What it Takes to become a Pilot.

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I was frustrated by the comments on Facebook from a concerned potential student who posted the question “What does it cost to get a private pilot license?” The answers ranged from “You’re soul” to something like “It’s too expensive, just forget it.” Let me tell you.

Becoming a pilot is a right of passage into the greatest American invention and freedom. It takes sacrifice, commitment, dedication, passion and persistence. In a word, desire. With that said, there are two fears that prevent enthusiasts from pursuing their dreams – Fear of Finances and Fear of Failure.

Let me explain the fear of failure. It’s comprised of ‘what ifs.’ What if I can’t do it. What if I can’t afford it. What if I make mistakes? But the reality is, it boils down to attitude. Becoming a pilot is about mastering your fear. I was afraid of heights, but I was offered an Epic opportunity to ride in a WWII T-6 and I did it! I just saw a quote from Richard Branson, ‘Everything you want is on the other side of fear.’ I have seen a similar quote from Will Smith.

Fear of Finances. Several responses to the post were an approximate dollar figure, everywhere from around $6000 to $10,000. Some of the negatives were that it was unaffordable and unachievable. I glanced through some of the profiles. The ‘I wish I could afford it’ folks had photos of their nice cars, taken from their iPhones. Some of them had pictures with kids, perhaps their own, while others had motorcycles or boats. There were pictures of their zip-lining adventures, or other epic vacations. I made a determination – their focus was not on learning to fly. I can tell you this, I made a lot of sacrifices to get my pilot licenses, but I still had a life. First I paid off my car. I got a cheap cell phone and a cheap computer. I worked two jobs and purchased the books to study. I started flight training and ran out of money. Then I started dating a girl 500 miles away in Canada. My friends and family didn’t think I would finish. I decided to go to a University Flight Program because I could get student loans. It was a lot of work and even more expensive. I dropped out. I made more sacrifices. I moved  and got a cheaper apartment. I quite going out and started running and exercising. I worked and saved up some money. I started flight training again and spent my extra time studying. I felt like my friends all had lives and I was giving up everything. But I’d show up for a flight lesson and it was amazing. The scenery. The ability to soar above the Earth. I had no cares in the world in the airplane except flying.

I read aviation books and magazines and watched videos and studied. Some of my friends grew distant. I felt alone and I wanted to give up. My maternal grandfather believed in me and said, if this is what you want to do, then do it, I believe in you. I disregarded his advice and went to a concert. I spent over $200 that night and had a blast! The next day, I realized that would have been two hours of flight time back then. The t-shirt I got at the concert became a reminder of my priorities. Was that concert an investment in my future? I buckled down and took my written exam. I passed with an 85%. Not great, but I passed. Now the clock was ticking because the exam is good for 24 calendar months. I started flying with an instructor who was discouraging. “There are no jobs in aviation” he said. Was I wasting my time? I was discouraged. I worked some more and had saved up some money. Aviation was calling me, but why waste my money? I started going to the airport to hang out and watch airplanes. I had coffee with the ‘old guys’ and one of them asked me when I was going to get my license? I had a dozen excuses from not having enough money to not having the time. “That’s too bad” he said. That night I kept wondering what he meant by that. The next day I went back out for coffee. He asked to see my log book. He lit up. “You’re half way done!” I had soloed, I had 19.5 hours of the required 40 and he encouraged me, “lets go and see what you remember.” We preflighted the airplane and went up to just fly. I took off, flew and landed without him touching the controls. I was excited, and flew several more lessons. Then my seasonal job finished and I didn’t get the hours I expected at my other job. I went several weeks without flying. My grandfather continued to encourage me. I started making pilot friends at the airport and they would tell me stories and show me their planes. I decided I was going to finish and then the weather turned cold. I went three months without being able to fly due to weather. Then, finally, on a good day, with another job and some money saved up again, I went out to fly. The airplane was down for maintenance. I tried to schedule and it was booked up for the next two weeks. Discouraged, I went home. Months passed. Then, I decided to go to another airport. I was able to get a plane and an instructor and I flew again! I took several lessons there but I wasn’t connecting with the instructor. I eventually went back to the second instructor and he had graduated a student and had some open lessons. I got on the schedule and finished my flight training. As I was ready for my check-ride, I started having a lot of doubt. My landings weren’t great. I had gotten lost on a cross country and went 30 miles out of my way before I figured out where I was. I didn’t think I was ready. I started making excuses about work schedules and money. I had been going out to eat and spending money to travel to see the girlfriend. My grandfather asked me how it was going. I just shrugged. He went and talked to the instructor and then told me he pay for my remaining lessons if I flew every day and finished them up. I was scared. It was terrifying to put almost two years in and then to blow it on my check ride. I was also up against the clock. I only had a few months left on my written and I’d have to retake it. My car broke down, and needed new tires. It was stressful, but I worked and got through it. After some more bad weather I went out to the airport on a nice day to fly. The instructor just said, “are you going to do this or not?” “We’ll fly every day if you’ll finish, or I’m taking you off the schedule.” In that moment I decided I was going to do it. We flew. We studied and in two weeks he said I was ready and he’d sign me off for my check ride. I was terrified. The check ride was the next day! I went home and studied. I hardly slept and got up early. I planned the cross country and came in early and went over it with the instructor. He had a few last-minute suggestions and then introduced me to the examiner. I did my 4-hour oral and then he said lets go fly. The scenario was to fly a cross country, but to divert due to thunderstorms. We checked weather and there were really thunderstorms about an hour away at my destination! We did our run-up and took off, heading for the storms. I could see the dark clouds way in the distance. It was bumpy and I was terrified! We did our maneuvers and he said, ‘What do you think?” I said I thought we should head back to the airport. He agreed and I thought I had failed. I flew back and he pulled the throttle to idle on the way back. I demonstrated emergency procedures and picked a place to land. He let me recover and then said, lets just go land. On approach he said ‘Go around!’ I didn’t know if it was a real reason or a scenario, but I did it. Then he said, lets do a short-field landing. I was nervous. The storm was getting close now. After the short field, we taxied back. He said, lets go do a soft-field take-off and landing. I did and then he said, taxi back to the hangar. I did and the wind started picking up as we put the plane away. As we were walking in, it started to pour! He asked me, “so what do you think about the weather?” I told him I had been terrified since the start and we cut it very close. He said, “well, did you pass?” I honestly didn’t know. I mean, I thought I had performed everything he asked within the criteria, but we had also cut it very close with the weather. If I said yes, would I seem to confident? If I said no, would I be shooting myself in the foot? I said, “I honestly don’t know, did I?” He asked what I meant and I told him. He shook my hand, congratulations, let go do the paperwork.

It was the hardest thing I had ever done and now it was over. I was a pilot. I couldn’t believe it. On one had I was on cloud nine with excitement. On the other hand, I felt like I had barely made it and I wasn’t a vey good pilot. But I WAS a pilot! I rented the airplane several more times and practiced maneuvers and landings. I went on cross countries and started telling stories and meeting other pilots. My family was shocked and paid for rides with me. My girlfriend was proud from far away.

There were no jobs in aviation. I went on to make many stories and memories and eventually went to a community college. I helped a guy ferry a plane and he helped me get a high-paying job as a weather observer. I flew the line-guy and his wife on a sunset flight on their wedding night. I dropped out of college, my girlfriend and I broke up and I got downsized from my job. Through it all, I was a pilot! I stayed focused on making good decisions. I moved 200 miles north and started a new life, got a new job, joined the EAA and ended up buying my first airplane, an RV-4. I made more stories and opportunities. I didn’t go out to eat, see a movie in the theater or go to another concert for many years.

Somehow, it all came together. I got downsized again, started my own business, landed other great opportunities, finished my Bachelor Degree and ended up getting reacquainted with my high-school sweetheart. We got married, had kids and I collected my flight ratings over the years, finally becoming a flight instructor. I sold the plane and upgraded to a four-seater.

Now I see my young students trying to have it all – the nice cars, the nice apartments or homes, the iPhones, designer clothes and parties. I have come to realize that having it all means doing without first. Investing in aviation requires focus and dedication. But once you’ve paid your dues, the opportunities present themselves. Looking back, most of the “cool stuff” I did was just a distraction from the goal. With focus, the timeline for success can be much shorter and today there is much more opportunity than there was 20 years ago when I started. I have highlighted how you can do it faster, cheaper and easier in my new book Open Air – How People Like Yourself are Changing the Aviation Industry. It is available on Amazon in digital copy and in print. If you have ever wondered about getting your pilot license, or know someone who has, this book can change your life.

I hope to see you in the Open Air! www.OpenAirForEveryone.com

1 thought on “What it Takes to become a Pilot.

  1. Your story reminds me of my aviation career. I barely graduated high school and not one person believed I could do it. Yet I went from a general aviation pilot and retired as a DC-10 Captain.
    It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I’d do it all over again if I could.
    Thanks, for the memories.
    The only obstacle to overcome is self doubt.

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