Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of five articles called Mayday! The declining pilot population. You can read all the articles here.
It’s a tradition as old as hangar flying–the old timers sit around and complain about how things are going down the tubes. While this routine can be tiresome for more optimistic pilots (including me), that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. Even a casual look at the numbers shows that general aviation is as weak as it’s been in a decades. Just glance at the graph on the right: the old timers might be right this time.
That graph tells me it’s time for a radical re-thinking of what general aviation means and who it appeals to. Society has changed dramatically since the 1970s; our hobby hasn’t.
That’s why so much of the talk these days is disappointing–everyone has their pet cause, and we spend too much time arguing about minor details. It’s as if the right engine has quit, the vacuum pump has failed and there’s smoke in the cockpit, but we’re running the checklist for a burned out landing light.
The first step towards a stronger future is to be realistic. Let’s admit that the good old days are gone forever, and they’re not coming back. So many of the factors that drove the great aviation boom in the 1970s are not repeatable: World War II pilots, the GI Bill, 30 cents/gallon gas and so much more. Indeed, when you consider all of these artificial stimulants, it’s better to view the 70s as a bubble instead of a normal level that we can return to.
We also need to be realistic about the cost of flying. Any discussion of the declining pilot population always seems to start here, and a lot of comments in this special series have focused on money. But as I’ve argued before, cost is not the only problem, or even the most important one, facing general aviation. Flying is certainly expensive, but it always has been and there’s not a lot we can do to change that in the short term. After all, aircraft manufacturers aren’t making any money and neither are flight schools.
Besides, the reality is that even with high gas prices and $300,000 Cessna 172s, there are still millions of Americans who can afford to become pilots. But 98% don’t, and they often go on to spend large sums of money on other pastimes. That means we’re failing, even with those who do have the money. To me, it would be far easier to convert a few more of these people into pilots than to invent $50,000 new airplanes and cheaper Avgas.
What we should focus on is why people learn to fly, and how to give them what they want from their pilot’s license.
People become pilots for three main reasons: to be a professional pilot, to have fun or to do serious travel. The first category is outside the scope of our conversation about general aviation (although suffice it to say their job prospects are not what they once were), so we’ll leave them aside.
The second group–the recreational pilots chasing $100 hamburgers on the weekends–gets a lot of attention, and for good reason. These passionate aviators who fly just to enjoy the freedom of being in the air are the backbone of general aviation, but they are suffering from high costs, dying airports and increased competition for free time. We need to dramatically increase the reward they get out of aviation, from making airports more inviting to getting rid of the Third Class Medical to overhauling the way we train pilots. Even electric airplanes may someday bring the cost of shorter flights down for these enthusiasts. These are all worthy efforts, but they’re not enough.
I love recreational pilots–I am one myself, often flying a taildragger low and slow at sunrise. But this category of pilots will never be the way to dramatically grow the pilot ranks. There are just too many options for fun today, and all of them take less time and money than flying. As long as “pilot” means being a die-hard enthusiast, we’ll remain a small club. Imagine if Ford tried to sell cars only to wrench-turning gear heads.
That’s why I firmly believe it’s the third group of pilots, those who use airplanes to go places, that holds the potential for truly growing the pilot population. Unlike for recreational pilots, general aviation’s value proposition for these pilots is strong. In many cases, the pilot here is a successful businessman with work or family commitments far apart. He has both the money and the need for a pilot’s license, making him more likely to finish his training and more likely to stay engaged after he passes his checkride.
Plus, one unfortunate change in aviation over the past 10 years actually benefits these pilots–flying the airlines is as bad as it has ever been. Whether it’s brutal TSA lines, overcrowded flights or declining levels of service, trying to stick to a tight schedule on Delta or United is either painful, impossible or both. Even a small single-engine piston airplane can give a Boeing a run for the money on trips under 500 miles by taking advantage of the United States’ incredible network of small airports.
And just because the primary appeal for these pilots is utility doesn’t mean they can’t someday become aviation enthusiasts. After a few hundred hours of successful transportation flying, they may find that the occasional pancake breakfast is fun too.
So how do we convince more of these pilots-to-be to take the plunge? First, we have to invite them. Many successful people assume that they can’t learn to fly or aren’t welcome. Growing this group of pilots will mean burying some of our stereotypes and reaching out to different types of people. We shouldn’t treat them as second class citizens just because they don’t wax poetic about slipping the surly bonds. And we shouldn’t make it sound harder than it is. I don’t believe flying is easy or that anyone can earn a license, but with a serious commitment to training most people can become a pilot.
Next, we need sell them on the safety of flying, especially the non-pilot spouse or business partner. Richard Collins said it well in his article: there is simply less appetite for risk-taking today than there was 30 years ago. If you had been shot at in World War II, your view of risk was dramatically different than someone who spends their life behind airbags and computer screens. Just think of all the helmets kids wear and the safety features in new cars. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they mean the average Joe is probably more concerned than ever about safety.
I think this increased risk aversion is why the airframe parachute has been such a sales success for Cirrus. Whether you believe in it or not, the parachute addresses a major concern of new pilots or non-pilot spouses today, and it was a feature few pilots would have even cared about in 1979.
That doesn’t mean we lie about flying. It involves risk, and always will. But risky is not the same as unsafe. One of the most appealing things to me as a pilot is that I get to determine how safe I am–I can cancel a flight or divert because of weather, I can upgrade my equipment and I don’t have paying passengers to satisfy. When that authority is used properly, in conjunction with good maintenance and training, personal transportation flying can be quite safe.
We also need to fix the certification process. Transportation airplanes need new technology, and it needs to come faster and cheaper. This is especially true for engines, which are stuck in the 1930s. But the current Part 23 process illogically tries to lump twin engine jets and Cessna 172s together, making clean sheet designs a terrible business decision. More modern certification standards might even attract some new entrepreneurs into aviation, adding a little Silicon Valley-style energy to our industry.
At the end of the day, people will go out of their way to spend time and money on things they really value–whether it’s college for the kids or a major home renovation. We need to make aviation competitive in this market, by delivering more fun for recreational pilots and especially more utility for transportation pilots.
Let’s also recognize that general aviation in 2025 won’t look anything like 1979. That’s OK. The primary goal is to make sure general aviation is still around in 2025.