When I took my first flight lesson back in June 2003 at the age of 48, I was exactly twice the age of my flight instructor and a lot older than almost all of the other students. For the first time in a long while, I’ve been back in flight school lately to work on my multi-engine rating and have found a very different picture. There are still mostly young people, but now there are more than a few older students and even some in my age range. Industry statistics agree. The average student pilot is now about 33, and the average private pilot is 48.
Flying has always been in my blood, and I expect that’s true for almost all pilots, no matter how old they are when they start training. I know how I got infected. My father flew B-17s with the Eighth Air Force in World War II, and his stories about those years were the most vivid stories he ever told. I always gravitated naturally toward science and technical things, which we didn’t call technology back then. I read everything I could find on flying and the new space program. So, if it was in my blood, why did I not start training for so long? What are the obstacles for anyone who waits to start flying, and then what changes as people get older to get them unstuck?
TIME AND MONEY
I finished high school at 17 and didn’t get my first real job until I was 34. That’s on the extreme side, but for most of us, the radar screen of young adulthood is rich with targets related to work and family, leaving little time and money for discretionary pursuits.
A 61-year-old flight instructor told me her story, which isn’t much different from my own except that her father flew with the Luftwaffe rather than the Army Air Corps. After coming to this country, “Life kept getting in the way,” she said, and that it was “marriage, children, money—all the usual things” until her husband gave her a gift certificate for flying lessons for her 45th birthday. Her kids were mostly spun at that point and their finances less tenuous. The timing was right, and she has never since looked back.
In 1960, the average American man married at 22. In 1990, it was 26, and now it’s 29. At each point, women are two to three years younger. In 1970, the average woman had her first child at 21. Today, she’s 26 for her first child and about 28 for her statistical last child. Eighteen years later, the average couple is in their middle to late 40s when the nest empties and time becomes a lot less constraining.
From our 20s through our middle to late 40s, income rises, too. As of 2014, average income in the U.S. was $25,000 in our early to mid-20s, $37,000 among 25- to 34-year-olds, and then $45,000 by the age of 35. After that, average income rises slowly to age 60 or so and then declines as folks start to retire.
Flight training was never inexpensive and it always required a real time commitment, but maybe not as much of either as most people think. These days, most student pilots need 60 to 80 flight hours to become licensed. Calendar time is another matter, though. Flight training requires reasonably good weather, and for most of the lessons, daylight hours also. My average flight lesson was 1.2 hours. Assuming two to three lessons per week, an optimal learning rate for most people, we’re talking about four to six months.
Our children, at 8 and 11 back then, were still pretty young, and my career, though a little less demanding than it had been earlier, still meant I couldn’t even consider scheduling more than two lessons per week. New England meteorology was another big factor. Halfway through training, I calculated that 73% of my lessons had been canceled for weather.
With those scheduling limitations, it took an entire year to get my license. If you live in a state with better weather and fewer nighttime hours, it can be done pretty easily in six months, and there are accelerated courses where you can do this in a few weeks of full-time training.
By the way, an important factor people don’t talk about is finding an instructor who teaches the way you think. I’m sure there are more than a few not-so-hot instructors, even if they’re great pilots, but the student-instructor fit is a big deal and a more common problem, by far. A good fit will save you frustration, time and money. The operations director at a Boston area flight school told me his impression that the students who bail on their training do so mostly because the flight instructor fails to connect with them. He tells his instructors, “It’s not about what you need to say. It’s about what the client needs to hear.” Every prospective flight student should talk to friends, get references and interview at least a few instructors before deciding with whom to train.
By the way, an important factor people don’t talk about is finding an instructor who teaches the way you think.
The cost of flight training varies a lot. Training near big cities in fancy aircraft is particularly expensive, but those are choices. A young friend who lives in Manhattan just completed his training and told me that one flight school very close to the city uses the neatest and newest aircraft and “is where Angelina Jolie and the hedge fund crowd get their training.” Total cost for the PPL there is about $30,000. He found a school using the same equipment a little farther from town where the cost would be about $22,000. My young friend chose more as I did and trained for under $15,000 by driving farther and training in an older airplane with old-fashioned flight instruments and steam gauges, as opposed to the newer glass panels. In the Boston area, excellent training can lead to licensure for as little as $8,000 to $9,000, not hugely more than the $5,000 I spent 12 years ago. Farther from the big cities, you can still learn to fly for about what I paid.
One summer afternoon on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, a good friend found out I was a relatively new pilot and his first question had to do with the airplane falling out of the sky if the engine should quit. He was genuinely surprised to learn that airplanes with engines are good gliders and that engine failures are remarkably uncommon, anyway. He was also surprised to find out that airplanes don’t fall apart in the sky. Most of all, he was shocked to find out that while accidents are definitely not a good idea, about three-quarters of aviation accidents don’t lead to any significant injury.
The difference between actual risk and how we perceive that risk is often large, and it changes through life. Our friends in psychology tell us that we overestimate risks that are personalized, particularly dreadful, much talked about or out of our control. Heart disease kills women about five times more often than does breast cancer, but women tend to be a lot more worried about breast cancer. It’s more discussed, more horrible a death to contemplate, and it seems to happen younger, with less control. It seems more random.
In fact, heart disease and breast cancer are both on average diagnosed in a woman’s 60s, and we overestimate the preventability of heart disease. We all think that if we don’t smoke, eat right, exercise and control our weight, we can prevent heart attacks. I’m a cardiologist, and while those things help a lot, I wish it were that simple. Breast cancer and coronary heart disease both happen to a lot of people who take good care of themselves.
A plane crash is dreadful, personal and, when you’re the passenger, out of your control. We’re not in the front seat of that airliner we’re flying in or that airliner whose crash we’ve read about, so who hasn’t imagined with horror the last moments of those unfortunate souls who’ve died in an air transport crash, like Air France 447 or TWA 800.
And plane crashes not only are dreadful, much discussed and out of our control, but unlike far more common causes of death, such as car crashes or heart disease, they’re exquisitely personalized. “I’ve noticed that about your people, Doctor,” Mr. Spock of Star Trek commented. “You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million.” For whatever reason, plane crashes get our full attention.
As we get older, a few things change. Perhaps, most importantly, many become more confident, more willing to assume some risk once the children are on a good trajectory and basic financial security has been attained. Also important, though, is that with maturity, most of us perceive with a little more brain and a little less emotion. The facts of aviation risk aren’t the perception. For scheduled commercial jet travel in the U.S., risk is miniscule, but that’s not what we’re talking about. General aviation refers to flying noncommercially. It includes me in my four-seat single-engine propeller plane and captains of industry in their private jets. In 2012, there were 378 GA fatalities in the United States. During that same year, fatalities were 33,561 driving cars and trucks, 4,957 on motorcycles, 726 on bicycles and 651 in boats. In order to make these kinds of statistics more meaningful for aviation, we estimate the total number of hours flown and then express the risk per flight hour.
The total accident rate for GA is about 6.7 per 100,000 hours, and the fatality rate is about 1.4 per 100,000. It looked like those numbers were improving in the 2010-2012 range, but later data say otherwise. Flight training is a hefty notch safer, as training accounts for 30% of flight activity, but only 23% of the accidents and fewer than 15% of the fatal accidents. As a mode of getting somewhere, GA flight is more dangerous than automobiles. Pilots are apt to say the risk of flying is similar to the risk of riding motorcycles, and that’s probably in the right ballpark, at least. Like motorcycles, importantly, much of that risk is controllable.
One particularly preventable and much too common pilot error comes to mind. Eighty or 90 times each year, some powered aircraft turn into gliders due to a fuel-related problem. That’s almost two each week. About 75% of those pilots simply run out of gas. A few fail to detect contaminated fuel. The rest have plenty of fuel onboard, but are unable to get it to the engine. Some aircraft fuel systems really are complex and unintuitive, and unforecast headwinds can make any fuel plan obsolete during flight. Even so, I’m afraid that running out of gas is just inexcusable.
Weather is a very frequent cause of aviation accidents and most of those accidents are preventable, too. As I write this, I’m comfortably home in the midst of a Nor’easter bringing ice and turbulence to the sky from Bangor, Maine, to Norfolk, Virginia. Another storm farther south and west is on its way. I had planned to fly to South Florida today and back the day after tomorrow, and that meant tangling with both systems. The patient I was to see and the colleagues I had planned to meet with down there were more than happy to help keep me out of harm’s way. We handled much by phone today, and we postponed our meetings for some time soon.
TRIGGERS TO FLY
Fertile soil isn’t enough. Something has to turn maybe I’ll learn to fly someday into an action plan. In my case, the trigger was the first perfect spring morning after a cold and interminable New England winter. All we wanted was to get to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, but the ferries were full and there’s no bridge. For other people, the provocation is yet another traffic jam on that frequent business or family trip of maybe 150 or 300 miles. An instructor told me that his older flight students usually start with a gift certificate, a flight with a private pilot friend or a more gradual recognition that they finally have enough time and money to make them “bold enough to walk in the door and announce that they want to learn to fly.”
As we get older, a few things change. Perhaps, most importantly, many become more confident, more willing to assume some risk…
You don’t pursue a pilot’s license to save money, have more time to watch baseball on TV or decrease your overall risk exposure. But as we get into our 30s and 40s, the time and money mismatch is more perception than reality for a lot of people. The risk at any age is less than the perceived risk, and it’s largely, but, of course, never fully controllable. If you’re not a pilot and you’re reading this magazine, flying is already in your blood. Maybe someday is now, and it’s time to go flying.
John Levinson, MD, PhD, practices and teaches Cardiology and Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. An instrument-rated private pilot, he uses his Mooney for business and personal transportation, flying mostly with his non-pilot wife whose very different perspective adds greatly to all he sees and writes.
THE JOY OF DOING WHAT’S HARD
If you’re ready to fly, but held back by a reluctant spouse or partner, that’s usually because they perceive the risk to be too high, the expense too great or the time commitment too extensive. Perhaps information from this article will help you to convince your spouse otherwise. Also very important, though, is to give him or her a sense not only of the flying itself, but of what that activity often brings along: community and passion for you, activities and adventures for you and your family to share. It’s a new world, and while nothing really worth doing is free or easy, things worth doing are worth doing.
The population of active pilots has been shrinking for some years, and not by a little. A few years ago, Richard Collins speculated that a chunk of that decline is attributable to a new mood in our country, a mood of neediness and risk aversion. I wish I disagreed, but I don’t. For many pilots, a big part of the joy of getting a pilot’s license is the joy of doing what’s hard. I’ll never forget the pride I felt when I passed my checkride and became a private pilot. When our younger daughter graduated from high school at Concord Academy in 2012, the commencement speaker was Robert Pinsky, an incredibly gifted man and United States Poet Laureate. He gave the most moving address I’ve ever heard (youtube.com/watch?v=T0w7FVLwn-w), as he described the quintessentially human need to do that which is difficult. Like learning to fly, I thought.