Flying club
7 min read

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of five articles called Mayday! The declining pilot population. You can read all the articles here.

I was born and raised in the UK and learned to fly in a small Scottish flying club based around a Piper L-4 Cub. Group ownership of aircraft is very common across Europe as a way of dealing with the high cost of flying and can also provide a friendly social environment. For me the latter was especially true as one of the aircraft co-owners eventually became my wife!

GA airport

The humble general aviation airport–still America’s greatest strength.

Janet and I moved across the Atlantic in 2001 when I was hired to run the wonderful EAA museum in Oshkosh. We were completely blown away by the aviation environment we found in the USA–compared to the UK it felt like arriving in paradise! Half price airplanes, fuel at one-third the price, airports everywhere, free weather briefings, affordable hangars, no charges to fly in controlled airspace and, get this, no landing fees, anywhere… wow, this was the place to be!

We discovered important new freedoms from government interference and large associations to protect the right to fly. There were incredible huge expos like Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun, along with hundreds of local air shows and grassroots fly-ins. And what about these astonishing places called “residential air parks,” an incredible concept!

Even today, Janet and I still giggle with glee every time we experience the highest achievement of aviation civilization: the airport courtesy car.

Seriously, the range and quality of GA infrastructure in the United States can sometimes be taken for granted, but it’s like no other place on earth. One really comes to appreciate an ample supply of mechanics when you’ve had the experience of being grounded for weeks because no one is available, in a country of 60 million people, to make a simple repair to your plane.

With this background you might begin to understand the passion and commitment I feel towards my new job with AOPA. The organization has established a new unit called the Center to Advance the Pilot Community, and its mission is to reverse a slow decline in general aviation in the United States that has been underway for the past three decades.

Sitting on the desk on my first morning was an excellent research study published recently by a graduate student at MIT with help from the readers of AvWeb. It uses a large amount of statistical data to confirm what active pilots know from their own observations–by almost every measure available, GA has been in a slow and steady decline for roughly 30 years. There are fewer pilots, they are flying less, and they are getting older.

These words really jumped at me out of the MIT report:

…as the pilot population declines, in part due to increasing costs, the economies of scale in all aspects of cost in general aviation will diminish and will push costs up even more, creating a crippling positive feedback loop.

This is exactly what happened in the UK, and we simply can’t afford to let it happen here. Unfortunately, the MIT study shows that the downward trend seems to have been accelerating since 2008, and this is creating the sense of urgency that AOPA feels in establishing the new Center.

So what is to be done?

Obviously we need to be eternally vigilant about the cost and complexity of aviation, and I feel the biggest impact an organization like AOPA can have here is through government advocacy. There will always be defensive efforts like the ongoing fight against user fees, but what makes us feel really good are the times when we can get on the offensive and achieve a reduction in cost or bureaucratic burden. (The 3rd class medical petition being a good current example.) I would be interested to read your suggestions about where we might go next.

Some important work at FAA is being done by my former EAA colleague, Earl Lawrence, to reform and modernize the aircraft certification process. Faster and less costly ways to bring modern technology into GA aircraft will help meet customer expectations, and it should bring important safety benefits too. It is really good to see the FAA starting to think about customer needs–we should encourage this at every step, and also take note ourselves. Any industry that becomes disconnected from the needs and desires of its customers is surely headed for failure.

Flying club

AOPA thinks flying clubs are an important part of a strong general aviation community.

The first major new initiative of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community will be to get strongly behind the concept of flying clubs. We are announcing all the details next week at the AOPA Summit in Palm Springs. But, briefly, flying clubs do seem like a solid place to invest some of our time and resources. They work hard to keep the cost of flying down, usually with the type of supportive community that research has shown to be a vital factor in keeping pilots active and engaged. It seems to be a vibrant and successful model (our research identified over 650 flying clubs in the USA) with lots of room for growth and improvement.

We will also be continuing the work that AOPA began a couple of years ago with the publication of detailed research into the horrendously bad drop-out rate (80%) in flight training. If we could move that needle even 10%, we would capture thousands of new pilots each year. The research work is now translating into practical projects such as the Flight Training Excellence Awards, which have received over 2,400 nominations from customers for flight schools and CFIs. By recognizing the best in the business, we hope to motivate an improvement in standards. The Awards are also creating a way we can start directing new students to higher quality flight training experiences.

In addition to looking at how we bring new people into aviation, we’ll also be paying attention to the other end of the pipeline. There’s an old business adage that it’s cheaper to retain a customer than it is to acquire a new one. Yet every year we allow thousands of people to drift away–people that have invested all the time and money to earn their certificates. I see ways that we can work a lot harder to keep them, and to attract recently-lapsed pilots back.

So these are my initial thoughts on the activities of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community. But the real purpose of writing this article is to stimulate some discussion and feedback. I don’t have all the answers (yet!) and am really interested in your ideas on how we can turn GA around.

Finally, let’s try to stay positive and optimistic. I can’t think of any turnaround in history that was driven by negative thinking, and we actually have plenty of reasons to be cheerful! Aviation has lost none of its ability to provide incredible, life-enhancing experiences. It’s safer than ever before, and there are millions of people out there with the time and money to fly. We also have an incredibly strong community. Aviation seems to have an uncanny way of attracting some of the finest people in the world, and in this work ahead of us, they are probably our most important asset of all.

About the author: Born and raised in northern England, Adam obtained degrees in modern history and museology from the University of Leeds, England and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Prior to relocating to the USA he managed the Scottish National Museum of Flight, located on a historic airfield near Edinburgh. While there, he learned to fly in a World War II Piper L-4. Adam worked for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh from 2001 until 2012 where he oversaw the operation of the EAA AirVenture Museum, aircraft operations, youth education programs, membership programs, Chapters and publications. He also organized the program of features and attractions at the annual AirVenture fly-in. He recently joined AOPA as senior vice president of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community. The Center has been created to stop the slow, steady decline in the number of certificated pilots in the United States and seek ways to stimulate growth. Adam currently owns a Cessna 180 and a clipped-wing J-3 Cub, and is building a replica of a World War I Sopwith Pup using original plans.

Adam Smith
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37 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    I don’t want to be negative, and I DO appreciate the efforts of AOPA & EAA and Sporty’s etc etc to reinvigorate GA. But, if flying clubs become the dominant form of GA in America, won’t we then have become Europe?

    • Steve B
      Steve B says:

      I am relatively new (actually back into it after 30+ yrs away from)to GA and I am eternally greatful to the flying club I belong to. But one of many things that shocks me, as someone who is very interested in owning my own GA airplane is the fact that a 15 or 20 year old C172 or C182 is outrageously expensive! Why? It’s not there is a scarsity of them is it? Why? On what econmic model or basis can you justify $175,000.00 and upward for a 20+ year old airplane that came off the Cessna assembly line almost like the Model T did? So that’s a starting point. A flying club is a great place to get started and to build hours/experience, but GA A/C ownership is almost out of reach for a “middle class” American and that is wrong!

      • Murray Lundberg
        Murray Lundberg says:

        Steve, where does $175,000 come from?? I can buy a 172 for $30-35,000 any day of the week. I almost bought one 2 years ago in good shape with reasonable hours for an even $30k. That’s barely more than the price of a new, loaded Harley, and a bike is what I bought instead (for just over 1/3 that price). I had a 172 for a few years many years ago, and at 61 years old I’m just looking for the most fun for the buck now. Another plane is still on The List, it just didn’t make the last cut.

    • Peter
      Peter says:

      The simple answer to: “if flying clubs become the dominant form of GA in America, won’t we then have become Europe?” is; Soooo, what’s wrong with us becoming more European, more flexible in our approach to flying?

      In 1982 I visited a well established flying club south of London, The Tiger Club at Red Hill Aerodrome. At that time their av gas was over $4/gal. I shudder to think what it costs today. Yet the club members were out flying on that Saturday, mostly in twenty minute increments.

      There was a level of enthusiasm among the club members that I’d never seen at any airport in the USA. That enthusiasm seemed to typify the English. They are grateful, enthusiastic survivors of wars, a people who have used ingenuity and courage to overcome great obstacles. I could tell another story about a crippled French pilot I met here, a man who’s determination to fly was and is inspirational.

      So I’m happy to take a page from the Europeans, becoming more adaptable when the need arise

      With Respect, Peter

  2. Adam Smith
    Adam Smith says:

    John, thanks for the question. I don’t think there’s any desire that flying clubs become the “dominant” form of GA in America. They are being positioned as a healthy part of the aviation ecosystem, something worthy of investment and support. But individual aircraft ownership is good too! In my own case, the flying club created a path to full aircraft ownership. We can see this in the research that AOPA has just done – 34% of the 800 pilots that were interviewed started in a flying club, but moved up the ladder of ownership.

    Steve, new aircraft are out of the price range of middle class America, for sure. But there are a lot of great airplanes in the $20K to $40K range of the used aircraft market. Another angle to consider is shared ownership. My first stepping stone to full aircraft ownership was buying a 1/5th share in an airplane. Even today my clipped wing Cub is actually half-owned by someone else…. but I still feel it’s “my” Cub!

    • Bill
      Bill says:

      “Steve, new aircraft are out of the price range of middle class America, for sure. But there are a lot of great airplanes in the $20K to $40K range of the used aircraft market”

      You’ve now just put a hard ceiling on the number of pilots in the US if they are limited to a finite (and diminishing) number of used aircraft available to them. Used aircraft will not solve the declining pilot population problem.

  3. Connor O.
    Connor O. says:

    I am a relatively new pilot. I was introduced to GA flying in 2008, then I started Flight training in 2010. I just got my PPL 4 months ago at age 18. One of the main reasons I was able to finish my flight training was a scholarship through the school I attended. I have also been able to work with a flight school to build time as well as gain experience on the mechanical aspects. Its when people reach out to help other people get involved, that the pilot community grows stronger and more abundant. take someone flying just once, and show them how flying is. Now at 155hrs. I am looking at becoming an LSA instructor in the short term and CFII longterm; so I can do my best to add to the pilot population.

    • Adam Smith
      Adam Smith says:

      Congratulations on your PPL Connor.

      “Its when people reach out to help other people get involved, that the pilot community grows stronger and more abundant. take someone flying just once, and show them how flying is”.

      It makes me very pleased that someone aged just 18 would write this. Follow these words and you’ll inspire a lot of people to fly in your lifetime!

      • Connor O.
        Connor O. says:

        It’s what we should all do. I had graduated from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy at Sun n Fun. First full 4year class. Every afternoon I went and volunteered with the Sun n Fun and their museum. The volunteers there are the people I want to be like. All around if you search for people who want to better aviation, you will find them. That is not how it should be done, we should go about finding new people to become pilots as well as encouraging student pilots to finish their license and go onto their IFR or whatever their desire is. The world is wide open for us, and we are obligated to open it up to everyone that we can.

  4. Ira Bourstein
    Ira Bourstein says:

    Sometimes the good news is the bad news. While glass cockpits have many obvious advantages, they tend to be super expensive. LSA was supposed to provide a cheap entry to flying, but all the LSA manufacturers seem determined to include avionics so expensive that they push the cost out of reach for most potential buyers. I wonder whether an LSA with NOT-state-of-the-art round dials might be affordable enough to bring in more buyers. Just wondering…

    • Ray
      Ray says:

      Many LSA’s offer a lower cost steam gauge panel option, but sales are often low for those models. Buyers have voted for glass with their dollars. In some ways that is not surprising. I own a PiperSport, and one of the reasons I went that route is I wanted a more modern airplane, and interior space, comfort, BRS and avionics were all part of that. Round dials, while less expensive and arguably just as effective for recreational light sport flying, just didn’t fit with that goal.

  5. Rich
    Rich says:

    Flying clubs may be the answer for someone who already has their ticket, but I don’t see many clubs letting students in them. First, the cost of insurance with students is really high, and second, as a member, I don’t want a student doing bellyflops on the runway with a plane that I’ve slaved on helping with a wash or at annual to save the club a few bucks. In any club, you will have 1/3 that treat the plane as their own, another 1/3 who never appears at any event and never flies, and the last 1/3 for who the club is just rent-a-plane. This last 1/3 is often young, rich, and just looking for cheap flying. You also seldom see this 1/3 at any event that involves work.

    There is also the need to satisfy a large diversity of thought. Some want a new plane with glass and all the bells and whistles, figuring they might as well fight for it as they’ll only be paying about 5% of whatever it costs. Others are quite content to fly 35 miles for breakfast and could care less if the plane had GPS, dual coms,or any vacuum/AHRS type device. So as a result, you keep what you have, and the let’s get new types aren’t satisfied and if you upgrade just a teeny bit, the don’t want to spends aren’t satisfied.

    I see the best situation being some form of partnership. The max of 3 pilots seems to keep the insurance companies at bay. The partners all need to be similar in that they have jobs so don’t want to take the plane for 4 months to go to Arizona for the winter, and their type of use of the plane is similarly matched.

    Good luck in finding that.

  6. Ray W.
    Ray W. says:

    Adam – thanks for the optimism! I am 53, but have only had my private for 4 years. My experience in aviation has been great, nothing like most of the experiences described in these articles and comments. I was happy to see the optimism in this article, and I believe more of that along with the willingness to embrace change are necessary to arrest the decline.
    The pilot population is aging. I find many people as they age tend to think the world is falling apart and things were so much better when we were younger. Let’s not fall in that trap and take on the negativity reflected in much of this series of articles. We have a wonderful GA infrastructure and a passionate group of aviators. The past is history, so it is time to let it go, take the lessons we learned, and accept that a future that is different can still be better. We are the ones who can make that happen!

  7. Gary and Alice Nelson
    Gary and Alice Nelson says:

    My wife and I fly everywhere together. We flew to and around Europe and back. We have been in two flying clubs. We have lived on a community airport and understand their advantages and dis advantages. We have observed first hand the drop off in activity on our airports in winter.

    Clubs are a great method of starting a flying career. They offer a support community, help with how to keep an airplane flying, and an economical method to try flying and decide if it is really for you.

    But to grow our pilot population our airplanes need to offer a passable value proposition. That has two parts. It has to offer utility and be affordable. The affordable part requires people have high income jobs and feel secure. The last 4 years this part of the equation has been getting worse. But we don’t have a reasonable ability to change that other than to position ourselves to take advantage when it does turn around.

    The utility part is where we fall short. We, us, the pilot community, continually stress what we can’t do with our airplanes. “Time to spare, go by air”. Commute to work in your airplane? I have seen this idea pummeled unmercifully on the forums. “unsafe” “you will have to drive half the time” ” you will be stuck at work or won’t get to work”.

    Our IFR training is frequently (almost always?) done through rating acquisition without real weather experience accompanied by an instructor. ..sorry, weathered out today, we’ll cancel and reschedule. We are teaching procedures, but not “weather flying”.

    We tend to suggest that if we fly a smaller airplane than the pilot making the comment, the flight just wouldn’t be possible. How many of you remember when the mantra was that it takes 4 engines on your jet to cross the ocean? The converse of that was my wife and I in our hotel room overlooking the Reykjavik, Iceland airport congratulating ourselves on flying in from Bergen, Norway when the weather was so bad when we saw a Long eze taxi in. A German pilot had just flown in flown in from Narsarsuaq, Greenland.

    The truth is, our modern small aircraft can be safely and reliably used for transportation. Mr Collins strikes me as a prime example of a pilot that safely, over a long period of time, used his airplanes for on demand transportation. I know other examples. Yes, our airplanes have limits. So do our cars. Sometimes we have to put chains/snow tires/4wd on the car. Occasionally we need TKS/Boots on our airplane.

    We, as a pilot community, need to change the negative value we project. Partly because it is not true – we can safely use our aircraft for reliable (not invincible, reliable) transportation given proper training and skill.

    Anyway, we think so. And we are halfway through our third engine trying it out.

    • Adam Smith
      Adam Smith says:

      Gary and Alice. Thanks for the great comment. Flying the Atlantic in a Long Ez is the kind of thing I dream about! I agree that it’s extremely important for us to project the positives of aviation, sometimes we just seem to take it for granted.

  8. Peter Lovett
    Peter Lovett says:

    I was born (early 1950s’) when air travel was just becoming an accepted part of the culture of where I lived. Air travel was seen as something amazing and sophisticated (people got dressed up – suits and ties for the men, hats and gloves for the ladies). To learn to fly was seen as something very daring and appealed to a lot of young people.

    Today air travel is something to be approached with horror and caution. Your most likely memories are being stood in a queue while being nearly strip-searched by some mindless security official working by rote. Flying just does not have the appeal that it once did and where once it attracted those who wanted to express their independence, now those people will go jump off a mountain or similar.

    We can talk about making flight training shorter until we are blue in the face but it is a dangerous route. Already in Australia many of the LSA devotees are starting to exhibit a distressing tendency to obliterate themselves against the landscape. From my observations I suggest the training is at fault and the pilots are not being properly prepared for the hazards they will face.

    I don’t pretend to have answers. What I have read here, both in the articles and comments, is commendable but I don’t think it will change the overall decline in general aviation. That side of flying appealed to a certain group of people who, unfortunately, are mostly ageing. I don’t expect the situation to change.

  9. S Booth
    S Booth says:

    After being fed up with renting and several flight clubs over 15 years I finally bought my very own plane. A Cessna 320F. This plane had low hours and mid-time engines and I knew going in that there would be a few squawks to deal with. After replaceing an overdue O2 bottle for the awful price demanded I was needing to replace the feeder line from the O2 regulator to the guage on my panel. A 4′ line of small copper tubing with a compression fitting on either end. $30.00 part, right? $489.00 later I got the part. Over regulation has put the price of these normal type products in the same catagory as the $900 pentagon hammer. No wonder people are scared away.

    • Stephen Phoenix
      Stephen Phoenix says:

      Actually, over regulation has little to do with the price of parts. There are several factors, but over regulation isn’t the big one. If Ford had built 600 cars of a specific model 30 years ago and you called them up for a part for one of those cars, you would be surprised at the quoted cost. That is a very similar situation that Cessna faces when supplying a part for your 320.

      • S Booth
        S Booth says:

        That might be the case with parts that are specfic to my airplane, or airplanes with short runs, but the part that I mentioned is a generic O2 part that is listed not only for a 320 but for several models of Lear jet and Cessnas alike. You can say that regulation has little to do with the price of parts, but I for one don’t buy it. Just look at alternators and starters. Even a simple sump drain. Pretty generic but because of the need to have certification, a lot more expensive.

        • Peter T
          Peter T says:

          Absolutely true, I paid $434 for a new battery in the Archer last month. Don’t tell me it has 10 times the capability of my car’s battery!

  10. John Ylinen
    John Ylinen says:

    Congrats on your new position and role. Good luck.

    I watch your video with Craig on AOPA and read this article.

    I was surprised with the first two priority that you are taking. If I understand your role is to grow the pilot population.

    While I think improving the flight training experience is a good goal and I know that AOPA research showed some significant quality issue even if you got 70% of the pilot starts to complete, it would not increase the pilot population. Not given the number of pilots that are becoming inactive.

    I also think having a more robust Flying Club network would be nice. I remember back in the 70s when Hertz started to have a nation wide rental program. The question one might ask is why do we have nation wide auto rental companies, but not personal aircraft rentals. Come back to one of the major problems in Personal Aviation and that is the government regulation. Lots more work to be done there.

    I know several ways to increase the active pilot population by 25% or more in 3 years.

    Given were we are right now with the regulation and cost of aviation; you have to analyze who can afford to have personal aviation. I find it interesting that people will buy an RV and have it sit around. Clearly they see value in having an RV. What is it?

    So here is one of my thoughts. Who can afford to buy a plane or be in a partnership or even a flying club. There is a large percentage of Professionals that work for large corporation and spend considerable time each month on travel. Mostly regional because that is how most companies organize their sales and support personnel. Most of these companies allow the employee even demand they use their personal auto for travel but deny them to use a personal plane. Why, because they are afraid of being sued. If you can reverse that policy; then think how many professionals would get a plane use it during the week and then know they could use it for family travel on weekends and vactions. To make the significant time and cost investment to get a license; there has to be a good value statement.

    Implementing this as one of your high priorities will reverse the trend and also the stigma around Personal Airplanes. I know how to get the companies to change and it.

    Then AOPA could runs ADs showing a Professional getting home each night and then taking a family vacation with his plane and how they went to a great place and didn’t have to go Commercial. It is nice to run ADs showing Harrison Ford, but most of us are not Harrison Ford.

    We need AOPA to make bold changes in Personal Aviation. We need to grow the population and bring in more public.

    Happy to discuss in detail. Email me.

    • Bill
      Bill says:

      ” Most of these companies allow the employee even demand they use their personal auto for travel but deny them to use a personal plane. Why, because they are afraid of being sued. If you can reverse that policy; then think how many professionals would get a plane use it during the week”

      I worked for two large companies that allowed their employees to use a personal aircraft for company business and reimbursed them for that usage. Very few employees did. I can only recall a couple of employees that did.

      I almost did once, but, in this particular case, because of the value and importance of the items and people that would be traveling, I would have had to fly a twin.

      So, in my experience, there isn’t going to be any upsurge in GA from your suggestion.

      • John Ylinen
        John Ylinen says:

        Glad you worked for large companies that did, but that is not the norm. Was your timeframe pre 9/11? I can tell you that my discussions with Pilot and Professionals in large high tech companies is they would definately fly GA if allowed. Times have changed. Also, when you do the analysis of potential NEW pilots, this group is the most attractive and has the highest potential. If AOPA got behind this and ran a marketing plan it would work.

        Given the current cost of GA and the regulation over it; there are very few individuals and families that are willing to spend their $ on it unless there is a high value statement. This group of professionals have the $ and if they could use the asset during the week for their benefit (No TSA, more flexible than Airlines, etc) and then use the asset on the weekends for their personal/family use, then they might consider it.

        If not this group, what group do you think would consider flying? Only other group is the rich and most of those would hire a part 135.

        • Adam Smith
          Adam Smith says:

          I have received lots of great feedback both in these comments and in my email inbox. One very interesting one was from a nice chap called Merril Donahoo who sent me an excellent PowerPoint presentation that he’s given to about 70 service groups (Rotary, etc) in South Carolina. Makes a very compelling case for business use of GA aircraft. This kind of outreach is not particularly glamorous, but I believe it to be very effective. Drop me a line if you want a copy of the presentation.

  11. Neil
    Neil says:

    We haven’t seen anything yet unless we change the current trends mentioned below. We have a choice.

    During the Presidential debate last Wednesday night Mr. Obama says if you can afford a business aviation airplane you can afford to pay a little more.

    The national average price for a gallon of automobile gas was $1.61 before the President took office. Today it is above $3.72 a gallon nationally. The average price of gas today in Los Angeles, CA is $4.63 ( 2012).

    Some gas stations in CA are out of gas and closed and some are charging $5.29 a gallon. Some are saying it can go as high as $6.00 dollars here in CA.

    It’s getting to the point we can’t afford to or find gas to drive to airport to go flying.

    Wasn’t it the product liability lawsuits filed by lawyers that almost put Piper Aircraft out of business during the 70’s and 80’s? Those lawsuits help to drive up the cost of an airplane purchase and the rental costs.

    And the recent lawsuit filed against Cirrus aircraft, the instructor, and the University of North Dakota. The judge ruled that the university was not a public learning institute so therefore the public learning institute clause did not apply. What? The University of North Dakota is not a public learning institute.

    These lawsuits drive up insurance premiums, check out aircraft requirements that make the cost of flying more expensive.

    The market place drives the American consumer. When the cost outweighs the benefits they stop purchasing a service or product and move on to something they find value.

    There is nothing negative or positive about it. It’s all about the consumer making purchasing choices based on their perceived value of that product or service.

  12. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Seems to me that all the writers and commenters are correct. However, I’m reminded by them of the hoary story of 7 blind men examining an elephant for the first time. The one who grabbed an ear thought elephants were like palm leaves; the tail-holder thought elephants were like ropes; and the one who touched a leg thought the elephant was like a tree; and so on. We are seeing the challenges to GA from our various perspectives and thus perceive different problems and solutions.

    Clearly, the decline in pilot population will continue. I learned recently that the average age of EAA members is about 65 years. A demographer could make some sobering predictions from that number alone. As others have written, even dramatic percentage increases in student pilot completion rates would not keep up with the inevitable attrition of pilots. The only choice is to face a new reality: as Richard Collins has written, the GI Bill and the post-WWII surge in private pilots licenses is a historical anomaly not to be repeated.

    The new reality is that GA will be a smaller part of all aviation; that it will be expensive relative to middle incomes; that cost-sharing will be required for most people to take part; that flying clubs and private airports will be important to GA’s survival; and that flight instruction will have to be more geographically focused, so that centers can be busy and support professional instructors and mechanics. The new Redbird flight training center in Texas may be a view of that future.

    There is not, in fact, a real “GA industry” any more. This makes it very difficult to get coherent and collaborative activity across flight schools, airports, and manufacturers. Small GA airports are starving for customers, and local governments are losing interest in them. This will continue: airports that go days without a single aircraft movement cannot be supported indefinitely. Only the recent recession has kept many of them from the land developers. In our area, there are seven GA airports, none of which are very busy, and only a few have real maintenance departments. Consolidation of GA activities into 1 or 2 airports would help in creation of viable flight schools, maintenance shops, and flying clubs, but who can make that happen?

    There is no one solution to these problems. The best course must be to take everything that’s been suggested here and apply the actions as best fits the local situation. The alphabet groups are doing the best they can at a national level, and I encourage especially that they work toward a regulatory and insurance climate that would foster creation and success of flying clubs. Partnerships can work and provide the social context and friendship that makes flying fun, as my nearly ten years of partnership proved. Airplanes as business tools should be sold as hard as possible. And so on. Our best hope will be to stabilize the pilot numbers as a high enough level to support a modest light plane and private flying industry. If we could have a stable or slowly growing population of 250,000 active pilots, that would be a great victory.

    What if one could go to a pilot training center in a nice place, and in 2-3 weeks go home with a Sport Pilot certificate? And after enjoying the privileges of flying an LSA-eligible plane, return when ready to complete training for a PPL? What if the school offering this training kept in touch with you by email, with reunions of graduates, suggestions for trips, discounts on pilot tsotchkes, and a system for linking those interested in a partnership? Ah, such a dream….

    But I am not terribly optimistic. The pilots I meet are some of the biggest whiners around. Flight instructors and FBO staff aren’t much better. “Ain’t it awful?” is the refrain, while we decline to raise our hands to fly Young Eagles, give talks to civic clubs, etc. As others have suggested, we have met the enemy, and we are in that number. We should each and every day sell aviation and support it. We must support and encourage the young pilots (especially women) in their optimism and hope. Otherwise, someday we’ll look to the UK and European flying clubs with wistful envy.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      Great letter!!!

      I think you have the answer even if you don’t realize it when you said,

      “We must support and encourage the young pilots (especially women) in their optimism and hope.”

      For, if you get girls and women out to the airport, the guys will follow. The young eagles is a way to start.

    • Adam Smith
      Adam Smith says:

      Hello Hunter, I remember you as the founder of the EAA Aeromedical Council! Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree very much with your final paragraph.

  13. Clive Wilton
    Clive Wilton says:

    Some very interesting thoughts and ideas, to which I would like to add some of my own.

    As a compatriot of Adam’s now living and flying in France, I have experienced european flying clubs and fully agree that they are an excellent way to attract new pilots and keep them. They often provide a social aspect which includes the spouse and family of the pilot. That in itself can help to reduce drop-outs. In addition, getting children involved and around aircraft might just light a spark in some of them which will last a lifetime.

    As for cost, there does already exist a low cost route into flying, where modern aircraft can be flown at reasonable cost and where technology is advancing rapidly. I’m talking about microlights. At the recent show at Blois in France, there was a demonstration of a two seat, retractable aircraft with a speed range from 65 to 300 kmh (35-160kts) with an empty empty weight of less than 300kg (660lbs). I wonder where you would find that in a GA aircraft. Thanks to the relatively light regulation, construction and engine technology has advanced rapidly, and microlighting is attracting many new pilots as well as quite a few older GA pilots who wish to reduce their costs.

    I’m sure also that there are qualified microlight pilots who would like to move to GA but see that even with many hundreds of hours of experience, possibly on more advanced aircraft, they are still required to complete the full PPL programme with no allowance for their microlight time.

    I wonder if AOPA can do anything to change this. I fully realise that the regulatory systems governing the two disciplines are different, but maybe some influence can be brought to bear where it is needed to change the situation. The reality is that there are many pilots who could easily pass a GST/GFT and complete cross country navigations in a Cessna with a few hours of training, but they are not allowed to.

    If we want to swell the ranks of GA pilots, perhaps we should look to the grass-roots of flying where people are able to get involved for a lower cost and catch the bug, then make it easier for those who wish to try larger aircraft to move across to GA. Sports clubs do it with their youth teams, reserve teams and womens teams. Why don’t we do it with aviation ?

    Bons vols.


  14. Ben
    Ben says:

    All great comments and insights. A few additional notes:

    The influencers in the industry need to invest money, internal resources and communications capabilities to make changes that can have real impact. Influencers would be insurance companies, AOPA, (the FAA within, if possible, their very restrictive operating environment), manufacturers and others. Reach out to flight schools and flying clubs and help them with some things that will benefit all parties, yet these operations can’t afford or don’t have the skill sets to improve. The technology that these influencers have should be harnessed to help those businesses grow, marketing, sales, personalized newsletters, social media and so on. Target and segment within the industry to maximize the growth of these businesses and draw in the new aviation enthusiasts just as any experienced company would.

    Promote and standardize the VFR and IFR use of flight simulators. All influencers should be pushing this hard. This would include using them to lower the overal costs of VFR and IFR training regardless of how much can be logged.

    Like it or not, kids today play video games and are used to technology. Use the excitement of flying and video games as an inducement, as well as other motivators that meet the needs of that generation.

    Influencers …and leaders of the industry should be reaching out to new manufactures, overseas or otherwise, to help create new 3-4 seat airplanes that can incorporate low cost technology (just like car companies do) and be manufactured at a lower cost and pass those lower costs on to the consumer.Competition will encourage natural price controls. Cost does matter and influencers need to admit it and face it.

    Insurance companies need to play their role by helping pilots protect themselves from our turbo litigious society. Allow renters to get the same kind of coverage levels they give to homeowners and businesses so that if something goes wrong, you don’t go bankrupt. Have them be involved with the manufacturers and the flight schools and create national interstate insurance coverage in a co-op manner.

    Create salaried positions with benefits for flight instructors. Their training should include sales and marketing so that they can go out into the communities they serve.

    AOPA should be creating a parts exchange that encourages the manufacturing and supplying of parts that meet certification standards at the lowest possible cost.

    AOPA has these “special relationships” with bankers. Maybe they need to work with those bankers to create nationwide flight school and club packages that can be bundled together as a collateralized mortgage obligation package and sold into the secondary market just as is done in other industries.

    Show, through free advertising, all the opportunities that exists, other than airlines, that someone who loves flying can actually pursue, medical, supplies, firefighting, humanitarian and so on. Help people start businesses that can make them money in the aviation industry.

    Aviation is one of the most passionate industry’s I have ever seen and yet the steps that other industries take, even those with similarly higher risks, to achieve their growth are not taken in the GA community.

    Flying is one of the greatest adventure we will ever experience but it is also a business that depends on practical, realistic and targeted consumer based business practices.

    Start down these roads, picking the low hanging fruit, and you will have more pilots.

    • Eric Schlanser
      Eric Schlanser says:

      Ben, Awesome post. Are you available to run for head of EAA?They are looking for one good person…and with your wonderful ideas, you’re it.

  15. Larry Snyder
    Larry Snyder says:

    If each of us took a younger person, a son or daughter, or a son in law or daughter in law, even a grandchild if they’re old enough, and let them use our airplane to train in, give them ground school for a Christmas or birthday gift, even absorb the insurance costs, we could increase the pilot population. When I shuffle off this mortal coil I want to know someone in my family will continue to love and fly my little airplane. I’ve been envious of flying families, where junior learned from dad, using his plane. What can AOPA do to help? Maybe find ways for us to get family insurance on our airplanes, and help in finding instructors who will work with us.

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