If the statistics are to be believed, the pilot population is both ageing and shrinking. Unfortunately, only one of these may be said about me.
Student Pilot retention is also considered to be a significant concern. A large number of people are plucking up courage to walk into what can initially seem to be an unwelcoming and overwhelming environment and are signing up to flight training. They are enjoying those great initial successes, mastering maneuvers, soloing and learning navigation, They are buying into the majesty and freedom of flight and are spending a significant amount of money. Then, they drop out without achieving their ticket.
Many heads are being scratched on how to stop this happening. For example, Aviation Week's Benet Wilson wrote an interesting article in October 2010 about the AOPA's attempts to study student pilot retention.
As it is a subject that I currently feel very close to, so here are my thoughts.
I am a Student Pilot. I started learning as soon as my family and I were settled in the US and as soon as the TSA were happy that I was emotionally, idialogically and imigrationally stable. I have a regular source of income (so far) and a supportive family. I have always worked in the Aerospace Industry and that is far from accidental. I get aeroplanes. I enjoy and understand their systems. I like their history and get a massive kick about being able to fly. So why do I find myself wondering if I ought to drop out of training? And why haven't I seen my instructor in months?
My hiatus from flying began, innocently enough, with a mechanical failure. The day before my first solo cross country flight, the Piper Archer I was learning in failed its 100hr inspection. The flight school only had one Archer, so I couldn't just jump into another to continue. It would take a couple of extra flights to convert to a Cessna 172, so it made more sense to sit it out and wait. And wait. And wait. Three months on, the good news was that the Archer was fixed. The bad news was that the owner withdrew it from the lease-back arrangement he had with the flight school.
OK, so I'm going to convert to a 172. No problem. My instructor suggested that as we were now into the winter months I might as well get my head into the books and study for the Ground School.., and that I did. I determined that with a loving, playful three year old son in the house I'd be better studying after work, at work. As I am once again one of those managerial types, I am lucky enough to have my own office. Every evening for many, many weeks I would wait until the mayhem settled down for the evening and then close my office door and study. At the point I felt comfortable - strangely coincident with the point at which I'd got to the end of my study book - I talked to my instructor about once again getting together.
In the US system, you can't just walk into the flight school and ask to sit the test. You need an instructor's endorsement to save you money and everybody time if you are not ready. I need to demonstrate my new knowledge to my instructor. I am a big fan of my instructor. Under his tutelage I progressed quickly. I like his training style and we have socialized away from training. Unfortunately, instructing is a secondary occupation for him. His main occupation is Corporate Pilot and, as I previously wrote here, I have benefitted handsomely from his other life.
But now our schedules don't seem to be meshing. We have spent months trying to get together to no avail. In the interim, money put aside for flying has been spent on life's little surprises, the pattern of family life has evolved, work has taken far too much of my free time and my TSA Alien Flight Training authorization has expired. I have almost begun to wonder if I should let it go and use the savings and weekly put-asides for something more family related.....
I have a friend named Carlo. He is the perfect friend for a student pilot, and every student pilot should have a friend like him. Every time a doubt creeps into my mind, Carlo appears and offers me a flight in his Lockwood Aircam, or to come to see some other interesting and unusual aircraft that one of his many aviation friends has, or even just to do some hangar flying.
Our last day out went something like this: Take off from Martin State airport in the Aircam. Use almost no runway and climbout like the Space Shuttle. Cross to Essex Skypark (a flight of about 10 minutes) passing about 30ft over a Bald Eagle.
Land, taxi, help some friends put aluminium siding on one of the hangars, head out again in the Aircam as we have someone to meet at Martin State.
Hang out for a while in one of the large hangars, in and around a part-built Mustang kitplane and under the rotors of a Sikorsky S-92.
Head out in the Aircam for lunch, crossing the Chesapeake at 100ft indicated, taking care to stay 500ft from any person, vessel, vehicle or structure. If that means fly around the many boats then so be it. If that means power on and fly over then that works too. Ospreys and Bald Eagle number two. Sweet!
Stay politely away from the shoreline before a breaking through a gap in the trees to land at America's oldest fly-in community, the grass strip at Kentmore. Fantastic crab cakes at the marina, a five minute walk from the airfield and then back across the bay at 100ft. "Martin Tower , experimental 119 Charlie Kilo inbound, request transition the bay at low level", "119 Charlie Kilo, low level approved. Let us know when you are 3 miles out." Spot third Bald Eagle (this one roosting in a tree) and dozens of rays swimming just below the surface. Deer look up from the middle of farm fields as we pass and scamper off for cover. You can see why this aircraft is perfect for the National Geographic to film from, after all that's what and who it was designed for (Air - Cam(era)).
It's a fantastic aircraft and everyone should try one.
So now I'm pumped up again and I'm going to see my instructor this weekend (hooray!). I can't wait. I'm also counting the days to EAA Airventure Oshkosh and if that doesn't keep me interested I don't know what will.
So here's my suggestion to AOPA et al. The answer to Student Pilot Retention is simple: every new student should get an instructor and a Carlo.