It is amazing our aviation industry has survived at all with the well-documented 60-80% drop-out rate we experience during initial flight training. Imagine how healthy general aviation could immediately be if we could just cut that drop-out rate in half. We could instantly reinvigorate aviation with more excitement, customers, airplane gatherings. How many dreams have we ruined and how many motivated people have we disappointed because we do not teach them well and carefully manage their expectations?
The common misconception, (that has become a pervasive excuse) claims the primary reason people quit flying is due to excessive cost. This is false. A massive and very scientific study by AOPA clearly reveals that the disappointing “quality of instruction” is actually the most frequently mentioned and persistent issue among dissatisfied aviation consumers. They are not getting expected value for their dollars. We have failed to provide the experience they walked in the door for; organized professional instruction geared toward their needs and schedule. A golf pro, personal trainer, or even your car mechanic all cost much more per hour than a CFI, but people engage these people and continue that relationship because they obtain enduring value…it meets their needs.
The active competition to aviation are mostly all the other ways to have fun. And while most competing recreational activities do not require our level of skill and training (and thus have a lower barrier to entry) don’t forget humans value achievement and mastery, the essence of successful aviation. People who drop out in aviation desperately want to succeed, we just fail to correctly manage and maintain their motivation and expectations to help them achieve their goals. An organized syllabus with clear communication and defined sub goals is a great starting point. Understanding and valuing the customers needs is also critical.
To be more effective and successful, a CFI not only needs the aviation toolkit but must also thoroughly understand human relationships. To provide a quality educational experience we must comprehend and engage our customer on a personal level, motivating them with professional and honest educational content. I personally think teaching flying is much more about human interaction and psychology and less about molecules of air and Greek letters. A book on relationships (suggested by Nick Frisch in our SAFE Instructor Resource Center) might be the best place to start growing as a CFI. I would personally recommend To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink. A great majority of human interactions in every sphere involve “selling” in the larger sense: influencing and motivating others to change and embrace new ideas. Running a successful flight school largely involves aggressively “selling” both fun and safety while simultaneously empowering people to achieve both with aviation tools.
Certainly every new student coming into a flight school or engaging a CFI wants to learn to fly. The AOPA study reveals they also want an organized course of instruction that meets their expectations as a professional. Though they certainly need to learn aerodynamic subjects and skills, they also need to understand and embrace the bigger picture; how they will use aviation in their lives and achieve their goals of challenge and adventure? They must also be inspired to become life-long learners and pursue excellence to be safe (and not merely “wiggle the stick”)
I would encourage every CFI to spend time to learn their student’s specific motivations and fulfill their unique needs. Though studies reveal that 65% of students entering flight training are pursuing aviation for recreational purposes, almost all are taught like they will become airline pilots. Most of our young CFIs are directed toward the airlines but the majority of their students are pursuing recreational flying. We often forget that achievement and enjoyment are essential motivators and the original reason most of our clients pursue aviation. Also, we often neglect social and personal engagement which is an incredible motivator keeping learners involved and training.
For aviation to be successful our CFIs must also embrace a larger role in our community and understand their job goes far beyond teaching students. As professionals, we are not just “teaching flying” but also necessarily acting as “aviation ambassadors” for our whole community. CFIs are the public face of General Aviation and our role also involves teaching at career days in the local schools, participating in EAA Young Eagle events, and building the larger aviation community (not just hours). CFI professionalism requires personal dedication and perseverance as well as creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. As Bob Wright points out in the SAFE Instructor Resource Center; “Beyond initial FAA certification, there is clearly a gap between the minimum FAA certification standard and what customers and employers want instructors to know and how they want them to perform in the real world. This need clearly calls for some kind of professional accreditation of instructors that would be voluntary but would clearly improve their credibility and employability in many flight instruction venues.”
The AOPA Flight Instructors Field Guide to Flight Training is a wonderful tool to start a journey into this larger world of aviation student needs and motivations with checklists and worksheets. It opens up a new understanding of human relations that is essential to the success of a professional aviation educator.
The Master Instructor Program enables and requires exactly this larger professional perspective that leads directly to greater success and higher wages. Accreditation as a Master Instructor requires participation in professional organizations, community events, educating in the community as well as publishing in professional journals and newspapers. Even if you are going on to the airlines this kind of expansive understanding and professional accreditation is exactly what future employers want to see. For those staying in the instructor ranks, master certification is essential resulting in greater professional and financial success. For those of you who run flight schools, SAFE now has an institutional membership (at a lower rate) to get your staff involved and on the road to CFI professionalism. Please pursue excellence as an aviation educator. Both the aviation industry and your students deserve and need this level of professionalism.