What’s in a Tail Number?

N7801U – that’s the first plane I ever flew. It was a Cessna 150.  I soloed in it too.  I didn’t get my private pilot certificate in it, that was in N13527, a Cessna 172.  I also did my instrument training in N13527.  They were both owned by the same instructor who trained me.  I flew both of these planes a lot in my first few years of being a pilot.  Both of them became a part of my personal pilot history.  I’ll remember those tail numbers for as long as I fly.

A couple weeks ago I conducted a private pilot practical test (the applicant did well and passed FYI) that got me thinking about a question that came up after we had finished.  While the new private pilot was filling out his logbook and I was filing out his temporary airman certificate, he asked if I knew what the tail number was on the airplane we had flown for the test.  The tail number of that particular plane had no real meaning to him.  In fact, I’m not even sure if he had ever flown that particular plane before.

How can this happen, many pilots and instructors might ask.  It’s because the applicant was trained at a large scale training provider (in this case a university) who operates more than 50 aircraft.  Most of the planes are virtually identical except the number on the tails.  They dispatch the students and instructors different aircraft every day and its possible because they are all the same make and model with the exact same instrument panels in them.  They are interchangeable.  In these operations, the aircraft are just a tool in the training.  They are not something that a student (or the instructor) builds a bond with through their training and testing experiences.

I feel like something is lost here.  I understand the efficiency that is gained, but I feel like the student is being cheated somehow of the experience I had when I learned.  That affinity that I had left me with memories of my training that can’t be replaced.  Is this even important?  And do current students still have any affinity to the tail number or the specific aircraft in which they are training?

I know many instructors will tell me that it isn’t like this where they provide training, and they are probably correct.  The overwhelming majority of instructors still operate out of small scale training providers, but the reality is that these providers are not providing the bulk of the training done for pilot certificates in the United States.  In fact, in one case, just one large scale training provider does over 10% of all the pilot certificates issued to US citizens each year in this country.  It appears that the bulk of pilot certification does actually take place at large scale training providers, in situations just like I was testing the student at, where the aircraft are interchangeable and may be largely indiscernible from each other except for the number on the tail.

As an industry, we are talking about potential pilot shortages, and a part of meeting this is finding efficient ways to turn out well-trained pilots to meet demand. I know a part of doing this is to work with large fleet training operations.  While this is necessary, I think we can still find a way to make our bonds with the airplanes special.

Even if we fly different aircraft on a daily basis, I still think we should make specific aircraft at least a part of our celebration of special events.  Maybe these events are just first solos, first cross country flights, or practical test, but these can become a part of the richness of a pilots memory of their learning and experience gathering process.

If you are a flight instructor, pay attention to the plane you are flying and bring it to the attention to your students. If you are learning, take note of what you are flying!  Build those special memories of which we know the planes are a part.

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