When I’m signing autographs on the flight line, people like to tell me their stories about flying. I find it fascinating that so many people have a lifelong dream of learning to fly, and interesting that many people start taking lessons at midlife and older, sometimes even in their 60s and 70s. Some people start flying later due to personal circumstances, time and money. Occasionally, they have an aviation career in mind but often start flying for other reasons, like taking on a new challenge, doing something that gives them a feeling of accomplishment or for the sheer joy of piloting an airplane. The airplane doesn’t know the difference between a 16 or a 60-year-old, and any day is a good day to start flying.
Recently, a friend in his mid-40s, Brad, told me he had always wanted to learn to fly. When I asked him what was stopping him from taking lessons, he had the usual excuses, including how he was possibly “too old,” “didn’t have the math background” or just didn’t have the “right stuff.” I knew he had what it takes, so as a friend and a flight instructor, I decided to give him some advice and encouragement.
After discussing his concerns about age and background, we disregarded them pretty quickly. Mid-40s isn’t “too old” to start learning anything, and since he had a high-school degree, he had all the math skills he needed to get his license. As far as having the “right stuff,” I knew he had the discipline and desire, but would he have the patience? Learning to fly is demanding—both physically and mentally. We expect a lot of ourselves, and mastering the fundamental skills we need requires patience, because so much of it is repetition and muscle memory.
Like a lot of aspiring flight students, he wasn’t sure where to start and wondered how to go about choosing the right flight school. My friend lives in an area where there are several airports, so he had several to choose from. My advice was to start by finding the right flight instructor. I believe one of the key ingredients in a successful flight-training experience is having a CFI who takes the time to understand you and your motivations.
We each have a different learning style, so finding an instructor who understands yours, and who gets along with your personality and shares your sense of humor, can make the challenge of learning to fly a fantastic and successful experience.
When he searched around and found the right instructor, he was excited because they had great rapport. Then, I encouraged him to tell me about his lessons. I wanted to use my experience to help with the inevitable “learning plateaus.” Like every student pilot, he had good days and bad days, but at midlife with a successful work career behind him, he was like a lot of Type A “go-getters.” He loved the challenge but had very high expectations of himself, so there were days when he was impatient. We discussed his frustrations, but I found out that, most of the time, all he needed was a word of encouragement. Happily, he found just the right flight instructor, and things have worked out well. My friend just soloed and is on his way to getting a pilot’s license. I’m happy to have been a small part of it.
This experience made me wonder about “older” flight students and how they learn. Does an old dog learn new tricks in a different way? Are there differences in how they learn and, therefore, how they should approach flight training? Do older students have different expectations? Do they demand more of themselves? Do they require more encouragement?
In my curiosity, I started asking around for a few of the answers. In talking with midlife and older flight students, they told me some things I expected to hear, but also some things that surprised me.
A recurring sentiment was, “Older is better,” because the older students felt they were more disciplined than they would have been when they were younger. They felt they better understood how to apply their particular learning style to a new challenge. Several people told me they felt they had more patience—an obvious advantage when it comes to learning a skill that requires repetition and muscle memory. The perspective gained by life experience and age can be a benefit when learning to fly. Each of the older students I talked to had a lifelong dream of learning to fly. When they finally had the opportunity to achieve their dream, they had a profound sense of gratitude. It made me wonder if, perhaps, delayed gratification is the best form of satisfaction. Some people told me they started flying to get over a life-changing event, such as a divorce or death. Flying helped bring a new dimension into their lives. Whatever reason makes people finally take the plunge, they’re glad they did. Even though “older might be better” in some ways, many people wished they could have started sooner. As one mid-40s student said to me, “Wow, why haven’t I been flying my whole life?”
I loved hearing about the older students’ pride in learning to fly. And I was pleasantly surprised by how many people commented on the importance of having the right flight instructor. As I told my mid-40s friend, finding the right instructor and ditching the wrong one is super important. In my 30 years as a CFI, I know of too many people who have gotten discouraged and even quit early in their flight training because they had the wrong instructor. So many of the older students I talked to already understood this. Life experience helps us know what we need and how to go about getting it. Also, because many older students aren’t confined by the constraints of a time frame, degree program or career path, they can be more selective in picking the right instructor for them.
The other unexpected discovery was how important mentors were to the older students, and how much they counted on them for guidance. The desire to fly might be there, but sometimes, it just takes one person to help light the fire and spark the courage to start to learn. Mentors are important at any age, but perhaps they’re even more valuable to the midlife student. This tells me it’s never too late to encourage someone to learn to fly. There might be an older aviation enthusiast at your airport just waiting for the right encouragement to start taking lessons. Look for potential targets at your airport. It could be someone’s husband or wife, a volunteer at your flying club, or maybe the line guy who has always been fascinated but never took the leap to get started. Each of us can be a mentor to someone.
I like to live by the motto, “Living well is the best revenge,” and living well means fulfilling all of your dreams, at any age. Author Sebastian Junger says, “Age is not an option.” Getting older isn’t an elective. We have no control over it, but aging well is often within our grasp. Nowhere is this more true than in aviation. It’s available to everyone, at any age. People who stay curious and inquisitive and continue to learn new things stay on top of their game for a long time. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn to fly at a young age, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start now or encourage someone else to do the same.
I love this quote from 72-year-old Jack Fenton: “I needed a hobby, and chasing a little white ball around had little appeal. Since I had always had an interest in flying…I thought that getting my pilot’s license would be the thing to do now. It was a great decision, and 12 years later, I am still flying. Just got my medical certificate renewed last Wednesday!”