Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Sound familiar?

I’ve been having a few conversations with various people recently about similar topics, namely the unique place that is “the Flight School”

Now Flight Schools come in many shapes and sizes. There are the ones that are more like flying clubs, where you can always find someone hanging around to talk to about planes and flying in general. There’s always someone willing to impart advice, offer sympathy or just regale you with a tall tale.

Then there are others which are run more like professional colleges. Everyone is wearing pristine white shirts (seriously, how do they keep them that way?) and the only way you can tell the student from the instructor is by the number of bars on the shoulders. Everyone is very serious and progress is measured strictly by the book.

Then there are others that, just kind of ….. exist. There are planes, there are people and somehow the two of these combine to provide lessons, charters and pleasure flights. There is a system, of sorts, and if you hang around long enough you may even figure it out.

Either way, the point I was trying to make to various people is that to the outsider these places, no matter how they are set up, are incredibly intimidating to the outsider. In my opinion one of the biggest hurdles in promoting General Aviation is getting people through that front door in the first place. Then you can worry about keeping them.

Any of the above types of flying school are intimidating to outsider in their own unique ways. Now I’m not exactly a shrinking violet here, bolshie might be a better word to describe me. Years of exposure to certain workplace environments means that I am more than capable of looking after myself and yet, even pushy me had a hard time at the start.

I have distinct memories (at the very start of my training) of standing at the desk, not being able to figure out who was actually on dispatch, who was an instructor waiting for a student (some of them get a bit tetchy when you start asking them dispatch type questions, for various reasons) or wondering if I was simply being ignored. I must have stood there for about 20 minutes before someone took pity on me. I was seriously close to walking out and never coming back again.

It seriously felt like trying to break into the Old Boys’ Network all over again. Everyone seems to know each other and what is going on and you are left floundering in the dark. Not a pleasant feeling at all.

Now of course I don’t let it bother me, I’ve moved beyond caring if I offend someone and if no one at the desk is paying attention to me at the start, well I’m loud enough that they will, eventually! I’ll happily disappear behind the desk to take a look at the booking sheets myself so that I can figure out if my plane is on the ground and I’m, not beyond chucking someone off the computer if I need to pull some weather info.

I manage this because I have the force of personality to do so and the life experience to not really care what other people think. But even then, it took me a while. I had a discussion with RTH the other day about how the average person on an intro flight views the entire experience. He thinks I’m over-exaggerating but take a read of the following scenario and tell me what you think….

You head down to the airport for your very first intro flight, maybe it was a gift or maybe it is something you’ve always wanted to do and you’ve only just found out that there is a flight school right on your doorstep, I mean flight schools don’t really advertise much do they.

You arrive early because you left plenty of time to get here, it’s a good job because the instructions on how to get here were a little hazy and you weren’t actually sure if the general public were actually allowed into this building. It doesn’t look like any airport you’ve ever experienced before.

Eventually you navigate your way through the labyrinthine corridors and find a cacophony of people coming and going. They all seem to know what they are doing. You stand at the desk bemused and bewildered at the whirlwind of activity.

The phone rings and someone emerges from the sea of people to answer it. Once they are done with the call they seem to finally notice you standing there.

You give them your name and they check a massive chart in front of them; “Oh yeah, you’re with Bill. He’s not down yet.”

They turn away to deal with yet another phone call, yet another customer. You step away from the desk as someone leans over to mark something off on the giant chart and you notice a couch shoved in the corner of the room. You sit and wait.

You listen to the chat around you, talk of stalls and spins and forced landings. Instructors quizzing students, students using words and descriptions you’ve never come across before. In the background a radio seems to be tuned to the ATC tower, you can barely follow the rapidly barked conversations. You wonder how many years it’ll be before you sound even close to that professional.

Eventually you and Bill are introduced to each other. If you are lucky you’ve been paired with a good instructor, one who understands how to make it manageable and fun. One who is doing this for fun. One who has the time to spend with you.  Of course though, you didn’t have much choice over this, whoever took your initial inquiry paired you based on whoever was available, or whoever they owed a favour to, or whatever criteria they were applying at the time.

You have the flight. It is the singular most awesome experience of your life. It was incredible, indescribable, life changing. Bill wishes you well and tells you to contact the school when you are ready for your next flight.

You go home and bore friends, family and colleagues silly with your stories about just how incredible it was. But many of them don’t really “get it”. They think flying is dangerous (it isn’t) and expensive (it is!) or not as complex as you made out (they’re right, it’s more!) And you can’t shake that feeling that somehow you really didn’t belong in that school. With all the knowledgeable people buzzing around.

It wasn’t really for you. You, well you didn’t exactly fit in did you? You leave it a few days and go back to work, your life and the initial excitement slowly fades. More and more all you remember is feeling… uncomfortable at the school.

You never get round to making that second phone call and no one ever follows up to see why.
General Aviation has just lost another potential pilot.

Exaggerating, or all too familiar?

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