Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pilot Training: Finish What You Started

What can be done to help student pilots complete their training?

Lower The Cost

Fixing the high cost of flight training is one of the first things on every instructor's list. "If I could reliably point someone to good financing, it would definitely increase the number of students who finish," says Chief CFI Curt Langenhorst of Chandler Aviation in Arizona.

All the instructors I spoke with discussed bringing down the cost of flight training. Some pointed to the various programs offered to high-school-aged students across the nation, where students are enrolled in flight training at no cost to them, with the burden absorbed by contributions or corporate sponsorships. Many of our instructors suggested adapting such programs to serve adult flight students and using nontypical funding sources, like sponsorships or contracts from aviation-centric companies. Others are optimistic that financing sources will reappear as the economy improves.

The Student Has To Love It

Michael Church knows a thing or two about flight instruction. He owns and has been running Sunrise Aviation in Orange County, Calif., for over three decades. Famous for their aerobatic training, Sunrise also teaches primary students. "The single most effective truth in flight training is that it only works if the student loves it," explains Church. "Students quit when the reward ceases to match their efforts." Church advocates always using a senior instructor as a resource if things don't go well with the primary instructor. "The first time the student doesn't leave the lesson happy, they should report that, and it should be fixed," he says. Church and others agree that student goals and CFI goals seldom match. The instructor has to offer the correct amount of praise and criticism, and balance it all with the "fun factor." They have to be critical and repeat things so the student will absorb them properly. "But they also have to make sure the students feel good about themselves," adds Church. "That's the art of flight instructing."

Engage The Student Through Varied Training

Curt Langenhorst is the Chief Flight Instructor for Chandler Air Service in Chandler, Ariz. They're renowned for their tailwheel training and aerobatics, and offer all facets of flight training. "Part of the reason we have more students finish when compared to the average is because we offer something unique," explains Langenhorst. "We serve a certain segment of the market that is interested in aerobatic training or tailwheels or our Great Lakes biplanes." He says offering something unique helps retain students.

Specialty training such as tailwheels can offer a break to a student who might be reaching a training plateau and needs to be reminded of the fun of flying. Such training can reengage a student and reignite their enthusiasm. One thing all our instructors agree with is that flight instruction isn't an easy undertaking. By offering even a few hours of something different, it can help keep a student who might otherwise "burn out."

Experienced Flight Instructors

Larry Camden is based in Denver, Colo., and has been training flight students for some 50 years. He was the FAA's Flight Instructor of the Year in 2009, and retired as a Continental Airlines 777 captain. "I don't have any new answers, but the finances and instructor are key things," says Camden. His flight school enjoys a 75% completion rate or better, which he attributes to good instructors. "I have gray-haired instructors," laughs Camden, "but that experience is hard to beat." He says he sees students who became frustrated with instructors who weren't available and wouldn't commit to their training. "The expense involved in flight training is high," explains Camden, "And the instructor should commit fully to the student."

CFIs Dedicated To Teaching

John Abraham originally wanted to be an airline pilot. Instead, he fell in love with instructing. "My whole family is teachers," he laughs. Abraham got together with a group of fellow pilots who enjoy instructing and created a loose company of freelance CFIs based in Tampa, Fla. "The problem is most CFIs want to build time and get out," explains Abraham. "But to make flight training better and keep students, the instructor has to be dedicated to their students." He adds that too many students quit because they're shuffled around at the flight school and deal with CFIs who aren't punctual and just don't seem to care. "Find an instructor who wants to be a teacher first," is Abraham's advice. "That CFI will be there for the student when the student needs them."

AOPA Student Retention Initiative

Pilots have reported what they feel their top priorities are for improving the flight-training experience. The AOPA Student Retention Initiative started the process, and their resulting report outlines the details of the proposed reforms. During 2011, AOPA will host 12 meetings in six cities across the country to share information gleaned from this report, and to hear more from student pilots, pilots, flight instructors and flight schools about what works, what doesn't, and the progress of the proposed reforms. Here are some of the suggested changes.

• Establish a standardized training syllabus that's carefully followed
• Provide opportunities for students to get involved in the aviation community
• Improve the professionalism of flight instructors
• Promote lower-cost flight-training options, like the sport pilot certificate
• Improve flight-school customer service


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