Eye of Experience #43:

The general aviation industry is always looking for ways to reduce the cost of flying and training as a way to encourage more people to learn to fly and keep at it after earning a certificate. AVweb's Howard Fried says one of the best-kept secrets in training is the Recreational Pilot certificate. Training for it can help reduce costs and improve retention. Here's why.


Eye Of ExperienceAt a recent press conference, Hal Shevers, founder and “head guy” of Sporty’s Pilot Shop, mentioned a drastically different training technique that Sporty’s Academy has been employing in its ab initio program. Instead of doing things the “traditional” way – planning for the Private Pilot practical test from the beginning – they start all students off by training them for the Recreational certificate as a stepping stone! They do this because they feel quite strongly that today’s sophisticated airspace and equipment makes the private curriculum too complicated with too much for the beginning student to absorb.

It is a fact that a great many primary students are daunted, become discouraged and drop out of pilot training. Sporty’s theory is that if the training is kept simple by aiming for the Recreational certificate first, students will continue their training to completion, and the number of dropouts will be reduced or eliminated. And it seems to be working!

I had an in-depth interview with Hal Shevers on the subject and what he told me was extremely interesting.


When the Recreational Pilot certificate was originally proposed and implemented by the FAA at the request of the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) and others, the stated purpose was twofold: One, to permit the homebuilder to fly his basic airplane around in airspace in which it is unnecessary to communicate with ATC and, two, to make entry into aviation affordable and relatively simple by offering a certificate which could be earned without meeting all the complex requirements that must be met by today’s Private Pilot applicant. Many expected that the Recreational certificate would be widely used as a stepping stone on the way to the Private. Well, it didn’t exactly work out that way.

When the Recreational Pilot certificate was introduced, I was an extremely busy DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner), administering well in excess of 300 certification flight tests per year. In the first year after the introduction of the Recreational certificate, I looked forward to seeing an applicant or two for a check ride leading to that certificate. I saw none. And at the end of the first full year of the existence of the Recreational certificate at the PEST (Pilot Examiner Standardization Team) meeting we were informed that a grand total of only TWO such certificates has been issued nationwide! And, contrary to what one would expect, they did not occur in remote areas, but in the very busy airspace of New England.

During my 17 years as a Designated Pilot Examine, I issued over 4,000 pilot certificates – everything from Private-Airplane and Glider to Airline Transport and to Single Engine Seaplane, but I never issued a Recreational Pilot certificate. So far as I know in this FAA district, there has never been one issued. However, we are beginning to see a change in the situation.

Sporty’s Academy is busily applying the second of the two objectives: All the primary students enrolled there are started off by training for the Recreational Pilot certificate. They then proceed to the Private, Instrument Rating, and Commercial, as the case may be. According to Shevers, this system is working out exceptionally well. Using the system of starting everyone on the Recreational program, Sporty’s Academy has virtually eliminated the dropout factor. What’s more important is that literally every student goes on to acquire the Private certificate and they do it in the same amount of time and expense as those who start on the Private from the beginning, but they have a much easier time of it and have a lot more fun along the way.

Like most pilots, I was skeptical regarding the use of the Recreational certificate as a stepping-stone to more advanced certification, although I believed it has some merit for the homebuilder and basic airplane pilot. But Shevers, for whom I have a high degree of respect, is so enthusiastic about the Sporty’s program, I decided to give it a look with an open mind. I am now fairly well-convinced that there is indeed merit to the stepping-stone approach to primary training. Here’s why.

How It Works

Sporty’s Academy backs up its commitment to the two-stage private training concept by having produced a truly outstanding video program, which, although by no means meant to replace the one-on-one work of the flight instructor and student, does everything else. More than merely a written (knowledge) exam prep course, this nine-hour video program covers literally everything the student needs to know to be a safe, well-rounded pilot. It utilizes animated graphics with material both inside and outside the cockpit and explanations by experts in each field of required knowledge. There are also sections that give practical tips that go well beyond what the FAA requires.

There are any number of package programs for the student pilot, but this is clearly the best I have ever evaluated. It includes everything the student needs, from syllabus to logbook. Thus, the superb videotape program is only a part of a rigidly structured curriculum. Each lesson includes a completion standard that is signed off by both the student and the instructor as each lesson is completed and the applicable standard is met. There is also a study guide to supplement the video program. I have always been an advocate of the principle that if a student learns and knows the material, the exam will tale care of itself. In our ground schools, we have always taught the material rather than feeding the students questions and answers, hoping they will recognize the question when they see it on the test. Sporty’s study course is based on teaching the material and letting the test take care of itself. This makes for long-term retention, rather than short-term recognition.

Sporty’s backs up their commitment to the program by rewarding their employees who undertake training for the Recreational certificate with a $500 bonus when they solo and $1,000.00 when they get the certificate. After that, they are on their own, but they do get to fly the company’s annual giveaway airplane (a Cessna Skyhawk SP) for free. All of them go on to the private and they do it in the same average time as it takes one who concentrates on the private from the beginning. Shevers says that most people undertake flight instruction for the challenge or the adventure anyway and, for this purpose, the Recreational certificate is ideal.


Shevers likens the two-stage program to driver training. He says that if the student learns to drive a car with an automatic transmission – step on the gas to make it go, the brake to make it stop (or slow down) and steer with the wheel – then it is a very simple task to teach the driver to use the clutch and shift through the gears later. Makes sense to me. I have personally taught people to drive that way – my wife, my sister, and my wife’s sister. It was really quite simple to teach them to blend the use of the clutch and gearshift with skills they already had.

More Numbers

According to the FAA, at the beginning of 2001 there were 132,305 active Airline Transport Pilot certificate holders, 120,875 Commercial Pilots, 255,835 Private Pilots and – after more than a decade since its introduction – a mere 345 Recreational Pilots. Normally, one would expect to see a pyramid-style ranking with the lowest grade (student) at the bottom, followed by the recreational, private, commercial and airline transport at the top, but that’s not the case here. However, with the pioneering effort at Sporty’s Academy, we may see a change in this situation as word of their success gets out.

One-Man Survey

At the airport where I operate – an extremely busy tower-controlled environment, with several very active flight schools – we have never had a Recreational certificate issued. In an effort to determine just why this is so, I conducted the notoriously inaccurate one-man survey. I asked several flight instructors about the Recreational certificate and they all responded that if anyone came to them insisting on training for the Recreational certificate and they were unable to dissuade the potential applicant, they would send him or her several mules away to one or another of the non-towered airports in the area. One instructor who gives training both at my home base and at a non-towered airport 30 miles away went so far as to tell me he would refuse to train a recreational applicant there because that airport has a couple of published instrument approaches and a couple of corporate jets are based there. He doesn’t feel that the mix would be safe even though there is quite a bit of student activity there. Clearly this demonstrates a prejudice against the Recreational certificate.

While every one of these CFIs was opposed to giving instruction for the Recreational certificate, none could give me a valid reason. I suspect it is an example of the attitude “We’ve always done it this way and we’re not going to change.” I had more than one instructor tell me that they are concerned about the mix of having recreational pilots flying around and off airports where corporate jets operate. When I responded by stating that students fly solo in that environment, they had no good answer.

I really find it difficult to understand this antagonism toward the Recreational certificate on the part of so many CFIs. I can’t believe it has anything to do with economics (after all, if the student requires more training, the instructor gives more dual and earns more money), because in today’s training world most instructors have all the work they can handle, and when the recreational pilot does the night and instrument work for the private, the instructor will get him back.

Personal Feeling

I am certainly intrigued with the approach Sporty’s Academy has taken and I intend to try it with an open mind on the next few primary students I train. It makes a lot of sense to me. There is so much for the student to absorb today that it just seems easier to feed it to them in small bites rather than toss them a full, seven-course meal. And as Shevers says, the student can have a lot more fun on the way to the Private certificate instead of making it seem like hard work. Since they almost all go on to the private after gaining a bit of experience and having fun doing so, I don’t expect to lose the students and the revenue that I would have gained by having them go directly for the private.

I only wish I had talked with Hal Shevers prior to taking on the last primary student I trained. It was a man in his early 60s, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, who undertook flight training solely to meet the challenge and to have fun. He will spend his entire flying career tooling around the local area, going for the $100 hamburger, and taking friends for joy rides. He is what I am pleased to call a “fair weather Sunday afternoon pilot.” Why should he have had to meet all the complex requirements of today’s Private Pilot certificate? The Recreational certificate would have been fine for him, and I wish I had taken him there rather than to the Private. He did get discouraged along the way and it took quite a bit of urging on my part to keep him going. I’m sure that if this fine gentleman had been aiming for the Recreational certificate, he would have enjoyed the experience much more and it would have cost him less time, effort and money. I recently had occasion to discuss this with him and he agrees wholeheartedly that he, too, wishes he had gone that way.

In another instance, Tom, a close friend whom I had trained many years ago and who is now a CFI, asked me to give a sort of “graduation” ride (a simulated private pilot practical test) to Jim, his brother-in-law whom Tom had trained for the private. At the conclusion of this evaluation ride, Jim and I went to lunch, and I discussed this column with him. He, too, expressed the wish that he had acquired the Recreational certificate along to way. He listed several reasons why he thinks this would be a good idea. Besides being an easier way to go (smaller bites, you know), he says it would have been a great confidence builder, giving him the opportunity to really experience the feeling of being pilot in command. He says it would have been nice to feel the sense of accomplishment, and that he could have made his wife happier by answering her “When does it end?” questions. (Of course, as Jim said, “It never ends.”) But earning the Recreational certificate would have allowed him to take her flying with him.

All these thing have led me to believe that the folks at Sporty’s are really on to something. Try it: You might like it!

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