Can you really learn a complex skill – like how to fly an airplane – in 20 hours? Recently, I talked to Jon Hart, who did just that. Here’s the interview…
JOSH: Hello everyone, this is Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast, and I have a special guest here with me today. His name is Jon Hart and he has been in the middle of a fascinating project. He’s been learning to learn how to fly an airplane. Hi Jon.
JON: Hey, how’s it going, Josh?
JOSH: I’m wonderful. You have been a pretty busy guy recently. Tell everybody what you’ve been up to.
JON: I have been. Yeah, it’s been pretty exciting. I’m working on getting my private pilot’s license. It’s kind of something that I’ve had on my list of things to do for probably a couple years, but definitely one of those things that never just got around to it, and then ultimately ran into a flight instructor, and figured, you know what, let me book it while I have a chance to, and I did. I did that in March.
JOSH: That’s great, and I was really excited to hear from you. I think we found each other through the book trailer for The First 20 Hours. Wasn’t that right?
JON: Yes, that’s right. I commented on it, and you saw my comment. Yeah, and I was really excited to hear from you, because you said, hey, I’m actually doing this. I’ve done it.
JOSH: So, I’ve got to ask the question straight out: how long did it take you to learn how to pilot an airplane?
JON: I went from knowing nothing to being in the cockpit flying this thing without an instructor in 16.2 hours.
JOSH: That is awesome. 16.2 hours.
JON: Right, and obviously, I didn’t have my license at 16.2 hours, but that was when I was fully capable of operating it.
JOSH: I love hearing stuff like that, because you know, as you might imagine, there are a lot of people out there who are very skeptical about the idea that you can learn how to do something complex quickly. Right like, you know, yeah you just, yeah you could do it but it takes a long time and you can’t do it in twenty hours. 16 and 1/2 hours to go from knowing nothing to your first solo flight is fantastic. So, let’s dig in a little bit and explore how you did that. So, let’s start off in the story of why did you wanna learn how to fly? What was the draw for you?
JON: I dunno. I think part of the draw was my dad has his private pilot’s license. He got it shortly after I went into collage. I’m twenty-eight now, so I went to college in 2003, so I was the last kid out of the house. I think he went and got it then just for a new hobby, so it peaked my interest then, thinking, oh that’s pretty cool that he has it.
But, ultimately I just thought, you know what, this is a cool time, it’s a cool project to work on, and it caught up, it’s easy to do a self-evaluation after a couple years, working a nine to five job, and say, hey how have I progressed as a person and things like that. So, I kind of looked at the list of things saying hey, what do I wanna do here, I wanna move forward here.
And flying was pretty high on that list, things kind of lined up with meeting the right instructor and having access to a plane. So I said let’s do it. I haven’t flown, I actually only flew with my dad probably two or three times since college.
JOSH: Oh, wow.
JON: I didn’t have much experience at all in the air, and had very little familiarity with a small, single engine airplane.
JOSH: Good. But awesome that you had access to the tools that would allow you to do that, right? Hard to fly an airplane if you don’t have an airplane available to fly.
JON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean it’s no shocker to anybody that flying isn’t exactly the cheapest hobby. So, it was one of those things too that I had saved up money and put it aside saying, great you know what, this is the perfect time. I know somebody that can help me. I have access to the right learning environment, and I have access to a plane and you know, I saved up the cash. So yeah, that’s kind of how it all came together.
JOSH: That’s great. Now, one of the things that most people think of when they think of learning how to fly an airplane is, isn’t that really dangerous? Like, going from knowing nothing to soloing in a little over sixteen hours, how in the world do you do that safely?
JON: Your instructor is hired to make that judgement call. I’m not gonna sit here and say I felt extremely safe on that first solo flight. I can imagine. You know, my progression kind of really changed. You’re totally overwhelmed right away. I had no idea what’s going on, most people have at least seen pictures of what the inside of an airplane looks like, with all the gauges and stuff like that.
It’s just like, it’s an overload, sensory-overload of all this stuff that you’re looking at and you realize I don’t know any of it. So, I think like, as far as the safety thing goes, you progress, and you’re kind of amazed at how much you pick up, just from like almost one hour to the next, you know, I even got sick on my first couple flights.
JON: I get some air sickness if normal commercial flights are really turbulent too, so that was something I was worried about. So, I hadn’t been feeling well after my first hour of flying I didn’t even know if I could move forward. But I thought, you know what, let me give it another try.
My second time up I felt a lot better. Third time and on I haven’t been sick since. That was probably my first win, to feel good that way. But yeah, then to just realize that, you know, I know how to control this. I’ve been taught all these different things. I know how to follow the check list going from one thing to another. So, although I may not feel extremely safe and I certainly have very little experience at 16.2 hours.
You know, if something bad were to happen, it’s not gonna all end perfect, I’m not saying I can just masterfully land this wherever I want. But I do have the resources to know that I can get on the ground safely. The plane may some damage here and there, but I’m not in any personal danger.
JOSH: Sure, and there are a couple of things I think are very important to underscore there. First is, just like many skills. So, you know, you learn how to do anything that involves some physical thing that involves you like not sitting in a chair. So, anything athletic, anything that requires you to go out into the world.
It carries a certain amount of risk. It always does.
And so, you know, taking care and thinking about those things at the beginning is super important. So for flying, it sounds like that’s a large part of the reason why you always work with an instructor. Just to make sure that they can keep you safe for things that you may not even think of.
And you know, it’s also interesting to hear you talk about those brutal first couple hours. That’s about as universal in experience and skill acquisition as we can find. The first couple hours of learning anything, you know, frustrating, disorienting, getting sick, I mean, all of those things are very common experiences.
JOSH: So let’s actually break down what you did with the instructor during those early hours of practice. And the first thing that we talk about in the first 20 hours, in terms of the method, is a target performance level. Deciding what it is exactly you’re trying to practice or what it is you’re trying to do.
So, when you started to learn how to fly, what was the target performance level there?
JON: Yeah, so, good question. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get your private pilot’s license.
JON: But my instructor really helped me break it down. Now obviously, we’re also following course materials and, you know, this is not something new. People have been doing this for a long time. So, we really had it broken down into three sections, and the first section, like you said, the performance goal was to fly solo, to get to the point where I could go up without an instructor and safely operate the airplane.
So that was broken down into a handful of things. First, just a general understanding of the airplane. Obviously, pre-flight materials and stuff like that. But other than that, it was more airplane maneuvers, obviously getting comfortable with the controls and stuff like that, reading the gauges and everything, understanding which gauges were really important and which are less important.
Emergency stuff. Flying is a lot of check lists. So, you have lists with you and you say, oh you know, my engine goes out, what do I do? What is my procedure? Oh, I have this checklist right here. Let me go through that. So, him getting me to the point of where my natural reaction wasn’t to freak out, but to say, hey wait, there’s a procedure for this, and I know what it is, or I know where to find it.
Takeoff and landings obviously very important. Take-off being very easy, something you can do on your first training and maybe even very proficiently after three or four. Landings, not so much. I remember him, the analogy he used with landings was, of flying, if you wanna compare it to driving, landing would be more like parallel parking.
Not something you’re gonna nail on the first time, but with practice you should get more and more comfortable and certainly, from one plane to the next, you definitely want some practice. You don’t want to get used to parallel parking a mini Cooper and then go to a 15-person van. Right. So, those types of things.
So, once I was able to get those things, those pieces all put together, that’s when he said to me. I knew it was coming. I knew it was coming soon. I just didn’t know when. And then we were up flying and he’s like, so, let’s land. I’m going to jump out and you’re going to do this solo.
JOSH: How did you feel at that point? Here’s the target perform level that you’re working towards, and you have about sixteen hours in the cockpit, how did you feel at that point?
JON: Yeah, so I had Googled it, on how long it took people to solo. And, I think that on the low end, I was seeing people that had done it in ten hours. It seemed that those people had familiarity with flying beforehand, and then I saw people that were 30 hours, maybe, on the higher end, so I knew it was looming.
I didn’t expect him to say that when he did. You know, I guess I just trusted his judgement. I trusted my capabilities. And, you know, it also happened to be my 28th birthday.
JOSH: Oh, that’s cool.
JON: So, I thought that’d be a pretty cool accomplishment to happen that day. As it turns out, it is definitely my most memorable birthday in years. So, I was overwhelmed. My heart rate definitely was much higher. So I said, alright, yeah, let’s do it. I’ll drop you off. And I did, and I went.
JOSH: How did it go?
JON: It went flawlessly. Actually, it’s funny how single-engine planes, there’s a lot with weight effects it a lot. So, even just removing my instructor who I’ll guess weighs two-hundred pounds, you know, that changed things a little bit and actually they were probably my best landings ever up to that point, so it felt great.
JOSH: That’s fantastic, congratulations.
JON: Yeah, thanks.
JOSH: Now one of the things we’ve been talking talking a lot about, working with an instructor, somebody who’s helping you deconstruct and helping, I imagine in the process of learning the basic maneuvers and take off and landing, you’re getting a lot of really quick feedback from the instructor that’s helping you make adjustments, right?
JON: Yeah, for sure. And you can tell it’s a struggle for instructors too to not be all over you. Yeah. They wanna make every tiny little correction for you but, mine’s been pretty well with, you know, letting me figure things out myself or try to figure them out at least. But, yes, they’re definitely, especially at the beginning.
You know, like I said, it was very procedure oriented. So, they’re making sure that you’re following everything and doing everything correctly. That’s great. So, you’re practicing in the cockpit with an instructor, training exactly what it is that’s going to lead you to your target performance level, right? It’s here are all the things that you need to know how to do to take off and land safely.
Exactly. And we would, before every lesson, we kind of had a syllabus. Before we’d even go up he’d say say, hey, this is what we’re gonna do today. We’re gonna takeoff, you know, we’re gonna head out to the west to a practice area, and we’re gonna work on flying straight and level or doing S-turns or turns around a point or things like that.
So, I knew kind of what to expect, and we went out kind of with an agenda, saying these are the things we’re gonna get down today, and then you’ll know how to do them, and if you wanna go up by yourself later and practice them, so you can become more proficient, you can do that. Fantastic. Now, what about the research or the learning.
JOSH: Were there things that you did outside of the cockpit that helped you learn enough about what you were doing to be able to correct yourself as as you’re flying?
JON: Yes. So, there was definitely some of what we called ground school necessary. I’d kind of say there’s two parts of flying. There’s the physical, practical flying, knowing how to maneuver the plane and work the controls and stuff like that. And then obviously there’s the academic side, learning how, learning more about it.
You know, you don’t just want to just know how to do things, it’s better to know why they happen and how ultimately how all the systems work. I’d say a big, probably the most obvious thing, is if anyone were to go out and do this, the most obvious thing is a radio work. Right. I need to know how to communicate. I’m in Redding, Pennsylvania, so we have a controlled tower.
So, the first thing you realize you don’t know anything about it is how to communicate with the ground control, the tower control, approach, departure. So, that was definitely on the academic side where I was putting in time just trying to learn that general knowledge. And then there’s definitely some that related more to flying as well on the systems and stuff, but it kind of broke down the middle, saying one’s just for general academic knowledge and one’s for actual practical reason.
JOSH: Yeah, so of all of the time that you spent researching for practical reasons, so not for the long goal of getting your private pilot’s license, but the learning that helped you complete your first solo flight. About how long was that?
JON: Yeah, so I have that documented down as about 8 hours of ground school that got me to solo.
JOSH: That’s fantastic so, just a little over, that would be what, twenty-four hours? Right. Yeah, and all research, all practice.
JOSH: Fantastic, that’s great. So, what are you working on now, now that you’ve done your first solo flight, what’s the next step?
JON: Yeah, actually, so I have some notes here, I’ll just kind of go over them about where my feelings were at the different levels, which kind of leads up to where I am now.
As you mentioned, the first couple hours were exciting because I wanted to get this done and, you know, one of the reasons to get something like this done is, one, to have the skill, but also because it’s cool. I mean other people think it’s cool too. My friends, they’re excited that I’m going to be a pilot.
And it’s a little bit of bragging rights. Hours three to six I have labeled as pretty discouraging, realizing how much I don’t know, and how much this wasn’t gonna be a quick one-weekend thing, I actually had to put in the time. I have it labeled as hours seven to ten. That’s when I really started to put things together, when not everything seemed new.
Some things seemed repetitive, and I was like, oh, okay, so now I’m actually just refining some stuff rather than just being bombarded by all this new theory or new things to practice. Ten to thirteen hours? That was when I started to realize solo was coming, so I was really working on stuff to make sure I was proficient enough so that I would, not just the instructor would believe that I could do it, but that I was comfortable that I could do it, too.
Thirteen to sixteen? That’s when I felt like, hey, I’m ready to do this as soon as he gives me the go ahead, which he did at sixteen. I had a little bit, I’d keep the excitement there a little bit, because then I moved on to phase 2, which was much more about navigation and weather, a lot more solo time and trying to figure out how to get from one place to another, because that whole first segment is all done pretty much locally within, you know, ten-twenty miles of your home airport.
Sure. To do the maneuvers and just to go through the traffic patterns and stuff like that. So, that second segment was all about actually being able to go somewhere, learning how to do flight preparation and how to figure out where I’m going using some GPS and some other, there’s a system called a VOR system on your plane that does radio signals to figure out the directions you’re pointed in and where you’re heading.
So, I pretty much had all the maneuvering and stuff like that under my belt. That second segment was all about actually being able to go somewhere. So, I actually completed that now. Oh, that’s great! I went from, you know, sixteen hours, now I’m about thirty-two hours I have done. I would say right now I’m really confident.
I’ve soloed, I don’t know how many times I’ve soloed now. I would say probably ten times, eight or ten. My heart rate doesn’t go up any more. I’m really comfortable. I don’t second guess myself as much as I did on those early solos where I was re-reading my checklist 30 times to make sure I wasn’t forgetting something important.
I feel really good. And actually I did something really cool yesterday. Like I said, I’m in Reading, Pennsylvania. We’re about, if you were to drive with no traffic through Philly straight to the Jersey Shore, it’s about 2 hours and 15 minutes. With traffic, and with Atlantic City express way traffic, it’s closer to three hours.
I actually flew to Ocean City, New Jersey for lunch yesterday. Had lunch, it took about fifty-five minutes to fly there, and then flew back here. That’s really cool. Yeah, so it was probably the first time that I did something that. Now, obviously it’s not inexpensive to fly somewhere, fly an hour somewhere to get lunch.
Sure. But it was the first kind of a practical thing that I did thinking, hey it would be really cool. Now, my friends that live in Jersey, I can meet them at the beach and make it a day trip instead of knowing I’m gonna have to drive on two separate days or something like that. So, yeah, that’s where I’m at now it’s exciting.
I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m starting to get a little nervous about passing. There’s three tests. There’s a writen, a practical, and a verbal. So, I’m preparing for my written, I should take that in the next two weeks, and then everything else to follow. So yeah, the light at the end of the tunnel should be done within the next month.
JOSH: That’s really fantastic, and one of the things that I wanna bring our listeners’ attention to here is, you know, the ability to use this method to get better and better and better. Right? So, it’s not like you just stopped after the first solo flight in 16 hours. That got you to a certain point.
But then you just do it again, right? So, you learn the visual flight rules. You learn the radio. You learn the weather. That allowed you to do even more cool things like cross-country flights.
JON: Yeah definitely.
JOSH: So, this is such a fantastic example of how to use this process of rapid skill acquisition to accomplish something that appears to be, at first glance, very scary and complex and sometimes dangerous, but breaking it down and practicing it in a smart way. And getting this really cool result that you were working for.
JON: Yeah for sure, and it’s been encouraging to me. Like I said, I was in a little bit of a rut, looking for something to do to help develop myself. So, obviously it’s done that. I feel great about it. I’m way more accomplished. It’s an accomplishment that I have for life now.
I don’t have to do it again, which is really cool to think that I’m just kind of investing in my future that way, but you know, it kind of opened up my eyes too, and this will probably go well with your book, to the idea of, you know, I found the time to do this. What’s next? There’s no reason to stop spending time on this and go back to watching TV or something like that.
Sure. Hey, let’s keep on working on things. I even think of it sometimes as, I work for a software company. So, I’m not sure being a pilot is going to help me on my resume a lot from there. But I thought about it that way too, you know. Hey, that’s kind of a cool resume builder. It’s not a qualification that a lot of people have.
I’d definitely throw it on there. Those types of things. So, it’s been encouraging for me from that aspect to say, hey, when I’m done with this, I’m gonna move forward. And that’s probably one of the main reasons I commented on your video I saw on YouTube was, when I realized this book was coming out, I’m like, man, that really strikes a chord with me, because I just literally did something just like that.
So I’ll be curious to read about, you know, other examples, or other people doing things and figuring out what I want to do next.
JOSH: I’m curious, what’s on your list? What are you thinking about exploring?
JON: Yeah, so not anything, I don’t have anything quite is cool, probably from a certification level, as flying. But there’s definitely some other things I have my eye on. It’s dead summer, so it’s not time for skiing is something I’d like to do. So, I actually think I’m gonna do that this winter, try to learn how to ski.
Now that I’ve had the kind of at least instruction knowledge, I have read the first couple chapters in your book already. Between going through that and going through the way I’ve learned how to fly, I think I’m definitely gonna try documenting something like learning how to ski to see if it kind of follows the same path.
I assume it will but I can definitely see something like that being extremely frustrating for the first couple hours, just falling over and over and over again, maybe beyond frustrating, just straight up painful. But I think having done this other stuff beforehand, it’ll be easier for me to push through, to say, hey you know, yeah, today you paid fifty bucks to get a lift ticket, so you could fall all day, but in two weeks, you’re gonna be going down the hill and it’s definitely gonna be worth it.
So, I have that that I’d like to do, and then there’s definitely some languages. I took Spanish and stuff in high school, but definitely couldn’t speak Spanish with somebody now. So, things like that that I’m kind of leaning towards taking some lessons or finding some instructors that can help me out with that stuff.
JOSH: Very cool, well thank you so much for taking the time today to share your story about learning how to do something really, really cool and sharing exactly what that looks like. Because, you know, I think one of the biggest barriers, aside from people being intimidated and frustrated of those first couple hours of practice is just thinking that they’re not really capable of doing this stuff.
So, thank you very much, Jon, for taking the time to share your story, and help everybody understand that they too can decide to do something really cool and get really great results in a very short period of time.
JON: Yeah, sure thing. It’s been a pleasure. And good luck to everybody listening trying to accomplish something cool.
It’s definitely worth your time and effort it will feel really rewarding, so good luck.
JOSH: Thanks, Jon.
Jon would like to thank his flight instructor, Brian Stolzfus, for helping him learn how to fly.
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A practitioner's guide to rapid skill acquisition. Accelerate your learning by deconstructing complex skills, practicing the most important elements first, and removing barriers to deliberate practice. What do you want to learn? More...