Monday, July 11, 2005

Weeding out the unlikely students

Several things going on today. Mike is finally flying his commercial checkride. He hasn't come back early, so that is a good sign. I spent the morning running around the airport, doing paperwork, and helping give a tour around the airport to a small school group.

First flight of the day is coming up soon, and that will be in a CT-SW. A student of mine bought one of those a while back, and since picking it up a couple months ago, I have about 40 hours in it. It is the first sport plane I have ever flown. Tiny little thing, but reasonably spacious on the inside, even for my 6' 2" frame. This one is a little different than the standard sport plane though.

Most people buy sport planes so they can fly around their local area, and just enjoy the view, therefore the instrumentation is very basic. This student decided that even if that is all he would do, he was going to have top-end equipment. So after we brought the plane back from the dealer in Ellington, CT, we got the panel torn apart, and new equipment put in. Now, after working some kinks out of it, we have a tiny little plane equipped with a Garmin GNS430 GPS, and a Blue Mountain EFIS. (Electronic Flight Information System). The only other EFIS I had ever flown was in a Pilatus. They aren't too common in small aircraft. Oh yeah, the plane also has an autopilot- another rarity, and probably a first for sport planes.

But my student can afford it. I knew that right from the beginning, when I first met him. He had tried two other schools before finding me. One of them flatly rejected him, the other never bothered to call him back. He was 75 years old at the time, and beginning flight training at that age would be a total waste of time for 98% of people. They tend to have lost the ability and the motivation to learn new things, especially complicated ones.

Sadly, I would wager that of the remaining 2% of those, most are discouraged from trying it. The guy that brought him to my office commented to me that it might be a waste of time, presuming that possibility based on his age. The man was anxious to start though, and sincerely wanted to know if I thought he could do it. As badly as he wanted to fly, he was ready to quit the instant I thought he wasn't up to the challenge. Wanting a realistic assessment of your abilities- regardless of how harsh the answer might feel- is one of the best attitudes you can have when learning anything. And to my surprise and excitement, I became convinced after our first lesson that he was capable, providing he dedicated himself to study, and to consistent scheduling.

A side note: to anyone thinking about becoming a pilot- regardless of age, talent or any other factor- those are the most crucial things. The most physically gifted student I ever taught was capable of flying all the private maneuvers to standards at only 6 hours. Including landings. He was either unable or unwilling to study properly, and it cost him many hours of ground instruction and flight time in the process. Among the less naturally gifted students I have had, are a couple who hit the books very hard, and saved themselves time and money. Those are the ones who have made it to checkride in the shortest time.

So when my new 75 year old student mentioned he had already purchased books and was studying, I was elated. I naturally started to tell him about the expected costs. He stopped me before I ever got to tell him. It was a waste of his time to have to hear how much it cost. That is when I first clued in that maybe he had some money.

Just before our next lesson, he called and wanted to know about buying a headset. I told him some of the options, ranging from $150 to $1,000, and that we could talk about it when we met for the next lesson. He was ready to buy the top-of-the-line: a $1,000 Bose headset. I made the call, and during the ordering process, he told me he wanted two of them. I placed the order, and when I ended the call, he told me "If these are so good, you're going to need one too."

That was when I recognized that a measly $89/hour for the airplane was nothing to him. Every so often, as the training progressed, he would surprise me in some new way with his lack of concern about the money. Then one weekend it happened.

I was away, taking a few days off, when he called to let me know he had bought an airplane. He had not even soloed yet, and was already dropping nearly $100,000 on his own plane. About a month later, not long after solo but before the checkride, he told me he was buying another airplane, just in case he got the first one and decided he didn't like it.

These days, a few months since gaining his private license, we mostly just fly around in his little sport plane, sometimes local, sometimes finding somewhere else to go. No hurry, no concern over the cost, just having fun. He lets me get about half the landings myself, and still wants to pay me for the whole flight. He lets me borrow the plane for free. He buys lunch every time. He picks my brain during lunch, then insists I charge him for the time. Most of the time, our conversations revolve around the research we are doing that he hopes will result in getting us an airplane dealership.

Sometimes, I think about how the other two schools he found first really missed an opportunity, disguised as an unlikely prospect.

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