out at 100 knots. Flying is about 75 percent mental, so there is tremendous benefit in learning when you aren’t flying; my rule is four hours of studying for every hour in the airplane.

It has never been easier to access training content at home, such as online FAA textbooks and thousands of YouTube videos. Some of these are excellent, but some are shockingly inaccurate, so a quality course from a trusted company is a smart investment. Whichever one you pick, just make sure you use one as a regular companion to your flight training.

4. I didn’t use the knowledge test as a meaningful learning exercise. Like so many students before me, the knowledge test was an ordeal to get through, not a chance to learn new things. I spent a week memorizing answers and cramming, and I passed easily. But this was a wasted opportunity.

When I worked on my instrument rating a few years later, I took a completely different approach. Yes, there were some obscure questions I simply memorized, but for the most part, I approached the knowledge test like a midterm exam, a chance to review everything I had learned and see how much I had retained. It took a little longer, but I learned so much more. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it?

One thing I did well, perhaps because of the unstructured training program, was to go beyond the textbook. For example, the Cessna 172 I was flying during my solo cross-countries had a King KLN 88 Loran—hot stuff for the time. Instead of ignoring it, I learned how to use it. This was never a crutch—I had to do plenty of pilotage and dead reckoning—but understanding modern navigation at an early phase paid off tremendously when I pursued an instrument rating. Far too many students today ignore the GPS or autopilot in an attempt to finish training as quickly as possible. That’s false economy.

Learning to fly is not easy—and it’s not supposed to be—but don’t make it harder than it has to be. If you can’t devote yourself completely to it, including frequent lessons and serious home studying, don’t start. Wait until the bank account, family life and work schedule support a more aggressive approach. Then dive in headfirst. Your life will never be the same.

Check out our collection of resources to really Learn to Fly.

John Zimmerman grew up in the back of small airplanes and moved to the front at age 16. He flies a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter