The other day I was listening to an episode of the Airplane Geeks Podcast, with hosts Max Flight, Max Trescott, and David Vanderhoof. Specifically, it was Episode 550. And yes, I was listening primarily because my friend and co-worker Jennifer Storm was the guest on that particular episode.
Jennifer is a force of nature. The vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Foundation, the arm of the organization that funds the work I do when I’m not writing this column for General Aviation News, she’s amazing. She’s also a commercial pilot with CFI tickets and a truly great attitude about what general aviation can do for its participants.
I tend to believe GA matters, too. In fact, I believe it’s a valid point regardless of the participant’s age, or social status, or any other attribute you might affix to them. Involvement in general aviation is good. There, I said it.
Throughout the podcast the whole crew was upbeat, interesting, and thoroughly entertaining. But then the subject of flight instruction came up and Jennifer just floored me with a genius idea. And no, “genius” is not too strong a word. Her personal goal for what she’d like to do in her golden years is flat out brilliant.
Jennifer said, “Instead of offering scholarship dollars I’ll provide scholarship flight training.”
If you can imagine an enormous, 10,000 lumen bulb lighting up over my head, that’s a general approximation of how I felt. It’s a stellar idea. A fantastic way for the average Jane or Joe CFI to introduce new people to aviation on a budget.
This is why Jennifer amazes me as she does. She just tosses out bits of ingenuity that would take me a lifetime to discover, yet she seems to have a bottomless gift bag of ideas ready to go all the time.
According to the FAA’s U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics, there are more than 100,000 CFIs in the U.S. Let’s assume that half of those CFIs aren’t really active. They’ve earned the certificate. They’re proud to carry it in their wallet. They may even still be active pilots, but for the sake of our discussion let’s just imagine that half the total number of CFIs don’t actually provide instruction anymore. That brings us down to a little more than 50,000 CFIs, which is still a pretty impressive number.
Imagine if even 10% of those CFIs took the same attitude Jennifer did. When retirement rolls around and they don’t have nearly the financial pressure, time management issues, or family obligations that took up their days and nights during their younger years. Yet they’ve still got a profoundly important skill to offer. They can teach others to fly. To enrich their lives. To shrink the world while simultaneously expanding their student’s horizons.
That’s 5,000 benevolent CFIs cut loose on the world with a desire to do something remarkable.
Now, it goes without saying that flight instruction is pricey. It’s not so pricey it’s out of reach for everyone, but the cost certainly limits the number of people who take the option of learning to fly seriously.
What if you could reduce that cost by 20%? Well, that’s absolutely possible and for those CFIs that cut-rate cost is well within their ability.
If a CFI chose to offer instruction to one student a year for no remuneration, that student would see approximately a 20% reduction in their training costs. That’s assuming an instructional rate of about $50 per hour and an airplane rental cost of about $100 per hour. Your mileage may vary depending on where you are in the country, but those are reasonable numbers in my neighborhood.
Maybe the airplane costs more and the instructor books out for less. That might reduce the savings to only 10%. Is there anyone who would turn up their nose at a 10% price reduction on something they truly wanted to do? Would that 10% cut put flight training in the realm of possibility for some who would otherwise be priced out of the market?
Those are questions worth considering.
What if the CFI happened to own an airplane and offered it to the student as a loaner? They aren’t renting, they’re simply using it for what it was intended to do – fly. The CFI might say, “Just replace the fuel and oil you burn, and the flight lessons are on me.”
The cost of flight training just plummeted. Even if the student takes 60 hours to complete their training, the full cost of the process would be less than $3,000. That’s doable for most people. Even teenagers with a part-time fast-food job could shoulder that load.
Of course, that’s assuming just one student a year. You could argue that one student a year isn’t going to make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things. That one student might disagree, though. She or he would be far better off and no doubt tremendously grateful to their benefactor for many years to come.
Let’s expand the pool, though. If Jennifer’s idea went viral and even 10% of active CFIs took on the challenge of training one student a year for free, that could result in as many as 5,000 new pilots each year — and a whole lot of hard-earned pride in the CFI ranks.
If I thought creatively for a lifetime, I don’t think I would have come up with the idea Jennifer just threw out there so casually. The idea of a professional offering services as a scholarship rather than dollars to serve the same purpose, would never have crossed my mind.
But the idea has taken hold now, and I think it’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in years. Could I give up 40, or 50, or 60 hours this year to help a deserving candidate earn their private pilot certificate? Yeah, I think I could. Could you? Yeah, probably. If you wanted to. If you were willing.
I think it’s time to go have a chat with my local flight school. It just might be time to start a new scholarship program and start shopping it to the local high schools.