Learning to Fly

FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff
4 min readSep 5

By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Team Magazine

There’s no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation, a state of bliss
Can’t keep my mind from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I

Pink Floyd’s epic song “Learning to Fly” couldn’t have been released at a better time. I had just started my first few flying lessons when this entrancing tune made its way onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1987. The band’s guitarist and vocalist, David Gilmour, wrote most of the song, inspired no doubt by his foray into flying lessons in between studio sessions. While there are multiple interpretations of the song’s meaning (the prevailing notion that this was a nod to their first album without former band co-founder Roger Waters), I had a more literal take on it. To me, it was more simply an ode to the awe and beauty of flight, which inspired me to fly. And that motivation was important, given that my search for a good flight school was, well … anything but awesome.

Magazine cover.

My path to pilothood was riddled with challenges. First, there were airport proximity issues, with most of the flight schools in my area an hour or more drive away. This was compounded by my need to rely on family members to drive me to and from the airport until I was able to drive. You can probably imagine the difficulty of having lessons on back-to-back days. In addition to the logistical issues, I also had a heck of a time finding both a school and an instructor I felt comfortable with. My family didn’t have any aviation background or experience so I was really on my own at age 16 to figure it out. And being in the pre-internet Stone Age era required quite a bit of legwork to do the necessary research. Unfortunately, but quite predictably, I wound up bouncing around flight schools and instructors for a good chunk of my early training. I was a fish out of water and needed some help.

I finally got a tip from one of my high school shop teachers about a flight school he recommended and one I had not yet considered. The school was a stark change from everything I had encountered up to that point. Professional staff that made me feel welcome, an assortment of airplanes that were clean (inside and out), dedicated briefing areas, and a comfortable lounge with plenty of space to break out my sectionals and E6B to plan my flights. My initial flight instructor with the new school was great too, until I realized he was on track to get hired by a regional airline. But before I even had a chance to mumble “here we go again,” he introduced me to another instructor. At this point, though, I was starting to have doubts about continuing. I was probably somewhere north of 20 hours with no solo in sight. I was, as David Gilmour stated, “A soul in tension that’s learning to fly. Condition grounded, but determined to try.”

My new instructor picked up on this and got to work. With his help, along with the cassette player in my mom’s Hyundai Excel during some painfully long drives to the airport, I was soloing before I knew it. It was the shot of inspiration I needed to keep going. In the end, it took more logbook pages than I would have liked to use, but I stuck with it and got my private pilot certificate.

In my interactions with fellow pilots over the years, I’ve heard similar stories about the challenges they encountered during their early flight training. Unfortunately, many don’t always make it through. An AOPA study from 2011 found that 60% of those who earned a student pilot certificate never earned a higher pilot certificate.

These days, I make it a point to try and provide guidance to anyone I know who is pursuing a pilot certificate. The process can be overwhelming, even with all the resources now available. There’s also a host of reasons why a student might get hung up or discouraged during flight training, and feel like they’re on the “dark side of the moon.” Sharing some expert insight can go a long way towards helping a new pilot stay on track and earn their wings. I encourage you to do the same, or send them over to the FAA’s pilot portal at

Photo of the moon.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2023 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.



FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. Magazine that is part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).