Getting Started in Aviation

In the past few weeks I have embarked on a new adventure. As you may recall, I stared down the path of earning my FAA Privot Pilot Certificate. I have had several people ask me about the process, the cost, and how I got started.

It seems that there is this mystique around pilot training. One of the things I am finding to be very true about flight training is that many people do not start it because it either seems like it is an unattainable goal or that they simply don’t know who to ask. Let’s face, many of us would never drive out to an airport and ask about lessons. I found the same thing to be true when I was teaching SCUBA diving. The average person is either intimidated by the jocks working the dive shop or had never really thought about the possibilities diving offered. In a 1998 survey conducted by DEMA, the synergy of the diving business, 96% of people surveyed as to the reason why they did not dive, were simply never invited.

This brings me to how pilots are recruited into general aviation. To put it bluntly, they aren’t. Most fall into it. This last week I spent some time talking to aviation clubs, schools, private instructors, etc. The main focus of the conversation was how they attracted new people into taking lessons. I was astounded to learn that they were all hitting the same venues and media. Air shows, aircraft conferences, aircraft magazine adds, aviation radio shows, etc. They were all fishing in the same stock pond.

Maybe here is where I explain “stock pond” If you are in the south and love to fish, you have been on a stock pond. A stock pond sits on a rancher’s property to water cattle. Most ranches have several stock ponds. Now most ranchers will place bass and catfish in the stock pond. If you are really lucky, you know a rancher that will let you come out and fish- and in some cases pull in trophy sized fish in that stock pond.

Now imagine that the only place you ever fish is in that stock pond. You go to the same one every weekend. Soon there are no more trophy sized fish- and in some cases no fish. Now imagine that every bass fisherman in Texas started going to your set of stock ponds. The fishing is bad…

That is exactly how general aviation has tried to recruit.

Since they won’t go to you- I’m going to help you go to them…

Get High
Go out on an introductory flight with a Certified Flight Instructor. These cost between $40 and $60 for 1/2 to 1 hour of time. This is where you see if you interested in learning. Now the instructor may want to sign you up right away- the intro flight is part of the recruitment package. I don’t believing in rushing into any commitments without learning more.

Interview Flight Instructors
The first part of breaking the mystique of the instructor is to interview them. You are paying them, which means they work for you. The relationship has to work since you will be spending a lot of time together. You both need to know style preferences, how you deal with stress, schedules, number of lessons per week, etc. Another question is if the CFI is looking to work for an airline. I found in my interview process one of the guys on my shortlist was helping to build is resume was through teaching. Nothing wrong with that, but had I selected him as my instructor, we would have completed the first six hours, he is now moving to Atlanta to take a job as an airline pilot.

I can be pretty intense as well as overly critical on myself. I need someone who is opposite who can help me laugh at my own mistakes, provide honest and useful feedback, and help me chill a bit. I interviewed 16 CFIs. I took the list to three and then met each one in person.

When looking for an instructor I actually had one of my candidates respond to my interview invitation by saying, “You don’t interview flight instructors, you just pick one”. Needless to say, he is not my instructor.

Find a Club
Clubs have distinct advantages since when you become a member, you have a pride in a partnership or co-op of the aircraft. Sometimes you can fly for less money, have the ability to buy fuel in bulk, have group rate renter’s insurance, and a pool of other aviators at all skill levels.

Some of the drawbacks can be club politics, availability of aircraft, and initiation fees. The club I joined had a $500 initiation fee, but in the long run it seemed to have more advantages.

Be Resource Savvy
I was blown away by the lack of resource knowledge the CFIs I interviewed had. When I asked about on-line training or other learning methods- the usual answer was something like, “Well I got a program I’ve been using for years…” My instructor was cool- he said to use whatever I needed and he would adjust.

As a guy who develops training for a living, I have a hard time with those kinds of folks. Going through training material of some of the CFIs I interviewed, many were using old learning methodologies set to only one learning style.

There is so much out there, it can be overwhelming. I found a combination of on-line interactive and audio/video podcast has been the greatest help for me. In a addition, when I meet with my instructor, we focus on more of the “why” rather that the “how”

Take the First Step
Right now you are the only barrier to getting started in training. Flight instructors aren’t to be feared. Check out flight schools and clubs in your area.

The price can seem daunting, but most of it can be broken down into do-able chunks. With the current economy, most schools and instructors would rather be teaching than sitting in a hanger – so negotiate price with them.

I am enjoying this new adventure and glad I took the steps to getting started- you can do this to!

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