A few weeks before pilots began gathering for the AOPA Summit, press releases informed us of the high drop out rate for student pilots. Those who know me heard my prediction: The AOPA study would blame the high drop out rate on shoddy instruction offered by inept and unmotivated flight instructors because ... wait for it ... CFIs are easy targets. Largely powerless, underpaid, and seldom recognized, being a professional flight instructor isn't a career path for the faint-of-heart.
In point of fact, shoddy flight training is exactly how some people have summarized what was presented in Long Beach. I won't go into the issues of time-building CFIs and pilots who just don't have the interest or ability to be effective instructors, but if you watch the entire 30 minute on-line video of the AOPA presentation you'll hear that flight instructors (and the conditions under which they work) were only two of the contributing factors identified in these opinion polls. Paradoxically, the opinion polls (which is what this research really is) indicate that people seem to think that:
The flight training industry is, in fact, well aligned; doing the important things well.Furthermore, the industry is reportedly providing good value, good instructor support, effective instruction, and good information sharing. One thing that seems to have been glossed over is that the poll revealed that 40% of people who actually solo and become student pilots never continue to earn a pilot certificate. The 70 to 80% failure rate that keeps being reported includes those who drop out before soloing (never become official student pilots) as well as those that never earn a pilot certificate.
I'm not an expert on research surveys nor on the techniques used to gather such data, but if we want to truly understand the state of flight training there seems to be a bunch of useful data that is missing. Early in the presentation, Mark Benson, chairman of an opinion research firm called APCO Insight, explained that they didn't want to do a conventional customer service survey into the flight training problem. Unfortunately, the polling methods don't seem to have been published and so we don't know how their procedures might compare with, say, this NASA study.
Some questions I'd like to see answered include the following. What percentage of private pilots pass their check ride on the first attempt? How many hours of flight time does the average pilot have when they take their check ride and how are those hours distributed across the age range of the pilots? How many times on average does a student pilot change instructors and was the change voluntary or involuntary? How many pilots begin flight training with no intention of ever soloing or earning a certificate? How many pilots who hold a current medical certificate are flying at least 25 hour a year? How many flight instructors recommend three or more candidates per year? How many instructors train under 14 CFR part 61 versus part 141? In short, some measurable evidence about the overall effectiveness and health of flight training rather than just soliciting the opinions and perceptions of those trained by said instructors.
Back in 2008, I offered some ideas on the shrinking pilot population along with some modest suggestions on making the process of learning to fly a bit easier based on thousands of hours of dual instruction I have given to all types of pilots. I just took for granted the assertion that the pilot population was indeed shrinking, but FAA data covering the years from 1999 to 2009 seems to show a stable pilot population. This is remarkable considering the unemployment rate of the last few years. Could it be that AOPA is assuming a premise that isn't supported by facts?
|Chart from FAA data on pilots, 1999 through 2009|
When considering whether or not a 70-80% drop-out rate for students is reasonable, we have to consider the skills a person must acquire to pass a check ride. Based on my teaching experience, I'd estimate that about 20% of the population is simply not equipped to be pilot-in-command. First are medical certification issues that preclude someone from getting a third class medical certificate, though these folks may still be able to fly under sport pilot rules (don't get me started on sport pilot and aircraft regulations).
Then there more complicated issues. Flying involves high workload moments that require a combination of skills involving language, listening, spatial awareness, visualization, motor planning, prioritizing, and multi-tasking. Flying an airplane can be a lot like riding a mountain bike while simultaneously playing chess: Most people can do a subset of these tasks, but fewer people are able to do all of them.
Consider what is sometimes called "reaction to flight." A person may be afraid of flying or they may become motion sick or anxious. No matter how hard they try, these may be insurmountable problems. This doesn't make them bad or defective people, it just means they aren't cut out to be pilots. Heck, as a young adult I dreamed of being another Adolph Herseth, but wishing doesn't make it so. Occasionally a flight instructor has to sit down with a student and have the difficult conversation. It's not something that I look forward to, but it is an important part of the job.
Without the basic skills and abilities, there is no amount of training, simulator experience, advanced avionics, customer service, instructor charisma, or good will that will keep these people from dropping out or get them through a check ride. This gets to the crux of the problem with AOPA's initiative: A better process, better customer focus, and happier customers will not guarantee that more people will end up earning a pilot certificate. More money may end up being spent, but that's another goal that is not necessarily aligned with helping GA grown. And as one seasoned instructor I know quipped "General aviation doesn't need any more substandard pilots."
It seems reasonable to assume that attempts to increase the pilot population would likely increase AOPA's membership and perhaps that is one of their goals. Frankly, some if this "research" seems to border on truthiness. Don't get me wrong, AOPA has done some great things for GA and the Air Safety Foundation is probably the most valuable resource available to pilots and instructors. While AOPA works on their initiatives, dedicated flight instructors will continue to do the hard work on the front lines, giving instruction, helping students solve problems, helping them succeed, endorsing their logbooks and, occasionally, having the difficult conversations that must be had.