From student to mentor

This may not seem to be a column about politics, but it is. Because ultimately politics is the art of people interacting with other people in order to get something done. Based on that, flight instruction falls well within the realm of politics. And just like politics in the governmental sense, the politics of flight instruction can be both as uplifting and as infuriating as the Washington D.C. variety so often is.

While it’s a sad tale, I’ve always been fairly open about the fact that my early attempts at being a student pilot were miserable failures. The problem wasn’t that I was unmotivated. It was more a case of a lazy instructor who was unprepared to teach found it easier and more convenient to merely take me for a ride and empty my wallet than to actually teach me anything about becoming a pilot. He got what he wanted, while I spent a great deal of money and got no closer to achieving my goal.

My personal experience isn’t all that unusual, unfortunately. A reader recently shared his own story with me via email. Considering the common link between our early attempts, I think there is real value in passing some excerpts of his message along to a wider audience. So with his permission, I will.

Brian wrote to me, saying, “I believe there are quite a few flight students who have bad experiences and then quit altogether. They never tell anyone why. The reason they do not tell anyone is they think they themselves were the problem. Maybe some of them say it’s the money or their schedules, but the truth is, they feel ashamed.”

It would be easy to dismiss Brian’s theory as simple conjecture — but then I experienced the same problem when I was new to flying. Over time I’ve come to find that his observation is fairly reasonable, if not unfortunate. The truth is hard and counterproductive to the goal of growing the general aviation population of enthusiasts, but it is real and we have to accept that fact if we are to improve in the long run.

Brian went on to share this painful memory. “I had one CFI tell me, after a Discovery Flight, ‘People like you don’t learn to fly.’ Another told me I’d be a 100-hour student and I was wasting my money. ‘There is nothing more I can do with you,’ he said after three lessons.” Those aren’t exactly motivational lessons a CFI should plan on leaving their students with, but clearly these are the messages Brian came away with. Can you imagine receiving such lousy customer service at any business, of any type, anywhere? This isn’t the kind of sales presentation I’d want my people to use with customers. Not if I wanted to succeed, in any case.

How about you? Is this the attitude that made the company you work for a success?

In Brian’s case, the hits just kept on coming — and not in a good way. He had one expensive bad experience after another, yet he persevered. “Another instructor flew with me for about 14 hours, at a class D airport, and all we did was ground reference maneuvers. He never had me do takeoffs or landings or use the radios….or the [rudder] pedals. Then I found out that a friend in other state who was taking lessons was doing all these things even though he had less hours than I did. I actually had several different instructors, in different planes, tell me I didn’t have to worry about the fact that I couldn’t reach the pedals. ‘These newer planes are very stable; you hardly need to use the pedals at all.’”

The thing that surprises me about Brian’s emails is not that he had bad experiences in his attempts to get quality flight training. No. What surprises me is that he persisted. This is a guy who really wanted to learn to fly, but for one reason or another he was finding himself matched up with a series of instructors who put the confidence and progress of their students very low on their priority list. Yet he continued on and kept looking for alternatives.

Happily, Brian was successful in the end. He ultimately found a flight school that took good care of him. They matched him up with instructors who were supportive and truly helpful. They were teachers, not check cashers. All this led to a much better result in his flight training, and Brian finally earned his pilot certificate in December 2008.

They say hope springs eternal, and apparently it does. Because Brian was careful to share this important thought in his email, “Sure, there still are ‘bad’ schools and ‘bad’ instructors. But there are many good ones.”

This is the spirit that we need to share if general aviation is to grow, to thrive, and truly prosper in the coming decades. We need to find the silver lining of those dark clouds on the horizon, highlight it, share the news with friends, and tell the world that a place at the aviation table is within their grasp if they are interested in becoming a participant. Of course we could expand on that message even further if we were to personally get involved and share our knowledge with others. If we could just find a way to help the guy or gal coming up behind us to know that they really can get past the rough spots — we could have a profound impact on general aviation well into the future — beyond our own lifetimes in fact.

Brian knows that, and the fact that he does was the thing that really got my attention. His email went on to say this: “One thing I do is at my airport I try to hang out and see the flight students and talk to them. You see, when I was a pre-solo student, I remember looking up to the solo students (who’d fly out to the practice area or do cross country flights) as my role models. By the time I was about to take my checkride, and I was getting discouraged, I found out that the newer, pre-solo, students, were looking up to me as their role model. I realized that what I said or did carried weight with them; it could impact them in a positive way or a negative way.”

It seems to me that for all Brian’s difficulties and hardships, he learned a lot more during his instructional periods than just how to fly an airplane. He learned how to become an example and a resource to those who are trying so hard to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps the rest of us could learn a thing or two from Brian that would benefit the world around us, too.

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

Comments

  1. To be fair, it sounds like Brian had some issues that were, in fact, going to make him a 100-hour pilot. No instructor or flight school wants to take on a student who is just going to go away mad after 50 hours anyway. That said, rather than telling him that and encouraging him to quit, it might have been better to tell him that and then follow up with “if you’re willing to endure the extra effort, trouble, and expense, we’ll work with you”.

    I’m now one of those solo students and whenever possible I try to offer encouragement to the new starts coming into our flight school. I’ll be the average 60-hour or so student when I take my checkride some time in the next two months, and while I wanted it badly enough that I don’t think I’d ever have quit, there were a few times that a little advice and encouragement probably saved me additional hours because I’d have been discouraged and would have either stepped away for a while (I actually did do that a couple times, but there would have been more), or would have been taking lessons without making progress, the belief that you will succeed often being essential to actually doing so.

  2. Hi Jamie, thanks for your article. Brian and I met online in 2008 in a pilot forum during our flight training phase, and he was about 6 mo. ahead of me in training. Brian was a HUGE inspiration and motivator for me then, and still is. I remember when he earned his wings, and he contributed to my success in July 2009 as well. Brian is a natural mentor and has been instilling that importance in the aviation community. I am now involved with my local pilot group and try to live up to his example, especially encouraging other female students who are in the minority. While Brian’s in FL and I’m in MA, we’ve been able to share our different flying experiences…even though I’m a little jealous of all his good flying weather! LOL

  3. Twalker716 says:

    Hi Jamie, I appreciate your articles, and always look forward to enjoying the next one!  To me, it sounds like Brian would be a great instructor himself!  Have you ever asked him if he intends to pursue that path?  I would think that most folks would be quite happy to have someone like Brian who is able to persevere right behind them as they fight their own battles to get their licenses!

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  1. [...] From student to mentor This may not seem to be a column about politics, but it is. Because ultimately politics is the art of people interacting with other people in order to get something done. Based on that, flight instruction falls well within the realm of politics. And just like politics in the governmental sense, the politics of flight instruction can be both as uplifting and as infuriating as the Washington D.C. variety so often is. Continue Reading » [...]

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