The world needs aviation – how flying keeps us grounded

The world is going to hell in a hand basket – if you need proof, just watch the reality TV show masquerading as a presidential election, or read some comments on your favorite social media app. Apparently younger generations are soft, older generations are greedy and politicians are just plain crooked. Paging Chicken Little…

Now before I stray too far into religion or politics, let me assure you I am not running for office. But all the complaining does make me consider the unique role aviation has played in my life, and in most pilots’ lives I suspect. Might it be the miracle cure we’re looking for? Consider the following.

Selfie stick
Hey good lookin – put the camera down and go flying.

1. Narcissism runs rampant, but flying makes us humble. Whether it’s the teenager posing for the perfect selfie or the entrepreneur starting his business of one, modern culture seems to value the confident individual above all else. Technology has made it easier than ever to turn our attention inward, with often depressing results. Aviation may seem like the ultimate activity for the confident individual, and yet learning to fly has a unique ability to make us humble. That teenager who carefully crafts the perfect online persona can’t hide behind an Instagram filter when he botches a landing – he might have to admit that some things take a lot of practice. That proudly-independent businessman will soon find out that flying is a team sport, one that requires good instructors, air traffic controllers and fellow pilots to make the system work properly.

2. Our sense of community is fading, but airports pull us together. It’s been called the “bowling alone” phenomenon: there is a slow erosion of public institutions that results from less community-minded citizens. The root cause can be debated, but Americans are joining fewer organizations, talking to their neighbors less and volunteering in their local communities more sporadically than they did 25 years ago. Aviation isn’t immune to this trend, but it pushes back in numerous ways: flying clubs are on the rise, bonding diverse groups of pilots together in search of value and safety; Young Eagles rallies bring together aircraft owners to support a common cause; threats of airport closure galvanize aviators to defend their flying homes. Put two random pilots in a room together and they’ll have plenty to talk about. You can’t say that about many other groups of Americans these days.

Mechanic helping kid
Talk about STEM education.

3. Everyone wants STEM education, and flying offers it. The latest educational buzzword is STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and it’s the proposed fix for America’s lagging school performance. If the future belongs to scientists and engineers, say the reformers, then our educational system needs to reflect that reality. But as any parent knows, getting a 12-year old excited about geometry can be a serious challenge. That’s where aviation comes in, since it takes obscure and difficult topics and makes them real and exciting. Whether they want to design the airplane, fly it or maintain it, kids involved in aviation get a first class STEM education without even knowing it.

4. We’re raising a “teacup generation;” aviation teaches resilience. There’s something approaching panic at many universities about the inability of students to handle setbacks: a B- in English is a disaster, “trigger warnings” are used to protect sensitive students and counseling staffs are overwhelmed by kids who can’t handle life without mom and dad. Flying teaches many things, but grit and resilience are two of the most important ones for 21st century life. First you have to grind your way through flight training, and earn a license – not easy for even the hardest working student. Then there’s the “I’m all alone” moment: whether it’s the first solo or the first trip with passengers, many pilots can remember formative moments when the sense of ultimate responsibility kicks in. If you’ve dealt with that, a tough teacher suddenly becomes a lot less intimidating.

Young Eagles
Programs like Young Eagles are a great way to meet the next generation, instead of just complaining about them.

5. People live in echo chambers; airplanes introduce them to different people. One of the reasons people get so animated about politics is that they rarely meet anyone with whom they might disagree – it has never been easier to create a digital world where everyone agrees with you. While flying the family jet to Aspen for a ski weekend may not exactly be a multi-cultural experience, most airplanes still enable us to meet people from different backgrounds, face to face. Are people in Texas really gun-toting nutjobs? Is everyone in Oregon a bleeding heart hippie? If you’re chatting in the FBO while you wait out the weather, it’s a little harder to live in such a black and white world. A pilot’s license is a powerful tool for meeting some incredible people.. maybe even a few you don’t agree with.

6. We are increasingly risk-averse, but flying shows that smart risk taking has huge rewards. From car airbags to cleaner air, life has gotten remarkably safer in the last 40 years, which is one reason I hate all the doomsday talk. But one unintended consequence of that change is that society in general has become more risk-averse, so much so that “free range parenting” is actually a serious movement. While safety is certainly important, most of the major innovations in American history have come from risk takers. Being open to taking calculated risks is a critical skill for success in life and it’s important for America as a whole. In its most basic form, flying is all about acknowledging risk, mitigating it if possible and embracing it when it offers outsized benefits. We could use a little more of that thinking.

7. We’re obsessed with smartphones and tablets – unfortunately aviation can’t help that. OK, so aviation ain’t perfect. While millions of Americans ignore the person next to them in favor of the smartphone in their hand, pilots occasionally miss a stunning sunset because they’re fiddling with ForeFlight. It just proves that pilots really are human after all.

So if you’ve been watching TV and you’re worried about the next generation, I have a single policy proposal: send the kids to the airport!

12 Comments

  • Great writeup, John.

    I was worried getting into aviation that the stereotypes would prove true, and everyone in and around aircraft had egos that wouldn’t fit in an Antonov. It couldn’t have been further from the truth, and I genuinely have never come across a more consistently great group of people. Even if there are differences (and there always is), it seems that people with this “bug” have enough in common to brush them aside.

  • John, this is a great article, I am going to share it with my non-aviation friends, I think it speaks to them more then any other group.

  • Miracle cure? I dunno, that seems like a stretch. I suppose all the items you list are reasonably true, but you could probably substitute the words “tennis” or “drag racing” for flying and make about the same cases.

    But let’s say it was a perfect world and everyone was flying. Who’s going to clean my septic system? Won’t get a pilot to do it, they’re pretty much unemployable for anything but flying an airplane. No, we need people that are septic system fanatics too.

    • Steve, my tongue was planted firmly in cheek when I wrote the words “miracle cure.” While I do sincerely believe aviation has a number of “old school” benefits like character development, it clearly isn’t the solution to all our problems. But it might be more effective than some proposals from our politicians.

      And as the judge famously said in Caddyshack, “The world needs ditch diggers too.”

  • Interesting thoughts, John. Some of what we are encountering in terms of attracting fewer young people to learn to fly these days is affected by large social trends that also affect lots of other human activities and institutions.

    I read recently an article on wired.com about how many fewer young people today care at all about cars and the American car culture, which culture is rapidly graying and limited mostly to those in their 60s and older today. The article asserted that young people today are so caught up in their digital fantasy worlds, and not particularly concerned with having real world mobility any longer (which mobility was a huge source of personal freedom for us oldsters growing up) that they just don’t give a damn about cars today. That’s a disturbing thought.

    Personally, I am always a glass half full guy, yet I am actually getting worried about today’s young people and their growing divorce from the real world, physically speaking. They seem to live in a universe defined by XBox and PlayStation and in movies that depict comic book super heroes doing unhuman things, almost in a 24/7/365 bubble of same. That can’t be good mentally speaking for gazillions of dreamy teens, twenty-somethings, and perhaps even older young people who choose to live in a fantasy world instead of the real world.

    One of the things I love about flying, beyond the thrill of learning to do something that is at least a little bit complicated and skill-based, is that it is “real”. Flying immerses me in real air, flying above real terrain or real water, immersed in real weather … where my ability to do what I want and to get where I want to go is limited by the real outside world, the real capabilities of my aircraft, and the limitations of my own personal “non-Super Hero” capabilities.

    Will we be the last generation of humans in America who choose to live in the real world? What will come of future generations who elect not to do so?

    Food for thought.

  • I have first hand experience with these topics, because I grew up in today’s generation.

    Just take for example the university shuttle I am sitting on. There are currently 18 students on here, riding back to their apartments. Of that, 16 are on their phones. The bus is silent. These kinds of interactions in our generation are scary, and it’s why when I find other students that agree with me, we tend to stick together and hang out with the old guys. Thinking about the people that I have become friends with over the years, they all have something in common. They are passionate about something, be it engineering, business, or flying. That’s what motivates people to become social—they have to have something in common with another person that is just as passionate about it. It’s not that these passionate people are less common, we just have more people that haven’t found something to be passionate about yet, and probably never will if they stick to their phones.

    Whenever people ask me, “how did you decide what you wanted to do when you graduate?”, I always tell them it’s hard to understand because flying has been my passion since I was a kid. I’ve lived and breathed aviation every day as long as I can remember. Just going to school for four years to become an engineer, so that I can work in Alaska and become a bush pilot one day, is a little crazy. But I’m willing to fight for that commercial pilot career because it’s the only thing I can imagine doing.

    Our generation just doesn’t have these kinds of motivations. That’s why they escape to technology and social networks. It’s all they can find excitement with, and that’s not different than any other generation. People just used drugs, alcohol, and rock concerts before technology came around.

    However, that being said, I do have confidence for the future, at least in aviation. If you are involved with flying, nothing can compare to the thrills and excitement of being up there. Just right now, I’m thinking about the pilots that get to fly in the soup above me as it continues to rain all day today. I’m sure this passion carries over to other lifestyles, I just only have experience with aviation.

    My point here is the same point that I have been telling my friends that want to get involved in flying. Aviation is timeless. No matter what happens to technology or our generation, flying will still carry the same roots it did in the beginning. If you are willing to fight to join our elite club of aviators, you just won’t care about social media or the latest house party. There’s so much more out there when you have a portal to the world at every runway.

  • John,

    always enjoy reading your thoughts. and this piece is not an exception. I agree completely with your premise.

    that said, I might suggest that as we try to encourage the ‘next’ generation of pilots that we may be over looking a vast group of potential pilots that have more of the ‘means’ and time to actually pursue flying.

    and I admit that I was one of them… the Baby Boomers
    my wife gave me an intro flight for my 50th birthday… primarily because she had run out of ideas as to what to get me. I had never told her that flying was a childhood dream… one that remained a dream until I actually took that intro flight.

    Fast forward a little over a decade and I am happy… no ESTATIC to say that I am a PPL SEL and instrument rated.. I fly a Cirrus SR22 and love every minute…

    that said for Baby Boomers who now have the time and the means and are currently looking for what to do with the rest of their lives now that the kids are grown and gone and retirement looms…

    well my view is that may be an untapped avenue to generating more pilots. and through their participation they will naturally bring along their kids.

    not to say don’t encourage at a young age… just maybe we have written off a generation that could be very productive and help to ensure the future of aviation in this country.

    just my thoughts… again a great read.

  • John,GREAT article. However, rather than “send the kids to the airport!”, as stated in your article; TAKE the kids to an Airport..’check-in’ with s person in the Pilot’s lounge, see a pilot planning a flight, and see if you can get a pilot to take the kids 1) out to an airplane for a ‘walk-around’, 2) a pre-flight inspection, or 3) witness a ‘post-flight’ debriefing between an instructor and a person taking flight instructions. Better yet, see if ‘the kids’ can get a job at the airport….. I did that; and got my first flight… became an Aeronautical Engineer, pilot in the USAF, Mass Air National Guard, purchased a Cessna 182…and had 55 plus years of fun, exciting times, and GREAT flying experiences.

  • Nice article. Four years ago, my 14 year old daughter was very fortunate to find an airport and EAA group in Northwest Ohio to hang out with. As her “driver”, I also got to hang out at the airport. It was a real treat for both of us. The people at the airport/EAA are the best. Very interesting and welcoming. They are willing to share their time and knowledge – the greatest gifts a person can give. My daughter earned her private pilot’s license at the age of 17 at that airport.

    In late June, 2015, as we were driving through rural Pennsylvania, we passed an “Airport” sign with an arrow. My now 18 year old daughter said, “Let’s stop. You can always find a friendly person at an airport that is willing to talk to you about airplanes.” And that we did.

    That journey through rural Pennsylvania and on took us to her long planned for destination, Induction Day at The United States Naval Academy. As a midshipman, she plans to study Astronautical Engineering, become a US Navy Pilot and on to be an astronaut.

    I am sending my thank you to those that have encouraged young people in aviation in that past and in the future. John is correct, an airport is a great place to take your young people.

  • Excellent article, but it leaves a big problem out. The cost of aviation education still incredibly high and there it is little support for the people that really want to learn to fly. An example of it is that no one offered me the sponsorship for learning to fly. Where in the world we want more pilots if there it’s nothing to motivate the new generation. I think that aviation loose the beautiful good faith that probably the Wright brothers had in mind: That everybody have the right to fly without barriers. I hope that this cry do not stay unanswered for the good and future of the aviation. AVIATION + BIG COST = ONLY FOR THE RICH.

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