Is Flying Hard?
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI
Originally published in AOPA
Flight Training Magazine – July 2012
door opens and in walks the prospective flight student. He takes
a look around, smiles at the airplane photos on the wall and then
asks brightly who to speak with about taking lessons… and
so begins many an aviation career. But some end there too based
on the conversation that follows. I was once the student in that
situation and I asked a question I would later hear many times from
the other side:
How hard is flying?
It’s a highly subjective
question, but our livelihood as flight instructors depends on how
we answer. CFIs with an ounce of business sense will be as encouraging
as possible, but also straightforward about the challenges ahead.
I personally lean more toward encouragement because I believe that
flying, in absolute terms, just isn’t that hard.
In the old days people
soloed after just a few hours of instruction. Chesley “Sully”
Sullenberger soloed in 1967 after 7.6 hours of training. One of
my students showed me his father’s logbook, showing he soloed
after just 5.2 hours in 1946. Even with today’s more stringent
regulations most students will solo between 12-20 hours. The fact
is that taking off, flying around the pattern and getting it back
down just isn’t that difficult. Doing it smoothly and efficiently
takes practice and experience, and passing a checkride requires
some hoop jumping, but it’s not brain surgery. I firmly believe
that anyone of basic intelligence can learn to fly an airplane and
qualify for a Sport or Private Pilot license.
Why is this important?
Because a lot of people don’t think they can do it, which
1. It may stop them from trying, thereby taking business away from
2. If they take lessons and suffer a setback, they may quit.
What makes people think
flying is so difficult? Ordinary people learn all sorts of tricky,
esoteric skills (just look up “pen spinning” on YouTube
if you don’t believe me). In absolute terms, hitting a fastball
is probably much more difficult than controlling an aircraft. But
because baseball is a familiar part of life we tend to discount
its complexity. Flying has acquired a mystique - an illusion of
difficulty because it’s not typically a part of everyday experience.
This is why discovery flights are so important. Getting a person
in the airplane and giving them a turn at the controls usually shows
them it’s not as hard as they think. Or perhaps it’s
enough fun to make them forget their concerns. Either way, get them
in the air once and they’re probably coming back, in my experience.
Another common concern
is facility with numbers. I’m often asked if you have to be
good at math to be a pilot. My answer is a firm no, but I also make
a distinction between mathematics and basic arithmetic. We don’t
do much differential calculus in the airplane, but it’s useful
if a student can add and subtract, understand what 45 and 90 degree
angles look like, and have heard the terms “parallel”
and “perpendicular”. But even if they haven’t,
I’ll teach them. I once had a student who didn’t know
right from left if he didn’t have time to think it over, and
he got by.
A poor sense of direction
sometimes causes a lot of hand wringing. “I’m always
getting lost in my car,” they tell me. “What if I get
lost in the airplane?” My answer is to admit I came to aviation
with a terrible sense of direction. Learning to fly improved it
immeasurably and made a night and day difference in how I locate
myself in the world, in or out of an aircraft. Necessity is a great
All of this isn’t
to say flying is easy, exactly. If pressed, I’ll say it’s
challenging, but do-able. Flying is a craft made up of several individual
skills. Some are primarily cognitive, like communication and navigation.
Some are psychomotor skills such as physical control of the aircraft,
and some are affective, such as keeping calm when abnormalities
arise. Speaking very generally, I see two kinds of flight students:
those who are more adept at physical “stick and rudder”
skills, and those who are better at the cognitive tasks. What brings
it all together regardless of a student’s strengths and weaknesses?
Good flight instruction.
Effective CFIs break down
skills into component parts, provide practice opportunities and
help put them together into a coherent whole. This puts flying within
reach of just about anyone, regardless of what the student brings
to the table. This is why I feel completely justified in encouraging
everyone who walks through the door.
Let’s conclude with
a reality check. Despite my positive outlook on basic learning,
I also believe in the limitations imposed by “talent”,
or rather the lack thereof. Earlier I said flying is not brain surgery.
I spoke with some actual brain surgeons to ask if it really is as
hard as that expression suggests. A few seemed tempted to operate
on me just for asking that question, but after some discussion most
said something like this: A motivated person of average intelligence
could probably make it through medical school, but it takes some
innate ability to succeed in the more rigorous specialties. So yes,
brain surgery is apparently pretty hard. Relating this to aviation,
I believe anyone can become a Private or Sport Pilot and perhaps
even learn to fly instruments given sufficient time and motivation.
But some talent may be necessary to move into aerobatics, crop dusting
or a Harrier jet.
Fortunately, basic flying
isn’t brain surgery (or even rocket science, although it’s
probably closer). Many students are flying for fun and don’t
intend to progress much further than a private or sport license.
Although they will be trained to the same standard as someone embarking
on a professional aviation career, they don’t need to have
“talent”. What they do need is encouragement to get
past their initial fears, and a good flight instructor.
This site is © Copyright Jason Catanzariti
2014, All Rights Reserved