Special Report Introduction
The dwindling number of pilots in the U.S.A. has the attention of a lot of people. There are currently far more questions than answers and it is unlikely that those answers will come from one source.
It will take a collective effort to reverse this trend, if indeed it is reversible. To that end Air Facts is working to get a dialogue going. We will be posting five essays to begin, one a day for five days.
We urge you to read these and add your comments. You can add them to the end of each essay or you can wait until all five are posted and then sound off.
The authors of these are coming from different directions so there will be a good diversity of thought. It will be up to you to expand on that.
Richard Collins’ Thoughts
It is no secret that there are fewer and fewer active general aviation pilots every year. Why is that true? Can we arrest the decline? Will the activity ever grow again?
The factors most commonly cited when discussing the decline are money and time. Those are excuses, though, not factors. Flying has always been expensive and learning how to use an airplane has always taken a lot of time.
One reason there are fewer pilots is because the mood in our country has changed. There is more of a tendency today for people to be needy and dependent and risk-averse. That is not a good demographic for flight training or for flying.
The only real way to increase interest in flying is to appeal to people who have a strong sense of independent individualism. The risks can’t be minimized. In fact, flying is something that takes a good mix of intelligence and coordination, both physical and mental. Lacking that, flying can be downright hazardous to your health. In other words, wimps are not good prospects for flying.
The aircraft manufacturers delivered 17,811 airplanes in 1978 and a few less in 1979. Then production fell off the proverbial cliff. One reason for that is the fact that the legions of World War Two and GI-Bill pilots peaked in their earning years at that time. No more built-in pilot population so things started to trail off. The numbers don’t show it but I have always thought that every measure of general aviation activity started to decline after 1979.
We have to acknowledge, too, that general aviation flying in piston airplanes is reaching a historic low level at this time. I am writing this on Labor Day. There used to be a lot of flight activity as people traveled on holidays. I just looked at FlightAware and there are a grand total of 159 piston airplanes flying on IFR flight plans in the whole country. That is just over three per state. VFR flights would make the number a lot bigger but nobody counts those.
The low and declining level of activity means that if we don’t arrest the decrease, at some point there won’t be anything left.
Historically, aircraft manufacturers were the main cheerleaders for learning to fly. It was good business. I have forgotten the numbers, but Cessna once did research that showed how many piston singles they sold for every 100 pilots who got a certificate, and how many of those went on to buy a twin, then a turboprop, then a jet.
General aviation used to be a domestic cottage industry, run by the people whose name was on the product. Now ownership is either by a conglomerate or is offshore. There is little “feel” for general aviation in the corporate offices or in the boardroom.
EAA and AOPA have programs to promote aviation and we can only hope that these will gain some traction. They are motivated because fewer pilots mean fewer members. Of all the involved entities they are probably the most directly affected by the decreasing pilot population.
Some feel that a reduction in the cost of learning to fly would help. I have been watching this for a long time, though, and most schemes to reduce cost have been false promises. The same goes for schemes to make it easier to learn to fly.
I think there are only three possible ways to have a shot at increasing the personal and business use of light (under 6,000 pound maximum takeoff weight) airplanes.
Rather than raw cost, the value of flying has to be the emphasis. Nobody uses airplanes to save money. But for people who have traps to run in a state, or a couple of states, there is nothing more useful and valuable than a general aviation airplane and it doesn’t have to be a jet. A piston single or twin will enable day trips over a wide area.
Some years ago I experimented with using a Cessna 172 with top-line IFR avionics as a business airplane. I lived in Little Rock at the time and routinely made day trips to Wichita, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth and even San Antonio which was at the outer limits on distance when flying at 120 knots. It might have been a short paddle but it worked for me for two years and was quite economical.
The airplane builders need to address a shortage of utility in the current crop of airplanes. The payload/range number on many airplanes is pretty pathetic.
There was once a time when the number of seats outlined the carrying capability of our airplanes, within limits. The four seat airplanes would fly with more than two people, some baggage, and enough fuel to fly for a decent length or fly for at least a little while with four on board. The folks who build airliners have to design the ability to fill all the seats and then fly halfway around the world nonstop. That needs to be at least partially emulated in piston singles.
For lack of a better word, we need to appeal to the sense of adventure that some people still have. Put the “right stuff,” or the romance, back into flying. Let’s be honest and tell the public that this isn’t for everyone, it is for above average people who want to stand out by doing something special.
Back in the good old days, when people found out you were a pilot they often said that they always wanted to do that. Now they are more likely to ask why you would want to do that. That needs to change.