A training success story

Dan Johnson, president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, is an expert on Light Sport Aircraft.

No, this is not about an established flight school operation. Nor is it about a university training program, or some government flight training facility. I’m simply impressed that Charles Stites and his Able Flight nonprofit organization have brought so many new pilots into the fold. For this alone, he deserves applause. Add that he exclusively helps pilots with disabilities and you have something noteworthy.

Here’s a contrast: At the AOPA Aviation Summit the main topic of discussion was how to reverse the depressing 70% drop-out rate of flight school students. On the other side of the compass, “Able Flight achieves a very impressive completion rate of at least 72% for recipients of its full scholarships,”

Sean O'Donnell (front seat), one of the first Able Flight scholarship winners, now owns his own flight school, Philly Sport Pilot at Wilmington/New Castle County Airport (ILG) just outside Philadelphia. Photo by Jim Koepnick

revealed Stites, who founded the organization in 2006. “We’ve awarded a total of 30 scholarships as of September, and 24 are full scholarships that can lead to a license. Of those, 14 are already licensed pilots, three are in training, three are yet to begin, and only four have dropped out.”

How does Able Flight do it? “It’s not that their training is easier,” explained Stites. “If anything, it’s more physically demanding for a paraplegic or a person who has lost a limb. Our students never get a break meeting the same Sport Pilot Practical Test Standards that all applicants must complete.”

To some extent, the Able Flight advantage is matter of personnel management.

“Able Flight student pilots know they are being matched with good flight instructors at schools that care about their success.” In addition, Able Flight has assembled a cadre of people students can ask for extra assistance. “In short, each student is backed by people who want them to succeed.”

Now, is that so hard? Evidently it is or we would not have a 70% drop-out rate at conventional flight schools. Kudos to Stites and his backers, but most of the credit stays with instructors who care and highly motivated students, who repeatedly prove that someone with sufficient determination can accomplish almost anything.

For more on LSAs: ByDanJohnson.com


  1. says

    The big drawback to the entire LSA airplane market is the limited use of the airplanes for commercial applications. Most of the flying will be supported only by the pilot’s disposable income from some other form of work. This use of income must meet the approval of a spouse and it takes disposable income off the table for other uses. Personal airplanes like personal motor homes are very seldom a good economic investment while both, used for business, increase the productivity of an individual or group of individuals. They can also be used for some personal business when they are rented from the company which holds title to either.

  2. says

    It is strange that no one mentions the use of an airplane in business travel, sales of business services, transport of small deliverable items, personal meetings at remote locations which have small airports, establishing rapport with select customers, showing of local areas to business prospects or real estate developers and purchasers, aerial photography, or any of the variety of business aircraft uses.

    We really need to teach pilots all of the possible uses of aircraft which would keep them flying and be supportable as business write offs while promoting aviation and the local airports.

  3. Jay says

    Mark, flying always has been expensive and always will be. I own my own plane feee and clear but hanger, insurance, annual and fuel run me around $6,400 each year. Thats at around 120 hours each year. Do the math and you see it runs around $53.00 per hour. I don’t fly IFR because I’m not trained, nor would I want to be. That’s what airlines are for.

    You are correct on the costs. It’s always a lot more expensive than advertised and it never gets cheaper.

    Bravo to Able Flight and Dan for bringing us the story. Great inspiration.

  4. Roy Fassel says

    Mark C. , Your comments hit the nail right on the head. Unlike yourself
    I am a high time pilot, holding all except an ATP, 10000 plus hours that include J3 through DH125 time.I partnered in a very large charter (135) operation in the late 60’s through the early 80’s. I have just renewed my tickets bi annual, flying a LSA. With instructor it cost me $175.00 per hour. Even signed off,and keeping current, at 3 hours a month will cost me $3600 per year of discressionary income. Thats 22 % of my social security.
    One of the areas that could be tapped is the advertising budgets of all aviation related businesses. Harvard Business school states that businesses should figure 5% of their gross income toward an advertising budget. Set asside 1% toward subsidizing fight training, this includes all flight schools & flight instructor. That would be helpful to our new pilots. No intrest loans, tax write offs, 1% airline involvement, large aircraft manufacturers, all this to protect our own industry. You notice no government involvement is included in this plan. If nothing else, lets
    cut the dead wood from the FAA. Just some thought from an old man.

  5. Mark C says

    Seriously, even the worst flight school could achieve a 70% completion rate if all their students were on a full scholarship. Cost, and unexpected cost increases, is the number one reason students quit. You start out thinking a PPL will cost you about $6000. Then you need a medical, a headset, a flight bag, books, flight computer, AOPA membership, etc., for a couple thousand more dollars by the time you’re done. Then you’re not the exceptional student you thought you’d be, and $6000 worth of flight training has gone by and you’re still a long way from the checkride, and many lessons feel more like work than fun, and the spouse who reluctantly gave their blessing is starting to ask how much more this is going to cost, and you’ve learned enough to know that whether you rent, own, or join a club, flying is going to cost a good chunk annually if you want to fly often enough to stay current and feel confident in your skills, and you wonder if it’s worth it. Then your spouse asks if that $30K airplane you were looking at will be a good substitute for commercial air travel, and you have to admit that no, a good, fast, IFR capable traveling airplane starts closer to $100K, not to mention the fuel burn and maintenance costs making private air travel cost 3 – 5 times more than commercial air travel. You don’t even mention that you’d also have to spend another $6K getting your IFR training and certification.

    I’d guess that 90% of students who start flight training for recreational purposes have no clue what they’re in for cost-wise, and most of them can’t really afford it. If flight schools really want to raise their completion rate, they should start by weeding out anyone making less than $100K per annum and asking the rest if they have any other hobbies or interests that cost money, and if they do, recommending they not start lessons. Or at least take every prospective student, find out what their real goals are, then explaining the real costs to them. Light sport? Figure $5-$6K for training and at least $2K annually to stay current. PPL? Double the training cost and add another $1K minimum annually. Instrument? Add another $4-$6K training, $1K per year. Mountain flying? If you want to be safe, another $1K training.

    I’m not exceptional, but I’m a pretty good flight student. I have $2000 invested in training, $1000 in related expenses, $2000 in a club membership, and I haven’t soloed. Meanwhile, my wife is wondering when I’ll be able to fly her to visit our widely scattered kids and how much more it will cost, since she had seen where I “could” complete training to a sport ticket for @ $2000. And we haven’t even talked about the cost of an IFR-equipped PA-20 with skis, hangar to keep it in, and maintenance, so we can fly to mountain airstrips to camp, hike, fish, and hunt. We can afford it, but not easily.

    I’ll finish my training, and I’ll keep flying at least in the club plane, but a lot wouldn’t. For many, flying is a “bucket list” item, and once they have 20 hours or so in the log book and have soloed, and realize that many of their dreams will probably not come true, and there is little chance of ever getting any return on investment, they will say “OK, done that”, and move along. Personally, I don’t want to see those students discouraged from starting, they help keep flight schools in business and keep the costs down for the rest of us. I think that more important than worrying about completion rates, the industry needs to look at lowering the total cost of flying to keep more pilots in the game once they get that ticket.

Leave a Reply

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