The Truth: How Hard is Learning to Fly?

Budd Davisson, appeared in Flight Training Magazine

Nothing worthwhile comes easy, but learning to fly is mostly determination, not brain power

How Hard is Learning to fly REALLY?
One of the interesting aspects of special interest magazines like Flight Training is that, whether it’s hotrods, scuba diving, racing widgets or airplanes, for every reader who is hard core and actively involved, there are generally many more who are reading and watching, but not actually doing. Is that you? If so, you’re definitely not alone.
So, what’s holding you back? The reasons generally given for not jumping in almost always group themselves into “intangibles,” like doubting your own ability to master seemingly impossible technical tasks, to very “tangible” concerns about money and time.

A good percentage of the reasons, both tangible and intangible, that people give for holding back, are based on old-wive’s tales or bad information. Let’s run down the “Gee, I wish I could, but….” list and examine each of the common reasons given that, even though the desire is there, people don’t learn to fly.

The Intangible Reasons
The intangible reasons are quite often based on fears that have no basis in fact. This is especially when it comes to the knowledge or mental aptitude required. Most people forget that everything they’ll ever need to know about flying will be force fed to them during ground school. It is the ground instructor’s goal to take a person who barely knows the definition of “up” and school them in the intricacies of aviation. You can learn any thing and they can teach it.

How much math do I need to know?
It would help if you can add and subtract. And multiplying is handy sometimes too. That’s about it! Honest! Fourth grade arithmetic will take care of the entire thing.
How deep is the technology involved?

Do you have a general idea how your car engine works? Gas and air mix in the carburetor/fuel injection system, it’s squirted into the cylinders and fired by a spark plug. There, we just gave a crash course in aviation engine theory. The rest of the systems are just as familiar and parallel to the family car, but much simpler. Airplanes are quite rudimentary, once everything is explained.

What about aerodynamics and other scientific concepts?
The FAA has carefully distilled the amount of aerodynamics you need to know into easily-learned lesson plans. Similarly, quite a number of after-market teaching institutions have come up with ways of explaining how an airplane flies while imparting a practical understanding of the concepts without requiring an engineering degree. Most of this can be done on line.

Do I have to understand meteorology?
Again, remember what ground school is for. It’s there to teach you what you don’t know. Besides, the weather information you get on the nightly news contains 90% of the meteorological theory you’re going to cover in flight training. TV weather is always presented on a map, complete with hot and cold fronts, lows and highs and other items you’ve seen on an almost daily basis. Ground school will expand on that slightly and orient it toward aviation.

I hear FAA regulations are hard to understand.
You heard right. The FAA doesn’t specialize in clarity, but every ground school on the planet does. They make their living coming up with ever-more-understandable ways of presenting FAA regulations to students. They’ve created all sorts of easy-to-follow classroom outlines aimed at clearing away the regulatory fog.

I’m afraid I’m going to panic or clutch up.
That’s understandable. This is an entirely new environment: no one but pilots routinely deal with the third dimension. Even so, it’s highly unlikely (read that as nearly impossible) that you’ll panic as things become more intense. This is a classic case of fear of the unknown. 100% of the time, the most common reaction from first time students is, “That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I can do this.”

What about airsickness? I don’t want to embarrass myself.
Very, very few people actually get sick in an airplane while learning to fly and, of those who do, the majority have spend so much time worrying about it that they’ve made themselves sick. Even those who have initial problems get past it in around three hours of flight time.