Pilot certificates are not participation trophies

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5 min read

Every generation seems to think the next generation doesn’t work as hard, isn’t as talented, or doesn’t have the same motivation that their generation did when they were younger. I don’t think that has been any different in aviation training historically.

There are certainly things that younger pilots know and do better than generations before. There are probably skills and knowledge that older generations of pilots had or developed that new generations don’t, or don’t even need. But one thing that I can say is that from a metrics standpoint, it certainly seems that we are headed the wrong way in pilot skill and knowledge right now.

A statistic was recently shared with us that indicates that in the past approximately 6-months, it appears first-time pass rates on private pilot airplane single-engine land practical tests are hovering somewhere in the 50-60% range.

Take this to heart, please. It means that nearly half of our pilot applicants are failing their first attempts at a private pilot certificate.

This is bad. I don’t know how to say it any other way.

I am not going to say that it is entirely the fault of the students. It isn’t just that somehow the younger generation sucks or that they aren’t capable. I am also not saying that no training providers care. There are some very dedicated and professional leaders at many training programs working hard to counteract these trends. But they are fighting an uphill battle.

I hold us as an entire industry responsible. We need to hold the standards for our training and not send them to attempt practical tests until they are truly ready.

Some factors have come together in our industry that have resulted in VERY active hiring, high turnover of CFIs at flight training providers, and a lack of selective hiring when we “need to fill jobs with a warm body that can at least do the job” even if they aren’t candidates that really meet our highest of expectations. This has resulted in what I affectionately refer to as “warm body hiring.”

I have no doubt that the current trend is having a negative impact currently and will continue to do so in the future. One example is that if we look at reduced pass rates, we need more retests. In 2021 we did a little over 21,000 private pilot certificates in this country. If half of these fail on the first attempt, we need 11,000 more retests. This takes valuable DPE resources away from testing applicants who might actually be prepared and pass on the first try. This is but one administrative complication of what is happening. It says nothing about the potential that comes from a lack of base skill development for safety in the long run in our aviation industry.

As a DPE, I can’t help but feel like too many flight training operations have transitioned from a process of “training to meet and/or exceed a standard and happen to meet experience requirements along the way,” to a “train to meet experience requirements, and hope they happen to meet training standards.” This is a subtle difference in language, but it is a significant difference in the fundamental approach to training.

Talking with many DPEs around the country, the sentiment seems to be that many times instructors are “throwing a student at a practical test and hoping they will pass.” The logic is if they don’t, they can just retrain a few items and get them the certificate anyway. For so many reasons this seems to be the wrong thing to do in my mind.

There is a significant pull being felt from the airline environment on the CFIs to “get their time as fast as possible” so they can come work for them. This is creating an ethos in the CFI cadre who is providing the bulk of the training in this country that getting hours is more important than providing the students best training service. As those students become CFIs anxious to get to the airlines, the cycle will continue. Most of us who are actively engaged with daily training operations have seen this. We feel it. We are concerned.

Pushing lots of pilots through our training systems to meet airline hiring needs can be great as long as it is done without degrading safety and with a focus on true learning. Cutting corners or rushing people through who aren’t really ready doesn’t help us all in the long run.

Getting a pilot certificate or rating comes with a great deal of responsibility. It isn’t just a “test until you happen to get it right and pass” learning experience. We need our pilots to have built base skills, knowledge, and risk management awareness. Our system depends on these base skills being built in a way that they will support future learning and service in the aviation transportation industry.

Learning to be a pilot and then building the additional skills and experience to become a professional pilot isn’t something that is just a checkbox. It shouldn’t be something that you just get if you have spent enough on training or “happened to fly all the required experience events.”  We need our pilots to really meet and exceed the standards in full that the FAA and the aviation industry have set forth and collaborated on for each and every certificate and rating level along the way.

To put it bluntly, pilot certificates and ratings aren’t participation trophies.

Jason Blair