It is amazing our aviation industry has survived this long while sustaining an amazing 80% drop out rate. Only one person in five actually makes it from first walking in the door of a flight school to becoming a certified pilot. The other four people end up discouraged and spread bad news about our process of learning to fly. And it gets even worse because we also know that after certification another 80% of new pilots fly very seldom or stop flying all together within two years. It seems as an industry we are failing as educators? I would be curious to see retention data for other challenging recreational activities.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-9-32-23-pm I know the common and easy explanation is blaming “the rising cost of modern aviation” but we also see many people spending scads of money on all kinds of expensive recreational toys. Quads, boats and RVs seem to be flying off the shelves (and admittedly require no training courses). Also, two other observations argue against the simple cost theory. First, in real dollars learning to fly is actually *cheaper* than when I learned in 1970 (though admittedly the cost of planes is *way* up). Second, AOPA’s extensive polling on this subject among students at all levels puts financial considerations something like 7th in picking a flight training operation. Cost is a dominant negative factor but only when people perceive they are not getting a good value for their money and there seems to be no real concern for their personal progress and success.

For more detail, read this reportscreen-shot-2016-12-09-at-8-57-35-pm  that AOPA generated from extensive data gathered from students at all levels. They discovered students highly value excellent instructors with a professional concern and involvement. An active social environment, camaraderie and a sense of caring are also very important positive factors to students. And notice, these are the “soft skills”, not the expensive hardware and gizmos that drive up a flight school’s expenses. With minimal investment we should be able to provide a better learning environment, more fun and keep people engaged. Sit back and think for a moment about *your* flying experience and your pilot group. Are they welcoming and professional? Does your tribe actively seek out and gather interested new people? Can we grow aviation?

This (admittedly ancient) Ralph Hood tape is an obvious exaggeration, but as people in the industry we also have to confess, it contains a lot of truth. We do not do “customer service” well in aviation. Take a look at this video and I bet you will recognize some characters from your local airport.


The 2016 AOPA Excellence Poll was published recently and we are very proud that our SAFE member Brenda Tibbs is the National #1 CFI based the AOPA criteria and the enormous feedback they gather. You will notice she is not a multi-hour veteran but instead a fairly new CFI, starting a new flight school business. The ratings from AOPA, based on extensive research, highly value customer feedback in many areas. Technical subject matter mastery is surely important, but it also investigates the value of “soft skills’ like communication and motivation…again the glue that binds students to aviation when the learning can be a struggle.

So moving forward, how can we build a better flight training environment and reduce our aviation attrition rate? Lots of things have not changed since this video was made in the 90s. I personally think it would help to train compassion and caring into our ardent “hour builder” CFIs. Flight academies do pretty well teaching academic and technical skills but fall short imparting the soft skills of customer service and  concern. A personal bond between CFI and student goes a long way toward motivating and inspiring a student. We are very clearly at the cusp of a huge pilot shortage and unless we successfully rebuild and regenerate the pilot training infrastructure, our GA world will continue to diminish and large academies will do all future flight training. Expect to see more articles here focusing on flight educator professionalism; your ideas, comments and suggestions are eagerly solicited.

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

About the author 

David St. George (Lifetime Member)

David St. George learned to fly at Flanders Valley Airport in 1970. Proving that everyone is eventually trainable, he became an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor for airplanes (single and multi, instrument, and glider) and serves the Rochester FSDO as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. In this capacity, he gives flight tests at any level from sport pilot to ATP and CFI. For 25 years David was East Hill Flying Club's 141 Chief Instructor and manager. David holds multi and single engine ATP pilot certificates, with pilot ratings for glider and seaplane and several jet type ratings. He recently earned his 13th renewal as a Master Instructor and owns an Aeronca Champ so he can build hours for that airline job!

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