AVweb columnist Howard Fried raises an interesting question, why does flight training have such a substantially higher drop out rate than almost any other education endeavor? Howard, says some types of drop outs are understandable, but others beg for an explanation. Why do some complete all their training, but then never actually finish by getting their pilot's certificate? Do you know?
July 22, 1998
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
Flight schools have always experienced a substantially higher
drop out rate than almost any other educational endeavor. This
problem has plagued the entire aviation community for as long
as I can remember, and, believe me, that's one very long time.
We can speculate as to the causes for this phenomenon forever
without reaching any firm conclusions. Basically, there are two
kinds of dropouts, those which are understandable and those which
are not. With respect to the first kind, what follows seems to
make sense to me.
We know that there are very specific points in the primary curriculum
at which the dropouts occur. The first of these is prior to the
time the student solos. This one is fairly easy to understand.
The student may either be overwhelmed with the tremendous amount
of material that must be learned and simply give up, or he or
she may be terrified of the fact that the instructor will one
day soon ask him or her to go fly the airplane alone.
Also, at some FBO flight schools, if the instructor meets his
student on the same day as the student is scheduled, he thinks
he's on time. This may well cause the high-powered professional
or businessman student to quit in disgust. After all, he's used
to keeping his appointments on time and he can't see why the CFI
does not do so as well. Of course, this one may not quit training
altogether. He or she might very well just move to another facility
for the training.
At my flight school when we were just starting out, we scheduled
one hour blocks of time for pre-solo training, and when we discovered
that wasn't working we went to one and one-half hour periods,
and ultimately to two hours, during which, if we were lucky we
would get in an hour of dual instruction.
Then there is the large group which quits training right after
solo. These are, I believe, people who have undertaken flight
training as a challenge. They have set a goal for themselves and
this goal is to fly an airplane all by themselves. When this goal
is met, it's all over for them. He or she has met the challenge,
has accomplished what he set out to do and that's the end of it.
The motivation for the next group is similar. This is the bunch
that drops out right after acquiring the Private Pilot
Certificate. Every FBO and Flight School is familiar with these
people. They work hard, go all the way through training, meet
all the requirements, pass the final checkride, and never again
fly an airplane. My own wife was one of these. She looked on aviation
as an efficient means of transportation, but derived no pleasure
from manipulating an airplane around the sky. She got fed up with
her friends razzing her about the fact that her husband runs a
flight school and she's not a pilot. So she undertook flight training
and acquired a Private Pilot Certificate. She never again renewed
her medical or flew an airplane alone. (Of course when we traveled
together, I made her push the pedals and twist the yoke.)
All of these are stages in the training process at which groups
of students quit, but of course there are isolated individual
cases which can occur at other times. For example, financial or
time constraints can cause an individual to quit at any time.
All of these people who quit flight training do so for more or
less understandable reasons.
There are others who give up for reasons that I find absolutely
incomprehensible. I am referring to those who quit at the completion
of training without ever acquiring the certificate. We had two
at our school who completed training, took and failed the final
practical test, and were so disgusted with themselves (or the
examiner or the system) that they never returned for the recheck.
This is particularly difficult to understand. However, if these
people are so emotionally upset over busting the checkride that
they quit flying altogether, perhaps those of us who occupy the
airspace are better off without having to share it with them.
One was a private applicant who was absolutely hopeless. He simply
The other who dropped out after busting a checkride was a consulting
engineer by profession who had completed the training for the
instrument rating to be added to his private pilot certificate.
He took the checkride with an examiner (not me) who busted him
for failing to do something that was not required by the Practical
Test Standards. The failed applicant wrote letters to the local
Flight Standards District Office, to the regional office of the
FAA, and to the National Flight Standards Office in Washington
complaining about this, and although the Designated Pilot Examiner
who had busted him was counseled, the outcome of the checkride
was, of course, not changed. This whole matter so upset the applicant
that he gave up flying altogether. He was just completely turned
off by the FAA and aviation in general. He said the system is
so disgusting that he wants nothing more to do with it. So far
as I know, he has never flown since, even to the extent of exercising
his private privileges VFR.
However, the situation that I find defies any rational explanation
is the case of the student who completes all the training, meets
all the requirements for the certificate or rating for which he
or she trained, is recommended by his instructor, and the fails
to take the practical test and finish with the certificate or
rating for which he has worked so hard and sacrificed so much.
At my flight school I have observed this phenomenon on two separate
The first of these was the case of a young man who trained for
the single engine sea add-on to his private pilot certificate.
At that time we were using a leased Piper PA-18 Super Cub on floats
for training. Our deal with the owner included the fact that when
he wanted to fly his own airplane he would schedule it at our
office just like any student or renter pilot. After completing
his training and being recommended by his instructor, the applicant
scheduled his practical test with me. He showed up at the appointed
time and we went through the oral quizzing portion of the practical
test. We then drove out to the nearby lake where the Super Cub
was normally docked to do the flight portion of the checkride,
only to discover that the airplane was not there. It seems that
the owner had flown it away for the week-end and neglected to
tell us he was taking it. Although he had given me quite an acceptable
oral, this so upset the applicant that he never came back and
completed the test. This happened many years ago, and to this
very day that pilot does not have the seaplane rating, although
at that time he was fully qualified. I just don't understand what
was going on in his head. Do you?
The other occasion when a fully qualified applicant refused to
take the final step and acquire the certificate for which she
had trained was even stranger. In this case a husband and wife
were simultaneously training for Private Pilot Certificates at
our flight school. The wife was a much better student than the
husband and had progressed much faster and farther than he had.
Just about the time that the husband was ready for solo cross-country
work, the wife finished her training. Her instructor recommended
her for certification and she made an appointment with me for
On the appointed day and at the appointed time she showed up and
announced that she couldn't take her checkride that day because
the stars weren't lined up just right and her biorhythms were
slightly off! Now, I'm not one to ridicule anyone's beliefs, but
she not only would not make another appointment at that time for
a future date, but she never did take that final step. And, by
the bye, her husband dropped out of flight training at that same
time. In this case, I suspect that there was another, hidden,
motive. Although it was never verbalized, I suspect there was
a rivalry between that husband and wife, and she refused to acquire
the private pilot certificate before her husband for fear that
he would feel that it was a put-down.
Just think, after all the time, energy, and emotion, not to mention
the money that these two people expended, and then they walked
away from taking the final step. Perhaps you can understand it,
but as I said, it is absolutely incomprehensible to me.
In most cases, someone else has already gained the experience
you need the hard waykeep an eye out!