By : Chris Baker

I WAS WATCHING a newscast and happened to catch a segment where the reporter Ashleigh Banfield interviewed the owner of the Florida flight school where some September 11 hijackers trained. She even interviewed one of the hijacker’s instructors.

Later in the segment, Banfield tried to explain what kind of personality it takes to learn to fly, describing the demeanor or talents a potential student must have. She said that she had been told that some flight instructors unexpectedly toss a small item at a potential student to test his reflexes during an initial meeting together.

If the prospective student makes the catch, then supposedly he has the needed reflexes to learn to fly! I sure got a laugh out of that one.

Banfield proceeded to have her cameraman throw a small battery toward her, which she caught—although she admitted she missed the first two tosses off camera. I guess you won’t see her enrolling at any flight schools in the near future. First she has to master the battery toss.

Maybe this toss test is something some student-starved instructor somewhere devised so he could sign up almost anyone who walked through his flight school door. A dwindling bank account can cause a person to do some odd things. And if that test were truly a prerequisite for learning to fly, my friend Steve—who can’t catch a baseball if his life depended on it or put anything through any hoop— wouldn’t be the accomplished corporate pilot he is today.

Who among us hasn’t heard a salty, old instructor or a naive new one claim they could teach a monkey to fly? If only that were true, then maybe our civilian flight schools would have a new source of income instructing potential shuttle pilots for NASA.

But we all know that’s hardly the case. I’m not saying that hand-eye coordination isn’t important; I’m just saying that there are a number of characteristics that pilots —from students to ATPs—must have. I can assure you that I never signed off one student for a checkride or today share a cockpit with one pilot who doesn’t have the following five characteristics:


If you’re not motivated to learn to fly, don’t waste your money or time—or your instructor’s time. Without an objective or a reason for all the hard work involved, your training progress will be extremely slow—or nonexistent. It doesn’t matter if your goal is general (“1 want to challenge myself’) or specific (“I’m going to be an

airline pilot”), you must have motivation.

The worst student I ever taught was being financed by his father’s bank account and motivated only by his father’s wishes. That is indeed a motivation, but not a productive one!

You’ll need to carry positive motivation with you throughout your entire career, not just throughout your initial training. To get employed—and remain employed—as a pilot you must be constantly driven to stay up on hiring and industry trends, keep your skills sharp and pass endless company flight checks. Flying isn’t a career where you coast on your laurels.


Even the strongest motivation means nothing if you’re not teachable. Yes, people who aren’t teachable sign up for flight lessons—but they don’t last long. I don’t mean teachable in the sense of IQ points, although those can’t be deficient either. I mean teachable in the sense that you’re willing to take direction from your wise instructor and you can tolerate criticism. There’s no room on board the plane for your ego or machismo.

I once had a student who only progressed as far as being introduced to the pretlight checklist. He absolutely refused, for no good reason, to do the preflight in the order prescribed by our flight school’s logically ordered check-list. No one could change his mind on this point, not even the chief pilot or the owner of the flight school. If he refused to be taught something as simple as the preflight, I hate to think of what could have happened later in his training. Maybe a refusal to wait for a signoff before solo?

Your ability to take direction from wiser heads will be necessary throughout your whole career, including while attending airline ground schools or type-specific training programs. Also, any wise advice casually mentioned by your seasoned captain should be absorbed even after you’ve spent 5, 10 or 20 years in the business. It’s never too late to learn something new.


They say you can’t teach it, you just have it: good judgment. This is the most difficult of the characteristics to describe and something that is tough to teach. It’s a compilation of logic, caution, reason and self-preservation. You can perfect your own judgment by surrounding yourself with and emulating those who have good judgment.

It’s not that you’re not going to have lapses in judgment. You will; that’s called learning from your mistakes. But to put it in more concrete terms, a person with good judgment would say yes to emergency-maneuvers training and no to scud running. This same person would say yes to waiting out bad weather and no to taking off with inoperative instruments. YOU GET THE PICTURE.


This is an attribute that’s so essential—and so often overlooked, even by seasoned flight instructors. A student’s inability to master a concept is often misinterpreted by an instructor as his own inability to teach the concept well. Often the problem is the student’s lack of confidence in his own ability.

Confidence is the key to converting your bookwork to action in the air. It’s a prerequisite for making any progression during your training—especially for your first solo, your first solo cross-country and facing your checkride. IF YOU DON’T THINK YOU CAN DO IT, THEN YOU CAN’T.

The same applies when you’re interviewing for jobs, answering rapid-fire questions from a check airman or commanding an aircraft with a cabin full of passengers. You aren’t going to be the pilot-(kind of)-in-command. You’re in command. You’re all there is—and you can’t have any doubts about your ability.


There’s a lot required of us as pilots . It can be a somewhat-demanding hobby and an extremely demanding job . Some pilots aren’t as confident as others, some don’t have quite the same level of motivation as others and some are more teachable than others. In other words, we have the right stuff, but in varying degrees.

Knowing this, the truly good student or licensed pilot has the ability to compensate for areas in which he is weak.

For example, if weather isn’t your strong point, you’re probably great at chatting up briefers. I once met a multi-engine student who joined a gym so that engine-out procedures were no longer so hard on her leg muscles . One of my coworkers admits to freezing up during job interviews, but he knew where to find the best aviation interview coach, and he got the job. Almost every success story includes overcoming at least one hurdle—and usually many more than one.


Curious friends and passengers often ask me what it takes to learn to fly. Aside from the obvious answer of “a lot of dough,” I think I’ve covered some essential personality traits in the preceding five-point checklist . But, actually, now that I think about it, I realize that monkeys do have all of those attributes! But I still don’t think we should pass one of them the keys to a 152—even if they are our closest relatives.

OK, maybe I’m just a bit defensive because I’d like to think that my success as a pilot is due to more than just a few chromosomes and a load of training-induced credit card debt.

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