I want you to picture yourself in a situation for a moment. You are a young, inspired student devoting the bulk of your day to lectures and studying. You spend any time you are not studying or sleeping trying to afford to put yourself through college with your part-time job. You face hefty tuition bills, increased living expenses, and very little financial assistance helping you stay on your feet. Sounds like the story of many college undergraduates across the nation, right? But there’s a twist to this one: what if you had to do all this for a career that would only be a stepping stone towards what you really want to do?
The story I just told you is the story of me. And I am only one of many.
I’m a private pilot and engineering undergrad. I worked 30 hours a week to become a pilot during high school, and I haven’t flown since last summer. My days consist of studying, working, sleeping, and eating. The goal at the end of this is to become an engineer, but not for a lifetime. I want to fly for a living.
We always talk about trying to get more people involved in aviation. We proclaim the future of aviation lies in the hands of the youth, and we must give them opportunities to become pilots. We argue that flight training needs to be cheaper and we need to create more aviation programs so it is easier for them to succeed. We need scholarships and free flight training. But what kind of solution is moving the finish line closer to the start?
The reason why aviation is such a unique community, one filled with storytelling and tales of hardship and intense heart-wrenching desire, is because there is a certain battle that is fought between aviator and aviation. The battle to succeed in the face of failure. We cannot just hand the opportunity to become pilots to our youth; you have to work to earn the golden epaulettes on your shoulders.
There is almost a kind of marathon that must be run from the day a pilot becomes addicted to flight until the day they obtain their certificate. During this marathon, we have the choice of making it easier for them. Either we can pick them up and carry them to the finish line or we can help them finish properly. We can buy them new running shoes, train them to run better, and teach them how to eat healthier. These are the proper ways to win a race.
If you are already a pilot, you can play your part in this journey. I cannot stress how important it is that every new aviator have a mentor. I was bitten by the bug when I was a young boy, and since that day I have been inspired by numerous family members and friends at the airport along the way. I would not have the drive to push on—the inspiration to continue—without the memories of hanging out at the airport, watching airplanes, talking to pilots, seeing airshows, or the occasions where I was able to actually go for a flight in a friend’s airplane for free. I still have moments where I remember these events with great detail, and they inspire me to push on.
It doesn’t matter if you just finished your training yesterday or have been flying since WWII. You don’t have to be rich; you don’t have to even have access to an airplane. We just need mentors. We need somebody who we can go to when we are stuck feeling like we may never be able to follow our dreams of flight. Talking to somebody who has been through the journey helps encourage us to press on. If we do not have that kind of support, we run the risk of losing even more people from aviation.
Remember, we are a community of aviators, and we cannot fly alone.
As I continue my journey, some days I wake up wishing I could just drop out of college and go back to flight school to become a CFI. I cannot do so just yet. I cannot afford to get a degree and go to flight school at the same time, so I must continuously fight to keep the magnetos alive until I can. Therein lies the battle that many aviators just like me must fight in the shadows—we must lead ourselves to a stable position in the future before we can join our brothers and sisters in the sky.
I follow the advice of my private pilot instructor even when I am on the ground. He had a similar story: going through college and graduating, only to work a job he hated in order to save up enough money to do what he really wanted to do—fly for a living. I was his first student, but he taught me more than any seasoned pilot with decades of experience and tens of thousands of hours could. He taught me that no matter how long you have to wait, you will do whatever it takes to return to the sky.
By no means should aviation stop encouraging new aviators. The experiences I had at the airport are what carved my passion for the sky. Pilots should help new aviators succeed, but we should not deny them the right to a proper race. Finishing a marathon wins medals; medals you can wear with honor and pride for a lifetime. There is no pride in easily won medals.
For all of us who cannot afford to follow our dreams just yet, we are still in the race. The aviators that have a backstory, those who spend long nights hearing airplanes pass over their heads only wishing they could be up there alongside them, are the aviators who press on even harder. Those who work for it and achieve greatness in flight will not only relish in it for the rest of their life; they will share their story in hangars around the nation.
And it is these stories that encourage the aviators of tomorrow to keep on running.