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Would You Teach This Man to Fly?

By Michael Lenz
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

If this man walked into your Fixed Base Operation (FBO) or you were approached by him and asked if you would teach him to fly, how would you respond? Don’t worry; it’s a multiple choice test. Would you say:

A. “Sure. Sign here and let’s get started. You brought money, right?”

B. “Take a look at these books and materials. You’ll like it.”

C. “Let me describe the requirements and the process for you. I’ll answer any questions and then we have packet of material for you to take home for more details about learning to fly. It even contains a DVD. Of course, if you have any questions later, there’s always someone here who can help you.”

The answer, of course, is ‘C’ and the man is Brian Dean. He was on a mission to see what kind of treatment a prospective student pilot receives at different fixed base operations (FBO).

First, who is Brian and why does he want to learn to fly? Brian is a small business owner and his favorite hobby is remote control model aircraft flying. He’s an electrician, so between being in a technical field and enjoying aviation through model aircraft, he seems to be an ideal candidate as a student pilot. Prior to his recent quest to explore learning to fly, he had previously checked into flying lessons, but, in his words, was “blown off” at the airport counter. So, for this story, he was told to check the phonebook and the Internet and then visit three FBO’s and report on the different experiences.

And report he did!

He gave one FBO top honors. “As soon as I started inquiring, I was flat out impressed! Once I mentioned I wanted to learn to fly, it was like the world stopped, and two very nice young ladies talked to me and answered my questions. They gave me a very impressive portfolio with information on the basics of ground school, flight lessons, and time and cost estimates. There were pictures of typical training aircraft. It was comprehensive. They spent 10 or 15 min­utes with me. It sucked me in like a shop vac.” His overall rating of the service and treatment was a very enthusiastic 101 out of a possible 100. (No letters, please. We can do the math, too!)

His response at another airport was not as impressive, but adequate. A 70 out of 100 on the “Brian - Learn to Fly” scale. Here, a helpful fellow was “pretty informative.” Brian was given a business card and they showed him the student pilot training materials, books, and tools. He didn’t get anything substantial to take home, however. He said the gentleman did everything that he could with what he had to show him. He spent about five or six minutes with him and pointed out the training aircraft that were available. He said Cessna 152’s could be used, but recommended upgrading to the larger Cessna 172’s for comfort. It was also “smoother.”

He offered to schedule a “Discovery Flight,” so Brian could see if he liked it. He said that would take about an hour. Brian was told, “We’ll come back after the flight and go over things, and if you like it, we can go from there.” The total cost to earn a private pilot certificate would be $6,000 or $7,000. The gentleman concluded with offering that there was always someone on call if he needed more information.

The third airport was one that Brian had previously visited, when he was exploring learning to fly on his own and was “blown off.” Unfortunately for business there, things hadn’t changed much. Here, Brian felt the body language and demeanor was telling him, “If you’ve got the cash, we’ll hook you up. I didn’t have $100 dollar bills sticking out of my pockets, so they helped me and moved on to other customers.”

What the Industry and User Groups Say

AOPA’s Project Pilot

Sue Walitsky, who heads up the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Project Pilot program, was told of Brian’s experience with these three FBO’s. She said sometimes the re­sponse you get is driven by the week­day/weekend choice for the visit, or simply the time of the day and who happens to be available on staff to provide information.

“Face-to-face is a great way to do it,” according to Sue, but she adds, “It’s best to find a pilot friend to bring you to the FBO and break the ice.” “A friend can also help you through a complex maze of flight schools that vary from Mom and Pop operations to nationwide operators. This provides the prospective student with lots of choices for flight training.

The downside is that the new student pilot can become frustrated and confused over so many options. If a pilot friend—who knows you and knows a couple FBO’s—is willing to break the ice for you, take advantage of it. It can make all the difference in getting started on the right track. Sue adds. “It’s important to do some homework first. If you don’t, you won’t know what questions to ask.”

GAMA’s Thoughts:

The General Aviation and Manufacturers Association’s (GAMA) Director of Communications, Katie Pribyl, echoed AOPA’s comments on mentoring. Katie agreed. “It’s a big decision and learning to fly is expensive, as well as time consuming. It’s important to find the right flight school and flight instructor. It’s good to talk to pilots and people who have been involved in the industry.”

Katie expressed GAMA’s concern that student pilot starts are down and, for the first time in several decades, the total number of pilots has fallen below 600,000 in the U.S. “GAMA finds this alarming! We also have noted that the average age for pilots is 46. Programs like AOPA’s Project Pilot, GAMA’s Be A Pilot and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles Program help to build excitement about learning to fly.”

GAMA is encouraged and hopeful over light sport aircraft (LSA).  Katie re­ports, “The first 1,000 Sport Pilot certificates have been issued over the past year and a half. We’re also seeing an important trend in an increase in the use of piston aircraft flown by owner/renter pilots on business trips.”

If you’re interested in learning to fly, the Internet and the phone book will offer you choices beyond those mentioned here. Try to use a mentor, as it can make all the difference in learning to fly.

If you’re already a pilot, consider mentoring someone, and always welcome a non-pilots questions and interest in aviation. Taking a few min­utes with a stranger who questions you at the airport could mean one more new student pilot and that stranger may be the one who puts the number of U.S. pilots above 600,000 once again.

Michael Lenz is a Program Analyst in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service’s General Aviation and Commercial Division.