You Can Do It – AOPA Flight Training Magazine

Once upon a time, impressionable kids walked through airports in awe of shiny massive winged machines about to magically propel them through the sky.  The wizards behind the curtain were pilots, and one hoped to catch a glimpse of these regal figures sporting starched uniforms, slipping through terminals and leaving in their wake an aura of confidence, knowledge, and skills beyond the “common man.”  They were the elite.  Who wouldn’t aspire to achieve that level of dignity and respect?

By contrast, I recently sat at a gate across from two hatless, jacketless pilots shoveling fast food into their mouths while using a garbage can as a table.  Moments later, we boarded the same plane.  Their less than inspiring display did not make me feel unsafe, but it certainly dampened my pride in being a member of the same “club”—a fellow aviator. 

The primary difference between pilots of today and only a generation ago is attitude.  Both worked hard to attain specialized skills.  However, the current breed has been so heavily beaten up by the industry that they no longer recognize their own talent and value. On a recent flight, I sat by an off-duty pilot who said to me, “A monkey can fly an airplane.  It’s mother nature that we have to worry about.”  I don’t know much about a monkey’s potential, but that imagery isn’t going to grow the pilot population. As a child, I never, ever, wanted to be a monkey when I grew up.  I still don’t.

Reinstating pilot pride falls on the shoulders of general aviation. Airline shareholders won’t inspire employees to embody the “golden years.”  With roughly 80% of aeronautical students dropping out, that seed must be planted early on in training.

Before taking to the skies, prospects should be inspired to become part of our club from the moment they walk into a flight school. They must feel that we want them as one of us, and know that we will embrace and nurture them for making the commitment.  Aeronautical students don’t want to be part of the 99% to whom we often carelessly tell “anyone can do it.”  These are the 1%—the one out of the hundred that commit to participating in one of humanity’s greatest achievements.  They pre-qualified themselves before walking through the front door—their business is for us to lose.  They don’t need to hear that it is easy and then later wonder why they invested money to struggle and feel incompetent compared to “anyone.”  Let them know that it is challenging and totally worth it.  Say to them, “You can do it!”

A student’s first truly meaningful exchange with a professional pilot happens during his discovery flight.  From that moment of flirtation, a genuine sense of pride should flood the cockpit.  The CFI (who no doubt is also being beaten up by low wages) must strike the crucial balance of showcasing confidence without arrogance, elegance without alienation, and talent without intimidation during every maneuver that he demonstrates. 

“It took a lot of work to master smooth landings,” he might say.  “But now I’m in complete control of my airplane.  You can do it!”

After lessons, all CFI’s, flight school personnel, and as much of the local pilot community as possible should take genuine interest in each newcomer’s progress, be made aware of milestones, and trade stories with the budding pilots—bonding amongst aviators is an integral part of successful training.  Flight schools need to create such forums, perhaps weekday barbecues, weekend pancake breakfasts, or some other pilot-only experience that might also be open to the most serious of candidates—the “poker night” equivalent for pilots. 

While certain aspects of aviation should be more visible to the general public (such as GA airports) “pilothood” needs an exclusive face—not uninviting, but representative of something needing to be earned.  Flight school Web-sites and social media pages should have some password protected pilot-only content, event if only weather, scheduling, pilot gatherings, or local pilot services.  This information isn’t relevant to non-pilots anyway, but more important, it stimulates a desire to gain access to this exclusive information.

The fact is that we are well-trained with an aptitude for science, patience for frustration, and commitment to achieving perfection. That does not make us better than anyone else, but it does define and differentiate us.   Rather than diminish the value of that, we should stand in its glory.  We are among the minority who pursue their passions, and in doing so, push ourselves to be the best we can be and live our lives to the fullest.  Now that’s a club in which I want to be a member!

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