Flying lessons as a gift

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Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

IT’S HOLIDAY season, and I’m getting a lot of enquiries from people who want to purchase an introductory flying lesson for a friend or loved-one. Usually something along the lines of “my husband has always talked about learning to fly, so I want to buy him a lesson as a present.”

That’s a really lovely thought, and as someone who sells services to the public you might expect that I’d be very happy to oblige. But you can already tell, since I’m writing an essay about this, that I’m going to disappoint you. I don’t think it’s a great idea, and I generally turn down these enquiries, with regret. If you’re reading this because you asked about buying a lesson for someone you love, this is my opportunity to let you down as gently and kindly as I can. Here are my reasons.

Firstly: learning to fly is a big commitment. Huge, in fact. People who want to become pilots need a vast reserve of drive, commitment and time. The money part is, relatively speaking, easy. The inner resources on which you’ll need to call to keep having lessons for the entire training process are much harder to find. When people call or email and say “I’ve always dreamed of learning to fly – so I’m contacting you” – I can work with that. It’s a positive first step that the student just took. It shows, at least, a minimum of engagement from the student just to get on the phone, or to email. Being blunt, if you have a pilot inside you, you don’t need to be bought a lesson. In fact in several years of flying gift-flights in various formats, to my recollection, not a single recipient actually went on to learn to fly. So if your significant other tells you they want to learn to fly, and you want to support them, then the best answer and the best gift I can think of is to say to them “Honey, I promise you the time, the freedom from other commitments, the support and the encouragement to follow your dream – now call Alec yourself and book an introductory lesson.”

Secondly: I don’t want to take money today for a service to be provided at some unspecified time in the future: I can’t guarantee you any particular date to fly, I don’t know how busy the schedule will be on the next sunny Sunday afternoon when the recipient finally wants to take up the lesson, and if for some reason they don’t have the lesson in good time there’s the issue of giving a refund months or years later and that’s all a big mess.

Thirdly: when someone takes an introductory lesson with me it’s a real lesson: there’s reading and study to do in advance, a commitment to turn up refreshed and ready to learn, and to review the experience afterwards and write up study notes, to get the most out it. When I’m speaking to a prospective student we can talk about that, and I can make my expectations known before we book, and also find out a bit more about the student. Maybe I’m not the right instructor for them? Who knows. When a booking is made by someone else, I can’t – we’re both in the dark about what to expect.

Fourthly: I’m a great instructor, but a very poor entertainer and an even worse aerial tour guide. If I know I’m flying with someone as a gift there’s a temptation to play to the donor, and make sure the donee comes out grinning and smiling. But a first flying lesson doesn’t have a big finale at the end that sends its audience out grinning into the sunlight humming a catchy tune, and frankly if it does then it’s misrepresenting the lessons to follow. It may be exciting for someone who’s never been in a small airplane before, but it doesn’t have a rousing chorus, and it’s definitely not an aerial thrill ride. Other organizations do those – but not me.

So if you’re reading this and thinking of gifting a flying lesson to someone you know, see if you can get them to call me themselves (to be clear, I don’t mind who actually pays for the lesson) and if they do then I’ll be delighted to talk to them about an introductory lesson. But if they won’t take that first step for themselves then I would say now is not the right time for them to learn to fly. Maybe it will be something in their future, or maybe not. But you’ll have to think a little bit longer for what to give them as a gift – sorry!

ADDENDUM: I had an email from a student today, who wrote the following:

You said in your blog:

“So if your significant other tells you they want to learn to fly, and you want to support them, then the best answer and the best gift I can think of is to say to them “Honey, I promise you the time, the freedom from other commitments, the support and the encouragement to follow your dream – now call Alec yourself and book an introductory lesson.”

Paraphrased, that is exactly what [my partner] said to me – almost word for word. That sentiment is the biggest difference a significant other can make. You are 100% correct.


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