First week of October 1998


Can another word be used in place of student when referring to people who are learning to fly? I think that when used in the conventional flight training context, the term is confusing, if not demeaning. To most people, the term student conjures the image of a young person who is still somewhat inexperienced and naive.

Some of the people I have trained have been youngsters, but for the most part they have been adults. Looking straight to the bottom line, flight training requires a person to have a level of disposable income that results from success in their particular field of employment. People who complete their flight training exhibit a focus and determination that is well- matured. At the airport, these people are students, but through their years, they have already mastered many lessons.

I have taught people who get their hands dirty, and people who keep their hands soft and clean. The common denominator has been the fact that they were successful at what they have done, and there are more things that they still want to learn about. Mechanics and machinists, doctors and engineers, and self- employed entrepreneurs have all come to learn to fly.

The point was brought to me again last week when a student called and said he would be late because he had an emergency come up. When he arrived, he apologized, and explained that he had been called to the hospital to reassemble the upper front teeth of an accident victim. It was simple, he explained, because a single blow had moved everything straight back. He corrected the problem with a few deft pushes with his thumbs.

I have spent hours with this fellow, trying to make him assert himself and take charge of the airplane, yet in his own profession, he makes a routine of procedures such as that. I have trouble calling that person a student. Yes, he is unfamiliar with the ways that an airplane flies, but he is no stranger to risks and responsibility.

As another example, I flew many hours with a fellow who was in the area on a temporary contract last summer. In the course of small talk, I asked what business had brought him to this area, and I never could understand his answer. I had so little understanding of his whole industry that I might just as well been driving a turnip wagon as an airplane.

So what do we call these successful and motivated people who come to the airport to learn about flying? I don't ever recall hearing the expressions student skier, student golfer, student boater, or student motorcyclist. In almost every application of the word, a student is someone who is young and has not yet been out into the world.

Years ago, the student pilot certificate was, at least colloquially, referred to as a "solo license". The term solo pilot isn't the solution though, and neither is any word or combination that I can think of. Amateur, novice, or beginner are no more accurate than disciple.

Most people who come to my door at the airport have traveled a long and difficult road. I think that the business of aviation would be healthier if we called our newcomers something more than students. Any suggestions?

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