Letters on the pilot population

In addition to the hundreds of comments, we received some thoughtful letters to the editor about our recent Special Report. We’ve published a few of them below:

New owners to blame?

Richard,

I think this decline started in the early to late 70’s when both Piper and Cessna, and most of their distributors/dealers, essentially quit promoting “Learn to Fly” and left it up to organizations like AOPA and GAMA, and the university flight schools.

As I have pondered this over the years, and the dramatic drop in industry-wide units shipments since the early 80’s, I have come to a couple of conclusions and observations. The rapid drop in industry shipments after 1979-80 from about 17,000 units/year to 3000/year or less for several years thereafter, has usually been blamed on a “perfect storm” phenomenon including: runaway inflation, the first oil crisis, the rapid rise in product liability insurance costs, and the national recession. Thankfully, I was already at Beech/Raytheon at the time, as I knew many of our employees in PA and Vero Beach on a first-name basis and don’t think I could have handled it emotionally; but, at Piper, they went from 3 plants in PA, 2 in FL, and 1 in CA (recently acquired Aerostar) with approximately 6000 employees total, to less than 400 employees in VRB alone in less than 2-3 years. Declines at Beech and Cessna were dramatic as well, but somewhat mitigated in part due to military contracts and more high-end products than Piper had.

I have since concluded that there was another factor in all of this – the change in ownership of all of the then Big Three in GA – Cessna, Beech and Piper in the 1970’s. One of the first things the new owners at Piper did (in the late 70’s I think) was to eliminate all of our distributors and go to a factory-based/salaried employee sales management system with factory-direct dealers, in order to eliminate the 8% discount to distributors. Distributors had been getting a 28% discount and dealers 20%. (I think the new owners of Cessna and Beech made similar changes around that time as well.)

As a summer employee at Piper in the mid-60’s, I headed up a small group of other college students who did a study of Piper’s, Cessna’s & Beech’s national and international distribution systems. The thing that stood out the most to me was that Piper had about 50 domestic distributors and 500 dealers while Cessna had about 1000 domestic dealers (I forget how many distributors) and Beech had maybe 300 or so dealers. Interestingly, Cessna had about 50% of the market, and Piper and Beech about 40% combined. Typically, Cessna sold about twice as many units as Piper. I have since often wondered if it was as simple as that – Cessna had twice as many dealers as we did and consistently sold about twice as many units/year as Piper.

But, with regard to student starts and the numbers of new pilots, with the change of ownership at Piper, Cessna and Beech, came a much greater focus on the sales of high-ticket models – especially turboprops and jets. The piston singles were almost looked on as more trouble than they were worth, and their value from a “building the base” point of view was essentially ignored by corporate management. At Piper in the 60’s, we did several studies with regard to brand loyalty and trade-up sales related to student starts. The loyalty factor was consistently in the 80-90% range as long as you provided that option for owners looking for more speed, room, range, etc. In other words, if pilots learned to fly in a Piper or Cessna, they very strongly tended to buy the same brand as they went from small 4-place singles to complex and bigger singles, to twins, turboprops, etc. Obviously, Cessna with 1000 dealers (most with flight training) and Piper with 500, benefited the most from this phenomenon.

When the new owners at Piper decided to eliminate the distributors, they essentially gutted the force behind their entire sales network. Also, these and the subsequent owners of Piper were much more interested in marketing to the high-end buyers than they were in promoting learn-to-fly and low-end sales. I suspect this same philosophy change occurred at Cessna as well with their change of ownership. I’m not sure when Piper and Cessna and their dealers stopped widely promoting the $5 introductory flying lesson, but I would guess it was somewhere in the the late 70’s or early 80’s.

Bottom line to me, when the leaders in the industry are no longer focused on, or interested in, building the base by building and promoting the sales of entry-level aircraft and spending a significant portion of their national advertising dollars on learn-to-fly and the simple joys of flying, the results should be no surprise. They also, to my knowledge at least, no longer provide incentives to their dealers for promoting learn-to-fly on a local basis. Instead, they have essentially left that up to organizations like GAMA and AOPA. Those organizations don’t have those kinds of budgets no matter how interested they may be in promoting student starts and learn-to-fly, nor do their livelihoods depend directly upon it, as was the case for our distributors before they were fired.

Maybe it’s as simple as that.

Regards,

John Piper

 

10 reasons general aviation is weak

General aviation as we all knew and loved it in the past is, in southern California anyway, mostly a beloved memory. At one time, my airport (across the street from my office) had as many as five flight schools. Now flight schools are banned by the city. In the old days, you might be number 5 to take off and number 6 to land. Now, you’re all alone in the pattern.

Why?

  1. Thanks to DHS, airports are like forts, surrounded by fencing and anyone approaching is considered a potential terrorist.
  2. Cost. Why pay $6,000-$8,000 to learn to fly when you can buy a Microsoft Flight Simulator for $300? Kids today are more into watching screens than participating. Look at their test scores.
  3. No aviation heroes. Every record has been set. There are no aviation heroes left to idolize and aviation is not touted in schools as anything other than a nuisance.
  4. Fewer airports, fewer FBOs, fewer flight schools, increasing regulations, more TFRs (thanks to the current administration).
  5. Weak attempts by the FAA to encourage private flying by creating false pilots, that is, “recreational” pilots, “light sport pilots,” etc. who still must buy or rent underpowered, plastic airplanes that are slow, highly restricted and discouraged at tower-controlled airports. And they’re tremendously expensive for what you get.
  6. Military pilots usually don’t participate in general aviation either while in the service, or once they get out.
  7. The media has no idea what it takes to become a private pilot; they tend to center on “how dangerous” flying is, especially with “all those crashes” yet auto wrecks never get mentioned and there’s 100 times more of them. EAA chapters and AOPA could make an effort to reach the general public; not just 10 year olds with “Young Eagles” who mostly go for the one-time thrill.
  8. Flying is considered a privilege of the rich and not for the average person. Businesses don’t understand the value of owning/renting a private aircraft and no one bothers to explain it to them.
  9. Airshows are packed with non-pilots but no one makes any effort to convince them that they can learn to fly as well.
  10. It’s too bloody expensive! My hangar is $700 a month, my last two annuals were $10,000 and $1800, plus insurance and regular maintenance. And I just have a small single engine aircraft (1968 Piper 180D). It burns 10 gallons per hour at $6 per gallon! “Burning holes in the sky” is no longer an option. I have to have a mission to justify starting her up.

There are other reasons, as well, but these are the first 10 that occurred to me and I’ve been in the aviation business 35 years.

Wayman Dunlap
Editor/Publisher
Pacific Flyer Newspapers, Inc.

 

Some tough numbers

To: Dick Collins

We only have about 200,000 active planes and about the same number of pilots. The average mean age of a pilot is 55+ and in the next ten years 1/3 will not have a medical, that’s about 60,000 pilots. This could mean in the next ten years 60,000 planes would be looking for a pilot and a home. Planes will get so cheap the value would be the time left on the engines. We would need to create about 500,000 new pilots in the next ten years for GA to survive. I do not think this is possible and with user fees gas prices and supply issues that GA will last much longer than ten years in it’s present form. I would like to know your opinion.

I have been in aviation for 50 years and own 250 hangars in California. My father built the local airport and my father in law owned 36 news papers in California. I own a 1980 421C and a Colemill President two Baron.

Gerald Alves

 

We need to tell the story

There is excitement in the air regarding pilots being allowed to fly with their driver’s license. Well folks, count me out The problem in aviation is very complex. Bu the biggest problem is that we don’t sell aviation to the general public. When was the last time you saw a commercial during major events like the super bowl promoting aviation. Right now you are asking yourself the question, ads are very expensive during these events, who is going to pay for these ads? Can’t we get hundred of thousands of aviation related businesses and industries to donate money for this endeavor? We have friends in the entertainment industry. Why can’t we have a TV show about an FBO and have a well known celebrity land once a week for fuel. Treat Williams, a long time pilot and great actor would be a great pick to star on a show like this.When was the last time you saw an ad on a local bulletin board promoting a local flight school ? I have never seen one. Pick up any adult education catalog and you will never see a course about aviation. I saw one about 20 years ago in my hometown.

I have a commercial-instrument license. I have about 1200 hours. I have flown out of several flight schools and not once did I get a call or received a letter asking why I left. Flight instructors and managers of flight school must realize that they are in the business of selling a product. Sad to say, many in the industry fail to see this.

As pilots, what can be do? How about dropping our aviation magazines at doctors, dentist offices. I most admit this would be hard for me as a read my 4 monthly magazines over and over. Encourage flight schools to have an open house once a month. My dream is to see a small playground and a brick barbeque at every small field in America. Encourage the local people to come and visit us. Flight schools should have pamphlets selling their product by the playground. How about setting up in a local mall and let shoppers try flying any of the simulators in today’s market that cost less than $100.00. I have loved aviation since I was a kid. When I was in high school, we use to play East Boston High near Logan airport. Our coach Mr. Kelly knew better than to let me play. I was always looking up at the sky, not paying any attention to the game.

Fly me to the moon was my favorite song. Since Neil Armstrong died, I just can’t enjoy it like I use to. Sad to say, in aviation career, I shot for the moon but had to settle for West Newton, Ma. I am in my 44th year of flying and hope to make it to 50. I never worked as commercial pilot but always flew 150’s and 172’s like there were many people on board and would hope that I gave people a ride of their lives.

Live long and prosper,

Fred Aleman

 

At these prices, it’s not fun

I am just a private pilot, 62 years old, and fly only for pleasure. It’s really hard to get as much pleasure from flying when the fuel cost so much. Most of us older pilots are on a fixed income and our income is not going up accordingly. Private flying has really priced itself for the worst. Look at the price of aircraft now compared to earlier years. My first Cherokee 180 in 1967 was $17,500 and fuel was .50 cents a gallon. Now look at it.

Distraught.

Lynn

22 Comments

  • Gentlemen ,I salute you all ! Your inputs are truly moving and factual and anaylitically correct to the point.! The country is on an Ecomomic slowdown but it will climb for sure ….we have time to set things right ,now we know where we went wrong ! Americas youth s enthusiasm needs to be fired up .We need people at Capital Hill and Hollywood ,yes Hollywood to take out a few films with role model actors learning to ly in their scripts ,not Top Gun class but our Piper a Cessna scripts ….did anyone make a film on Chuck Yeager s life ,or even Neil Armstrongs life ….all started with small planes !….price of fuel, why can’t it be subsidized somewhat ,and what about college loans type of financing ? There’s a shortage of pilots in the US ….if we employ the supply and demand principle and not kill us with exp spare parts and be less motivated in making more money ,the aircraft manufacturers can get it right with bit smaller profit margins ,also the airports authority can contribute in not charging us silly ,but humanely ,please ,…in all fields of service can we please not look at Pilots as cash cows to be milked and milked !…..it should be a natural concen and an all points bulletin to push together to actually be patriotic and bring prices , costs down, South Africa has an over abundance of pilots who are aching to get in flying time and taking any job available n th US ! Their Pilot Training is v good indeed .America always is willing to listen and learn ,that’s why it’s among the best …I always have hopes our pilots fiasco will right itself ,but don’t feel the unity has to come from all quarters to get it v affordable .

    • Of course, if one could find a new or nearly new with current avionics/instrumentation cherokee/C-172 for 120K and fuel was 3.50 a gallon, the outlook might bot be so bleak.

  • A lot of good thoughts by some obviously experienced guys. Sounds like a person ought to just go flying while one still can and ignore the dismal future. That’s what I did last few weeks; had some gorgeous trips, stopping to visit friends, relatives and strangers in the little Piper Pacer. This time of year, you know, is the best for flying. I don’t know what it cost and don’t actually care ’cause I had enough money left over for a beer when I got home. Flying is moderately expensive I suppose, but not nearly so expensive as dying with unfulfilled dreams and a lot of money in the bank.

    • Steve, you’re exactly right. I’m 65 and taking PP lessons. Enjoying just the learning. It is expensive. But if you’re a person with even moderate means (by today’s standards), you can swing it. Of course I’m concerned about after receiving my certificate being able to fly enough to keep current and more important, comfortable. But I’ll jump off that bridge when I get to it. Good attitude Steve.

    • You sound just like my wife.That’s why I’m takeing lessons for a sport license at 82 yrs young.
      I’m flying a Taylorcraft BC12 that burns 4.5 GPH and 4 if you are not in a hurry
      I joined a flying club, so it don’t cost an arm and a leg and an Instructer that injoys what he is doing and not robbing me.

    • Count me in Steve – I’m with you all the way! Call me an ostrich, but I’ll bore holes in the sky with the Archer as long as I can. When that’s no longer feasible, hopefully there will be a Champ or Taylorcraft and a mowed field waiting for me somewhere.

  • Hey Steve: I like the way that you think. I used to cash a check for $25 and fly over a lot of the country in my Piper Pacer. Slow but dependable.

  • If you think about auto gas the (if they admit it or not) Government has pushed the price up in two ways. By requiring more fuel efficient cars they make less on taxes and thus raise the tax, by selling less fuel the US has become less competitive in the global crude markets. EPA, taxes, and other restrictions also push up the price which makes people seek out more fuel efficient cars. It becomes a vicious cycle of reduce use increase price to maintain profits (also the more traditional supply/demand model). This is fine its the way the industry works and I enjoy my 40mpg Diesel Jetta, not so good when you are stuck driving a 1978 getting at best 20mpg (more like 10mpg if American) I have an older American car so don’t get me wrong.

    This is price model is fine as long as technology is allowed to progress. In Aviation the tech hasn’t progressed and we are stuck with buying 50 year old technology or buying “modern” technology that is still 20 years out of date. The 182 JT-A is a step in the right direction but 1/2 mill is out of my price point. Just imagine though if they started selling the Jet-A Diesel engines in the 90’s we would see 120k used versions burning 10gph carrying 4 people and luggage.

  • Reason 11, guys like Wayman Dunlap who just told me that I’m a “false pilot”. This nonsense despite the fact that five years ago I earned a certificate after supporting a genuine local flight school, then purchased an airplane, have flown it 125-150 hours per year ever since and pay a mechanic to maintain it. Yup, its guys like me who are ruining general aviation for the rest of you.

    Sorry Wayman, but guys like you do nothing for GA when you decide that you are superior and other pilot are inferior. Especially other pilots who who actually still support the entire GA infrastructure.

  • The bottom line – “it is what it is”.

    Product liability has driven the cost of new aircraft into the quarter million plus range although some can be had for about the one tenth a million price mark. Way too steep for my income level. This is not going to change – regardless of the amount of belly aching!

    I was disappointed with the LSA folks. The original sales pitch of an affordable (40K to 70K) newly manufactured airframe could have really hit a home run. I suspect product liability and certification took it’s toll.

    Fuel prices are incredibly expensive, again, it is not going to get any cheaper – deal with it.

    If you have a passion vice mission for flying, I suspect that you will make sacrifices in other areas of your life to supply the habit. It seems that many have no problem dropping 35K – 45K for a SUV which will be “old” and not cool in 5 years, and then repeat the cycle.

    The old C150/152 and others “can” be economical fliers if you just need to get airborne. There are some excellent home-built kit manufacturers out there if you are so inclined. Sonex and Van’s just to name a few. Check your logbook; does your normal flying regiment require the 4 seat Archer?

    My opening line “It is what it is” has been modified in the last year to state “It is what it is, but it will be what you make it”. If you want to look good and be admired in the Lamborghini, bring your checkbook, otherwise get what you can afford and enjoy.

    By the way, I have flown zero hours in the last six months. I am adapting and I will overcome. I am “dealing with it” just as the rest of you are.

    With greatest respect to all,
    Lou

  • When I talk to guys who are interested, too frequently FEAR of crashing drives them away. I guess the media could be a convenient excuse, but I personally think guys in their 30s and 40s today just don’t have the same amount of basic courage as the older guys who went thru WWII, Korea or Nam

  • I have been flying 57 years…..+/- 8000 hrs with Commercial, Multi and Instrument ratings. Owned 140 Cessna, B-35 Bonanza, and for the last 46 years a Piper Twin Comanche. Airplanes were used for my construction business in the North West and Alaska, and were flown 95% on business flights. The flexibility and mobility they provided was a significant factor in my work, and equally important allowed me to often be an at home father to my children.

    I think the completion of the Interstate Highway system with 70 MPH cruise speeds in a car has taken over some of the business flying on 200 to 400 mile trips that were typical for me. Longer trips on the airlines are fast and cheaper than flying the PA30 now. These alternates provide real world competition to private business flying. The costs of fuel, maintenance, hangar, and insurance continue to climb. I cannot find an insurer who will write more than 1 million $ liability, even though I meet their requirement for an annual medical and instrument check ride. I try to limit my passengers to heirs.

    I also note the closures of FBOs and fuel pumps in the smaller outlying areas that I used to frequent. “Airport cars” by FBOs are seldom available today.

    Given the above, I cannot feel optomistic about the future of general aviation. I still love looking at the world from my airplane, but I feel the market value of light aircraft like I fly lessens every year as fewer people are willing to spend the time and $ it takes to learn to fly for biz travel in the increasingly complicated and regulated airspace.

    AHP

  • Could it be we are seeing this decrease in pilot numbers from the wrong perspective? Maybe we should view it as simply a return to the normal– or what it would be without government interference?

    Just like the government created incentives to put people in houses who otherwise could not afford them the government put people in airplanes who otherwise couldn’t afford to be there.

    1.Beginning after WW2 the GI bill offered vets a low cost route to a cockpit and 30 years later that government funded pilot glut dropped when the GI bill trained pilots stopped flying due to age. This lowering of pilot numbers coincided with the —

    2. deregulation of the airlines which drove down ticket prices to the point where the costs of using general aviation for transport appeared to skyrocket compared to airline tickets.

    We hate to admit it but government incentives were in large part responsible for the increase in pilots and when the incentives were taken away the pilot population decreased beginning in the late 70s and continuing today.

    I expect that the US pilot population will continue to slide until it reaches a similar level as in other countries where government incentives that increased the number of pilots were not created.

    • Bob,

      I hate to admit it, but I think you might be on to something. I just hope it’s not true, or at least that the pilot population doesn’t into decline as far as outside the US!

  • I’m trying to get my pp certificate.soloed after 10 hours and now have 27 hours but finding it very hard to learn all the book work at 54 years old and it is very frustrating . I can see why so many people do not finish.

  • The question is does the gain warrant the pain.You have to have the passion to fly and the persistance to slug it out. Unless one is in a very favorable financial situation,most will simply have to budget to indulge. Richard,having shared the skies with you and Mr.Phoenix in the venerable Piper Pacer(earned my Private in it,spin recovery and all,on snow skis)back in ’60’s,I can only feel empathy for one just now starting to learn. It all is more to earn,more to learn,more to buy,insure and maintain. As then,you just have to want it badly.
    Currently,I am a CAP SAR/DR mission pilot near TYS and fortunate at 73 to be healthy if not wealthy!
    PS:Thank you for all your years at FLYING in helping me keep my eye on the goal.

  • Just yesterday while listening to a podcast I learned about Air Facts Journal. The first article that really caught my eye was the Special Report series on the declining pilot population. I was absolutely fascinated with this, as I have been thinking on this topic for years.

    I am sure you will agree that there is no single fix; this is a very complex, multifaceted problem that, like politics, viewed differently depending on from where a person is coming and what answer (solution) that person wants to see. But like the issue of “fairness” the question is ‘fair to whom?’

    That said, I would offer a recommended first step to the fix…the cost of fuel. $5 to $6 a gallon (or more) will simply not work for GA. AOPA, their GA big business pals, and avgas producers will not like this answer (and certainly not their MBA advisors), but the fuel cost target price is $2.00 per gallon (note that I did not say $2.50 or $3.00).

    We must get pilots back into airplanes and back into the air. We must get our GA airports looking busy (parking lots full or at least fuller), planes moving about the taxiways and around hangars, sorties coming and going from runways. The first step is to get currently certified pilots back actively flying and getting those still flying to fly more; get the current GA fleeting moving. Why, because this will create jobs and demand for services: CFI’s to get inactive pilots proficient again and then the soon to follow new students into flight training; AP mechanics working on long grounded airplanes, making repairs and upgrades to planes that are seeing a lot more flight time due to reasonably priced fuel; avionics shops doing likewise; pilot shops selling equipment to a much larger (and growing) customer base; aircraft sellers seeing buyers for their stock of new and used aircraft. The alphabet GA groups and manufacturers have to get their customers back and new customers into GA.

    The first step to a fix…the cost of fuel…to get the GA ball rolling.

    • Sean, I don’t disagree. But how do we do that? It seems about as easy as declaring gravity abolished. The only realistic way to get there is to use another fuel, and that means a wrenching, expensive transition.

      • John,

        As you know, many folks are working on follow-on fuels to 100LL and eventually it will be a reality. But what fuel is much less important than the cost. Time is not on the side of the alphabet GA groups. As the Special Report clearly shows almost every conceivable trend over the past 30-years is negative and declining for the alphabet GA groups; their very existence requires that they turn this around or they will go out of business, their jobs literally depend on it. The cost of fuel is the single most critical factor stopping an immediate and strong return of pilots into airplanes. The alphabet GA groups collectively are smart enough and have the resources to drive the fuel prices down, even to an unreasonable level, to reinvigorate their profitability through volume of customer sales and services. Focusing on the very narrow segment of the population with the discretionary financial means to continue doing business with the alphabet GA groups (as their business indicators show) will guarantee most of their demise over perhaps only another decade.

        I do not mean to sound negative, but certainly cautionary. The alphabet GA groups have collectively let this happen and they are the only ones who can turn it around. The cost starts with them. And as the saying goes, ‘times a wasting.’

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