Student Starts & Pilot Retention

Jim Hanson

by Jim Hanson

EDITOR’S NOTE: Flight instructor, fixed base operator and airport manager, Jim Hanson of Albert Lea, Minnesota, responded to the article “What We Can & Cannot Do To Increase Our Pilot Numbers” (Midwest Flyer Magazine, February/March 2011) prior to the release of AOPA’s research intended to determine why student pilots do not complete their training and obtain their pilot certificates.

PREFACE: While the sheer futility of the numbers is alarming, the study conducted by the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) is just the first step in finding ways for flight schools to develop programs designed to keep students from walking off the ramp, never to return.

AOPA commissioned a research firm, APCO Insight, to conduct the research, and what they found sounds familiar to all of us in general aviation, while at the same time providing some key distinctions between conventional wisdom on the subject and the objective facts, as reported by more than 1,000 students and instructors on the factors that helped determine if student pilots would stick with the program or not. The results will be used to create a series of programs designed to provide flight schools real solutions to keeping students enrolled and flying. The programs will begin soon, with their launch spread out through 2011.

I found, perhaps most interesting, that the “cost” of learning to fly, while important, wasn’t the most important factor in student retention by a long shot. The “perceived value” of that training, on the other hand, was crucial to the equation, as was the “quality” of the instruction, the sense of “community” offered the students, and the “relationship” between the student and the instructor. AOPA is planning to conduct a dozen meetings in six different U.S. cities to share the results of the study. The organization also plans to relaunch its newsletter, Flight School Business, which will communicate to flight schools and instructors strategy for retaining pilots. It also plans later this year to launch a series of online tools to spread the word and provide tools to student pilots and their instructors.

There has been much hand-wringing lately about maintaining the pilot population. Not only are student starts down, but a reported 80% of those who DO start flying drop out for one reason or another. In the 48 years I’ve been flying (including 36 years in the FBO business), I’ve heard many of the same excuses used time after time. They include:

1. “It costs too much.”
2. “The instructors are just time-building so they can move on to the next job.”
3. “The airplanes are old.”
4. “Students don’t feel that they are getting a professional education.”

Take a number—and let’s address these issues—and some possible solutions.

“It costs too much.” I reject this argument right out of the chute—almost every would-be pilot knows what it costs when they signed up—and those who drop out AFTER receiving the certificate certainly know what it costs them. This tired old excuse has been around since the Glenn Curtiss School of Flying, when flight lessons were “a dollar a minute for a 400-minute course.” Aviation—and flight training – have ALWAYS been expensive, there’s no denying it. Kathleen Winter’s excellent book on Amelia Earhart says that flying lessons in 1920 “took from five to 10 hours, and costs $1,000.” Trainers at the time tended to be war surplus “Jennys.” The first affordable airplane was the Aeronca C-2, with a purchase price in 1929 of “under $2,000.” The price of training planes came down in the 1930s with the advent of the Piper Cub with a price of just under $1,000 new by 1938. This was in an era when the average annual wage in 1925 was $1236. In other words, it cost between a one and two-year’s salary either to buy a light plane or to learn to fly. What did the student receive for this sum? Five to 10 hours of “instruction.” I recall listening to famed Winona, Minnesota aviator Max Conrad, who also resorted to buying flight time by the minute!

One thing we SHOULD be sure to do…break down the cost in advance, so the student knows what to expect. I like to break it down into bite-size, affordable bits: the cost to solo, post-solo prep, cross-country, and pre-checkride prep. New students usually are amazed that they can get to the point of flying an airplane by themselves for less than $2,000.

The takeaway: Flying has always been expensive, even more so than now, but pilots have always found ways to overcome it. Almost anyone reading this article can relate to that…few of us had unlimited money to learn to fly, but we found ways to do it, because we wanted to.

“The instructors are just time-building so they can move on to the next job.” Flight instruction has always been a stepping-stone to better aviation jobs. It doesn’t pay well. Compare the pay of a flight instructor with what is charged by an electrician, plumber, car mechanic, or the guy that fixes your copier. Why is that? Is it because prospective pilots feel they shouldn’t have to pay an instructor for something they do for fun? The reality is, most aspiring pilots are NOT willing to pay extra for excellent instruction.

Part of the problem is that the would-be pilot has no frame of reference to determine who is or is not an excellent instructor. Several industry groups have attempted to set higher standards than the FAA minimums for flight instructors, and few have succeeded in attracting more students and better pay for instructors. Individual instructors succeed by word-of-mouth. I’ll give you an example:

A friend of mine operated a soaring FBO, giving rides and flight instruction. Like most new FBOs, he charged what everybody else was charging, afraid that if he charged more, he would lose students to nearby glider flying clubs. I counseled him: “You are the most prolific author of glider books in the world (22 in print). You are under contract with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to teach their people about glider flying. You do glider CFI clinics. You are an accomplished public speaker. You should be charging more than the part-time CFI. Consider this: A prospective glider pilot has a choice. He can learn at a local club, but he will be restricted to the hours that certified pilots don’t want to fly – early morning and late afternoon. He will have to round up a tow pilot, wing walker, a CFI, and will have to reserve the glider. When he gets to the field, he will have to walk the glider out to the flight line, and put it away afterward. The student will only receive 20-25 hours of dual instruction to receive the Glider Private Pilot rating. The cost of the CFI is $20 at the glider club—or $400 to $500 total to the CFI—and it will likely take him a couple of years to obtain the rating. Contrast that with your operation. All the student needs to do is to phone and schedule a lesson. The tow pilot, CFI, and glider will be waiting for him. If you charge DOUBLE what the club charges ($40 an hour), the student will pay only $400-$500 more for his rating by flying with you. Let me state it another way. It costs only $400 extra to fly with the leading glider instructor in the world, compared to one that does it part-time, at best, and the student will get the rating in one season, instead of two. That’s good value!”

My friend went on to run a very successful glider operation. He made sure that all students were made to feel welcomed and appreciated. He made sure that he delivered on his “good value” promise – aircraft and instructor were ready when promised – he gave students his undivided attention, and he charged accordingly. The lessons here:
• Charge what you need to charge.
• Give the customer good value for his money.
• Differentiate your operation from the competition…tell the student why you are better.
• Make the customer feel special.

I’ve had any number of people tell me that “aviation is different from any other business.” It’s not. These same precepts apply to any business. Aviation is only different because we all tend to teach as we learn.

Almost all industries have a “farm club.” People start out in entry-level positions, but that doesn’t mean that they are somehow less worthy. It also doesn’t mean that they have to stay in those positions. No matter how much you pay a CFI, they will likely move on. That’s okay! FBOs should train their CFIs to handle customers as they would like to be handled, and should make every effort to ensure that the customer receives value in excess of the mandated minimum.

We’ve had something over 300 instructors in my associated businesses over the years, and most of them fly for airlines, corporations, specialty operations, or government today. We trained them, used them, encouraged them, and even helped them to move on to a better job. We’re proud of our former employees, and many of them keep in contact to this day. Most of them gave as good as they received from us when it came to service. That’s good business.

The takeaway: Don’t look down on the CFI. He/she is just as excited as the student at the prospect of having fun or a career in aviation. They are your partner. Like ANY good partnership, be sure to pick the partner that shares your goals and values when it comes to aviation. Don’t equate their transitional job as being disinterested in teaching you to fly. After all, they are NOT in it for the money!

“The airplanes are old.” Yes, we would all like to learn in new airplanes, and we can, if we are willing to pay for them. The reality…new pilots can’t differentiate between old and new airplanes. Every once in a while, airplanes evolve into readily identifiable technologies: a monoplane looks more modern than a biplane, for example; a metal airplane looks more modern than a fabric airplane; a composite airplane looks more modern than a metal airplane; an airplane with a nose wheel looks more modern than a tail wheel; a glass panel looks more modern than a gyro panel.

A new Warrior or Skyhawk looks pretty much like its 30-year-old brother, and students don’t see value in paying for a newer airplane. A general rule of thumb in the aviation business is that a new GA airplane has to rent for approximately 1/10 of 1% of its cost to cash flow the acquisition, financing, insurance, hangar, depreciation, and fixed and variable costs. That means that a new Skyhawk with a retail price of $285,000 would have to rent for about $285 an hour. Compare that to the average rental of $110 for a good used Skyhawk, and few people will pay the extra cost. That doesn’t mean the airplanes have to LOOK the part, though, with dirty or worn interiors or maintenance issues.

“How about Light Sport Aircraft for trainers?” you may ask. They have been predicted to be “game changers” in the student training business, but using that same rule of thumb, a $140,000 new S-LSA would have to rent for $140 an hour. Will people pay the extra  $30 an hour over an older four-place airplane in order to fly a “newer” airplane? The vote is still out on that. There are few operators of both LSAs and “legacy aircraft” from which to make a comparison.

My own feeling, many LSAs are perfectly fine personal aircraft, but will not stand up to the rigors of flight training (see Aviation Consumer). Some, like the PiperSport and Jabiru, were built for flight training by “downsizing” from heavier aircraft. These aircraft have the heavier landing gear and structure to handle student training. I believe that Light Sport and “conventional” training aircraft are two different aircraft for two separate and distinct markets. Those pilots interested in flying Light Sport Aircraft will learn in LSAs, and those who aspire to faster or more capable aircraft will continue in “conventional” trainers. We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the FAA set the parameters for each class, and aircraft were designed for each class. Given those guidelines, why would we expect anything different?

The takeaway: Most people don’t care about the age of the airplane, but they DO care about the safety and the appearance of the airplane. Our training airplanes should look the part. Whether LSA or “conventional,” they may be utilitarian, but they should convey an image of safety. After all, how many people either know or care what year the DC-9 is they are riding in when flying commercially (most would be shocked to learn the age and total flight hours), as long as the aircraft looks good?

“Students don’t feel as though they are getting a professional education.” There are those students who equate “bigger is better;” that the larger an institution is, the better it must be. They equate physical facilities, rules and regulations, and the stamp of “government approved” with quality. Those of us who have been around the pattern more than a few times realize that isn’t true. Most flight training facilities located on airports are leased, not owned. Most of us know that hidebound rules and regulations don’t make a good pilot; they are instituted as a “checklist” to make sure that all elements of flight training are covered. Similarly, just because a training facility is “government approved” (Part 141), doesn’t necessarily make it better.

Given the fact that students have no basis for comparison, you have to “sell” yourself, just like any salesman for any other industry. You have to convince the prospective student that your business is the best value (there’s that word again) for the student.

• If you are a Part 61 operator, tell the student the difference between Part 141 and Part 61. You needn’t be disparaging to the 141 school, but emphasize that you BOTH operate under the Federal Air Regulations. Tell the student the advantages of BOTH, but emphasize how your operation has flexibility to change lesson plans based on weather or student needs, and that though a Part 141 operation may be able to license a Private Pilot in less time, that rarely happens. An honest discussion of the FAR requirements will go a long way in eliminating any doubts about the relative merits of the two FAR parts, and you will gain credibility with the student by giving a fair assessment.

• Show the prospective customer around your facility. Point out aircraft in for required checks. It will go a long way to making them feel confident that your operation is indeed professional. Take a tip from the auto salesman; invite the prospective student to sit in the airplane, while you point out instruments and talk about its capabilities. The student will feel more at ease with you and will mentally make the jump from “can I really do this?” to imagining him or herself flying this very aircraft. An axiom of the auto trade: the more time you can get the prospective buyer to spend time with you in your environment (the car or airplane), the better your chances of clinching the sale.

• Many people have a fear of passing the written test. Explain your ground training program and your syllabus; it will go a long way towards reassuring the prospective pilot. If you have a written testing center, show it to the prospective student.

• Give references. One of the best references is a nicely done (not haphazard) montage of photos of students that have completed the course. With one visual, it tells the student that a) You have done this before. b) Others have already succeeded. c) You are proud of your students. d) The student can already imagine his picture on the wall! (Do I have to mention that references given should be pre-qualified?)

• Overcome objections. “You don’t have a university connection?” Emphasize that the FAA written exam and certificates are the final examination for most colleges, and that many colleges with aviation programs will recognize a valid FAA pilot certificate for college credit in an FAA program. “Wouldn’t I be better off in a large flight school?” Emphasize the personal instruction, the ability to stay with one instructor, that at many small schools, you save money because you are usually “number one for takeoff” instead of burning tach time waiting for a clearance. A good salesman can counter nearly every objection.

• Have a goal. Every salesman has a goal. Mine is “NO QUALIFIED PROSPECT leaves the place without something in hand.” Here they are, in descending order: a) A commitment to pursue flight lessons. b) A scheduled demo flight. c) A ground school course. d) Brochures on learning to fly at your location, not generic ones.

The takeaway: You may not be able to go toe-to-toe with the big flight training operations, but you CAN tell your own story, with emphasis on why YOUR operation is the best place to learn to fly. This is nothing new; it’s just old-fashioned salesmanship.


There have been a lot of attempts to “fix” the problem. I’ll not go into what doesn’t work, after all, ANYTHING is worth trying, but some things work better than others. Many attempted “fixes” treat the symptom, but not the disease. The following are my own observations and opinions.

Several organizations espouse a “mentoring” program. The dictionary describes mentor as “a wise and trusted advisor or guide.” Excuse me, but wouldn’t that properly be the role of the flight instructor? I’ve seen would-be “mentors” actually impede flight instruction; the well-meaning mentor takes the student up and “shows him how it should be done.” I’m all for someone to lend moral support to students, but historically, that support has come from the pilot group around the airport; instructors and fellow pilots alike. That IS part of what we are missing today, a group of pilot peers. Would-be pilots naturally seek inclusion into the group. One of the benefits of becoming a pilot is inclusion into the group – a powerful motivator – much more powerful than one person can provide. I’m not saying that pilots shouldn’t befriend students; just that their ability to motivate may be limited compared to peer acceptance by the group.

The EAA Young Eagles program is a commendable program to introduce kids to aviation. Hard-working volunteers have given over 1 million airplane rides to kids. I approve of and participate in the program, but there are some follow-up issues. Of those 1 million kids – many of whom are of age now – how many have started flying lessons? I’m sure SOME have, but how many? That’s the point…without follow-up, how do we know if it works? If it was REALLY effective, flight schools would be thriving right now as those kids turn 16 or older. I agree with the premise of the program; all we can do is expose a kid to aviation…either it “takes” or it doesn’t. The program needs a follow up to check effectiveness.

The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) has multiple missions, one of which is education for young pilots. All too often, though, CAP becomes a government-supported flying club for the adults, and the kids get less flight time than the adults. Check the logbooks at most CAP squadrons. Also see how many Private Pilots they graduated. CAP is a good program, but it needs improvement.

It has become common to offer aviation scholarships to young would-be pilots, but that doesn’t address OLDER pilots; those with the leisure time, interest, and money to pursue flying. If underwriting the cost of learning to fly is a good idea for young people, why not the much larger market for older people? Personally, I don’t think that aviation scholarships are particularly effective. Those that WANT to fly usually have a burning desire to do so, and will overcome ANY obstacle to accomplish their goal. I’m sure most readers of this magazine can identify with that. If they had built a brick wall around the airport, most of us would have found a way to get in. If scholarships are provided, they should be conditional – conditional upon having achieved an initial goal, like solo, a given number of hours logged, a rating achieved, or completion of a university block of learning. If a student does those initial steps on their own, they have a good chance of succeeding. Often, something received “for free” is viewed as “without worth.”

A program that has been in place almost as long as people have been flying powered aircraft is the Air Show. Yes, they are popular, and they draw big crowds, but so did the Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevils Thrill Show. Those of us in the industry spend all year telling people that aviation is safe, but on the one day that mom, dad, and the kids come out to the airport, what do they see? Pilots flying upside down at low altitude, trailing smoke. Is it any wonder that moms tell their kids “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO DO THAT!” Is it any wonder that the perception of aviation by the average person is that it is not safe? Air shows have their place (see below for some suggestions).

Now that I’ve managed to alienate most readers, how about if the few of you that are left come on in…let’s talk about some ideas that DO work.

Remember the $20 (or $50) “introductory flight” coupons? Most FBOs had a local program to do introductory flights for the same price anyway, but requiring people to bring in the coupon made them feel they were getting a deal. It operated much like grocery stores: an item could be on sale at a deep discount, but nobody notices. Require the purchaser to bring in a coupon, though, and they feel they are getting a deal. The price is the same…use it! Another advantage, after the introductory flight, you have their contact information to follow up with them.

Speaking of recycled old programs, how about the Piper “loss leader” program? Piper dealers priced a minimal “learn to fly” package of about 8 hours for a price that was break even at best, figuring that if people get up to solo (or close to it) that they would continue, and the flight school would make their money on a completed pilot and associated rentals afterward. There were some limitations: the program had to be completed by the student within a certain number of days, and the schools got to pick the instruction days (training in optimal weather only). The schools shortened the air work time, picking it up later in the program. Very few pilots quit right after their first solo flight.

Promoting. It’s difficult to sell a small-margin product (flight lessons) in a small market (rural areas) to a limited market (the few people that would like to learn to fly). Radio, TV, and newspapers do not hit the market you are trying to reach for flight training. The best way to reach your market is to get away from the airport and into town.

Every service club is looking for a monthly program. Contact them and be the speaker. Get in touch with the media and volunteer your services in covering news stories with the understanding that they will plug your operation with photo credits or airtime in return. Host a “Chamber After Hours” event for the local Chamber of Commerce…most of those businessmen will welcome the chance to get out of the usual downtown haunts. Contact schools and offer to conduct tours (we use the filter of “3rd grade or above” so we can monitor the kids). Do a Boy/Girl Scout merit badge unit, or even start an Aviation Explorers chapter (division of Scouting).

Instead of putting on your own flight breakfast, partner with a charitable service club in town. Not only will you bring more people to the airport (people might not buy a ticket from YOU, but people rarely refuse the Lion’s Club/Humane Society/Friends of the Library, etc.). You’ll also get help putting on the breakfast, so you can be selling flight training. Of course, make sure your media friends report on it. Don’t be bashful; the media usually appreciates people giving them stories to fill their reporting slots.

If your community allows, place a portable sign board at the entrance to the airport road or another prominent place advertising your “special.” If you can’t do that, put it on a pickup truck and drive it around town. Don’t ignore the obvious. If you have a person in the community that does aerial advertising, put your message in the sky (do I have to remind you that summertime, when people are outside, works best?). IT WORKS! I’ve even traded aerial advertising for aviation fuel for the airplane that pulls the sign.

In place of the traditional air show, try something lower key. Put on an airport open house. Showcase what you have to sell. I’ve never figured out how showcasing aerobatics, clown acts, and pyrotechnics worked out well for an airport unless you were in the business of selling those products. Showcase the following:

• Most airports have a number of diverse aircraft based there or nearby, often, more than even you may realize. Invite the owners of Light Sport Aircraft, antiques, gliders, business aircraft, homebuilts, helicopters, balloons, amphibious seaplanes, and showcase their aircraft on the flight line. Most people have never been up close to these types of aircraft. Better yet, ask the pilots to fly them during the open house.

• Show people having FUN with their airplanes. Boaters, fishing lodges, motorcycles, recreational vehicles. What is the common denominator in all of these industries? They show people having FUN with their purchase; an improvement in their quality of life. We in the industry tend to understate the pure pleasure of flying, and we do so at our peril.

• Have an announcer at the open house…someone able to talk about each of the airplanes. People need to know what they are looking at.

• Set some airplanes up for display. In addition to “show planes,” I recommend setting up a display of some common airplanes, the message being “This is what you can buy for under $20,000, this is what you can buy for under $40,000, and this is what you can buy for under $75,000.” Every time I’ve done this, the common reaction is “Hey, my CAR costs this much!” For the same reason, resist having the announcer talk about the value of aircraft as they taxi by. We’ve all heard announcers talking about the “million dollar P-51.” Is it any wonder that people view aviation as a “rich man’s sport?”

• Have some static displays in the hangar. In the event of bad weather, it can be a life-saver. Show engines, run some aviation footage on a TV, invite local aviation education schools to participate; they usually have booths already made up. Make sure YOU have a person readily identified as the aviation expert to sell your “product” of learn-to-fly, have a trainer to show off, and a “closer” to get the order from qualified applicants.

• Consider having a kiosk set up as an “information” booth. It has several advantages: a) It identifies you as the “expert,” giving you first chance to make a sale. b) The person manning the booth can answer questions (“What kind of an airplane is that?”). c) The “expert” can pre-qualify prospects, and hand them off to an instructor for personal consultation. d) Many people will not approach a sales booth, but will ask questions at an information booth.

• Many states have free aviation information available for handouts. Minnesota, for example, has information ranging from aviation connect-the-dots and coloring books to “parts of the airplane” and career guidance information.

• Be cautious about including a flight breakfast with your open house. It’s nice to have food available, but it tends to dilute your message, uses up airport staff, and combined parking can be a problem. You’ll need the help of every qualified pilot on the field to pull this off, and they are of better service to you working around airplanes than flipping pancakes. Same for Young Eagles flights; if done in conjunction with another event, they tend to be rushed and perfunctory…kids don’t feel “special” – they don’t have time to ask questions and neither do their parents. Those are best left for a dedicated time.

• Don’t make the common mistake of being so consumed with putting on the open house that you don’t have the time to actually meet with prospective students.

• Make sure you tend to the needs of the people attending your open house. You may put on a perfect show, but if you don’t have organized parking, food or water available, or (gasp!) run short of porta-potties, you will lose the good will you have carefully nurtured.

• Make sure you involve the media well in advance. Not only will they give you good publicity (hey, it’s in their best interest to attract readers, listeners, and viewers), but you will become the one they turn to when they need aerial shots or a comment on a news story. Here’s a hint…offer to take them up BEFORE the event, and again DURING the event for coverage. It’s a “two-fer.” Be sure you have some human-interest stories for the media leading up to the event, someone in the community who has been flying for a long time, someone who has used an airplane to go someplace interesting, or a business that brings customers into the community with their corporate airplane.

The takeaway: This list isn’t all-inclusive, but you get the idea. These aren’t “magic potions” – just good old-fashioned salesmanship.


We’ve explored what works, and what doesn’t. We’ve explored what we can do LOCALLY. I believe it’s time for some national policy changes.

We’ve become a victim of our own press. Back in the “Golden Age” of aviation, the 1930s, pilots were elevated to the status of national heroes. Major newspapers had “aviation editors,” and newsreels documented the comings and goings of aviation personalities: Earhart, Doolittle, Turner, etc. During World War II, the fate of entire nations fell upon what Churchill called “THE FEW” – those few pilots that initially staved off invasion, then took the war to the enemy. During the “Cold War,” people couldn’t wait to emulate their heroes; they learned to fly and bought airplanes in record numbers. The X-plane pilots WERE national heroes. Somewhere along the way, we lost our bearing; we told people that “anyone can become a pilot;” that the new tricycle gear airplanes were so easy to fly that ANYONE could do it (remember “Land-O-Matic” gear and “Para-lift flaps”?). We tossed aside our leather jackets and wrist computer watches in an effort to “blend in” with the rest of the population, and look where it got us. Is it any wonder that pilots are no longer viewed as something SPECIAL?

The GOOD NEWS out of the bad news of declining numbers of pilots is that pilots are AGAIN becoming something special; only between 2% and 3% of the total population has ever been a pilot. Think about that. Nationwide, in a community of 20,000, only about 40-50 people have been pilots. Here’s another statistic. The population of the U.S. today is something over 300 million people. In 2009, there were just under 600,000 active pilots, including those who fly for a living. That means that in a room with 500 people in it, there will only be ONE pilot, and that person will be YOU! Doesn’t THAT make you feel “special?” We need to recognize that flying ISN”T for everybody, and it never will be. Most people COULD be a pilot, but few actually will take the time to do it, and do it right.

Flight training. We do a fair job of teaching people to fly (more on that later), but we do a horrible job of teaching people to use an airplane. During Private Pilot training, every move the student makes is under the direction of the flight instructor: what maneuvers to do, weather limitations, where to go on a cross country. Students eagerly look forward to advancing to the next step. What happens when the newly-minted Private Pilot gets the rating? He/she gives the obligatory rides to friends and relatives, but soon exhausts those reasons to go flying. The new pilot moves on to the “Flight Breakfast” scene, flying somewhere for breakfast or the “$100 hamburger.” They may be having fun with the airplane, and that’s as it should be, but they haven’t learned to USE the airplane. After a couple of years, they drop out.

We need to do more to keep their interest:

• Some people just like the learning experience. They need to be motivated to keep learning: check out in a new aircraft; or get an instrument rating, glider rating, seaplane rating, high-performance rating, complex aircraft rating.

• Some people DO just like to fly for the fun of it. They need to be taught that flying is fun for its own sake. My measure of whether something is fun is “would I do this all by myself, without others around?” We need to teach them how to get economy and utility out of an airplane: fly simple airplanes, use lower power settings, set attainable goals for yourself, split piloting costs with others. These are the perfect candidates for Light Sport Aircraft.

• For those that actually want to travel to other places, the FAA Private Pilot minimum requirements do them a disservice. The few hours of solo cross-country don’t make them competent and confident about setting off on a cross-country. Think about it. How many new Private Pilots actually GO places more than 50 miles from home on a regular basis? We need to teach these pilots how to navigate with and without electronics, how to land at strange or challenging airports, how to obtain a weather briefing from a strange airport for a cross-country flight, how to go cross-country in weather or adverse terrain. A good way to include ALL of these scenarios is to do away with the old “three-leg student cross country” that we all did, and set out on a dual instruction cross-country flight that actually GOES somewhere. MOST Private Pilots will tell you “I learned more about cross-country flying AFTER I got my Private Pilot Certificate than I did BEFORE I got the certificate,” and that shouldn’t be. Do away with the “ded (deductive) reckoning” calculation, pick up an instructor, and go to a place beyond the out-and-return range of the aircraft, so the student learns the real world practice of managing and purchasing fuel, instead of filling the aircraft tanks before every flight, of obtaining ground transportation, hangar accommodations, weather briefings. Make sure part of the trip is conducted at night, and at low but safe altitudes simulating adverse weather, with a diversion to an alternate thrown in for good measure.

• In the past, most of us were defined by our job or hobby—“I’m a pilot;” “I’m a fisherman;” “I’m a golfer;” “I ride horses.” In today’s multi-tasking world, we do many things, not just fly airplanes. We may get up and go fishing in the morning, get in a round of golf, ride horses, then make dinner plans. Flying airplanes competes with many other activities that our parents could only dream of, and that our spouses felt took time away from the family. Educate pilots about how flying can make your OTHER activities more fun. Does the pilot like to fish? Ski? Go to a lake? Antiques? A special place to go with the family? Show him/her what is available within the range of the airplane. This has the added benefit of making the family part of being a pilot, instead of the pilot competing with family activities for time. The utility of the airplane also has a side benefit in the new pilot BUYING an airplane. Want proof? Look at the ads for boating, or RVs; they show the family having a good time together.

• Increasingly, people learning to fly do so as a career. To address their needs, you need to keep up-to-date on career choices. Be sure you have current information – information only a couple of years old may be hopelessly out of date. We often have people that would like to pursue flying as a career, but tell us “I can’t be a pilot because I don’t have 20/20 vision,” or “I’m too old;” the airlines only take people in their 20s,” or “I don’t have a college degree” or “The airlines only hire military pilots,” or “I’ve heard the airlines are not hiring due to financial reasons.” Give these people the truth as best you know it, but don’t guess. Most of the excuses for not being able to pursue an aviation career are based on out-of-date information; even someone out of aviation only a couple of years will likely NOT have it right in today’s world. In each of the scenarios listed above, there has been an opportunity for a pilot that is prepared when an opening exists. Airline requirements have changed dramatically, and the need for new pilots is predictable. Make sure career-oriented pilots know that the airlines are NOT the only game in town. There are many aviation careers they may never have thought of.

The takeaway: There are many reasons to learn to fly. Instead of simply teaching people to fly and then casting them out to discover for themselves, what to do with their new skills, we need to identify their needs and help them fulfill them. We need to integrate flying into their other activities. I tell people, “If you can’t find something to do within the 500-mile unrefueled range of a GA airplane, perhaps flying is not for YOU. I would suggest perhaps an ANT FARM?”


The FAA is decades behind the industry it purports to regulate. We all know stories about FAA stubbornness, inflexibility, bureaucracy, and policies that actually decrease safety, but I won’t turn this into an FAA-bash. Here are some needed reforms.

Reform the written, oral, and practical tests. I have a pre-World War II Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) (predecessor to the FAA) Flight Training Manual. It has much of the same verbiage and many of the same maneuvers as used today. For the most part, we still train as we did 75 years ago: commercial pilots do Chandelles, Lazy 8s, and 1080 overhead spirals. Don’t you think that those pilots would be better served with instruction on how to handle flying in ice and thunderstorms? How to quickly compute a weight and balance and other FAA-required paperwork. How to comply with Part 135 and Part 121 regulations. How to manage a multi-person cockpit, or how to utilize every piece of aid and information in the cockpit? Those subjects appear every month in flying magazines. Obviously, the magazine thinks there is a need. Why does the FAA not address them? Change both the FAA written exams and the practical test.

Straighten out the medical situation. There is currently a petition to drop the medical certification for not-for-hire operations utilizing airplanes weighing less than 6000 pounds, using a valid driver’s license instead. I support that. Why should someone be denied the ability to fly an airplane, but be allowed to be a fireman, driving a heavy rig through traffic, then running into a burning building? Pilot incapacitation is NOT the bugbear that the FAA makes it out to be. LSAs have been doing it for 10 years now; glider, balloon, and ultralight pilots have been doing it forever, with no worse record than Private Pilots when it comes to incapacitation. If the FAA wants a compromise position, I’d suggest this: Use the same criteria for a “complex” or “high-performance” airplane as the filter; allow “non-complex” or “non-high performance” aircraft to be flown without a medical. There is no reason to inflict the requirements of getting a medical certificate every 2 or 3 years upon the Private Pilot population. In fact, in typical government “Unintended Consequences” style, it can actually discourage pilots from going to a doctor for an ailment because they don’t want to jeopardize their medical certificate. That makes no sense.

The Light Sport Airplane issue is a mess. TEN YEARS after adoption, most aviation magazines still have monthly columns “clarifying” the FAA patchwork of regulation that has created this mess. Rather than re-invigorating general aviation, the LSA market is dominated with Cubs and Cub clones, and rather than bring new entrants to aviation, most LSA pilots are certificated pilots “moving down” to escape the tyranny of the medical exam. Want proof? According to the FAA, as of the end of 2009, there were only 3248 Light Sport-only certificates issued. The fix? It’s relatively easy:

• a) Use the same minimum standards for new LSA pilot applicants as now exists. Continue to let certificated pilots fly Light Sport Aircraft.

• b) Drop the artificial 1320# weight restriction; a holdover from European “microlight” certification of 600 kilograms. By adhering to this artificial restriction, is it any wonder that most new designs are from Europe, not the U.S.?

• c) Allow pilots to fly any single-engine, non-turbine, non-retractable gear airplane with a cruise speed not to exceed 130 knots, a gross weight not to exceed 2600 pounds, and no more than four (4) seats under “Light Sport Aircraft” category. Is flying my Kitfox really any more or less dangerous than flying my Cessna 120 or a Skyhawk? Not only would it allow all of the “legacy” aircraft to be flown Light Sport (opening a vast market), but it would allow these proven aircraft to be used as trainers.

• d) Change the Part 135 charter regulations to restrict these “simple” aircraft from conducting charter flights. The manufacturers take a huge insurance hit because of the perceived need to “protect the non-flying public.” That risk is ameliorated by the doctrine of “apparent risk.” As pilots, we are aware of the dangers inherent in flight. If product liability is indeed the big problem that we are told it is, the price of these new aircraft should come down to S-LSA levels. After all, the tooling for those aircraft has long been depreciated by the manufacturers.

• e) Drop the “If you’ve failed a medical certificate, you can’t fly LSA” ruling. See the example of the fireman (above) to check the absurdity of this rule.

Make these changes, and it will simplify the LSA certification and piloting issue. Make these changes, and how many new 1320 pound gross weight European aircraft do you think will sell in the U.S.? We will get more utility out of our “legacy” aircraft, both new and used.

The takeaway: We hamstrung ourselves through over-regulation and the stroke of the regulatory pen; the same pen can deregulate us and get us out of this spiral.


We’ve explored a number of reasons that aviation is in decline compared to other activities, and even offered some examples of how to reverse the trend. Let’s look at industries that are not on the decline. Maybe we can learn from them:

• Other motorized leisure-time activities are doing well. Motorcycle riding is doing well, as are motorboats, recreational vehicles, jet skis and snowmobiles. Why are these succeeding, and aviation is not? Part of the answer is that these motor sports don’t need a high level of training or certification to participate. Most people can learn how to operate these vehicles in a matter of hours. I’m not advocating eliminating training requirements for airplanes, but making them SIMPLER (LSA is a good first step, but we can do more) can only help. These industries also thrive because of the SOCIAL ATMOSPHERE associated with them.

• You rarely see a motorcyclist riding by himself just for the fun of it, or a snowmobiler, or a boater. People want to be part of a group. The same used to be true of aviation; student pilots couldn’t wait to get their Private Pilot Certificate so they could be part of the group that used to hang around the airport. Somehow, we’ve lost that group spirit in aviation. We don’t socialize among ourselves any more. Being accepted as part of a group is a powerful motivator. At our airport, we purchased a used commercial kitchen stove, and have regular cookouts throughout the year. At Faribault, Minnesota, the pilot group has a standing pizza party every Saturday. At Mason City, Iowa, they have a “Third Thursday” potluck; you never know who or what is going to be there. These get-togethers are always well-attended, and foster a sense of “aviation community.” The airport should be a place where pilots and their families LIKE to come, even when they are just socializing.

• The “fun part” of aviation is not growing, but unlike fixed-wing airplanes, it is not losing pilots, either. I don’t have the current figure, but the Soaring Society of America at one time estimated that 80% of new glider-only pilots were still flying five (5) years later. That’s an interesting item. Compare that with the retention rate of “powered” Private Pilots. WHY would someone go through the considerable time and expense of obtaining a powered Private Pilot Certificate, only to walk away from it? Here’s a thought. There is absolutely NO rationale about justifying glider flying for transportation. It’s just FUN. It’s harder to become a glider pilot than a fixed-wing airplane pilot because of the logistics of the endeavor: the season is short; you have to line up an instructor, tow pilot, and wing runner; and lessons tend to come in small fragments. A powered airplane pilot can do 10 touch and go landings per hour, but a glider pilot can do only two or three. Despite that, glider pilots tend to continue to fly. One of the reasons, I believe, is that glider flying IS all about having fun; another is the camaraderie – the social life amongst pilots. Glider flying tends to be practiced at small airfields and it is an activity that you can’t do by yourself. There’s a lesson to be learned here. The same can be said about the sport of ballooning; there is no pretension of justifying the balloon other than fun. It also requires a crew to be able to fly, and it also involves social activity. (I’m starting to see a trend here!) How about “ultralight” aircraft? Despite LSA certification, there are still a number of pilots that fly these airplanes just for fun, turning their backs on certifying their aircraft as LSAs, and they have a good time socializing with each other. The takeaway: What do all of these participants in motorsports know that WE don’t know; that flying SHOULD be fun, and that you should have a social life with people that engage in the same activity that YOU like?

• Here’s a similarity with our problem in aviation, sailboats. I have a friend that has been involved in aviation for years, but now spends most of his time on sailboats. Why are sailboats in decline (like aviation) while motorboats are holding their own? We’ve discussed it often. The takeaway: Sailboats are like the general aviation industry; the owners are aging, and there are not a lot of new skippers coming on line. People want to multi-task; they want convenience. Both sailboats and airplanes take time to enjoy; younger pilots and boaters want instant gratification. The problem with sailboats has become so severe that very few sailboats are built in the U.S. any more. With fewer people looking to buy sailboats, the price of sailboats has plummeted (government and aviation industry, are you listening?)

• A recurring theme in successful leisure-time activities detailed above is the power of becoming part of a group of affiliating, like-minded people. General Aviation was strongest when we bonded together socially, during and after flying. That has been true in military squadrons, at small airports, in airline crew rooms, and among people that fly strictly for fun. We need to return to that social side for flying to attract new pilots.

The Bottom Line: The world has changed. We have a choice, either change it back, or adapt. It IS within our power to reverse the mistakes of the last few decades, and it IS within our power to adapt. Our industry should not be viewed as a “stand-alone” industry. Rather, we should emphasize that flying an airplane is FUN, REWARDING, can be a CAREER, and can enhance the OTHER things you do. Being a pilot DOES MAKE YOU UNIQUE. There are few people that do what you are able to do. We need to both go back to old-fashioned salesmanship, and to adapt to this new paradigm in order to succeed. If we don’t, maybe we should look for some of those cheap sailboats, or the aforementioned ANT FARM.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time fixed base operator at Albert Lea, Minnesota. He has run multiple FBOs, and is rated in airplanes, helicopters, gliders, balloons, single and multi-engine seaplanes, and six types of jets. He has owned 538 airplanes in his 48 years of flying, and has no accidents or incidents in his 30,000 hours aloft. Jim recognizes that these statements may not sit well with some members of the aviation community, but they are offered as part of a dialogue with national aviation organizations to help stop the erosion of student starts and pilot dropouts in promoting aviation. Jim says, “The best part about getting old is that you don’t care WHO you offend!” If you’d like to give him a piece of your mind, you can contact him at

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