Many of us grew up with flying as a big part of our lives. It was the air we breathed. But for the rest of the world, flying small planes is both little understood and widely misunderstood. So how do we go about helping would-be pilots get their heads around the kind of flying we do? How do we help them figure out if it might be for them?
I say, we tell it straight.
I think there are four main areas of concern for would-be pilots, things that they need to know and almost certainly don’t, and it’s important that we address these questions honestly.
Folks interested in becoming a pilot, I’ve found, are mainly curious and anxious about these questions.
- How safe is flying small planes?
- How hard is it? Can pretty much anyone learn to fly?
- How much does it cost to learn to fly, buy a plane and continue to fly?
- How useful is being a pilot and owning an airplane?
As you know, the answers to these questions are too complex to be intuitively grasped by someone with little to no knowledge of flying. And at the same time, honest answers to some of them might scare off someone who was genuinely interested in becoming a pilot.
I’m okay with that. People need to know even if some parts of those answers aren’t easy or rosy. Even more, I think we need to accept that some folks will get scared off as a cost of doing business, if you were to call spreading the joy of flying a business. And to be fair, for many of us, me included, that’s a big part of the job description. We need to acknowledge concerns while also communicating the complex nature of the activity we love.
There’s a name for this pulling back of the curtain—informed consent. The process is essentially gatekeeping entry into a risky activity, allowing folks access to it only after they’ve been given all the pertinent information. There’s no formal manner of informed consent in learning to fly, though I’m guessing that some, or possibly many, flight schools have some kind of waiver they require prospective flight students to sign before they actually go up in the air. In my view, this should be standard operating procedure everywhere.
One thing we absolutely need to do is level with people about the relative risk of flying versus other activities they might participate in. The one big lie, one that’s prevalent among pilots and non-pilots alike, is that the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport. That’s true only if you’re screaming your way to the airport on a super bike and ignoring traffic laws along the way. That might be pushing it a bit, but it is true that flying’s risk factor is far greater than driving a family sedan to the airfield. We need to be straight with them on that fact.
At the same time, we need to emphasize that safety is to some great degree based on how safe we make flying. Pilots can mitigate a ton of risk by doing things like working hard at training, continuing proficiency training throughout your flying career, getting an instrument rating, and making sure the plane you fly is airworthy and that you are, too. Most of all, we can greatly cut down on risk by knowing that the biggest danger zones, such as adverse weather, and learning how to address that risk. All of this should be part of the informed-consent conversation.
As far as the rest of the conversation is concerned, I think it suffices to say that flying is expensive and getting more expensive and that learning to fly is challenging but hugely fun. It’s also one of the most rewarding things any of us will ever do. We can also explain how small planes are not the same as Learjets and what we do in them is have fun and fly places with small numbers of friends and family. We don’t expect, in most cases, for that trip to be cheaper in any way than other means of getting to the destination.
But we should remember to point out that the journey there makes the expense entirely worthwhile, and then some. Which can serve as a metaphor for becoming a pilot in the first place.