Why learning to fly can be good for your mental health
Air Facts Journal

Americans seem to be especially gloomy right now. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently released a book packed with worrying statistics about a “teen mental illness epidemic,” sparking a lively debate among academics, parents, and politicians. Lest you think this is only a problem for kids, the US Surgeon General has a recent report on adult loneliness that paints a similarly dark picture. For a less scientific but more vivid survey, you could just turn on cable news or open up TikTok.

It’s clear that something is happening, but the cause is up for debate: social media, Covid-19, intensive parenting, economic conditions, and even climate change have all been blamed. Any problem this complex almost certainly has multiple causes and multiple possible solutions, so we are well beyond the world of miracle cures and quick fixes. I have none of those to offer and I will not pretend to solve major societal problems with a blog post. But in reading some of the proposals above, I was struck by how becoming a pilot can provide many of the positive experiences these experts recommend.

Four key benefits

No, I’m not suggesting the federal government mandate flight training to make American teenagers happy, but consider some specific benefits from learning to fly.

1. Flying happens in the real world.

One of Haidt’s central points is that we micromanage teenagers’ physical worlds while largely ignoring their digital worlds, which is exactly backwards. We worry about strangers abducting our kids (which is extremely rare) but think nothing of giving a 10-year-old an Instagram account. The result is much less time spent with friends and much more time spent on social media—which inevitably leads to depression and anxiety. Haidt’s suggestion is more free play and in-person socializing, or as some extremely online people might write “touch grass.”

Flight instruction

Learning to fly means interacting with other people—in the real world.

Learning to fly is the ultimate “touch grass” experience. Sure, you can watch YouTube videos about airplanes and join social media groups to talk about flight training, but to actually earn a pilot certificate you must put the phone down and get in an airplane—with another person! It is not a simulated world with anonymous avatars and ever-changing algorithms, and that’s quite refreshing these days. The laws of physics remain unchanged since the days of the Wright brothers.

A related point is that flight training isn’t something you can fake; there are real checkrides and real consequences for not meeting standards. This is an increasingly rare experience for many young people who grew up playing immersive video games, with their extra lives and power-ups. In the airplane there are no cheat codes.

Speaking of cheating, it’s a depressingly common problem in schools these days, as a recent report showed: “In surveys this year of more than 40 U.S. high schools, some 60 to 70 percent of students said they had recently engaged in cheating.” That is a staggering number, but such a dishonest strategy won’t get you very far in aviation, since everyone takes the same tests and must meet the same FAA standards. Good luck cheating on the crosswind landing portion of your Private checkride, much less a type rating checkride.

Once again, this isn’t just a youth problem—lots of jobs these days can be done remotely with nothing more than a laptop. That’s great, but with constant access to Chat GPT and Microsoft Word’s undo button, it’s easy to get lazy. Flying will quickly remind you that such luxuries aren’t always available.

2. Flying teaches independence.

Because the stakes are high and the standards are unforgiving, piloting an airplane demands responsibility and maturity. I can clearly remember my first solo cross-country as a student pilot, at the tender age of 16, when it hit me that mom and dad were not coming to help me. The only way I was going to stay alive that day was for me—and only me—to get that beat-up old 172 back to the airport and make a good landing. After a moment of panic, I felt a much more satisfying emotion take over: independence. I wasn’t worried, because I knew I could do it, and that made me feel really good.

That’s a dramatically different learning environment from the one most kids live in today, where packed school and sports schedules make free play or exploration nearly impossible. Even if such an opportunity presented itself, it’s likely that helicopter parents would swoop in to make sure nobody ever experienced failure or injury. It would be hard to design a more effective system for preventing independence.

Psychology profession Peter Gray has written extensively about the importance of developing a sense of agency: “Research shows that people of all ages who have a strong internal locus of control (internal LOC), that is, a strong sense of being able to solve their own problems and take charge of their own lives, are much less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.” Learning to fly an airplane by yourself has to be one of the most effective ways to do this—your life is literally in your hands.

3. Flying is about community, not competition.

Learning to fly is certainly not the only activity that happens in the real world and teaches independence—music and sports would also fit—but aviation typically has a more collaborative, less cutthroat atmosphere. That’s important because competition seems to be a defining characteristic of modern life: kids are competing with each other to make the travel baseball team or get into the right college, while adults are trying to get that promotion at work or just keep up with the Joneses on social media.

flying club skycatcher

Flying clubs and airport events create a sense of community.

Flying, on the other hand, is not a competitive activity. We all pass the same tests to earn the same certificates, and if you become an airline pilot the pay is based on seniority, not the score on your Private Pilot Knowledge Test or the university you went to. A little light-hearted competition between friends about who can make the best short field landing is fine, but flying should never be a primarily competitive activity. There are no “select flying teams,” after all.

What should we focus on instead? The Surgeon General’s report stresses the importance of community, a group of people you can connect with and a place to feel welcome. That’s always been a strength of the aviation family, and an essential part of building an enjoyable flying career (whether that means $100 hamburgers or Boeing 787s). Some pilots like to tell me this was better “back in the good old days,” but I still see a very welcoming spirit every time I go to a pancake breakfast or talk to a stranger at Oshkosh. Mention you’re a pilot to a group of strangers at the airport and you are almost guaranteed to get a handshake and some friendly questions. None of those will concern politics, religion, or other nasty topics either.

When in doubt, close YouTube, turn off cable TV, and go meet a friend at the airport. You don’t even have to be a current pilot to take part in this.

4. Flying rewards focus.

One final modern trend that flight training can helpfully fight is the shortening of our attention spans, or what writer Ted Gioia has called “the rise of dopamine culture.” Technological progress seems to have forced media into shorter, more addictive formats: newspapers turned into blog posts and then tweets; two-hour vinyl albums turned into single digital downloads and then 10-second TikToks. Each “innovation” seems to make us feel worse, with the result that many adults admit their brains literally won’t let them sit still for half an hour to read a book.

Aviation is a strict teacher, though, and has no sympathy for our dopamine-addicted brains. It demands that we focus, often for hours at a time, whether it’s learning all the material to pass the test or monitoring the weather and engine on a long cross-country. Flying is a craft as much as it’s a skill, and no one masters it overnight.

Far from being boring, all this focus can be immensely rewarding, like the exhilaration you feel at the end of a long movie or concert that has sucked you in. Entrepreneur and writer Derek Sivers sums it up well in his book How to Live: “Pick one thing and spend the rest of your life getting deeper into it. Mastery is the best goal because the rich can’t buy it, the impatient can’t rush it, the privileged can’t inherit it, and nobody can steal it. You can only earn it through hard work. Mastery is the ultimate status.”

If it’s so good…

So why don’t more people, especially kids, learn to fly? That’s the subject for another article (or you can read one of the dozens we’ve already run on the topic). For all the handwringing about “kids these days,” it’s not a lack of interest: I see lots of enthusiastic kids when we fly Young Eagles every month at Sporty’s and airshows bring in kids by the thousands. Anecdotal evidence (talking to my 15-year old daughter’s friends) reveals that many teenagers are interested in learning to fly and they love watching YouTube videos of flying. Most aren’t scared of the work or the risk, and one kid in particular seemed close to signing up for lessons.

Youth soccer team

The competition for kids’ time is fierce, and they start early.

I’m not convinced money is the main problem either. Flying is definitely expensive, but have you seen the cost of travel baseball or select soccer? Between team fees, equipment, private lessons, and travel expenses, a family can easily spend $5000 per year, and $10,000 per year is not unheard of for elite teams (private equity is investing in youth sports, if that gives you a hint). All that money so Johnny can chase the 0.03% chance of being an NBA basketball player? That would buy a lot of flight training!

The bigger problem is priorities—the same forces making kids unhappy make learning to fly harder. The rat race starts early these days, so many kids are fully booked by age 14, when they might consider starting lessons. By the time they might solo an airplane, their lives belong to coaches and helicopter parents. They increasingly don’t belong to employers, since just 30% of teenagers have a job. No job means less money, but it also means the potential to be a line boy job at the local airport is gone, and with it the social connections from the informal network of pilots you meet there.

Our best bet is to appeal to those helicopter parents who are so worried about their kids’ future prospects. Fortunately, the headlines about airline hiring right now are as good as they’ve ever been. A 21-year-old has a much better chance of getting a job as a pilot than a pro athlete, and the pay isn’t as far off as it once was. The career also lasts longer than five years (the average for NBA and NFL players). Sorry about your dreams, dad, but aviation is a better bet.

More importantly, though, we should brag about the lasting impact becoming a pilot can have on a person. Whether you become a pro or just fly for fun, the mental health benefits of flight training are at least suggestive and possibly quite compelling. It can make you a more resilient person and a better decision maker, building that all-important internal locus of control. It can connect you to a community of like-minded people. And it can teach the discipline to engage deeply with big ideas.

As for your financial health after learning to fly… you get what you pay for.

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