Posted by: harrisonjones | September 20, 2011

Why do they quit?

I recently read an on-line discussion that asked the question, “Why is the dropout rate in flight training 80%?” First of all I was astonished that so many students would begin the process and then quit. At last check, there were 66 comments on the question and there were lots of opinions. It’s completely understandable that some people take that first flight and just don’t like it; motion sickness, fear of heights, lack of confidence, and any number of other valid reasons. The 3D environment of flying an airplane is not for everyone, nor should it be. There were other obvious reasons for dropping out, such as the high cost and the low return on investment in today’s economy. Okay, everyone has their priorities and we have to accept that. I certainly had to rearrange my disposable income to pay for flying lessons. I didn’t visit the movie theatre for a couple of years and I brown bagged at work in lieu of eating out. That was a personal choice and fortunately I had a supportive wife. Still do.  

Here’s what blew my mind. The second most common reason for student drop outs, after cost, was the flight instructor. Please tell me that a more formal survey would not reveal the same result. I have no doubt that most flight instructors have a passion for flying, but it’s the passion for teaching that makes you great. It’s not about the instructor. It’s about the student. It’s not about airplanes. It’s about people. It’s not about what makes an airplane fly. It’s about what makes a student learn. The student doesn’t care if the instructor is the greatest pilot in the state. The truth is, a student wouldn’t recognize a great pilot if he saw one standing next to a statue of himself holding a portrait. I’ll reiterate one of my favorite quotes, “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” 

Okay, I’m done venting now and you can all relax. Let me tell you about another story I read that still blows my mind. You may have heard this one. It’s about a couple of bicycle mechanics who decided to do a home built in their garage. For reasons unknown to me they couldn’t find a flight instructor, so they taught themselves to fly the thing. The moral for instructors is; try to develop a better method than trial and error while sitting on the beach waiting for a stiff breeze. A little personality wouldn’t hurt either. The moral for students is; if you want to get to the top of the tree, you can either start climbing or sit on an acorn. Either way you’ll get there.


  1. I have to be honest…I wanted to quit. After waiting nearly 30 years to begin my flight training I was very discouraged that it was taking me so long to complete my training. When I read about how long it took others to complete their training and it was taking me twice as long, I figured flying must not be for me but I persisted because I still wanted to learn how to fly.

    My husband’s take on the whole thing was “So what if it is taking you longer, you are still learning, still flying and will eventually have your certificate if you persevere”. I was worried about the cost since we had and have kids in college.

    In the end I have great respect for CFI’s and wrote this about them on my blog.

    • Thank goodness you didn’t quit and thank goodness you have a supportive family. It’s only natural that students compare their progress to others, but most flight instructors know that each student is unique. Everyone brings different motor skills, life experience, confidence, and sense of responsibility to the starting line. The learning curve almost always goes up at a steep angle initially, but every student will hit a plateau at some point and progress slows. That’s when the instructor earns his pay. The plateau usually occurs because the student is not retaining what they were taught earlier or because they are not transferring what they have learned to a new skill or maneuver. Retention and transference are much less of a problem for someone taking three lessons a week than for someone taking one lesson a month. You just can’t compare progress and I promise you that everyone plateaus when landing practice begins. You have to retain and transfer everything you have learned so far to perform landings. Straight and level, climbs, turns, descents, slow flight, stalls, and combinations of all the above are required to fly a pattern.

      One student takes ten lessons in a row and the air is smooth and stable. The next student battles windy turbulent conditions for ten in a row. One makes faster progress and the other becomes a better pilot in the end. When the plateau occurs, a good instructor will analyze what hasn’t been retained or transferred and use the preflight briefing to address those issues before moving on. He will also hold himself accountable and not the student.

      I know you’ve had some teaching experience, Jeanne, and I’m preaching to the choir, but nothing is more valuable to aviation than a well motivated flight instructor. God bless them all.

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