Tips for teaching the older learner


One of the greatest joys as a flight instructor is working with someone who has wanted to fly their whole life and finally has the time and resources to make that dream come true. Quite often these learners are in their 50s or older, often retired or nearing retirement when they start on the path to pilot certification.

One of the first questions they often ask is, “Am I too old to learn to fly?” This is the part where the FAR / AIM is taken out and we go over the requirements for a private pilot certificate. There is no maximum age, I say. Then we discuss the third class medical certificate. If the learner has any problems there, we discuss a qualification as a sports pilot or glider. If they are healthy enough to obtain a third-class medical certificate, nothing prevents them from pursuing a private pilot’s license.

Work with “older” clients

“Older” is a relative term. (Once upon a time, 40 years was old, nowadays not so much.) I prefer the term “person with significant life experience”. The term “student” has been replaced by the term “learner” in the most recent edition of the Aviation instructor’s manual. This change was prompted by the fact that many people who learn to fly are past the traditional school age and may take offense at the term “student”.

One of the highlights of my CFI career came on February 21, 2019, when Jack, who was 70, obtained his private pilot’s license.

With older learners it is helpful to find out what the learner does / has done for a living. It can help you create metaphors to explain things. For example, you could tell a vet that keeping track of instruments during an IFR flight is like looking at a box of kittens: you can’t focus on one of them because you will lose track of the kittens. others.

All learners have some teaching experience. Maybe they taught a younger brother how to tie his shoes, trained a new employee on the job, or maybe even coached a sports team. After demonstrating a maneuver or explaining a system or concept, ask them to teach you it. This will give them a better understanding of the material and greater confidence. Learners who are parents really shine here. After all, if parents weren’t teachers, generations would be cut short crossing the street.

When learning takes place, the human race survives.

Sometimes the research most older learners do before their lessons can be challenging. Courtesy of Adobe Stock

Manage expectations

Most older learners do research before attending flight school. Some of these are correct, some are not, and it can lead to crazy expectations, such as the learner who thought he would go solo on a weekend, then take a plane alone for a weekend. flight school to visit relatives in three states.

It is very important to manage these expectations. Be sure to use a schedule so learners know what they are going to learn and the order in which it will be applied. Explain your role and — here’s the key — what they’re supposed to do. For example, readings and studies will be awarded. Identify the objective of each lesson and how it will be achieved. Emphasize the need to be flexible in the face of inclement weather or equipment malfunctions, and always have a “plan B”.

You will likely find that older learners are more inclined to study than younger ones because they have a lifetime of experience and understand that if they prepare for a lesson, they will get the most out of it. The downside is that the knowledge part of learning to fly can be overwhelming. There is a lot of memorization, and it can be overwhelming at first. It can be very threatening for someone who is successful in their chosen career.

Pro tip: present the knowledge part of the training expressed in the learning levels: by rote, comprehension, correlation and application. Assure them that everyone starts with heart and that the real learning takes place from there. Quizzes and tests given in school on the ground are designed to find weak points in the knowledge of the learner. A good CFI will take these weak points and refine the lessons so that the learning takes place.

Consistency, Repetition and Patience

Consistency is the key. For best results, develop a training plan that allows for a flight at least twice a week. Be sure to identify the purpose of each flight as well as the standards for completion.

As we age, it can sometimes be difficult to learn and retain new skills. Repetition is essential here. Some people say it’s the ‘old dog, new stuff’ mindset, while others suggest it’s because you already have so much information in your head that it can be difficult to understand. add more. Learning takes time, and both the learner and the CFI need to be patient.

Older learners who are accomplished in their working lives sometimes expect this level of achievement to translate into piloting skills. If that doesn’t happen, they can get frustrated. This is when you need to remind them that everything from a golf swing to flipping pancakes to landing an airplane has a learning curve.

Expect challenges and rewards.

Most instructors will end up meeting a learner who, despite a logbook full of hours, does not have the ability to stay in front of the plane. They may have received the wrong information from a previous instructor (ie, “My other instructor told me not to touch the rudder pedals.”) Or, worse yet, their performance may be erratic. Some days they fly well, others less. They can quickly become overloaded with tasks. Have a gentle but firm conversation with the learner, let them know your concerns, and if necessary, suggest a change of instructor because it doesn’t work for you.

Sometimes dreams of getting a private pilot’s license are out of reach for health reasons. Chronic conditions such as diabetes or a drug they are taking exclude them from a medical certificate. Be frank with these clients – explain the medical requirements for the certificate they are requesting before they have invested a lot of money in the flight. Recognize that sport pilot or gliding may be an option, or if they really just want to get some fresh air, they may hire you to act as a safety pilot. For some people who really like to fly, that’s all they need.

This can be the best part of the job.

It is extremely rewarding to see an older learner succeed. One of the highlights of my CFI career came on February 21, 2019, when Jack, who was 70, obtained his private pilot’s license.

Jack began flight training in 1982. He was a career man in the Navy. He worked as an Air Interception Controller, later as an Air Interception Controller Supervisor, and finally Top Gun. Basically it was ATC for pilots operating from aircraft carriers. Jack’s job was to teach people how to control an airplane, and although he loved it, he knew he wanted to be in the cockpit. Jack retired from the Navy in 1986 – he quit flying in part because he met Barbara, whom he called “Babe”. She was the love of his life. They got married and Jack accepted a job as a correctional officer. They were together until 2013 when cancer took her away from him.

Jack returned to aviation in October 2015 — flying helped fill the void created by the loss of Babe.

I met Jack in the winter of 2016. He was an airport bum, hanging out at the FBO and trying to complete his private pilot’s license. CFI’s revenue was a big problem. He gets carried away, flies several times a week, then his CFI leaves for the airlines or another pilot job. He would have to start all over with a new CFI. Sometimes CFI suited him well and he learned a lot. Other times, not a lot. He was often frustrated and stood in his own way.

At first, Jack wasn’t a huge fan of me. Even though I only reached his shoulder, he found me intimidating. (Full disclosure: When you wear a leather jacket and have a reputation for using bladed weapons, it can be off-putting – my learners describe me as a mix of Obi-wan Kenobi, Captain Janeway, and Xena: Warrior Princess.) Then one day I helped him with a weather briefing. This led to answering a few questions about planning cross-country flights. I showed him how to make a sectional ruler ready to be hijacked by cutting notches in a pen in 10 nautical mile increments. Reluctant respect developed and I became his instructor.

I admired his tenacity. His attention to detail. When he did something right, I let him know. When he did something wrong, I made the learning happen. To help him remember things, we developed mnemonic devices he could relate to, such as Fat Magenta, the Easy which cost $ 700 (Echo-class airspace as represented by a large magenta line begins at 700 feet AGL). When he was frustrated or depressed, I would ask him in the voice of my authoritative instructor:

“Do I need to come over there? ”


In 2018, Jack purchased a Cessna Skyhawk. He completed his training in the Skyhawk which he named “Babe” in honor of his late wife. He has a photograph of her mounted on the panel.

On February 21, 2019, Jack completed his checkride and, in his own words, “at the age of 75, a month and a day” received his private pilot certificate. He had a total of 285.7 hours logged when he went for the tour. Today he has 367 hours of total time and that number continues to grow.


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