Pilot Certificates are Not Participation Trophies

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 impacts 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 a 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 a 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 fundamental approach to training.

Talking with many DPEs around the country, the sentiment seems to be that many times insructors 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 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.

Posted in Aviation permalink

About Jason Blair

Jason Blair is an active single and multiengine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours of instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with the work focusing on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications with a focus on training and safety.


Pilot Certificates are Not Participation Trophies — 7 Comments

  1. Excellent article Jason. We are seeing this at 141 level. There is an expectation that standards will be relaxed. Maybe some of this parallels relaxed collegiate standards due to Covid. My son was enrolled in a mechanical engineering program, and students were offered “low pass” options that required minimal effort to obtain.

  2. I’ll add that too often–and not just in primary training–we train people to fly a particular task to a standard without ensuring that pilots understand *why* they’re learning the maneuver or skill and how that task correlates to other situations, both related tasks in the ACS and, more importantly, to real-world flying.

  3. I’ve been instructing almost 50 years and am proud to say I have a 97% first time passage rate. I see every student as a reflection on me. When they pass, I pass. When they fail, I’ve failed. Personal pride in doing a good job and putting a safe and competent pilot into the system has been replaced by the all mighty hours quest. Suffice it to say there is enough blame to go around the entire industry on why we have gotten to this point and I can’t see this trend ending soon. All I can do is keep putting out one competent pilot at a time.

  4. I will point my finger at the FAA! When the agency approves a part 141 syllabus that allows a CFI applicant to apply for an initial flight instructor practical test with a total of only 5 hours of actual solo time, we definitely have a problem. And if that initial applicant manages to pass the practical test they will be put to work the very next dayteaching the next class of CFI wannabes. There is no way we can expect excellence when the blind are teaching the blind. From my perspective, until the FAA changes the aeronautical experience requirements for many of the part 141 schools, the spin that flight training is in will quickly turn into a spiral dive into the abyss.

  5. While I can’t attest to your statistics, they do not surprise me. We have a problem in our industry that will end in casualties. This of which you speak is transitioning to the airline level as well. You should see the new copilots I get. We’ll talk!