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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The "Fun Curve" of Flying

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One of the ways learning to fly changes your life is that it presents you with challenges that you can either face up to or run away from. Dealing with these teaches you about who you are and makes you better at dealing with life's obstacles.

One of these challenges is dealing with learning how to press on even when things aren't as fun. Life itself is a series of ups and downs with its good times and its bad times, and flying is just life on a smaller scale.

Unlike life, however, I have a map for you that will tell you when the good times will be and when the not-so-good times will come. I call it the "Fun Curve":

Click image to embiggen.
It is divided into five stages, with an angry red box in the middle where pilots are made and sorted out from regular people. These stages are:

1. New maneuvers: Everything is brand new and it is amazing. You have no idea what you're doing, but who cares? Just being in the air is as fun as can be, and there's plenty of time to get good at all this stuff later!

2. Pre-solo: There's the first sharp dip in the Fun Curve. You're testing out 50 different ways not to land an airplane, and halfway through you start to wonder if you'll ever get it right. That's when you enter the red box. Those with persistence will be rewarded with even less fun, as flying around in circles around the pattern time after time after time gets wearisome. Just as it gets so close to the bottom as to try even a saint's patience, you get that first solo and things are way more fun again! Those without persistence drop out before that unforgettable day.

3. Post-solo / Cross-country: You've shown you can fly all by yourself, and now you can go out into the practice area and practice what you want, when you want, for as long as you want, without some constant chattering in your ear coming from the right seat. After that, cross country flights take a lot of planning, but they're fun because you're going places you've never been. That's great until it's time for...

4. Checkride preparation: The second sharp dip in the Fun Curve, and the second most common place where non-pilots fall by the wayside. You've spent all that time practicing on your own, thinking you were doing pretty well, and now the right seat is filled with an irritating yipping instructor again. You do the same things over and over again—again. When you're not flying, you're studying for the oral portion. When you're not studying for the oral, you're wondering if you'll pass the flight portion. If you stick with it, eventually you end up getting that second big instructor signoff: the practical test endorsement. You pass and end up as a...

5. Licensed pilot: This is where the one line splits into two.

The green line represents those who continue to learn and master the art of flying. With most things in life, the better you are at something, the more you enjoy it. The more you enjoy it, the better you get at it, so this line goes slowly but steadily upward.

The red line represents those who (in what is an unfortunately common trajectory) stop improving their skills after they pass. Eventually they've seen all their buddies' houses from the air and eaten all the $100 hamburgers they wanted. After that, flying gets dull for them, and they often stop flying altogether.

For the second group, there are two pieces of good news. First, it's often possible to become one of the green liners by deciding to pursue an instrument rating or a tailwheel endorsement or a seaplane rating or doing any of dozens of things that bring the spark of newness back into flying. Second, even if you do drop out for years, after you have your license it's good forever. All you have to do is get with an instructor, brush off the rust, and get back in the air.

The two main things to take from this curve are:

First, if you're at a point in your training that you're starting to doubt whether you'll ever make it (or perhaps you've already dropped out because you thought you where the only one to ever have trouble learning to land an airplane), you can see that you're going through the same thing the other 600,000+ pilots in the United States went through, too. If they could make it, then so can you.

Second, you can see that the curve shoots up sharply after the low points. That's my way of saying, "It may suck right now, but once you get through it, it's fun again. Trust me."

Just like anything involving human behavior and psychology, this curve will not be identical for everyone. However, I've seen this pattern so many times in so many students that it probably won't be too far off for you. If you'd like to share your own experience, leave a comment below.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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