How to re-start flight training, and how not to.

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Photo by Ashley Kirk on Unsplash

Every now and then, a student drops out of training. This happens at my Flight Training Unit, and at other Flight Training Units across the country. And every now and then, a student who has done some previous flight training and stopped taking lessons decides to come back and have lessons once again, and restart their journey towards learning to fly and (usually) getting a pilot licence.

So every flight school is on occasion the recipient of enquiries like this: “Hi – my name is [name] and I have [five/ten/twenty/forty/one hundred] hours of flight training from [last year/two years ago/five years ago/ten years ago]. You see, I was doing really [well/badly] but I had to stop because of [reason] and I’ve decided it’s now time to finish my training. Can I come and learn with you?

In this post, I want to address that returning student, and provide some advice on how to approach a new flight school (and how not to).

I’m going to invite you to look at this from the point of view of the school or instructor. Let’s compare with how you feel taking on a new student, which is a bit of a lottery, for both the student, and the instructor. The new student is hoping the instructor is going to be capable and skilled, efficient at training, strong in advocacy, long on patience and with a great sense of humour. The instructor is hoping the student is going to be capable, keen to study, attentive, appreciative of the training, and (very importantly) has the stamina and drive to see a long training process through to completion. Of course neither of you really knows what you’re getting until some number of lessons have been spent together. From the instructor’s perspective you’ve already established a relationship by that point, and unless things are going really badly it’s hard to pull out, nor do you want to. You’re invested.

But when a new student gets in touch and that student has a history – it’s impossible for the instructor not to use that history as a guide to what to expect in the future. And that’s going to colour the instructor’s decision about whether they’re willing and able to provide lessons to that student.

Unfortunately if you started flying lessons previously and then stopped, the one solid fact that your new instructor knows about you is that you have a record of not finishing what you started. That may be unfair, because the reasons that you stopped training were very good reasons, or unavoidable, or beyond your control. But for an instructor looking for students with solid commitment, you’re already at a score of minus one.

I think if you are the student in that situation there are definitely things you should do (and shouldn’t do) and say (and perhaps shouldn’t say) to get off on the best foot. Here are some suggestions from me.

Do take and pass your written exam

All returning students speak the devout words of renewed commitment. But words are cheap. If you want credibility, demonstrate your renewed commitment by bringing solid accomplishment with you.

If you’ve had more than a few flying lessons in the past, you’ll be aware of the requirement to pass a written exam to get a pilot licence. it would be a great boost to your reputation if when you call your intended new flight school you are able to say “Yes, I had to stop having lessons, and I want to start again, but I haven’t wasted my time and in the mean time I’ve finished my ground school studies and passed my written exam.” Written exam passes are valid only for 24 months, so you’ve implicitly set yourself a deadline.

If it were me hoping to get a Private Pilot Licence for which I stopped having lessons, I wouldn’t even make that call to start lessons again, until I had my PPAER written exam pass certificate in hand. Just saying.

Do review your notes

Do review your lesson notes, Pilot Training Record, Flight Training Manual fully and carefully.

You paid a lot of money for those prior lessons, and you learned at least something. You owe it to yourself to get the best possible value from them, so go through your notes very carefully to remember whatever you can. The purple Flight Training Manual (of which you must have a copy) will refresh your memory about all the air exercises that you’ve learned so far. Can’t find your copy of the FTM? Buy a new one. And read it. Carefully. All of it. If you were training at my FTU of course you’d have a video of all your lessons, both ground and air instruction, so you should definitely review those.

Again from the instructor’s point of view, I cannot over-emphasize the joy one gets from teaching a well-prepared student. Take every opportunity you can to show you are that student.

Don’t boast about your ignorance

Please don’t say “my previous training was so long ago, I’ve forgotten everything, treat me like I know nothing.” Why shouldn’t you say that? Three reasons.

Firstly it’s just lazy. If you can’t be bothered to put the effort in to recover whatever you can from prior training then your new instructor will infer that you won’t be bothered to put the effort in to keep up with what you’re hoping shortly to be taught.

Secondly: it demonstrates that you place no value on what your previous instructor taught you, and therefore are likely to place no value on what your next instructor teaches you. If you treat the knowledge your instructor imparts to you as the crown jewels they will feel valued and respected and will be thrilled to teach you. Discard the knowledge like trash, and your instructor will feel like trash. As you treated your previous instructor, so (one reasons) will you treat the next.

Thirdly: it’s simply not true. You don’t know nothing. It’s impossible to wish yourself back to a state of ignorance. Your new instructor has the task of finding out what you still do know, correcting things you learned (or remembered) wrongly, and depending on how much training you did do, teaching you the new stuff too.

There are probably more reasons too, but three is enough to be getting on with.

Do get your medical renewed

If it has been a really long time since you last flew, it’s possible that your medical certification is expired. You should know that a Student Pilot Permit is validated by a Category 1, 3 or 4 medical certificate, and the validity period is the first day of the 61st month following the date of medical examination. Broadly speaking, five years. Even if you’re over 40. (It’s even printed on the back of your Student Pilot Permit.) If necessary, book an appointment with a Civil Aviation Medical Examiner, and get your medical renewed. Before calling a flight school.

Do bring your PTR

All student pilots have a Pilot Training Record – usually a floppy blue book in which their lessons are recorded. Sometimes this is kept on a computer, but many flight schools still use the traditional paper book. Usually the instructor fills in the record after each lesson (sometimes the student does) but typically the book is left with the flight school. If you stopped training you may have left your training record behind – and – here’s a secret of flight training – there’s no standard for how long a flight school has to keep the records of students who stop training.

Ideally you made a clear decision that you were going to take a break from training and you took your PTR home with you then. But more likely there wasn’t a definite decision and simply the gaps between lessons got longer and longer until one day you never returned. In that case it’s very important that as soon as you think you might want to pick things up again you contact your old flight school to see if they still have your PTR. If they do – go and get it. If they have it they’re obliged to give it to you. If they don’t have it it could be either just not “to hand”, or have been destroyed. That’s bad, because now you’ll have to piece together your training flights one by one and enter them in a new PTR. You can do that from your personal log book … which you do have, don’t you?

If your school kept records on a computer (mine does) then that’s a good thing, and it should be straightforward for them to give you a printout of your PTR, no matter when your training was.

But if it was a really long time ago, decades, perhaps, and no records can be found, then you’ll have to manage without. But see my comment above – not having a PTR is not the same as “starting from scratch”. It simply makes things harder for your new instructor, and means that you may have to repeat some thing unnecessarily.

Don’t bad-mouth your previous instructor!

Please, please, don’t tell your new instructor how horrible or dull, or cowboy, or simply awful your previous instructor was.

Firstly, one day you’ll finish your training or move on (again) and your new instructor will be your new last instructor. As you speak now about one, so may you eventually speak about the next. No instructor is perfect, and if you’re keen to point out the faults in instructor A then instructor B will draw the obvious conclusion. (If the obvious never crosses the mind of instructor B, then that’s a sign of narcissism in them, which should raise a red flag for you.)

Second reason not to speak ill of prior instructors: flight training is a small world, and it’s not impossible that your comprehensive list of skill deficits and character flaws you share with your new instructor (and possibly everyone else who will listen) will get back to your old instructor. With whom – never say never – it may one day become expedient for you to have further lessons. Or, if you’re heading into the world of commercial flying, they may end up as the captain to your first officer. Wouldn’t that be awkward?

Third reason: as the Talmud says, who is wise? Answer: The one who can learn from everyone. You may not have learned what you wanted, as much as you wanted, or as fast as you wanted, but a sure way to learn less than you could have is to tell yourself the person teaching you was a bad teacher.

Fourth reason: some of the things you think of as “bad” instruction may actually have been correct or appropriate under the circumstances. Your perspective is valuable, of course, but it’s not the only one, and a flight instructor isn’t there merely to please you.

If you do have honest feedback about an instructor the best thing you can do is share it with them directly. Even negative feedback, as awkward as it may feel. I strongly encourage my students to tell me how they feel things are going. The second person you should think about sharing with is the Chief Flight Instructor at the school. By encouraging honest feedback both from my own students and from students of instructors I supervise I’ve been able to to reset some training relationships that were in danger of going off-course, to the benefit of both student and instructor. And there’s the opportunity to put an early end to training relationships that really aren’t going well and can’t be fixed – which can be a mercy to both student and instructor.

Do work out why you really stopped training

You should engage in honest self-enquiry about why you stopped training.

If you had to cease lessons previously for a prosaic and functional reason like you moved away or changed job then you are excused the difficult soul-searching that can be required for this one. But if your flying lessons petered out, or you “got bored”, or you used a minor practical bump-in-the-road as an excuse to quit (for example you went on vacation and never booked a lesson after you got back) then you’ll need to work through this one. What really made you stop? How are things different now, and what gives you confidence the same won’t happen again? If you feel the reason you quit was simply lack of progress, enquire of yourself, why? If the only reason you can think of is to blame your instructor then I’m going to ask you to think it over again. At the very least, consider what steps you took to fix that lack of progress at the time.

It’s worth pointing out that a self-reflection exercise such as this isn’t about apportioning blame or making yourself feel bad, or good. But it is important, before going back in head first into training, that you’re able to identify why you stopped, so you can prevent it happening again.

So there you have it: five suggested do’s and two don’ts of getting back into flying lessons after taking a break. (Does the photo at the top make more sense now?) If this is you, I wish you the very best and a smooth path to completing your training, be it with me, or anywhere else.


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