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Mayday, mayday, mayday. My flight training is going down...

If you don’t have a plan for where you’re going, any path will get you there. This could not be more true of the training process one must undertake to earn their wings. Statistics tell us that one of the easiest ways to wind up spending a cargo hold full of money on your flight training with little to show for it is to go into this venture without a solid plan of how, when and where your flight training will be conducted. Two of the biggest factors that need to be a part of that plan are 1) your training budget and 2) your training schedule. Without those two areas carefully planned out and monitored, you might be joining the over 80% of students who start and never finish their private pilot training.

That’s right, 80%! The biggest reasons cited for pilots not finishing what they’ve started are 1) lack of funds, 2) lack of perceived progress or a plan and, 3) lack of enjoyment for the process. As you can imagine, the third contributes to the second, and the second contributes to the first. They’re all interconnected. In light of a lack of progress, some frustrated student pilots might just continue flying hours and spending money, hoping to accomplish their goal. But unless something changes, they will not reach their destination.

The most challenging piece of the flight training process is the private pilot. It’s the only pilot certificate or rating that actually teaches you how to fly an airplane; it’s the foundation for your entire aviation education. For this reason, its duration can be the most ambiguous, resulting in a wide range of costs. The minimum hour requirement per the regulations is 40, or 35 if you’re training under part 141, but the national average, depending whose numbers you use, can be between 70 and 120 total hours. Why is this?

• If you study the averages, it takes YEARS for people to earn their private pilot wings because they don’t have a plan and/or budget, resulting in starting and stopping their training several times. The private pilot phase is the most common place that students run out of money and it is the most difficult to overcome, due to the need for consistent training to develop the physical motor skills required for flying an aircraft.

• Flight time does not always equal flight training. There is a very large difference between having 40 hours of flight time, and 1 hour of flight time 40 times. You CANNOT learn to fly an airplane one hour at a time. Considering pre-flight planning, startup, run-up and getting to a designated practice area, then doing the same on the other end, a one-hour flight lesson gives you only about 20 minutes of new education. So, how many 20-minute sessions are needed to teach you to fly?

• If your budget only allows you to train once per week, you’re going to spend a good chunk of each lesson repeating what you did last time to build upon it for this lesson. There is not much out there that you can effectively learn by practicing only once a week, including aviation! This type of schedule results in far more than the minimum required hours needed to achieve proficiency. It also likely results in running out of money and an apparent lack of progress, both of which will cause several delays in your training. After enough delays and enough money spent, you will quit or become a life-long private pilot student.

So, what happens if, heaven forbid, you find yourselves exactly where you don’t want to be: looking at a plan that hasn’t panned out and having exhausted your training dollars? All of the statistics and frontend warnings in the world won’t help you; it comes down to where you go from here.

If you already have your private pilot certificate in your back pocket when you run out of money, that’s a far better place to be. It makes the next steps that much easier. Identify cost-saving educational initiatives that can be utilized to get you on track without going further into the red. After your initial flight training, much of the work can be done with the use of simulators or flight training devices. Whether this is an FAA-approved, several thousand dollar enclosed aircraft representation, or a computer program on your laptop or home PC that allows you to hone the procedures and “buttonology” of today’s advanced cockpits, these devices can save you thousands of dollars while making you a better pilot. If you still find yourself in the private pilot phase of your training, simulation can still assist you in honing your procedures and learning new ones, but there is no substitute at this level for the hands-on muscle memory skills you will acquire while flying the plane.

In many ways, getting lost in the flight training process and running your financial tanks on fumes is not unlike getting lost while flying. It happens. It happens A LOT. And, just like the procedures you will learn during your training to deal with this type of emergency, there are procedures that can be followed to weather this emergency as well.

1. Stop. Do not continue attempting forward progress. Where are you? When we get turned around in an airplane, we need to stop journeying further into the unknown and circle to try identifying landmarks or utilize navigation equipment to figure out exactly where we are. We need to do the same thing for your flight training; where are you in your program? What have you accomplished, what still needs to be accomplished, and how did you get to this point? Get your CFI, Chief Pilot and/or Flight School Manager involved and consult the Airman Certification Standards (ACS).

2. What actions brought you to this point? Why have you not progressed in the manner everyone thought you would? Why is this the first you’re hearing about it? For how long has your school/instructor known that you were “getting lost” in your training course? Depending on the answers to these questions, switching instructors – or even flight schools altogether – might be a part of your solution. If you do so, know that your new school/CFI might identify other areas of deficiency and you might not be able to pick up exactly where you left off.

3. What is it going to take to get there? Make a plan with your instructor team to get you back on track and finished up; how many hours/lessons is it going to take? Make a schedule of your lessons and consider taking some time off from work or home life to fully immerse yourself in your flight education, free of distractions. Identify a realistic budget and add 25%, just to be sure. Perhaps taking out a loan will give you the flexibility to do this as opposed to flight training being a part of a weekly budget along with other life expenses. Don’t run out of money again. Lastly, agree on some metrics or benchmarks to ensure you are making the progress needed for this plan to work.

Becoming a pilot makes you unique; only a tiny fraction of people in the U.S. fly airplanes. To become a part of that super-elite group of people, you need to stand above the rest and do things that the non-flying folk of the population simply cannot. That means that starting your flight training cannot be a passive or flippant decision; it has to be careful thought out, measured, planned and executed with the understanding that you will need to be making assessments and changes every step along the way. Sounds serious, eh? It is. Remember, you’re flying an airplane! It should be a serious and challenging process. But, if the proper work is done on the front end and your progress is carefully monitored, it can also be a very fun and rewarding process. You need to put in the work to ensure that is the case. The FAA Safety Team continuously reminds us that “safety is no accident”. Effective flight training is no accident either. It takes a flight plan to get it accomplished. You need to know your path to get you to where you want to be.