September 16th, 2009


women and flight training

Once a month or so I go out to lunch with some other women in my office. It's mostly engineers but we get the occasional person from finance, IT, marketing, and sometimes an admin. Anyway I told them that I'd just soloed and we talked about flying for a while... yeah, I know I don't need to be talking about flying any more, but it's amazing how as soon as you start flying everyone around you is a pilot.

Adrienne started training but quit because she was just afraid of it and felt it wasn't for her, she'd started mostly because her husband was a pilot and he wanted her to fly. Liz started but quit because she struggled a lot and her instructor basically talked her out of it. She'd never switched instructors. Patricia had finished at a young age and flown a lot, sometimes more sometimes less but always as a hobby. We talked at length about training and how tough it is and one interesting question came up... "Do you think flight training is set up in a way that works for women?"

I've spent at least a decade asking similar questions, because I'm a woman engineer trying to figure out why there are so few of us. Educators have been trying to focus on what motivates girls, with the idea that a motivated student will always learn better. If women are more socially conscious, care more about families and friends, they might not see how math and science help with that some day. Maybe they're not seeing the creative aspects. I've always HATED the statement "You have to learn math so you can balance your checkbook!". To me that's like saying you have to learn to read so you can fill out job applications or you have to learn art so you can roller-paint a room. There's more to life. But I digress.

In flight training, we're mostly adults and we mostly start out motivated. Wanting to be a pilot was never a problem for me. I almost always wanted to keep up with the training, even when I was incredibly frustrated by it.

None of us in this lunch group are "normal" women, we're all a minority in our field, and we're all products of educational systems made up of men. If you make it through four years of engineering school, you're bound to be conditioned somehow, because if you don't learn like the rest of them you're not going to learn. We even feel different when in other groups of women... I'm an alien in a room of elementary school teachers. We just don't communicate the same. I couldn't explain what it was. Patricia said the big difference is that she can say something to a man and he'll often just go with it, but if a woman doesn't understand she will make you explain it until she does. I experienced this early in engineering school, also. Men are more likely to jump in and try something, even if they don't totally understand it. When I started school and saw them all taking over the lab and plugging components into breadboards, I thought they were smarter than me. When nothing they built worked, I realized we were at about the same level; they just had the confidence to fake like they knew something. So I started faking like I knew something, and had about the same failure/success rates if not slightly better.

My biggest flight training issue was constantly wondering how I was doing. If anything got me through engineering school, it was the knowledge that I was generally beating the curve. If I failed a test, everyone probably failed the test. But in flight training there is no curve, it's just you and an instructor. And nobody talks about averages or failure. Once I failed my first progress check, reassuring stories came out of the woodwork, suddenly everybody had a story of failing a progress check. Once I took 45 or so hours to solo, suddenly all kinds of other people talked about taking about that long. Anyway, Adrienne speculated that men just don't care that much about whether they're beating the curve, they'll go ahead anyway because that's just how they are, so they don't ask these questions or care what's average. Thoughts?

We also talked about learning styles and instructor communication, mostly because Liz felt like her entire training program was way too unstructured and she's using the same syllabus I am. I mentioned that my instructor started sending me extra e-mails before flights with his interpretation of the procedures and his expectations. Apparently it's not like that with everyone. I just know there are a million things to read when you're learning to fly: your ground school books, your flight school's standards, the FAA's airplane flying manual, the FAR/AIM. Around lesson four my instructor realized that I'd be swimming in it and unable to function unless he broke it down for me before we were in the air.

But you all know I have a young, new instructor who might not feel like he can afford to lose a student, and might feel like he doesn't know the right way to teach anyone, so he was spent a lot of time early on fishing around to figure out how I learned. Get a guy who's been teaching for forty years and got 100 other pilots to pass a checkride, he might not want to bend his methods much for you. Unfortunately new instructors are tough to come by at big flight schools. People don't want to learn from the inexperienced. Anyone who wants to be flying full-time is probably looking for an airliner job. Anyone flying part-time is probably retired. Balancing a full-time job and instructing in your spare time is tough. My instructor has a full-time job, often spends 2-3 evenings a week with me and his pay is not fantastic.

Is flight training set up for women? Is any training set up for anyone? I have no grand conclusions. Every flight training website in the world already stresses the importance of student-instructor relationships, acknowledges that everyone's learning style is different, and has advice about how to switch up instructors. That advice applies equally to men and women and instructors are supposed to understand it too. I think that, until there are a lot more women learning to fly, that's about all we can say.