Starting flight training later in life: some tips for success

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As we get older, most of us get worse at being a student—no matter what the subject. The first 20 years of life are filled with classes, tests, and homework, so we’re used to absorbing new information and occasionally stumbling on our path to mastery. The typical 45-65 year old, on the other hand, likely hasn’t been in a formal educational setting in a long time. It can feel uncomfortable or even embarrassing to make a mistake or confess, “I don’t know.” After all, you’re used to being the expert.

This difference in mindset has been reinforced for me recently, as I’ve become a student again, this time of music. After years of thinking about it, I finally took up the violin. Much like flying, this process has been exciting, challenging, occasionally frustrating, but mostly very satisfying. I’ve kept a learning journal (a trick I learned from flight training, of course), and in reviewing this, I noticed some lessons that apply to any later-in-life student.

So if you’re considering learning to fly after your 40th birthday (or your 60th—you really aren’t too old to start), remember these tips. 

CFI
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how dumb it might sound.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re a successful engineer, doctor, or teacher, you are used to knowing the answers and leading the discussion. This might make you nervous about asking questions of your instructor, especially if they are younger than you (which is often the case in aviation). Ignore those nerves and ask away, even if you think you’ll sound stupid. 

This is easier said than done, but I found it helpful to tell my violin teacher up front: “I’m going to ask a ton of questions, some of which may sound ridiculous; I hope you’ll appreciate my willingness to learn.” This set the tone early and has yielded great results. Most instructors love a curious student.

So if you’re wondering what the heck a magneto is or why there’s no Class F airspace, don’t hold back. Don’t assume it doesn’t matter. Don’t assume every other student pilot knows these topics better than you do. Have the curiosity of a first grader, and keep asking questions.

Don’t get frustrated. Learning to fly isn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be—that’s why it’s so rewarding when you earn that certificate. Acknowledge up front that you will have both good and bad days during training, and don’t beat yourself up after every mistake. I like to take a two week moving average of my performance, which prevents me from getting too high after a great lesson or too low after a really bad one.

If you feel like you’re in a rut, and that two week moving average isn’t good, by all means talk to your instructor. Don’t be afraid to mix things up if the current plan isn’t working, but don’t expect perfection. You may be used to success, but one of the great lessons of flight training is to remain humble and never get too comfortable. That’s not failure, that’s growth.

Invest in the instructor relationship. One-on-one learning depends on the student and instructor much more than the textbook or the technology. That doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with your CFI, but don’t be purely transactional. You should take a few moments to understand who they are as a person: what is their teaching style, their likes and dislikes, and their unique style? Do your part as the student to share your personality and your learning preferences. If you both understand each other and work on the learning process as a partnership, you’ll learn more, be more efficient, and have more fun.

Studying at computer
There are dozens of resources to help you learn in between lessons—use them.

Have a plan to always be studying or practicing. Here’s one I have learned time and time again with music, and it’s every bit as true for aviation. Your most important learning happens in between lessons, without an instructor there, so be diligent about carving out time for regular studying. Whether it’s watching videos online, reading the FAA textbooks, replaying your most recent flight with an app, or flying a simulator at home, you should try to do something aviation-related every 2-3 days. There are more options than ever before, so there’s no excuse for going weeks between aviation learning sessions, even if your formal flight lessons are canceled due to weather.

Learning to fly is really up to you as the student, and lessons are best viewed as periodic check-ins to fix mistakes and learn new skills. Self-directed learning like this takes commitment, so don’t wait for a time when nothing is going on to study; build it into your day-to-day life in a very intentional way. Get help from your spouse or friends if needed—this is a great way to have someone else keep you honest.

Remember why you’re doing it. If you’re learning to fly later in life, it’s probably because you want to have fun or achieve a lifelong dream, so stay focused on your ultimate goal. Sure, everyone has to pass the same FAA tests, but notice which parts you enjoy most and make sure you learn those skills. Is it about traveling to faraway places? Then make sure you’re really learning how to travel cross-country. Is it about fun flights in taildraggers to grass runways? Then don’t get too bogged down in the details of turbocharging systems and glass cockpits. You want to become a safe and confident pilot, but you also want to be ready for your unique mission after the checkride, whatever that might be. Communicate those goals to your flight instructor early on.

The differences in mindset between younger and older students don’t have to spell doom. In fact, there are some real advantages that come with maturity. Older adults are typically highly motivated and they often know themselves better, so they understand how to achieve their goals. They have other life experiences to draw on and more refined decision-making skills. Play to those strengths by customizing your training plan to fit your personality and by working smarter with your schedule. 

You can teach an old dog new tricks. We see it every month in our flight school, and there’s no reason you can’t join the club.

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Coming from an aviation family, John grew up in the back of small airplanes and learned to fly as a teenager. Ever since, he has been hooked on anything with wings and regularly flies a Citabria, a Pilatus PC-12 and a Robinson R44 helicopter. He is an ATP and also holds ratings for multiengine, seaplanes, gliders, and helicopters. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of Air Facts, John is a Vice President at Sporty’s Pilot Shop, responsible for new product development and marketing.

16 COMMENTS

  1. As a 59 yo fledgling, sometimes student pilot, I appreciate the encouragement in your article!

  2. John, I became a flight instructor when I turned 61. You are spot on with your observations on older students. I have had many of them and currently have at least three. The advantage I have is that students in my age range would rather fly with someone of my age. Especially if they are flying a high performance aircraft such as bonanzas,cirrus,etc.

  3. Insulting and tone deaf article . The concluding phrase “ You can teach an old dog new tricks “ when previously referencing those in “45 to 65” age bracket indicates an age bias. Disappointing to see the narrow perspective in what is normally good content.

    • William, Those of us in that group are old dogs in so many ways. Thinking in terms of daily transactions and averaging experience over time, Everyone I have met in this peer group cannot turn on a dime as when 18. I can’t even imagine how age discrimination came into your head. Please calm down with the hurt feelings syndrom for all of our good.

    • William. Sorry you think so critically to someone trying to help us oldsters. I am 76 and have been flying for over 40 years. And yes, he is spot on as far as I am concerned. First thing to asking for help – is to realized that you need help. And yes, I am way beyond his 45-65 age group, but that is when I realized that “I was not 25 anymore”. Everything is harder.beginning at that age.

    • Hey William, pretty harsh. I started my primary training at 67 and earned my PPL at 69. I’m not insulted in the least and this very well-intentioned article would have been nicely supportive had I read it before my discovery flight. To John Zimmerman, this old dog appreciates your encouragement.

    • I agree with Vance, John, and Daniel in that I am not insulted by John Z’s approach in writing his article. I’m 72 and I have been flying for 51 years starting as an Army helicopter pilot. Although I achieved my add-on PPL ASEL rating to my Commercial Rotary-Wing rating in 1972, I have also added an Instrument rating to the fixed-wing side to match my helicopter Instrument rating in 1997. Other than the all dual instrument work, no solo flying was done until a few years later. My latest previous PIC experience was flying EMS and then helicopter tours in Hawaii in 2005-2006. Last year I had the coals burning to get back to flying and decided to buy a Grumman AA-5B Tiger. I coordinated with a knowledgeable Grumman Tiger owner CFI for both of us to ferry the airplane east and then commence the flight training and complete my BFR. I’m still dealing with sifting through 51 years of aviation experience and focusing on airplane procedures vice helicopter procedures. My CFI was not forgiving of my age nor was he less ardent reinforcing good traits from bad. Also, walking up and down wing walks are not as easy as it was in my 40’s.

  4. These are good basic tips. Another is talk to an AME. When I was a younger man I was told I couldn’t fly because I didn’t have correctable 20/20 vision, so I did other things in life but always dreamed of flying. It’s only now at 50 that someone suggested I try again, and have just completed ground school. I’m encouraged to know that it’s not too late, and there are others in my situation. I’d add 2 more tips:

    1. Network, network, network. Had I not talked to someone recently I’d still be an armchair pilot. Now that I’m back in the community (I worked on helicopters in my Army days), the more people I talk to, the more opinions I listen to, is the only way to not only ramp up quickly but also opens you to many different perspectives vs. just one CFI. I say this even something simple like what flight bag to buy, what headset to get, should I go through Part 61 vs. 141, etc. can be overwhelming at times. It is a true-ism in our regular professions, it’s even more true in flying. Even if due to COVID we can’t meet in person, there is a wealth of information on forums, reddit, and sites like this. Get immersed, and stay immersed.

    2. Talk to an AME, and if you don’t get the answer you want, talk to another. See my first reason for not flying much earlier. I didn’t even know there was something called BasicMed back in the day (probably because it didn’t exist), but sure do now. There are more opportunities to fly to day even if you don’t have 20/20 vision.

    3. Budget: flying isn’t cheap, even if you shop around for a flying club. Much better to have the funds up front to get through the ticket quickly than take 2 years to do it.

    Thanks @john wise for saying you are an older CFI. I’m going to keep going through my instrument rating and hope to make CFI some day too. Glad to have people like you show it can be done! 🙂

  5. After a lifetime in aircraft avionics maintenance, I ordered a Stemme S12 at the age of 69 in Oct 2015, starting my Private Pilot Glider rating in May 2016, getting my ticket that October. I took delivery of my S12 Jan 2018 but did a bunch of flying in other Stemme S10’s & 12’s between getting my ticket and getting my airplane. I did spend a ton of time with FAAST training, and various other training courses plus re-reading the Stemme POH 30+ times I think. You are never too old to learn especially today with all of the electronic training methods available.

  6. I am currently 70 and got my Light Sport certificate and Light Sport Repairman certificate when I was 62. I own a Flight Design CTLS. I do all the work on my plane and upgrades with the approval of the manufacturer. (I could work on other’s planes, but I am not seeking to create a business.)
    I have always been a learner and curious about things. (I have since learned to program in Python and created some electronic devices controlled by Python, I learned to 3D print, and am working on writing two fiction novels — which it turns out is as difficult and complex to learn as flying.)
    Yes, flying was a life long dream and more complex and involved than I expected. My instructor didn’t seem to appreciate the joke when I told him, “I didn’t want to learn all this stuff… I just wanted to learn to fly.” It wasn’t easy, but I don’t think that was because of my age… there are just a lot of things to learn and a lot of things to continue to learn but it is certainly doable if the desire is there.

  7. I found a CFI who had a detailed syllabus and highly structured system. I needed that structure in obtaining my PPL and instrument rating at age 68.

  8. When I first approached my instructor for flight training at age 58, he looked at me and said “you know, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – and he was 75 or so! I was amused and told him I could learn. When I successfully passed my private pilot check ride at age 59 with just over the minimum hours, he commented “that was quite an accomplishment, considering how old you are.” So I like to razz him back about his age and “old dogs” every time I run into him. I think he’s far more sensitive about being called old than I am!

  9. Relax William. I’m sure no insult or bias was intended. That’s a common phrase. I’m sure many people who have accumulated many birthdays such as myself feel like they’re too old to start or who don’t feel as though they learn and retain as well as when they were younger. I will now admit here that I’m one of those old dogs as I’m approaching my 67th birthday and, I don’t learn as well as I use to. Yes, I’m also a physician and am often hesitant to ask questions. Feel free
    to call me an old dog anytime you’d like as long as it’s in the proper tone and context. Fly well and be safe.

  10. I’m always learning…. started more than 40 years ago and I still buy every training program including all Sporty’s that have to do with my flying..
    If I stop learning I’m dead.

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