Flying Fun is a Relative Term

By Scott Spangler on March 28th, 2012

Phatic speech is what we say without thinking to start a conversation. “What’s up?” are the ones I hear most, and for the past 30-some years my answer has been the same: “Anything above eye level—it’s a relative term.” This usually stops people in their tracks because they didn’t expect an answer, especially one they have to think about.

Brandon Nesmith & Mariano Rosales in a floating Cub.

“Flying fun” is another relative term, because fun is a personal pursuit. Below is a case in point. Unless you live in Alaska (or somewhere like it) earning a seaplane rating doesn’t make much sense for most pilots. I mean, really, without taking off your shoes you can probably count the number of places that rent floatplanes to rated pilots off the street.

But as a friend from my EAA days, Mariano Rosales (with Table Rock Aviation manager Brandon Nesmith in the back seat), clearly shows here, learning how in a Cub, with the door open, sure looks like fun to me, and I’d give anything to be in his place (if I fit in the front seat of a Cub, that is)!

In his blog at the Air Facts Journal, John Zimmerman acknowledges this relativity in Want to Fix Flight Training? Have Some Fun. His honesty is startling: “As flight schools we’re selling the wrong thing. Instead of offering a fun and unique experience that is rewarding at every step, many flight schools are simply trading $10,000 for a piece of plastic that says Private Pilot.”

And he explains, succinctly, why it’s the wrong thing. “For better or for worse, the student pilot of 2012 is very different from the 1970s man who walked into the local Cessna Pilot Center. In particular, customers today are after meaningful experiences, not necessarily checking the box. “The aviation lifestyle” may sound like a catchphrase, but it’s what most student pilots are seeking.”

John, I was one of the men who learned to fly in the 1970s. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I, too, was looking for the “aviation lifestyle.” Flying fun for me is about adventure, which is anything that challenges me to fly precisely with plus-or-minus-nuthin tolerances. And I was fortunate enough to find a flight school (Eagle Aviation at Long Beach, California) that delivered on your six points of fun.

Eagle Aviation mixed up the lessons, and customized situations for every student. Seeing my affinity for steep banked turns, I learned to spin and recover (part of the training syllabus) before I soloed. When I wasn’t flying, it was a great place to hang out, and like Cheers (without the beer or bar stools), almost everyone—students and instructors alike—knew my name, just as I knew theirs.

I’m sure showing the utility of flying wasn’t the point, but introduction to short and off-field landings were the subject of one Saturday lesson. The school was having a fly-out picnic for its students that day, at a dirt strip about 45 minutes away. I had a half hour to plan the flight, and to make it interesting, I had to navigate solely by pilotage, a skill that needed practice.

Embracing student pilots and giving them some instant gratification probably wasn’t a conscious part of the fly-out decision, because Eagle Aviation held them often. It was more about having fun, something the school’s owner and designated examiner knew something about. In 1974 she became the first woman to race T-6s at Reno, and it was her beautiful blue SNJ-6 parked on the ramp that drew me to that corner of LBG. Rumor had it that she first flew the T-6 as a member of the WASPs.

What’s sad is that in the decade of visiting flight schools across the nation during my Flight Training days, Eagle Aviation proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Cold and serious and professionally antiseptic, they were the opposite of any kind of fun. Even the people who worked there seemed unhappy and counting the minutes until quitting time. And that’s still the feeling I get when I visit FBOs and flight schools (but I haven’t yet visited Table Rock Aviation, where flying fun seems to be plentiful). And yet we wonder why newcomers aren’t turned on by flying? –Scott Spangler


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7 Responses to “Flying Fun is a Relative Term”

  1. Martin Says:

    Very true, it seems most schools are just there to collect your money, nothing extra such as the fun part are added. In my part of the world the training is actually going downhill fast. Lots of unnecessary crashes due to the lack of proper training.

    By the way, I like your blog, you mind if I link to you?

  2. Chris Says:

    I learned to fly at a ‘flying club’ — but it was only a business and treated students like bad customers. Over a long period and at two locations with multiple instructors, I can not recall a single instance where ‘fun’ was a part of my experience.

  3. Stefan Says:

    I think if AOPA/EAA and the other alphabet soup organisations want the number one way to increase student pilot retention….this is it.
    The kids that learn to fly with the airlines set as their career path goal will, if they are worth their salt, stick with just about any program and get through it.
    The folks that do drop out are the more casual new pilots. Folks that always had the desire to try it. But if they do not get some reward from time to time that reminds them why they invest all this time and money…they move on to something else that was on that “bucket list”

  4. Wes Says:

    I had a great instructor, who tailored the instruction to what interested and worked for me. Finances were a big concern for me. He helped by optimizing how our flight time was used (and doing that in a way that I could see and appreciate).

    From talking to others, I wonder if some instructors are more focused on building hours for their career than really teaching people to fly in the way that will work best for the student. I can sympathize with folks struggling to make a living in this industry, especially in this economy. But if the student isn’t enjoying it, neither will the instructor.

    For me it worked better to see flight training as a couple of folks enjoying an experience that included learning, rather than seeing it as a customer receiving a service or product from a vendor. We kept it interesting, and he did suggest just taking a flight to enjoy it at one point when I was frustrated with a plateau in my learning. Looking back I can see that was a big deal. I was making a chore out of it and could have very well given up in frustration.

    People have a pretty good track record of making room (or money) for something they really like or enjoy. But the key is tailoring the overall experience to what works for each individual student.

  5. Art Says:

    I completely agree with the fun factor. I’m still a student and have run into some of the things described. However, in my case I think it is about the CFIs (I’ve now had 3) attempting to maximize the training hours. In the process the fun was extracted, unintentionally. I’m now soloing much more and running my training at my pace. I may spend more hours as a student, but I’m still flying and having fun doing so.

  6. Art Says:

    In reading my own comment one thing did not come through clearly. The point about maximizing the training hours sounds like I mean they want to fly as many hours as possible. What I meant to say is that the CFIs wanted to maximize the training value per hour, often putting too much work in and not enough fun.

    Another point, my first instructor was a younger man and really enjoyed flying. He was always willing to do what I wanted to do. On my first training flight we were out racing around the clouds. Within the realm of safety he was pretty much letting my play. To this day it ranks up at the top as my favorite flying day.

  7. Private Jet Says:

    I agree entirely – the focus really seems to be on money rather than the enjoyment that you can get! There are however a few places that seem to keep the focus on the community rather than the benefits and money to be made – Chapman Freeborn being one of them – the amount of humanitarian aid they provide is astonishing compared to other larger companies in this industry.

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