Spring is the most fickle season when it comes to weather in the Pacific Northwest. One day it is unseasonably warm, with temps in the 80s, ,and people are wearing short pants and polo shirts. The next day the temperature is in the 30s, and light snow is falling or there is a hail shower.
This can make flight training a challenge—not only are you at the whims of Mother Nature (who frankly sometimes behaves like a drunken hockey mom), but you also find yourself bringing an extra jacket or sweatshirt on your flight as a precaution. I tell my learners it is better to have that extra layer with you and not need it, than need it and not have it. I learned a long time ago to keep an extra jacket with my flight gear—one for me, one for my learners if needed. Getting too cold in the cockpit is bad for learning.
Dress To Survive, Not To Arrive
Learning to fly is a physical activity, and you may get sweaty and dirty doing it. You need to dress for this. You will likely be climbing up ladders to reach the fuel tanks if you are flying a high-wing, and will be crawling under the aircraft if you fly a low-wing. Brushing against an aircraft can leave grime marks on your clothing, and fuel stains your clothes, so plan your wardrobe accordingly.
You may consider having your ‘flying’ pants and shorts and ‘everything else’ pants and shirts. I switched to cargo pants when I became a full-time CFI because I ruined too many pairs of khakis to count—the fuel stained them pink. And by pink, I mean I had Mary Kay Cadillac pink spots where fuel had splashed.
The clothes need to be loose enough to allow freedom of movement. It can be embarrassing if they don’t. One of my coworkers suffered a wardrobe malfunction going on the wing of the Cessna 172 to check the fuel. I offered strategic placement of my flight jacket around her waist to avoid deployment of the werewolf salute (full moon) on the ramp. She ran back to the locker room and re-emerged in sweatpants, which she wore for the rest of the day.
The choice of footwear is the most important. At many schools, flip-flops and sandals are not allowed in the aircraft because you need good traction on the rudder pedals. Also, if there is an unscheduled off-airport landing and you have to hike out, open-toed shoes will put you in a world of hurt. The soles of the shoes need to be thin enough that you can feel the rudder pedals and brakes, however. I often recommend my learners fly in tennis shoes.
As for the rest of your outfit, dress like you will have to hike out of rough terrain. In any season, wool socks are a good choice because wool is warm even when wet.
You may want to wear a cap when you fly. A ballcap shades your face and can help retain body heat because you lose approximately 30 percent of your body heat through your head.
For your upper torso, light layers are your best bet for warmth and flexibility in the cockpit. You don’t want to have so many layers on that you can’t move your elbows (think Randy in The Christmas Story) but still need to stay warm. Remember that for every 1,000 feet you ascend, you usually lose 2 degrees centigrade, or 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That may not sound like much until that day when you’re comfortable on the ramp in short pants and shirt sleeves, but when you get up to cruise altitude of 4,500 feet, you’re shivering and the heater in the cockpit can’t keep up.
Aviation Careers Mean Uniforms
Most Part 61 flight schools don’t have a dress code for their clients, but they may have one for their office staff, mechanics, and CFIs. For CFIs, this usually consists of shirts and possibly jackets with the school logo paired with khakis or cargo pants. Schools that have them tend to appear more professional, as the uniform makes it easy to distinguish the employees from the customers sitting on the couch. Schools that do not have uniforms come off as more casual, which can be off-putting to some clients looking for a professional organization on par with the airlines, where everyone is in a uniform—or it can signal the kind of atmosphere the client is seeking. It’s a bit subjective.
If you are applying for a job at the flight school—any job—you would be wise to dress professionally, even if the job will have you wearing coveralls and boots. Consider a dress shirt, a blazer (weather permitting), a tie if appropriate, and khakis or slacks.
The work uniform may be casual, but you want to get the job first.
Just because you are familiar with the flight school, don’t make the mistake of dressing casually for the interview. Sadly, it happens.
There was a young man I had flown with off and on for several years. He had just earned his CFI certificate and was invited to interview for an instructor job. He showed up in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. The owner of the flight school was surprised by his casual attire and asked him if he thought jeans and a t-shirt were appropriate attire for a job interview. He replied that he wasn’t aware he was there for a job interview—despite the fact he’d be asked to come into the flight school on a certain day, at a certain time, with his logbook and copies of his resume to talk about being a CFI at the school. He was not offered the job. Frankly, I don’t think he wanted to work there, and I would have been happier if he’d just declined the interview instead of wasting our time.
Some flight academies have a dress code for both their CFIs and learners. Both wear airline-style uniforms consisting of slacks, white shirts with epaulets, and ties, because the purpose of the flight school is to prepare you for the professional airline environment where uniforms are required. You will learn how to wear a uniform. There is an art to performing a military-style shirt tuck that gives that professional A-line. I can’t say that dressing this way makes a person fly better, but it sure doesn’t hurt. For many years while working at a Part 141 school that didn’t have uniforms, I wore a white dress shirt and aviation-themed tie with cargo pants, and I was selected by walk-in customers because I ‘looked the part’ more so than my coworkers.
However, this level of structure does not sit well with some learners and some CFIs—especially the tie part for some reason. If this is you, perhaps a career at the airlines is not the right path. There are plenty of aviation careers that don’t have this dress requirement, so you will likely find one that works for you.