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.
- Autopilots are underrated - March 13, 2023
- The joy of IFR - February 1, 2023
- Go or no go: Appalachian IFR - January 25, 2023
“What we should focus on is why people learn to fly, and how to give them what they want from their pilot’s license”
Bingo! I couldn’t agree more. Great article John.
Thanks John for this great Air Facts subject.
I am a mentor pilot to a few students at our local airport here in Toronto. And the one thing I always fine is that I get referred to them from other “students” I have helped in the past because they are ready to quit.
When I meet with them over a coffee later, I constantly hear the same complaint. The “value for MY money is just not there..”
So I work with them and hear their issues on the “quality” of instructing they are receiving and the state of the classroom or worse the washrooms, and they just get fed up.
Duel up here is well over 200$ and hour and if that is spent with an instructor just barking commands and getting a large head while they are only focused logging the hours and “getting a real flying job” then I see their point. The sad fact I’m seeing up here is that this industry eats it’s young.
Part of the problem is we need OLDER instructors. Ones that care and want to pass on their knowledge to others and share in the joy of flight. I was lucky and had one.
So my answer now is to recommend becoming a mentor pilot to the ones out there that see this kind of quality of “business” at there flight schools. Hard to do with out stepping on toe’s but approach the ones that need help as a friend to keep them in it.
Give them a helping hand up so to speak.
And keep this talk going!
Jeff, your comment on value is really what it’s all about. Flying is expensive, and try as we may, we can’t seem to make it less so.
But if we’re going to have an expensive product, we need to have a really great product. People buy Ferraris even at their high prices, because they see value in it. But aviation in many cases has a Ferrari price tag and a Pinto quality of experience.
What a great idea!!! Mentoring new pilots. What an awesome idea. I am a student pilot (90% done with PPC). Been at a small airport for 7 months and except for my overt attempts to meet A/C owners have been largely made to feel like what are you doing here? Why are you bothering me? I mean what would it take to say to an aspiring….clearly thirsty student pilot…hey I’m going flying, would you like to come along? Or even want to split some gas for going flying with me? I mean the mentoring concept is so simple, but it could make a huge difference!
STEVE, TRY THE CLUB EXPERIENCE IF AVAILABLE IN YOUR AREA. IT’S WORKED GREAT FOR ME TO GET INDOCRINATED, GREAT SOCIAL ASPECT, AND LEARNING FROM THE OLD VETS. AND THE RATES ARE USUALLY CHEAPER AND THE EQUIPMENT BETTER THAN AN FBO.
Spot on, John. All indications are that the industry needs a professional, career instructor force, well-run, inviting FBOs, appealing, no-deferred-squawks airplanes, a pilot support social network, and a training system that meets the schedule and needs of well-healed but busy potential pilots, and the fly-for-transportation market will thrive. It won’t be 1979, but thankfully neither is my hair style or the car I drive.
“Spot on, John. All indications are that the industry needs a professional, career instructor force, well-run, inviting FBOs, appealing, no-deferred-squawks airplanes, a pilot support social network, and a training system that meets the schedule and needs of well-healed but busy potential pilots, and the fly-for-transportation market will thrive. It won’t be 1979, but thankfully neither is my hair style or the car I drive”
Where are the dollars to fund this nirvana going to come from? I suppose we could double or triple the rates for aircraft rental and flight instruction, but that would only hasten the decline of GA.
I fall under the heading of flying for the pure love of flying. Whenever I hear a plane fly overhead I still look up, but having said all the cost of flying my Warrior has literally sucked the enjoyment out of it for me. Like most people I have seen my invests lose close to 50% of their value the last few years, I worry about the stability of my job. So call me a whiner if you want, I am barely hanging on as an active pilot.
John’s article makes some excellent points. I can’t see cost as the driver of declining pilot ranks. It is possible to rent through a flying club (I am lucky to have one of the best in the county – Plus One Flyers here in San Diego) once a week and stay within a monthly budget of around $600. This isn’t small change but still definitely not limited to the famous 1% crowd. I fall into the aviation enthusiast “fly for pure fun” category. Regulations and air space in the LAX/SAN region are challenging but possible to overcome with frequent practice. Where I take exception to John’s point of view is the idea that using small planes for travel is where the growth potential lies. To my mind, when you talk about risk, there is nothing riskier than single engine IFR with a pilot that might only fly a few practice approaches on instruments in any given month. If the pilot is limited to VFR only, we all know that small aircraft are a very unreliable form of transportation. My guess is that expanding the use of personal aircraft for transportation will require a level of training, time and commitment to stay current in IMC conditions that few of us can manage. Changing demographics are definitely a major factor in dwindling pilot numbers. At my age (a vigorous 64!), nagging medical issues become a reality and force many to either put up with a frustrating level of FAA bureaucracy and three months a year waiting for waivers to come through or reverting to light sport – definitely a fun only option. I chose the light sport route and don’t regret it, but many will just pack up and leave the flying fraternity, however reluctantly. These are the facts and we may just have to live with them. Making the training experience much more attractive and flexible to accommodate people’s packed schedules will go a long way to attract a younger generation. My response to the idea that there are just way to many other fun things to do is that pilots will always fall into a fairly select group – it isn’t a lasting pastime that somebody takes up just because it might be cool. You have to have some kind of burning desire to fly and love airplanes – in that regard I count myself one of the lucky ones!
I started flying in early 1987. One of the things I enjoyed was that on a Saturday or Sunday there would be any number of pilots “hanging out”. Then, by the middle 90’s, this was no longer happening as much, and there were not as many planes on the field. When we got hangars built in 2009, I thought that would encourage more people to be at the airport. Not so, the number of airplanes increased by a dozen or so, but not much flying activity, although I still do my 100-135 hours per year.
The cost of fuel, rental of planes, cost of instructor, and the ungodly amout of regulation a student pilot has to learn is quite discouraging. It is easier to go learn to drive a boat!!
I fly mainly to shorten onerous distances to save time. The factors preventing me from flying more are mostly cost. Nearly $6 a gallon for avgas. Annuals averaging well over $5000 a year for a single engine retractable Cessna. Avionics that used to be upgradable to standards in new aircraft for an affordable price now approaching or exceeding six figures. New aircraft that cost double the average price of a new home. I daresay that even when adjusted for constant dollars, aviation is more expensive than ever. Add to that the worry of treading on a sudden TFR, unwittingly violating an FAA regulation, and challenging the weather. It’s enough to cause one to stay home or drive.
I would fly more if it were more affordable to take myself and three family members 500 to 600 miles without constant fear of busting a reg and with reliable and affordable weather avoidance assistance.
The big problem as I see it. Someone starts with flight instruction in a tired old champ,gets a few hours in and thinks,I will buy a better airplane than this junker. When the shopping is done, they have to have hanger space they start looking for hanger space and find they can be on the list for three to ten years. That is when they buy a boat or an RV and are lost to aviation forever! Been there done that and have the T shirt! I would love to come back to flying as a Sport pilot! I need HANGER SPACE THE COST OF FLYING IS NOT THE DEAL BREAKER HANGER SPACE IS! please correct my spelling.
“The big problem as I see it. Someone starts with flight instruction in a tired old champ,gets a few hours in and thinks,I will buy a better airplane than this junker. When the shopping is done, they have to have hanger space they start looking for hanger space and find they can be on the list for three to ten years.”
That’s not the big problem. The big problem is that each of the hurdles: rotten flight instruction, the high price of avgas, tired old airplanes, medicals, etc. eliminates a fair percentage of the prospective pilot population. By the time they make it through the wickets, there’s almost no one left. Otherwise the wait for a hanger would be eighty years.
I’m sorry, but I do believe the high cost and low perceived value of the aviation experience is killing GA. As a comm/ instr rated fixed wing and rotorcraft pilot, I’ve grown tired of renting tired, filthy, low powered, systems-challenged, boring aircraft. I take off and the radio fails or the oil pressure begins to fluctuate, causing an abort. One FBO was so bad we called it “Malfunction Junction”. Where’s the value for my dollar? My now grown kids used to love to fly with me and ask when we’ll fly again. I can’t answer that because I won’t pay $200 an hour to fly a 50 year old piece of junk, and owning can’t be justified no matter how hard I try.
Ok, now that I’ve vented, the only way forward that I see is via a flying club or the remaining aircraft manufacturers step up and create their own FBO’s that include sales, service AND rentals. Another route might be the lease approach (not lease back!) for those that desire their own aircraft, much like the car manufacturers use. This brings a new aircraft to you at a lower monthly cost for a specified period of time.
Until the the current GA operating model changes, potential new pilots won’t enter the arena and decline is inevitable.
Kurt puts it very well, and another commenter wrote about the “Pinto experience” when expecting better. We also need to treat flight instructors as the professionals that they are. A long time ago, I remember instructors having to sit around all day at an FBO and if they had no customers, there was no compensation for the gas or wear and tear on the instructor’s car. I felt that was inappropriate and it comes to me as no surprise to read people’s comments about uncaring staff. The FBO’s OWNER should be the one working to bring in customers, so the instructor can make a living, spending that time TEACHING and not sitting around all day, hoping for “maybe”. Instructors deserve better, and so do those who are learning to fly. A more professional, clean approach would attract more pilots, as would Kurt’s excellent suggestion of aircraft manufacturers putting together full service FBO’s. The “career” schools fit a certain purpose, but we need schools that focus on people’s desire to fly for enjoyment. I haven’t flown in a long time, but I miss flying just for the fun of it. Hopefully I’ll be back in the air in the near future. Fly safe!
Why do air craft cost so much?
After all they are only comprise of a an engine, wheels, some body work and a general structure to hold it all together just like a typical car, admittedly the shape of the aircrafts bodywork is rather more critical that a cars but in terms of production it is a relatively minor detail as the technology of cheap mass production has been around since the days of Henry ford.
Many ammeter pilots and wannabes like my self would happily accept less performance for less money, for example a slightly heavier aircraft with more drag that is cheap to build, maintain and is reasonably reliable.
The light aircraft industry really could learn a few things from the automotive industry
Greg, take a look at the legal issues that manufacturers face and you will see why the costs are so high to build and certify an aircraft. The other element is economy of scale. Ford or GM build and sell millions of cars that share the liability costs. Aircraft manufacturers today are lucky to sell 200 units in a year.
“Why do aircraft cost so much?” Lots of reasons, but here are four of the most significant:
1. Low manufacturing volumes. The domestic light aircraft industry will produce about 600 vehicles this year. By contrast, the domestic automobile industry will produce nearly 13,000,000 cars and light trucks.
2. Liability costs. See number 1, above.
3. Way too many manufacturers and models. See number 1, above.
4. Regulations. Nature of the beast.
Learning lessons from the car business is one thing. Being able to apply those lessons is quite another. If anairplane-manufacturing company could expect to garner just 1/13th of that automotive annual volume (produce a million light planes per year), they would be able to do amazing things with product quality and cost. And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
I wonder if I may be allowed to voice my opinion. I an a 69-year old student pilot who is coming to the end of his training, and I hope, within the next few weeks to be the proud possessor of my PPL. Some of you may have read my article on my first solo.
I have read these articles, and in many cases I agree with the sentiments expressed. Perhaps my current experiences can serve to illustrate the problems faced by the GA community, certainly here in Europe.
Despite the numerous views where this was not considered a “major obstacle” in my view it is. Generally speaking, having lived and worked in North America for many years, your disposable income levels are much higher than in Europe. So, if you think it expensive, consider how we feel, especially as with the current austere fiscal environment in Europe governments everywhere are looking for new “revenue streams”, and GA is attracting unwelcome attention. The Italians seem hell-bent on just about destroying GA with their proposed new taxes. I read an article recently where they are proposing to levy a weight-based tax on any GA aircraft that stays in Italian airspace for more than 48 hours, and for a Cessna 150 that amounts to about 800 Euro. How’s that for encouragement – fly into Italy on-route to somewhere else, get stuck there because of bad weather, and find yourself saddled with an 800 Euro tax!
Airport Accessibility & Security
Don’t get me started on Security Theatre! As a non-Cypriot I had to go through an incredible number of bureaucratic hoops just to get a pass to access the GA area! It took more than four months, and involved a certificate from the local police that I had no criminal record, as well as one from Ireland where I had come from, as well as a written security awareness exam and finally a verbal examination as well! Even now, despite having gone through all these hoops and wearing the requisite pass, when I arrive at the airport I have to pass through a police security checkpoint with X-ray scanners and metal detectors, as well as mandatory fingerprint scanning – worse than passengers on a commercial flight! How about that for discouragement?
I have to agree with the many comments that state that the present methods are antiquated and are largely based on the same premise I encountered when I was 17 and learning to drive a car – the driving instructor freely admitted that his job was to get you past the test. Similarly here, although no-one likes to admit it, the structure, content, and methodology are all aimed at satisfying the flight examination and rote learning of the theory to pass the written exams. I had numerous questions regarding various aspects of the mechanics and theory of flying only to be told that “this is not required for your PPL” What about my desire to learn, to fully comprehend what I’m doing? In the end, the CFI had to structure the instruction to suit me, admitting that yes, their basic methodology is designed to teach monkeys to fly – I was a ‘difficult’ student because of my advanced engineering background, a background in physics, mathematics, etc, which meant that I knew far more about the theory than most students, and this posed a ‘challenge’ to their normal training methods and syllabus.
Now here I really have to agree with your correspondents. The bird I’m using is a 37-year old Cessna 150. Although mechanically sound with a nearly new engine and prop, the inside trim is cracked, broken, dirty, and generally tatty. Bits are hanging off. Don’t pull too hard on the door handle, it may come off. For ages the inside latch on my side did not work, and the only way to open the door was via the window and the outside catch. I can’t recall how many times the window has popped open in flight. The seat cushion is now so compressed after 37 years of use that, being short – 5’4″ – I can’t see over the coaming. My early lessons were fraught with difficulty and my instructor finally asked me why I was not getting the nose and horizon properly set up and I had to confess, I couldn’t see the damn horizon from where I was sitting unless I stretched up. I now have to use a thick firm cushion, but that has immeasurably helped. By my estimation it is significantly underpowered. With two people on board and a full load of fuel and taking off on a 40C/50%RH day, normal for summer in Cyprus, she can barely manage a 500’/minute climb. When practicing steep turns at 3000′ it will barely maintain altitude even with full throttle. I thought this was ‘normal’ until I had a pleasure flight as PIC in a Piper Cherokee with my CFI, which, comparatively speaking, fairly leapt into the air, and was MUCH easier to fly and land!
I am DETERMINED to get my PPL! I admit I will be one of those ‘Weekend Warriors’ who want to fly simply for the pleasure of ‘being up there’. My wife has stated in no uncertain terms that she’s not going to fly with me, she hates motorcycles, small boats, and light aircraft. He hates me going out to town or the hardware store or the bank on my scooter, so thoughts of coming with me from the island of Cyprus across to the Greek island of Rhodes or over to Beirut is ‘wishful thinking’ – to say the least. My ideal aircraft is one of the new VLSA breed, preferably with electronic fuel injection, electronic ignition and glass instrument panel. At my age I guess I have to accept that I’d better do it now before one of the Health & Safety rules forbid me even though my health is good. In this respect I have to applaud the UK where for simple aircraft and pleasure flying you only need the same level of certification as for driving a car.
When I started my course there were 17 students. There are now only 3. With the exception of myself, the others were much younger, in their late teens to late twenties. Since cost was obviously not a factor with these other students – at least judging by the cars that they used – why did they drop out? I can well see that with governments wanting ever more intrusive controls – all in the name of security, of course – that unless we can reverse this decline then within a few years Private Pilots may be an extinct species. Equally, when a certain ‘official’ expresses the opinion that if he had his way there would be no such thing as a private pilot, that they were a nuisance, then it is a wonder that there are ANY GA pilots left!
There is no question that cost is a major factor. When I started flying in the early 1950s, the J-3 Cub, with instructor, cost $7/hr and my first aircraft cost $600. Now a single engine aircraft full of unnecessary avionics bought and flown by people who often do not know how to use the stuff or how to fly costs more than a good home. Another discouraging factor is all the mostly senseless regulations. Now there are gates around airports. But I don’t see mention of the change in attitude and lifestyle of people during the last decades. People sit passivly in front of TV sets watching others live and spend their lives doing video games instead of doing things themselves. College kids speak to their parents several times a day and don’t know how to run their own lives. Now all you need is money and you can buy anything; you can be the first on your block to make a trip to near space for so many kilo-bucks. Airplanes are not just for practical purposes, they let you fly. The romance of aviation is gone and people no longer have a desire to fly for the pure pleasure of it.
I’ve been trying to justify the cost of flying versus other obligations in life. Flying has literally been why I don’t have a house, pets, cable tv, etc. My poor wife is growing more frustrated every time I fly. The sad fact of GA, is that it’s mostly rich, old guys. With each short lesson costing around $175 (w/instructor) in a 172, how can anyone do this?
Another sad fact, is that old guys die. There aren’t many rich young guys anymore. So, noone is there to replace the investment banker and his fleet of Mooneys. Like with most people, it’s not a lack of interest on my part. It’s a simple lack of funds. Solve that problem, and you get a Nobel prize.
Sorry for the negativity, but this subject is very real for me. The government doesn’t want us in “their air”, and the price to even try is insane. Doesn’t mean I’m stopping, though. I still have the bug.
Many people have said that cost is a factor and I agree. Are there any schools or FBO’s that apply “Marketing 101” to their operations? I’m inundated with emailed coupons, snail-mail coupons, website promotions and other marketing techniques designed to get me to spend my money while “saving money”. How about percent off discounts for flying at off periods? How about percent off your total purchase? I suppose that some pilots would say “I’m not snookered by these deals, I know what they are doing” but I’d still bet that subconsciously they’d buy in and for sure many spouses would take notice.
For years we have had block-time purchases but that is not really appealing to most folks, particularly those who have heard about schools that went belly-up. Somehow a discounted per hour charge doesn’t have the same feel as presenting a coupon and watching the price change in front of your eyes with a receipt showing that you “saved” $$$$. Marketing 101.
Well stated, the world HAS changed…and the “good old times” of aviation are not returning. BUT, please notice what we NOW have. For $10K I can install an Aspen in an old “172P” and have a pretty good G-1000 panel! With an iPad and Stratus I have live weather on board (no subscription) and incredible data and telemetry…this was inconceivable when I learned to fly 40 years ago! These tools add an incredible value without a lot of cost…sell THIS!
Additionally, as the manager of a flying club, I NOW have modern internet tools to keep my whole membership connected; FaceBook, Twitter et. al. did not exist in the good old days! I would advocate that we need to stop moaning and use the opportunities we now have: onward!
Good points. Lost in all the gloom are some of the great advances in avionics–not all expensive.
For training purposes, why do flight schools insist on using 20-50 year old Cessna 150s? Cost. Why are instructors generally 20-25 year olds who are merely building time to further their own careers and have never really learned how to teach/train another aspiring pilot? Cost. Why do I have to pay, here in Northern Virginia, $125/hour for a 150 with steam gauges, lousy interior, and lackluster performance? Cost.
A new Pipistrel trainer costs $85-90,000 with steam gauges, zero time, and performance above and beyond a 150. But, can your local FBO afford it? The better question is, can he afford not to?
I don’t have THE solution. I say “back to basics” to bring the COST down AND enjoy the scenery. I learned on an aircraft with an airspeed and an altimeter, off of a country air strip, instructed by the Principal of the Junior High School who taped over the ball on the panel, because he didn’t want me to become dependent on it. I like a full house panel as well as anybody, but I wonder if all that high dollar technology on the panel isn’t intimidating to a kid making a decision to take lessons. MY financial statement says the LSA’s cost too much and the fixed costs of owning is prohibitive. Yes; I look at the used aircraft For Sale regularly.
That graph shows you the relentless march of the baby boomers through our society. The 70’s and the early 80’s were a time of huge inflation(Govt was printing money to pay for the Vietnam War). You could buy a new Porsche and sell it a year later for what you paid for it. Ditto for an A/C. When there is inflation you don’t keep cash, you buy things. Real Estate prices were also going through an enormous upswing as the first of the baby boomers were putting families together. By around 1980, if you wanted a mortgage, rates of 15+% were the norm. From around 1966 till about 1983 the DOW IND remained around a 1000.
About 1983 open season was declared on blue collar Middle Class America and it’s discretionary income. Company after company fell to the leveraged buy-out. Dow took off. Buy it, break it up, sell it off, make millions, put thousands out of work, losing their Medical and Pension Plans. It’s 1990 and the DOW is around 3000. A vintage 60’s Ferrari which used go for $65,000(half of a new 2 family in the NYC area at the time) went for $3/4 million a yr or so later. This was no longer inflation but enormous increase in discretionary income for the select few.
Spin one one brings up the point of young instructors with little experience. I almost gave up on flight training when I had a young instructor who was immature and unable to control her emotions when i made mistakes. The instructor was so bad that when I was climbing out at the correct VX for a short field take off she screamed at me to maintain airspeed, when I was. I found an ex Air Force pilot who had years of flying experience to teach me to fly, and I successfully completed my flight training. I think encouraging older, more experienced pilots especially ex military pilots to flight instruct would draw more potential pilots, and perhaps lower the drop out rate. I could have easily been part of the drop out statistics had I not found this instructor who was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and an excellent teacher.
Old Racers Adage: Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go? As a business tool the bug smasher fleet is competing directly against the INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM. Up to about 400-500 miles cars are competitive with the slower end of GA. In a car, if you don’t drive like a lunatic you can usually cruise 75-80mph, in some places more, without hassle from the cops. At those speeds today’s cars are not the handful they were 30 or 40 years ago. Today’s cars are much safer in general and in particular when compared to GA. Cars are also not subject to limitations such as winds aloft and weather minimums plus they have door to door convenience. You don’t need to spend $10K for a PPL plus another $10K for an instrument ticket and worry about staying current.
The personal commitment necessary to stay current and maintain proficiency in something faster is only for a select few. Breaking out at 200 and a 1/2 single pilot at night, for instance, is not for everybody.
You’re 100% right–the competition has really stepped up its game and we haven’t. Driving is cheaper and easier than ever and airlines are cheaper and easier than ever (although definitely not “better” or “more enjoyable!”). Interestingly, turbine aircraft are as good a competition as ever for the airlines and driving–a TBM 850 or Citation Mustang really is like a personal airliner. We simply have to get some of that utility into sub-$1 million airplanes. To me, an affordable turbine engine would be a tremendous step forward, but those who know seem pretty skeptical that this will ever happen.
I am almost done my PPL but even a PPL with night rating is not all that useful for transportation. The additional first cost of getting an instrument rating and maintaining safe currency for that makes driving more and more attractive.
Perhaps in 10 years we will see synthetic vision developed to a point where “synthetic VFR” will be a possibility, hopefully reducing the amount of training time and money required for a single pilot to fly through instrument conditions. We will of course have to relegate steam-gauge IFR training to backup status as there’s no way to make IFR more accessible if you have to be equally proficient on steam-gauge IFR and the “synthetic VFR.”
Of course Clay Lacy said the same thing 10 years ago, but there is progress.
John–I’ve always appreciated your perspective, though I don’t always agree. I can’t agree with much this week.
First, the arguments presented all week seem tired and repetitive. I haven’t really seen anything that doesn’t sound like a rerun. Yawn.
Second, why not suggest an innovation in the way aviation business is run, like the OpenAirplane initiative.
Last, using numbers of piston deliveries as a metric is shallow and nearsighted. What if the OEMs just flooded the market so many years ago that we don’t need any more new planes? The poor business performance of most piston manufacturers is just one resounding argument that suggests that we don’t really know what we are doing with aircraft inventory anyway. “I can’t sell airplanes. Let’s build another one.” This is a horrible business model.
If we want to fix the problem, perhaps we should address it with new solutions.
Thanks for the comments, Mark. I’d take issue with the idea that the arguments are all tired. To me, what’s tired is “it’s too expensive and costs too much.” We’ve been harping on cost for decades and it hasn’t changed anything. And while piston deliveries may not be a perfect metric, I think it helps define just how bad things are. There’s no way to spin a 90+% drop in new airplane deliveries as a good thing. Sure, flooding the market is a bad idea, but so is making 600 airplanes a year for the total industry. That’s barely a pulse.
I like OpenAirplane. I like AOPA’s emphasis on flying clubs. I like the movement to improve flight training. I think all of these are worthy initiatives that will move the needle. But what I’m suggesting is that it will take much more than that–this is small ball. They may help stop the bleeding, but they hardly point toward a new golden age (or anything close). To make real progress, we need to swing for the fences.
This has been an informative and stimulating series on the declining pilot population…and Air Facts is proving to be a great forum to address it.
You made some great points, I particularly the motto “more fun for recreational pilots and especially more utility for transportation pilots”. Sadly your piece and subsequent comments seem to dismiss the recreational pilot and apparently the used single piston pilot as “small ball”.
What is the greater threat to GA…the decline in the number of active pilots, or the decline in new aircraft deliveries? Are they tightly linked? How? Don’t know, just asking. Even wildly optimistic estimates for the number of new TBM 850 and Citation Mustang pilots won’t increase the pilot population much. I think you’ll need us all.
Tom, the decline in pilots is certainly more important than airplane deliveries. We posted a graph of pilots in the first article last week–I’m just using piston deliveries here as another data point. But pilots matter–no argument at all.
And we do need recreational pilots. Again, I’m firmly in this camp myself. To me, this is the foundation and probably the first floor of our house. But if we want to add that big addition on, I just think we need to go beyond that. It’s how motorcycles went mainstream and lots of other examples.
To the points you made in your excellent article, and with acknowledgement of points made above by David Dickins…
It IS a new day, and that’s about to present us with an opportunity to bifurcate our traditional (read: “outdated”) definition of “aviating.” Soon it no longer will be necessary to conflate “participating in GA” with “holding a pilot certificate.” Although the majority of certificate-holders don’t want to hear it, the future of GA is in fully autonomous aircraft.
Whatever reasons one ascribes to the declining number of GA pilots, and to the low numbers of student starts and completions, the irrefutable fact is that ALL of those reasons vanish together if it no longer is necessary to obtain a certificate in the first place.
For the “pure transportation” crowd, about whom David rightly expresses concerns, the fact is that today, obtaining a pilot certificate is not their objective – it’s merely a required means to achieving their objective (reliable, safe, airline-alternative transportation).
For the ”let’s go for a plane ride!” crowd, obtaining and maintaining a certificate has become far too much effort for the occasional value that it delivers.
Autonomous aircraft won’t abolish hand-flying, for those who still derive pleasure, value, and a sense of accomplishment from it. What autonomous aircraft WILL do is make the true value of GA available to a hugely-expanded population of prospects, by removing the principal barrier-to-entry (obtaining/maintaining a pilot certificate), and by increasing GA safety by an order of magnitude.
Tom, I think this type of radical thinking is what we need in GA. Personally I think we’re a long way off from autonomous aircraft trickling down to personal aviation, but I do think it’s part of the answer eventually, especially for the non-enthusiast.
One facet of the problem (probably not the biggest one, either) that was alluded to was the loss of the “cool” factor about flying. I’m sure there were always timid people who were afraid to fly. I suspect in the glory days of aviation, a good number of them would step up and volunteer to at least be a passenger in spite of their fears just so they could tell their friends that they had experienced flight “just like” the admired military pilots that had been glamorized in the press during WWII. I’ve noted a number of instances of people who now feel no need to conquer their fears to fly in small planes since they have experienced airline travel (they think that’s flying!?!) and they can fly (they think) an Apache attack helicopter via simulator in their home computer whenever they want to. It’s a ‘been there, done that’ situation and why should they bother to get past their fears to experience the real thing? I guess it’s easier to be lazy and fearful these days. My partner in our plane wants out, partly because his new wife is so afraid of flying she literally becomes upset at the thought of walking into the hanger and sitting in the plane, never mind actually pulling it out and starting it. On the upside, it does allow for a little swagger and a chance to save some money on the lunchtime “friendly” poker game here at work. When I decline to play, the initial response was to question my manhood and bravery. I mentioned that I bet my life on my 50 year old plane and my flying skills twice a day and after that, playing a game for $5 in a safe, airconditioned lunch room on the ground just didn’t seem exciting. I then asked if any of them could muster up the intestinal fortitude to come fly with me. I got two takers out of 8 players….and the last laugh.
In all of these discussions, I saw very little about experimental aircraft. As a Van’s Aircraft fan, although not owning one (yet), I can get from Michigan to Florida faster than Delta if it involves a stopover in Atlanta. Such a plane with all the bells and whistles would cost about $85K if I built it myself, and under $100K if I bought a used one.
There is a person on the Van’s Airforce web site who lives in NJ, and travels all over the country, by himself, for fun. People put him up for the night or provide him food. He’s a celebrity and we all wait for photos and narrative of his next adventure. The experimental owner’s group is like a big party.
Surprisingly, there have been more experimental aircraft sold lately than production aircraft. You will find the true fun flyers in this arena.
That’s where it’s at for me…experimental.
As a young professional in 1974 with some disposable income, I got my PPL and had to decide what to do with it, fly of build. I decided to fly and went through the ranks of club, partnerships and sole ownership. I got my ratings through CFI(I). After all that, I still had to decide what to do with my ratings. A sour experience with a student killed my desire to give back to the community. I realized I still had the desire to build and started to. In it, I found a vibrant network of new friends and a whole new world of learning that means I will never be bored again. The homebuilding world is selling dreams that won’t end when you get the rating. It’s very addictive.
My son in law built a serious computer and “flies” a simulator in his den. I told him I am building a computer that flies. That made him think. I can’t wait to take him up in it. My flying computer is a Grand Rapids Technology EFIS that was designed by an ex-Boeing engineer. He left the big industry for the experimental industry to escape the gray flannel world and is having a ball with the rest of us.
It could be the next Big Thing. Just imagine, a small entrepreneur who churns out new designs with Apple-like regularity making the masses give in to desire for the newest toys. It’s what drove Apple to become the biggest company ever. Van’s Aircraft has the same formula and is selling airplanes hand over fist. There are other designs, but you guys have probably only heard of Van’s and so that’s the example I gave. But, you can dream the same dream for less money and more function with other designs like the Buttercup or the Tailwind. Check it out.
Great article, thanks for the positive outlook.
A statistic I saw the other week about Generation Y not getting their drivers license got me to thinking is it related. The reasons the “experts” give that Generation y isn’t getting their drivers license are as varied as the ones about aviation. Cost, a huge factor. Other priorities, a major factor. Mass transit easier/cheaper than ever. Then they go into environmental points. The biggest comes down to the internet, they can “hang out” online. I wonder if the fact that I can do a virtual tour of pretty much any place on the planet online makes the idea of flying low and slow not as attractive: after all I can do the same thing on google maps (a little sarcasm there).