Last year, about 2,000 people in the Washington area decided to take up flying. Many of those fledglings were in it for pure pleasure. Others, myself included, wanted to make a career of it.
The day after I received my diploma from George Mason University, I enrolled in a local flying school. I learned how to fly all right, but I also learned a few other things.
I finally got my private pilot license, after logging 73.3 hours of flight time (versus the national average of 55 hours). Of those many hours, 56.4 was dual (with an instructor). Federal Aviation regulations state that the minimum time required with an instructor for a private license is 20 hours. Most students end up with a few more than that, but 36 hours more is ridiculous.
In addition to dual time, a student must fly from 15-20 hours solo -- in which he or she is the only person in the airplane. Solo flight usually begins after 10 hours of dual instruction. My first solo came after 28 hours of dual instruction. Not only did I have to endure the constant razzing by my pilot peers for soloing so late, but I also had to bear a heavy financial burden.
Dual time, obviously, costs almost twice as much as solo time. Yet when I confronted my instructor, he said, "Don't feel bad;" all his students were "in the same boat."
He explained how nowdays instructors had to be more "careful." "Careful," as he defined it, seemed to mean holding on to his students as long (and as expensively) as possible.
When I finally did solo, I felt cheated. Cheated because part of the thrill of learning to fly comes with the fright and excitement of the first solo. After 28 hours of takeoffs and landings, most of the thrill, obviously, had worn off. Rather than being elated, I felt deprived.
After I made my first solo landing, the shirt-tail ceremony began. As every student pilot knows the instructor cuts off the tail of whatever shirt the student happens to be wearing and signs it with the date and aircraft number. As my teacher was snipping away, he informed me that I was going to have to fly some more dual with him before I could solo again. When I asked why he was deviating from the school curriculum, he said it was to save me money in the long run.
Then I was transferred to another instructor because the first changed companies. During our first flight together, my new instructor asked me to do a series of maneuvers and demonstrate navigation techniques. Most of the terms he used I knew by name only. Simple things such as short -- and soft-field takeoffs and landings, leaning the mixture, and tracking a VOR were among the skills my previous instructor had neglected to go into.
Question after question from my new teacher, and only a blank stare from me. Angrily, he finally asked, "Just what did that guy teach you?" But his anger was only a fraction of mine. Until that day, I really had not known much about my progress since I had been advised against following the curriculum. Now it seemed that I was in for even more instruction for what I could have learned routinely at the beginning of the course. As soon as we landed, I asked the president of the company to meet me in the school lobby. I presented him with my logbook and asked what was wrong with it. "Too much dual time," he responded immediately. I poured out my whole story. He seemed genuinely concerned and, to make amends, offered me some free solo time.
As an explanation, he said it is very difficult to monitor instructors because of their high turnover rate. Most instruct just long enough to build up flight time, he said, and then move on to bigger and better jobs.
After that conversation, I had only three more hours of dual time: night flying and preparation for the exam. It had helped to speak up!
The total cost of my private license was $2,521.49, about $1,000 over the original projected price. Before you decide that I was obviously a dull student, let me say (as modestly as one can say these things), that two other pilots checked me out after I decided something was wrong and were appalled at how long I had been held back with dual instruction.
What all this boils down to is this: Know your teacher. If you are considering learning to fly:
Visit airports in your area and talk to the pilots. Ask if they are satisfied with the training at that school.
Make sure the school you decide on follows the FAA-prescribed curriculum and that your instructor sticks to it. If you go along with an argument that by cutting corners you can save money, you could wind up paying much more, as I did.
Keep your eyes and ears open for news about the school. I almost signed up with one school until I heard that they were being sued simultaneously by five students for failing to meet contract agreements.
Be wary of pre-paid package deals, although not all are bad. Some students complain about instructors not showing up, or unavailability of planes.
Once you have an instructor assigned to you, do not assume that you are obliged to keep him. If you have complaints, go to the school's chief flight instructor.It's his job to make sure you are satisfied. Do not hesitate, as I did, to speak up. Let one of the professionals decide who's right.
If your teacher is not talking to you in the cockpit, something is wrong. If you are flying so well that he has no need to talk, then you should be flying solo and not paying for him to sit beside you.
If you have logged 15 hours or more and have still not soloed, go to the chief again. If you are flying poorly, the instructor should have been able to correct it by 15 hours. Don't let him discourage you from believing in yourself.
Flying is one of the most exhilarating experiences you'll have, especially when you are the one holding the controls. Learning the basics also can be fun -- with the right school and the right instructor.
Finish-born Pia Granholm is now working on her commercial instrument license.