During flight training, it’s natural to focus on the big hurdles: the medical, first solo, knowledge test and checkride. Those are certainly important, and they deserve your attention. But many student pilots get so focused on the training process that they never think about flying after the checkride is over. It’s sort of like building a house and being so focused on the plumbing and drywall that you never think about what your house will look like or how you’ll live in it.
That may sound crazy–after all, there are so many things to do with a pilot’s license–but I know of more than a few pilots who struggled to stay engaged in aviation after earning their license. After giving rides to a few friends and chasing a few $100 hamburgers, what comes next? Call it the hangover effect: once the strict syllabus and schedule of flight training are gone, it can be tough to fly regularly and keep improving your skills.
So how can you avoid this hangover? Every pilot is different, and the right answer for you depends on what you want out of aviation–fun, transportation, career or something else. But recent research by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) suggests three practical ways to keep flying after you cross the finish line. Each of these share something in common with flight training, which may explain why they’re effective.
Flying with a purpose
Spending an afternoon boring holes in the sky, or watching a sunset from 500 ft., are wonderful things, and every pilot should fly at least occasionally with no mission other than fun. But for many pilots, giving back or supporting a cause they believe in can make flying a much more rewarding and interesting experience. It’s a powerful motivator to stay current and active.
There are numerous organizations that pilots can support with their time. One of the best-known (and most rewarding) is EAA’s Young Eagles program, where local pilots give young people their first airplane ride. I’ve done many Young Eagles flight myself, and there really is nothing more fun than watching a kid’s eyes light up as they take to the air for the first time. You’re also helping to keep general aviation strong, by introducing the next generation to the wonders of personal flying.
Another popular option is flying patients from their homes to faraway cities to receive treatment, for free. In many cases, these flights truly are life-saving, as patients would otherwise not receive the required care. Patient Airlift Services (PALS) is a particularly well-run organization, although there are many others. Find one close to you and see if it’s a fit for your skills and your airplane. Note that most organizations have minimum pilot times you must comply with, but some are fairly low.
One of the main reasons people learn to fly is for the challenge of it–learning a new skill is a fun and rewarding experience. Most pilots I know are goal-oriented achievers, so the thought of checking a new box is very exciting. That doesn’t have to stop after you earn a Private Pilot certificate, though.
What are some new challenges you can take on? The obvious one is to add a new rating. Many pilots consider the Instrument Rating to be an even more rewarding challenge than the Private Pilot certificate, and its privileges allow you to make a lot more trips. Besides the Instrument Rating, other options include a tailwheel checkout (great for stick and rudder skills), a multi-engine rating (great for career-oriented pilots) or a glider rating (just plain fun).
Even if you don’t pursue a formal rating, checking out in a new airplane can offer good training and some fun new options. If you learned in a 172, log some time in a 182 or try a low wing airplane. It will make you a better pilot and is good motivation to keep flying.
Another great way to challenge yourself is to take a long trip, whether it’s a family vacation or a flight to Oshkosh for the big fly-in. Planning such trips is half the fun, as you learn to consider subjects like long distance weather, new terrain, and unfamiliar airports. The flying is good fun too, as you see new places and meet new people along the way. There’s almost no better feeling as a pilot than completing a big trip safely and successfully. After all, traveling to new places is probably one of the reasons you learned to fly!
AOPA research has identified what many pilots already know: flying is about much more than the time in the right seat. The social and community aspects of aviation are a critical part of a pilot’s life.
Whether it’s as a member of a formal flying club, a group of airport buddies or a family member who’s also a pilot, find a “support group” of other aviators. Flying with someone else is almost always more fun, but there’s also a lot to learn from these experiences. Some of my most educational flights weren’t dual logged with a CFI, but flights with a more experienced pilot.
Having someone else who’s interested in your flying is also a good motivator to stay active. Much like weight loss programs encourage you to find a training partner, a flying partner means someone else is depending on you to be there. Clubs offer the additional benefit of monthly meetings, educational seminars and structured social events. Even if the weather is bad, a club or informal flying group can make the airport a fun place to be.
Whatever you choose to do with your license, make it part of a deliberate plan. If you wait to fly until you’re free and the weather is perfect, it’s unlikely you’ll log many hours. With a little bit of structure or some new goals, you may find flying becomes an even more important part of your day-to-day life. That’s a good thing!