Why Student Pilots Quit

I brushed the cob webs off my logbook and headed to the airport for an AOPA sponsored recurrent pilot seminar. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in general aviation, so I wanted to get back in touch with my piston engine roots. And, since you never have to file a flight plan at the airlines, I had forgotten how to do the most basic tasks of general aviation like getting a weather briefing and filing a flight plan.  

After the ground school, I headed over to the closest flight school to meet some flight instructors. I was thrilled to meet a flight instructor who said he had once been a B727 flight engineer. Since I’m type rated in the B727 and sat in all three seats, I figured he’d be a wonderful instructor for me. Within ten minutes, I was running for the door with no intention of coming back. At the time, I didn’t know why, I just knew I wouldn’t be happy here, but it’s a factor in student dropout rates, so let’s Freud my issue. 

We all assume that the cost of learning to fly is the single most important factor in student retention. Surprisingly, it’s not. A few years ago, AOPA put together a study of why the vast majority of student pilots never go on to become licensed pilots1. 20% said the most negative aspect was the cost, which means there are 80% more reasons to find out what else stops students from flying.  

Let’s back up and understand the primary reason people start flight training in the first place. For 65% of student pilots polled, they signed up for flight lessons just for the fun of it. They didn’t intend to become professionals. Only 30% started flying with the intention of making it their living, so the aviation community needs to strengthen the perception of the other 65% if we want to keep aviation strong. This is where flight instructors come into the equation. 

The instructor I was running from didn’t ask about me, what I was looking for in flight training, or what experience I had. He was trying to sell himself, which I completely understand and appreciate, but his experience was presented like a competition. Without even knowing what I wanted, he immediately began telling me what I should do. “You should get your tailwheel endorsement”. Great, but I got that twenty-five years ago. “You should get some mountain flying in.” Great, but I’ve been in and out of mountain ski resort airports for years and flew out of Telluride for two years.  Yes, I wanted to work on those suggestions, but it wasn’t why I was there. The rest of the conversation wasn’t a conversation. It was someone telling me what to do without him even knowing what I wanted to accomplish, and he finished by opening up his schedule and telling me when he was available to fly. I wanted to run out of there and never come back, and I’m not a newbie pilot. I have my ATP (airline transport pilot certificate) and have been in aviation for over twenty-five years. The second biggest negative factor in the poll, next to cost, was poor or unclear flight instructions and training.  

It’s easy to blame the flight instructor. I have an email box full of pilots saying their flight instructor was horrible and the reason they dropped out. But, there are so many more good flight instructors than bad, so let’s work together as an aviation community and take that excuse off the table. 

The dichotomy of flight instructors is that the majority (especially since the 1500 hour rule) are doing it just to build time and get out. That’s okay. Actually, that’s great! They are motivated to hustle hours and learn. Being a student and flight instructor have equal responsibilities. So, let’s change the structure of flight schools instead of trying to change flight instructors (because that just won’t happen). Rather than assigning one flight instructor to a student, students should purposely be assigned several different flight instructors in the beginning of each rating. Yes, the retort is that having different instructors is a reason to quit, but what’s happening now is that a flight instructor will spend many hours with a student, create a bond (good or bad) and expectation, and then suddenly, they get another job. They leave their students dangling and feeling abandoned because they hadn’t flown with anyone else.  

Students should be exposed to a variety of philosophies and styles to give them the power to choose what makes them thrive. The peripheral result is that instructors will have to consciously pay closer attention to what works for students so that they keep coming back. The current setup for most private FBO flight schools is like walking into a used car dealership. The victim walks in and whatever instructor is there, they claim ownership of the potential customer. Other instructors aren’t supposed to “steal” other instructor’s students. It’s random and chance, even if a student knows they should interview a few of the other instructors, the system isn’t conducive to a thorough vetting. Just imagine how a newbie pilot would feel if they got a flight instructor that didn’t jive with their expectations, but the newbie feels an obligation to have to stay with the instructor that started them. That’s not fun, it can be dangerous, and it takes away their incentive to fly. By changing the ideology of flight schools, it would take the pressure and embarrassment of switching instructors off the student by having the excuse that the flight school wants them to try other instructors. If the student finds an instructor they really like, then after trying the rest, they can give their favorite a callback.   

The second consequence is that these student pilots would be better pilots. Yes, they will have a bad instructor in the rotation compared to the rest, but now they’ll have a benchmark on which to judge what works and what doesn’t.  It’s good to fly with instructors you don’t like too…it teaches you what not to do (and prepares you for flying with other pilots you wouldn’t be friends with except on Facebook). 

There are 120,000 student pilots out there right now debating what to do next. Having pilots in the general aviation system is important. It keeps the aviation economy strong, but more importantly; it makes the aviation community bonds stronger. Part of the satisfaction of being one of the .04% of the population that can fly is the connection and comradery that pilots share. We need pilots who are in it just for the fun of it. They are the most important cogs in the wheel, so as a community, let’s work together to keep pilots licensed, current, and in the sky. 

1 The Flight Training Experience. AOPA. 2010. Retrieved August 24, 2015.

From the front desk of an FBO to the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has experienced everything in between. If you have questions or comments, she can be reached at [email protected] . Her book, A Chick in the Cockpit, will be released nationwide on November 10, 2015 and is available for preorder now from your local bookstore or Amazon. Follow A Chick in the Cockpit on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo courtesy Ben Granucci, NYCAviation

About the Author

Erika Armstrong



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  • Jim Pease

    I’m just starting my flight training. I met my instructor and I liked him but there is something in my mind that tells me his heart ain’t into it.