Eye of Experience #4:

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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?

Eye Of ExperienceFlight 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.

Quitting after solo

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.

Incomprehensible 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 gave up.

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 occasions.

Complete, Except for the Checkride

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?

What a Waste

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 her checkride.

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 way—keep an eye out!