Becoming a Pilot: Is it a Relevant Choice?

By Scott Spangler on June 13th, 2010

Is it karma that led NPR to broadcast a story on the dwindling number of student pilots in June? It reported an FAA estimate that this year’s number of student pilot certificates would total less than 60,000, a “10 year low.” If you remember, June 1989 was the inauguration of the annual National Learn to Fly Month, and that year the FAA issued 142,554 student certificates.

FAA-PPL The FAA only posts 10 years of airman numbers, but GAMA’s Statistical Databook  archive provides FAA numbers back to 1964, and less than 60,000 student certificates is not just a decade low but an all-time low. Student certificates peaked at 209,406 in 1968 and reached an all-time high of 210,180 in 1979. They have been in decline since then, falling  into five figures in 1994. 

These numbers are student certificates issued. No one really knows how many students eventually earned a pilot certificate. And no one really knows how many quit before they got their student certificate, typically just before solo. (See General Aviation Won’t Find Future Pilots in Rear View Mirror.) An anecdotal presolo dropout guesstimation is 50 to 80 percent, so adding that  to the number of certificates issued means somewhere between 315,270 and 378,324 people started flying lessons in 1979.

A question more pressing than the accurate number of those who dropped out or completed training or is why are increasingly fewer Americans signing up for training? Looking at the primary factors involved, from training to recreational and career possibilities, the answer seems clear: becoming a pilot is no longer relevant to people today, especially to those who will become the next generation of professional pilots.

A substitute teacher for the local middle and high school, my students, after learning I’m a pilot, express genuine interest by asking a lot of questions about possible aerial adventures, usually fueled by low-level video game yanking and banking and Red Bull Air Racing. Their interest quickly wanes upon learning how much time, money, and work it takes to become a pilot. This predictable because they, and their parents, grew up and live in a  consumer-driven world based on immediate gratification. 

Still, tens of thousands step up to the challenge, and a few actually become pilots. (See A Rare Breed: Students Who Finish Training.) But imagine the outcry if public schools had flight training’s dropout rate. The flight training industry’s typical response is little more than blaming the cost and lack of student determination. Certainly, both are factors, but a more important factor is one that also affects public schools: boredom.

Like public school curricula designed to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, flight training rarely goes beyond rote to teach the test. (See No Pilot Left Behind.) Exacerbating this problem is aviation’s perpetuation of a system of pilot training and experience building that has changed little since the end of World War II.

CFI-BannerTow The CFI and aspiring professional pilot in the NPR report explained  it perfectly:  His loans total nearly $100,000, and to build the  experience that will qualify him for a $20,000-a-year right seat in a regional airliner, he’s forced to “flight instruct, tow banners, and haul skydivers.”  Think about the  attitude bred by this decades-old system and the declining student and pilot population should surprise no one. Students expect a teacher, but what they often get is a disinterested safety pilot who regurgitates the rote education he memorized from a CFI just like him.

Following tradition, the NPR story reported that the low student numbers would lead to a shortage of professional pilots. Really? Has a flight ever been cancelled because there was no one to sit up front? It is true that airlines have lowered their entry-level flight-time requirements, and following tradition, NPR reported that this reduces safety.

Nonsense. Flight time is a lousy measure of a pilot’s capabilities. Training is what makes the difference. Just ask the US Navy. Its aviators enter the fleet with roughly the same flight time as new commercial pilots, 250 hours. The low-time aviators are landing F-18s on a pitching carrier deck at night, and new commercial pilots worry about how often they will have to fly a lazy eight during their careers. 

Maybe, must maybe, a shortage of professional pilots will really happen this time. People are pretty smart, especially when their heroes are not the descendants of Lindbergh and Earhart  but the wizards of technology and business who exemplify the benefits of smart decisions that bring a good return on the investment of their intelligence, time, and effort. (See Who Will Fly for America Tomorrow?)

Historically, aviation only makes changes when it is forced to; the federal aviation regulations are proof of that. So only a true shortage of professional pilots will force aviation to abandon its 60-year-old model of training and professional development. Maybe.

PilotEyes A good solution might be the military model, where candidates vie for a coveted seat, knowing they will receive top-notch proficiency-based training designed for the mission they will soon fulfill. Anyone can apply, but only the best will be chosen for the education program that fills a guaranteed professional pilot slot. Because the airlines would have more invested in their pilots, perhaps they wouldn’t treat them like Doritos: Hard financial times? Furlough them! There will always be new suckers who still believe in the happy airline pilot dream. 

Collegiate aviation programs might be an excellent professional pilot training partner. Aside from having the necessary human and knowledge resources, equipment, and facilities, it would be easier to ensure consistent screening,  curricula, and assessment of proficiency through the system of accreditation they all now comply with.

Such a model would take private flight schools and instructors out of the mix of professional pilot training, but such is the price of progress. This happens to all fields, just ask anyone in publishing what the Internet has done to the print side of the business. But progress forces us to change, adapt, and adopt new ways, and flight schools can do the same.

First, flight schools must accept that they are in the education business, not the aviation business. (See California Requires Pro Training Standards That Don’t Involve Stick & Rudder Education and Pay Attention to California School Regs.) To survive and prosper they should develop mission-based education programs for those who need personal all-weather transportation in  technically-advanced airplanes or want to fly purely for sport—for the fun of it. And hire teachers, not safety pilots.

Then, flight schools and instructors must actively recruit students from their community, not sit around and wait for some national effort, like the long forgotten National Learn to Fly Month, to send prospects through their doors.

Finally, schools and instructors must address aviation’s horrendous dropout rate. Because becoming a pilot is no longer relevant to most Americans, each new student pilot is a rare resource that must be treated with respect. – Scott Spangler


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9 Responses to “Becoming a Pilot: Is it a Relevant Choice?”

  1. Clint White Says:

    Great and telling post. It is notable to see that the number of student pilot starts is at a ALL TIME low. I also wonder how many of those student pilots are foreign nationals training for overseas jobs since it seems that much of the domestic training (outside of the major aviation univerisites) has greatly declined, especially in the last few years.

    There is no doubt, and I have talked about it extensively, that the next generation may not have the same stamina to pay their “dues” to become professional aviators. Quite simply, there are more lucrative professionals that require less effort and come with considerably less repsonsibility. Frankly, it doesnt make alot of sense to a young person entering the profession to spend 100k on flight training to earn less than 20k their first year of their career. How many are willing to wait 10 years or more to “make a living” flying while they watch their friends and relatives live much more comfortably in other professions?

    I dont necessarily see a military-type training solution for new pilots. While it might be effective, there is still something to be said for experience and one must remember that the dropout rate or military flight training is also quite high.

    I would advocate a more “mentor-style” program that would transform the CFI profession from a stepping stone to a truly professor-student relationship like the universities. Scenairo based training combined with good “stick and rudder” abilities (at the outset) would generate a capable new breed of pilots. All the new technology can be taught, but it MUST come from a solid basic foundation.

    Many schools do try to recruit students, but much of the emphasis has been put directly on the instructors who may or many not be savvy sellers of their chosen career. Like all good flight crews, aviation should be a team effort with the instructors, schools and finally the national adovacy groups briging in new talent into our industry.

  2. Stephen Says:

    Not that I’m here to bust anyone’s bubble, but look at the source where this came from, NPR. The liberal far left slant on anything that has to be honestly presented with truth and integrity. It is economic based, and if you watched Frontline recently with Miles O’Brien’s take on the Regional Airline industry there is a trend among those viewers who would never attempt to learn to fly. When I was part of that 1968 high, it was $8.00/an hour for a PA-28, plus $5.00/an hour for the Instructor, we now live in a whole different world. Is it relevant? No!! but for those seeking a career in aviation based upon academic choices, the expense and job probabilities may dictate the outcome..

  3. Rafael from iloveplanes Says:

    I think that the cost of training and job prospects are a huge factor in how many student pilots are coming in to the flight schools.

    I, for one, can’t afford to spend $100k in loans to get a job that may pay me $20k to start. It makes no sense, mathematically speaking, to do something like that. For the same $100k in loans, you can get an MBA, or engineering degree and reasonably expect to earn $60k your first year out.

  4. Patrick Flannigan Says:

    I don’t think flying is irrelevant. I blame the pilot shortage on the rising cost of aviation – namely the ever increasing insurance rates along with rapidly rising fuel prices. Oh, and can somebody tell me why something as simple as a Cessna Skycatcher costs a whopping $150,000 new?

    With rental rates climbing past $150 per hour, I cannot blame any would-be aviator for giving up on the dream. Maybe that’s the prudent think to do at this point.

    With the cost of flight going through the roof, I fear that flying will solely be the domain of the rich man — or the severely indebted.

  5. Boyd Falconer, PhD Says:

    The core of an aviator’s role has changed so significantly over the past decade (and the preceding decade, and the preceding decade) that we seem to be in a consistent state of catch-up. Many of us are nostalgic, just as many of us are excited about the changes ahead, but that largely misses the point: the core, critical role of a technically skilled and co-ordinated pilot as the adept balancer of physical and aerodynamic forces is far removed from the daily reality of commercial aviation. Perhaps a new ‘profile’ of wanna-be pilot is needed. Gen Y considers pilot training too long/not challenging/too challenging/too expensive? They may well be right! Take an objective look at the training expense, and the career satisfaction and reward. The attractiveness of the career is not as strong as it used to be, and the balance of training expense, career satisfaction and reward seems seriously out of kilter.

    What most of us see as traditonal training (what we went through in the 70s, 80s, 90s) just doesn’t fit the reality of modern piloting (and fits even less when we consider future mass aviation transit). The aviation we now see on the horizon is manifestly different, even in GA. This may well require a new and different type of career professional controlling the aircraft, and taking responsibility for it.

    Some of us even see unmanned commercial flights in the next decade. I’m certainly skeptical on that front, but it is evidence that we need to keep vigilant about the changes, and how they may affect safe flight.

    As UAVs become more mainstream, the ‘new’ pilot’s duties will include simultaneous command of multiple aircraft – there’s little doubt about the likely new job description. That will take immense cognitive skill, and challenging training.

    Perhaps then the training, career satisfaction and reward balance will realign with reality.

    It’s a great topic, Scott. Thanks for sharing it with us. Best regards, Boyd

  6. Scott Spangler Says:

    Interesting question on the number of international students learning to fly in the US because they are are among those with a student pilot certificate. I should be able to get an idea by looking at the number of education visas issued, if they specify the education program.

    Regarding the military model of training: I think the military model only works for airline pilots. For all others, the mentor idea seem viable.

    NPR may have reported the story, but all the information came from the FAA, and the GAMA archives because the FAA data only goes back 10 years. And all it did was report the same old tired excuses the industry has trotted out at every industry down cycle over the past two decades.

    Honestly, flying for transportation is a commodity, so relevance is irrellavant, and little different from other forms of transportation that take you from Point A to B.

    New airplanes, regardless of who makes them, are expensive because everything today costs more than it did 30 years ago. And the laws of economics are not frozen in time. In 1976 dollars (the year I got my private), today’s $150,000 Skycatcher would cost $39,149.76, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.

    No matter the year, flying has always been expensive, and it is no more so today than it was in 1976. A more important change is the attitudes of people toward the investment of time and effort it takes to become a pilot.

  7. Travis McCrea Says:

    I would love to become a professional pilot, and had wanted to be one for a long time. However, after talking to coworkers who are pilots at the airline I worked for, they had all told me not to get into it, there is just not enough jobs to fill how many people want to become pilots.

    If I could get my pilots license (I would go through something like University of Alaska’s aviation degree program, which offers a U.S. FAA Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, and all the other things you need… If I remember correctly), and know that I had a decent job with at least a regional carrier like Horizon, I would do it.

    However, the jobs just are not there from what I have been told. :) If this is incorrect and someone wants to send me encouragement please do (teamcoltra–at– I have 20/15 vision, great reflexes, and a strong passion. I have everything it takes… but I just can’t take a risk on getting into a career field that wont hire me when I will have massive student loans.

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