As we get older, most of us get worse at being a student—no matter what the subject. The first 20 years of life are filled with classes, tests, and homework, so we’re used to absorbing new information and occasionally stumbling on our path to mastery. The typical 45-65 year old, on the other hand, likely hasn’t been in a formal educational setting in a long time. It can feel uncomfortable or even embarrassing to make a mistake or confess, “I don’t know.” After all, you’re used to being the expert.
This difference in mindset has been reinforced for me recently, as I’ve become a student again, this time of music. After years of thinking about it, I finally took up the violin. Much like flying, this process has been exciting, challenging, occasionally frustrating, but mostly very satisfying. I’ve kept a learning journal (a trick I learned from flight training, of course), and in reviewing this, I noticed some lessons that apply to any later-in-life student.
So if you’re considering learning to fly after your 40th birthday (or your 60th—you really aren’t too old to start), remember these tips.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re a successful engineer, doctor, or teacher, you are used to knowing the answers and leading the discussion. This might make you nervous about asking questions of your instructor, especially if they are younger than you (which is often the case in aviation). Ignore those nerves and ask away, even if you think you’ll sound stupid.
This is easier said than done, but I found it helpful to tell my violin teacher up front: “I’m going to ask a ton of questions, some of which may sound ridiculous; I hope you’ll appreciate my willingness to learn.” This set the tone early and has yielded great results. Most instructors love a curious student.
So if you’re wondering what the heck a magneto is or why there’s no Class F airspace, don’t hold back. Don’t assume it doesn’t matter. Don’t assume every other student pilot knows these topics better than you do. Have the curiosity of a first grader, and keep asking questions.
Don’t get frustrated. Learning to fly isn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be—that’s why it’s so rewarding when you earn that certificate. Acknowledge up front that you will have both good and bad days during training, and don’t beat yourself up after every mistake. I like to take a two week moving average of my performance, which prevents me from getting too high after a great lesson or too low after a really bad one.
If you feel like you’re in a rut, and that two week moving average isn’t good, by all means talk to your instructor. Don’t be afraid to mix things up if the current plan isn’t working, but don’t expect perfection. You may be used to success, but one of the great lessons of flight training is to remain humble and never get too comfortable. That’s not failure, that’s growth.
Invest in the instructor relationship. One-on-one learning depends on the student and instructor much more than the textbook or the technology. That doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with your CFI, but don’t be purely transactional. You should take a few moments to understand who they are as a person: what is their teaching style, their likes and dislikes, and their unique style? Do your part as the student to share your personality and your learning preferences. If you both understand each other and work on the learning process as a partnership, you’ll learn more, be more efficient, and have more fun.
Have a plan to always be studying or practicing. Here’s one I have learned time and time again with music, and it’s every bit as true for aviation. Your most important learning happens in between lessons, without an instructor there, so be diligent about carving out time for regular studying. Whether it’s watching videos online, reading the FAA textbooks, replaying your most recent flight with an app, or flying a simulator at home, you should try to do something aviation-related every 2-3 days. There are more options than ever before, so there’s no excuse for going weeks between aviation learning sessions, even if your formal flight lessons are canceled due to weather.
Learning to fly is really up to you as the student, and lessons are best viewed as periodic check-ins to fix mistakes and learn new skills. Self-directed learning like this takes commitment, so don’t wait for a time when nothing is going on to study; build it into your day-to-day life in a very intentional way. Get help from your spouse or friends if needed—this is a great way to have someone else keep you honest.
Remember why you’re doing it. If you’re learning to fly later in life, it’s probably because you want to have fun or achieve a lifelong dream, so stay focused on your ultimate goal. Sure, everyone has to pass the same FAA tests, but notice which parts you enjoy most and make sure you learn those skills. Is it about traveling to faraway places? Then make sure you’re really learning how to travel cross-country. Is it about fun flights in taildraggers to grass runways? Then don’t get too bogged down in the details of turbocharging systems and glass cockpits. You want to become a safe and confident pilot, but you also want to be ready for your unique mission after the checkride, whatever that might be. Communicate those goals to your flight instructor early on.
The differences in mindset between younger and older students don’t have to spell doom. In fact, there are some real advantages that come with maturity. Older adults are typically highly motivated and they often know themselves better, so they understand how to achieve their goals. They have other life experiences to draw on and more refined decision-making skills. Play to those strengths by customizing your training plan to fit your personality and by working smarter with your schedule.
You can teach an old dog new tricks. We see it every month in our flight school, and there’s no reason you can’t join the club.
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