Why Students Quit – Nine reasons why students don’t finish flight training and how to avoid them.

So, you are thinking on embarking on an adventure.  You may realize this adventure, like most adventures, is a mixed bag of both excitement at expanding your horizons and trepidation about possible pitfalls.  In this series of articles, I will be trying to help you see not only the possibilities but also the pitfalls, so that you may avoid them.  The very fact that you are on my website means you already know many of the exciting possibilities so, today, I am going to start with some of the pitfalls that can derail your efforts if not taken into consideration.  If you have been looking through the pricing information on my site, you are already aware of the first and foremost – money.

1.) Money –
Money is the most common causal factor for students dropping out of flight training. Let’s face it, no matter how you get the training, learning how to fly takes a significant amount of money. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many flight schools and independent instructors understate the actual costs, whether intentional or not.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the cost and/or spread out the payments:
For credit worthy individuals, purchasing an aircraft to train in then reselling it can save a considerable amount of money. Some would be pilots have even turned a profit, but one needs to have or acquire the necessary aircraft shopping savvy in order to avoid getting stuck with a lemon.

Another option is to join a flying club. These range from clubs where each member owns a portion of the plane(s) for $3,000 – $5,000 (which must be resold when leaving), pays monthly dues, and gets lower hourly use fees – to clubs where the member pays a small initiation fee, monthly dues, and higher hourly rental fees. Generally, both options will cost less than using school aircraft or straight rental where available.

Utilizing an independent instructor can also reduce costs. First, the instructional rate may be less. Second, as independent instructors tend to be far more experienced than school instructors, independent instructor can make the training time more efficient and cost efficient. Third, an independent instructor will probably spend more time teaching on the ground and less teaching in the air. As ground instruction rates tend to be less than flight instruction and do not include paying for the aircraft, this can save the student considerable money as compared to doing most or all of the training in the aircraft at three to six times as much per hour.

Purchasing second-hand books and equipment can also reduce cost. The one upside to the fact that 2/3 of students who start training quit before getting their private pilot certificate is that they will often sell their equipment at a considerable discount. Look for bulletin boards at the clubs, FBO’s and airport admin buildings. Additionally, eBay, Amazon, and Amazon Books can provide good deals. See my aviation publications page for links  at http://letsflysandiego.com/Aviation-Books.htm . Just be sure you are purchasing current publications, as you will loose all of those savings if you bust a check-ride with outdated information.

If you find yourself running short of funds or needs to spread out the payments, there are a number of options. For the student who only needs a little more time, using credit cards can tide them over until they can catch up to their income. Often, credit card companies provide 0% or low percentage introductory rates with high rates kicking in only after 12 months or so. For students with good credit who need to spread out the cost over a longer time, there are two options.

For those who have equity in a home, a home equity loan or line of credit can provide needed funds at a low interest rate. For others, AOPA has a loan program where they put lenders and students together for longer term loans at moderate interest rates. http://flighttraining.aopa.org/learntofly/finance/

Lastly, for the student who has credit issues or for any student who wants free flight training money there are scholarship programs available. While, these programs are few and will only help reduce the cost, they are certainly worth a shot. Learn more at http://flighttraining.aopa.org/learntofly/finance/

2.) Work schedule or workload –
Unless you one of the lucky students who lives with mom and dad and has them paying all of the bills while you concentrate only on flight training, you are going to have to work. Chances are at one time or another trying to fit flight training into or around your work schedule is going to be problematic. This is compounded by the facts that you need daylight to get the best quality of training, and flight instructors / airplanes are harder to come by than during weekday, business hours. Even if you do manage to get a flight instructor during the weekend, don’t be surprised if you soon start having scheduling conflicts or they start making excuses as to why they aren’t available. They may not tell you they can’t do it because they will lose you as a student. Instead, they will try to make it work, fail, and force you to fly during the week instead or hunt for another instructor with weekend availability. In which case, the whole process is likely to start all over again. So plan on finding a way to fly at least once during the week if you want to save yourself money and frustration.

This is where some careful negotiating with the boss is needed, even if that boss is yourself. For some, working a second shift can do the trick. Unlike third shift, which can leave you groggy during training, working second shift can provide prime time training hours. If that’s not an option, try setting aside a day or two each week where you start work late or early, so that you can fly before or after work. You can do this by moving the whole shift or just working a half day. That vacation time you EARNED is supposed to be for YOUR use, right? Remind the boss of that – politely. You could also take a full day off. Just use half for the lesson and the other half for studying and prep work. Either way, work it out so that it is a specific day(s) each week (not a Friday) and have an automatic fallback day if the boss says they cannot let you go for one of the many, many reasons they just can’t let you go that day. Negotiate those reasons as well. If you don’t get a specific day(s), fallback day, and stay-back reasons in writing, there is a good chance you will find your self missing lessons more and more until you miss them entirely. Getting them in writing not only helps the boss plan around your absences, but also keeps them from getting frustrated because they don’t remember when/why your not there. This is usually necessary even when you are your own boss.

3.) Family commitments –
Not only do we need to spend time at work, but also with family and friends. Trust me, if you think you can push them to the back burner while you train and study, you will quickly discover them boiling over and demanding both your attention and your time. You don’t want to neglect them, and you don’t want them resenting the flight training or they will start pressuring you to dump that which, in their mind, is competing with them for your time/attention. Again, negotiating a fixed schedule with fallbacks is critical to them feeling valued and not threatened by what will be a substantial loss of your attention. Again, put it in writing and give everyone a copy.
Also, consider including them in the training process as much as reasonably possible. Have them orally read you quizzes, tell them about the things your read, did, or experienced that you think may interest them.  Why not invite them along on a lesson if they are not too young. Most training planes can hold two additional passengers. After a time they may, and probably will, lose interest. But then they do not feel they are in competition for your attention and know they can re-involve themselves with your training – and you – anytime they want.

4.) Significant Other’s fears –
They may not volunteer that you piloting small planes worries them. They may not admit it even if you ask them directly. But most significant others will worry about you when you are flying. Flying is not something we do naturally and is viewed by most people (probably including yourself) as risk taking behavior. This perception is made worse by the fact that aircraft accidents are so rare that, when they do happen, they get splashed all across the news. Expect to get some phone calls from friends and family during and after training when accidents hit the news with no names given. Be prepared to recite the fact that you are being trained far better than the average driver, so that flying can actually be safer than the driving pf which you do a lot more.

Also keep in mind that if you are co-parenting children and/or financially supporting your significant other, the perceived risk will make your relationship feel unstable, and you will hear about it, one way or another. Often, the significant other will not directly tell you that they want you to stop the flying that they know you love. Instead, they will bring up (repeatedly) issues that are intended to make you see that it is not wise to do it now, and it should be put off until some undefined time in the future. Cost and finances, familial obligations, and social obligations are the main reasons used.

It is important not to get caught up in this surface reasoning unless you were already concerned about it before they brought it up. Instead, focus on the underlying (real) issue, fear. People fear most what they do not understand. So telling them that it is safe, that it will be okay, isn’t likely to abate their fears. Instead, help them understand what learning to fly is all about. Show them all the ways procedural safety is built into the aircraft in the form of checklists, redundant systems, and regular inspections. Show them how procedural safety is built into the way you are learning to fly and will be an integral part of your flying in the future. And show them how you are being taught to approach flying as a sport or activity that must be/will be taken seriously and not lightly or carelessly. You should not need to compare these in detail to driving or any other aspect of life. Most people will readily see the stark contrast themselves. Showing isn’t just telling, involve them just as mentioned earlier for family commitments. Once you have assuaged their fears, you will probably find the other issues aren’t.

5.) Student’s fears –
Let’s face it, students are human, and from time to time they all get scared during training. A student may not, and often doesn’t, admit it to themselves. But it may very well be the real factor behind why they discontinue flight training while outwardly they blame one or more of the other possible reasons. During your training you will read and hear alarmingly often words or phrases like “loss of control”, accident, fatal, killed, inadvertent, can lead to, emergency, distress, etc… While these words are meant to make you perk up and pay attention you should not let them become a part of your internal dialogue. If you are properly trained and take steps to maintain your proficiency the worst of these word will only be used when talking about other people who weren’t or didn’t. The wrest of the scary sounding words will be ones you know how to deal with thereby ensuring a positive outcome, if you are properly trained. I will came back to the possibility of training issues later.

Let’s talk about the negative internal dialogue problem first. In the student’s head it goes something like this – “On this landing attempt, I may do something I shouldn’t, or I may not do something I should, or something will happen that I am not prepared for, or something will happen out of my control, and bad things will happen, and I may crash, and I may die!” How likely is a successful landing going to happen with these negative thoughts running through the student’s head? Not very, right? Instead, these negative thoughts occupy and even paralyze the mind of the student thereby almost guaranteeing at least a partial realization of the feared outcome, which only reinforces the negative thought. These negative thoughts can occur at any point in the flight training and may not be specific to one aspect but rather generalized and therefore less obvious.
These types of negative thoughts assail most of us at one time or other in all aspects of our life, but we manage to deal with them and function fine most of the time because we have no choice. Learning to fly, however, is a choice. And there are many excuses to not fly, and few people will gainsay you if you quit. In fact, probably no one will – but you.

So, flying isn’t as fun as you thought it would be and your thinking about quitting. First thing you are going to need to do is have an honest talk with yourself and determine the real reason why. If the answer is fear getting in the way, general or specific, there are ways to deal with it but it needs to be an active process. It will not likely go away on its own, and may take some time and commitment before things turn around. When you deal with your fear, though, you will emerge victorious, having conquered it, with a level of self confidence you never had before.

Now that you have admitted the problem to yourself, you need to admit it to your instructor. Chances are, you’ve been hiding your fear very well and/or blaming everything else. Your instructor can help you deal with the problem by helping you to replace the negative mental picture(s) in your head with positive ones by a process called active positive visualization. First you will visualize on the ground the aspect or aspects of flying that trouble you in a 100% positive way with everything working out as planned with a successful outcome. You will need to do this many, many times to overwrite the negative picture(s) you have built. Then, still on the ground, you will visualize a minor deviation from the ideal that is not caused by you, with you successfully handling the problem. You will need to do this many, many times with a variety of deviations.

The next step will be to go up with your instructor and have them perform the operation (hopefully flawlessly) while you follow along on the controls reinforcing the positive visual image and successful outcome. Then your instructor will verbally guide you as you perform the operation in order to reinforce the positive verbal dialogue. Finally, you will need to have the instructor or you induce deviations to the ideal with YOU dealing with the issue for a 100% successful outcome while you talk yourself through it, first externally, then internally. Each time you are successful, you will reinforce the positive self talk, which increases the likelihood that you will succeed the next time. If you happen to not be successful, then you and your instructor can determine why, change the way you handle it/visualization, and repeat the operation successfully thereby increasing the likelihood that you will succeed the next time, and the time after that, and after that. Each time, the fly will get more fun, self confidence will grow, and progress will be made towards the end goal.

This all assumes that the problem is not caused by a lack of competency or confidence in the competency of your flight instructor. In which case, see “inability to learn – perceived” later in this article for advice on how to handle that.

6.) Lack of Time –
While students naturally wish that learning to fly could be just about having fun, most understand that in order to become a competent/safe pilot requires that they spend time studying and preparing between flights. Unfortunately, they often underestimate just how much time is required and overestimate how much free time they have. This can lead to one of several consequences. The student may postpone or cancel lessons because they are not prepared. Not only will rescheduling the lessons be more difficult as instructor and airplane schedules tend to be filled without adequate lead time, but the students learning will be degraded with too much down time between flights. This can lead to slow or complete lack of progress and frustration, which can cause the student to drop out entirely.

Or the student may choose to fly anyway, but have difficulty with the flight lesson due to lack of properly understanding the topic or lack of preparation, which can lead to the same frustration as postponing the lesson. The third possibility is that the instructor lowers their expectations and lets the student progress to solo before they are adequately prepared. If the student is lucky, they will realize that they are not ready to solo but, because they feel pressured to do so, they will make excuses for not being able to fly and then quit. If the student is not lucky they will start soloing, something will happen that hopefully only scares them, then they quit.

So, how can you avoid the time problem? First, forewarned is forearmed. Expect each lesson to take from 6-8 hours of your total time on average. So, if you plan on taking one lesson per week you need to make sure you have at least 8 completely free hours available. Twice each week means 16 hours free time. The only way to be sure you will have that time available it to create a schedule for everything you do during the week, and I mean everything. Just doing that will probably surprise you how little free time you have. To be sure your numbers are accurate, I suggest you actually try to keep the schedule for a week and adjust it to reflect reality.

If you don’t want to go through all that trouble, I can offer a general rule of thumb which may or may actually fit your situation. If you are working full time for someone else with no significant other. other significant activity, or kids, you should be able to take two or even three lessons per week, but may have difficulty scheduling around work. With a significant other, think one or two times per week. Add kids, once per week. Self employed without employees, two to three times a week. But if you have that much time available, chances are you will not be able to afford to fly that often. Significant other/kids, same reduction. Self employed business owner with employees, once a week or less. And less won’t work for most people. Add significant other/kids, not going to happen unless you have someone you trust to fill in for you with almost no supervision – i.e. the business runs itself.

Now that you have an idea of what to expect, there are some ways you can make it work or work better. You can complete the ground school/study before you start the flight training. There will still need to be some study and preparation between lessons, but you should be able to cut 6-8 down to 4-6. You may want to build up some vacation time so that you can use 4-8 hours each week for training. You can also ask for help. If you can get others to do some of your chores such as yard/housework, shopping, bill paying, banking, cooking etc.. you can free up time for yourself.

7.) Health Issues –
This is one of the hardest reasons to avoid as much of the decision seems to be out of the would be pilot’s hands. Most pilots already know if they have a potentially disqualifying condition. If you are not one of those, you will probably pass the medical with no problems. Just to be safe, I recommend you look over the criteria on my “aviation medical requirements” page. http://letsflysandiego.com/aviation_medical_certification.htm .

I also suggest that you only apply for a third class  medical exam even if you anticipate eventually needing to pass a first class exam. The reason is, if you apply for a higher level certificate and don’t meet the qualification criteria, then you will fail the exam for all levels of the certificate. The exam is the same for all classes, so you can ask at the end if you would qualify for a first class certificate with no unnecessary risk. The exception is the EKG requirement for applicants over 40. You can still apply for the third class certificate with an EKG or you can do the EKG with your own doctor.

If you are a wannabe pilot with a potential disqualifying condition, don’t give up too quickly. Instead do your research, call one of the “aviation medical examiners” listed on my site and ask them what they will need from your regular physician in order to better evaluate your condition. Also consider having the examiner give you a “regular checkup” instead of aa FAA medical exam. If you can resolve an issue by waiting for your condition to improve, starting medication, or changing medication, you can save yourself a lot of headache and expense. Mind you, this only applies to minor and temporary conditions as the first thing the aviation medical examiner is going to need is a completed application with a host of questions about prior conditions. Some of those, he may be able to resolve without involving Washington if he has everything he needs.

If, however, you do not catch an issue until the exam, do not give up yet. It is possible you may be able to get an FAA waiver. Again, the more information you can provide the better. Seek out a specialist for you condition. The FAA may send you to one, but they may not be on your side like one you choose for yourself. They may also be better qualified than the ones who evaluate your case in DC. Make sure you highlight their qualifications with everything you send forward for evaluation.

8.) Inability to learn – perceived
I provided a qualifier for this one because, while their are some situations such as age or disabilities that may prevent you from attaining the required skill level, most would be pilots can get there, eventually. First thing you should do if you start to doubt whether you have the “right stuff” is to review the previous sections to determine if one or more of those issues is holding you back. If so, you will need to resolve those issues before training can be successful.

The next area to look at is yourself. Is there something you are doing that is interfering with your training. Honest self reflection is needed here. Possible problem areas are: thinking you already know everything you need to know, lack of willingness to put in the required work between lessons, lack of willingness to accept your own fallibility, being overly self critical, setting personal standards too low, and impatience with training pace.

First lets talk about the know-it-all block. When a student believes they know everything already, they tend to block out their instructors comments and advice. Even the best instructor cannot teach a student who does not listen. This is often compounded by the student’s subconsciously ignoring or minimizing any mistakes they make so as to support their self image.

Next is the lazy student. Granted, almost everyone who undertakes flight training does so because it is fun. It does however, require some work. For most people, the more prep and study time they spend between lessons, the more successful the lesson and the more enjoyable it will be. Studying and prep may not be fun, but think of it as an investment in future fun.

It’s not me, it’s my instructor – If your instructor has been pointing out issues that you just don’t see, you may need a second opinion from another instructor in order to accept that you are indeed making mistakes that need to be corrected, not ignored. The key here is not to choose the instructor yourself, as you will probably use the instructor who has been probing/courting you in hopes of picking you up as their student. They will likely tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Instead, interview whichever instructor your instructor sets you up with. You need to ensure their qualifications in order to accept their opinion.

The opposite problem is the student who is overly self critical. While it can be useful to critique ones own performance the student should take care to not compare their skills to that of their instructor or another student. Of course the instructor will perform better, they are both more experienced and better trained. Another student may be misstating their own performance or their situation may be different allowing them to progress more quickly. Comparing your performance to your instructor’s or another student’s can cause such loss of confidence as to lead you to focus on what you are doing wrong to the exclusion of all else. This loss of situational awareness will only serve to cause the mistakes to snowball. Instead, remember that each student learns at their own pace and work on only a few key issues each lesson while seeking positive feedback from your instructor.

The next two problem areas usually becomes apparent to the student as their training moves to the more advanced stages even though the problem started right at the beginning. Advanced lessons are built on the foundation of earlier lessons. If that foundation is shaky due to the instructor allowing the student to fly sloppily during early lessons or allowing them to progress before they are ready, then later lessons may seem unmanageable, or even unsafe. A student should strive to build a solid foundation by only moving forward after they have achieved a standard that is significantly above the minimum even if additional repetition is needed.

All of these preceding issues can be avoided by maintaining good two-way communication with your instructor.

By now you are probably thinking it unfair that I seem to be laying all of the onus on the student and none on the instructor. I’d like to be able to say that is because all instructors are professional, well trained, accomplished teachers but that’s just not the case. While most are serious about their flying ability, being a teacher is often an afterthought, a necessity to build hours or a means to avoid paying for flying. While the FAA does try to ensure that any instructor candidate has a basic knowledge of teaching techniques, there is no process in place to ensure that they actually use that knowledge or build on it. Like any skill becoming a good instructor requires a constant and consistent effort to improve those skills. When teaching is not the instructors primary goal, their teaching skills are not developed, are subordinated by their primary focus, or deteriorate from negligence.

So, you’ve considered all of the alternatives and believe that your lack of skill may not be your issue, but theirs. It is not too late to use the “How to interview a flight instructor” sheet I provide on my website. Sure, it would have been preferable to find a good teacher with it in the first place, but that didn’t happen. You do not need to continue training with that instructor if, and I mean If, they are not a good teacher. Use the sheet to evaluate your instructor, then compare their answers to others. At the very least, you will get a better understanding of your instructor’s abilities, focus, and limitations. At best, you will find the instructor is the problem, and you can either change instructors or demand more active teaching from yours – on the ground not just in the air.

9.) Moving –
I saved moving for last because it is not really a reason. It is an excuse. The real reason is one of the issues already mentioned. Unless the student has moved to an area with no airports within 50 miles, they can and do make it work shortly after their move if there are no issues already present.