Where is the “airport community?”

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, in a family obsessed with airplanes, I had no choice but to fall in love with aviation. After years of dreaming and gazing into the sky, I finally asked my parents if I could start taking flight lessons. At the age of 12, I was sitting on phone books trying to see out the front window of the Cessna 172. After my first lesson, I was hooked.

David Flynn as kid
Hooked on flying from an early age.

I grew up spending every day cutting grass and lifeguarding to pay for an hour in the plane. Around my 18th birthday, the hours finally added up – but my checkride was a whole new ordeal.

My goal for the summer was to complete my six years of training before heading down to the University of Mississippi for my first semester. After a number of roadblocks and weather-related delays, the only day the DPE was available for a check ride was on Thursday… three days after I was supposed to move into Ole Miss. My only other option was to put it on hold until I came home for Christmas break. Although I didn’t want to miss the first week (the week before classes started) of my college experience, I was too close to put it on hold, so I made a plan.

My parents, brothers and I left on Monday to move my stuff into my new home (a dorm room) at Ole Miss. I spent most of the seven-hour drive with my nose in the books. The trip home the next day was spent the same way. I spent Tuesday night studying and Wednesday in the air finalizing everything for my checkride. When Thursday morning arrived, I was ready – and terribly nervous.

That morning, the exam went as well as I could have hoped for – but there was no time to celebrate. After a quick lunch with my parents and grandparents, I hit the road to officially start my college career.

David Flynn by Cessna
Flying is fun, but it’s better with friends. Where to find them?

In the college town of Oxford, Mississippi, there are not many opportunities to fly. I had a new PPL burning a hole in my pocket, but no way to put it out. During my first semester, I was trying to find ways to get involved at the local airport – but found it much more challenging than I had hoped. I was willing to wash planes, clean hangars, or just about anything else if it meant I got to hang around the airport and meet some people, but even finding pilots to do so with was difficult. I couldn’t find any form of connection or community between the pilots at this airport.

I reached out to a few aviation Facebook groups and asked for advice. However, most of what I received were similar stories. I realized that the majority of airports lack the close-knit community that existed in the “glory days” of aviation.

This problem can be linked to many other threats facing general aviation as well. We’ve all heard about the impending pilot shortage and lack of young people involved in aviation, but how do we fix it?

We have to build better communities at our airports.

By creating a close-knit and accessible family of pilots at each airport across the country, they will become more welcoming places. It will also allow us to provide ways for the younger generation to get connected and involved at their local airports.

47 Comments

  • I found your experience interesting, but for a slightly different reason: just after I got my IFR ticket, I started looking for pilots to act as safety pilot in order to allow me to maintain currency and gain proficiency – it was a lot harder than you might have imagined! I wonder if it might have worked if you had tried advertising your availability and interest at a nearby airport-located restaurant or similar.

    Note that I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of your article – there was a day when you wouldn’t have had to go to that level of effort, but I remember even in the 80’s that it was hard to get the attention of anyone in the FBO when you wandered in. I don’t know why it is – maybe introverts are the ones most interested in flying?

    The EAA tries to address this with the Young Eagles program, but even with that I wonder if they’re targeting the wrong demographic. My theory is that at least one of those parents is trying to live vicariously through the child. I don’t go so far as to say Young Eagles is a waste, but I am saying that there might be a need for a Not-Quite-Young Eagle program, or an It’s-Not-Too-Late Eagles program.

    • I began flying in the mid-1950’s. Small-town airport in North-Central Oregon. Something “going on”. every day that had flying weather. Life took me away, and I eventually got a PPL in a foreign country. But by then (1970’s) Planes and rentals had already become far too expensive. But over the years, I’ve come to the unavoidable conclusion that GA has been REGULATED out of existence. Established essentially on “wood and rag” technology – that suddenly somehow became “no longer good enough”. I certainly can’t complain about a focus on “safety” – but life is a series of risks and dangers in every regard. The “ante” for flight-training, plus yet another one that essentially condemns an airframe because of hypothetical “what if” scenario, has for all practical purposes comdemned GA as well.

    • I found that “lack of community” 40, 30 and 20 years ago, and still can’t find it. I hear you and understand the frustration.

      • Also, today, it has been 44 years since I first soloed. So, seeing this article today is amazing since this has been the biggest pet-peeve of mine since I soloed. After getting my License a year later, I started making Sunday breakfast for the local pilots, they enjoyed it but it didn’t last long because a year later I joined the Air Force. That is when my flying adventures really began. My hometown airport withered over the years, and I have never went back.

  • Do as my Hubby does and join Civil Air Patrol. Discounted rates on flying and you will be as involved with a flying community as you want to be. He is an Instructor for future students/pilots. Your story reminded me of a few of his past students.

  • Having grown up in the 80s and 90s, I was able to see first-hand the waning days of general aviation airport culture and community. The lamentation of GA’s current state and demise has led to a lot of commentary, articles, and chatter. The solutions that many lift up also are quite varied. However, in my view, all of them are missing the center….the diagnosis of the problem and the prescriptions for the cure are missing a fundamental truth.
    The fundamentals are this, and it requires an honest look at history: the death of general aviation is precisely tied to the hollowing out of what was once a middle-class based on a manufacturing economy. The heyday of GA, that broad period between 1946 and the middle 1980s, was based on an abundance of people able to engage GA. Today, there simply are not anywhere near that abundance of people. VOLUME was what made GA the thing that we remember. Sure, there are plenty of really high-earners out there today, but those numbers are NOTHING in comparison to the amount of middle-class folk with some discretionary money to spend on GA. Today, to fully engage GA in the same ways you could in the 40s-80s, you need to be, essentially, rich. The heyday of GA was absolutely not about that. Beginning in the late 30s, with the idea of the “flivver” type aircraft and the emergence of the Piper Cubs and contemporaries, GA as we know it emerged. The entire purpose of this type of aviation was to engage and include working folks into aviation. The post-war decades were based on this. (Read the late 1930s-50s issues of AIR FACTS!!! Read the accident analysis on the backs of these issues. They are wonderful sources. They usually give pilots’ name and profession….enlightening. Working people.)
    GA will never come back without the economy coming back for a huge bulk of people. We must stop seeing the airport as somehow outside of society and the economy. Frankly put, there are not enough big watch-wearing yuppies to keep GA’s lights on. We wrongly focus on them. Just read all of the popular GA/aviation magazines. Article after article of aircraft and gizmos for the truly wealthy. The ICON A5!!! Jesus. Ridiculous.
    GA prospered in a society (40s-80s) of robust employment, strong unions (yup, true, deal), heavy government regulation within the economy, heavy government counter-cyclical, Keynesian economics, and way more balanced income distribution. These are the economic facts of that era we all look back on as the heyday of GA, and it seems nobody wants to acknowledge that. Basically, the glory days of GA were when New Deal economics were in full swing. This runs counter to the politics of many folks in GA, and I get that, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. GA thrived in an economic world that many GA folks loathe and vote against routinely. (not everybody, I know)
    Before Piper Cubs were $40k+ investments, they were absolutely conceived of, designed, marketed, and bought as aircraft for regular people.

    • Pete,
      I am certainly not rich and have a sizeable monthly child support commitment and two children and still manage to fly 100 hours a year, so I don’t think your New Deal days thesis carries much water here. There are still plenty of older single engine aircraft within the means of the average middle class American. True as it is that many of us can not afford to buy a new Baron and the new plane market caters to more financially endowed individuals as it needs to, this reality does not prevent us from partaking in the great experience of flight. An overly burdensome regulatory environment might be one of the killers of GA though. There are of course other factors…. such as the liberal movement that has led to an entitlement society that spends like drunken sailors, expects the government to solve all problems and promises free everything to all citizens. More aviation regulation and stronger unions in our country is not going to fix the problem. It would certainly be nice if we had a President that was not an enemy of GA and a killer of economic growth. This pathetic recovery that Obama has resided over, with millions of additional Americans on food stamps and disability…. while promising to bring in 11 million additional “new” Americans that no doubt will be a drain on the governmental coffers…. these issues affect GA indirectly by strangling the economy and killing jobs.

  • David,

    I don’t know that there is anything more to be said on the current state of general aviation and/or how it has changed over the decades. But in general if you simply want to get engaged with the community of pilots – or at least those that want to be part of a social community – the best way to do that is to join a membership organization and get involved. There are quite a few available, and it really won’t take much effort to check one or more of them out to see if it fits you.

    EAA is one route – I’ve never been a member but they do have local chapters at some airports that are pretty active. Not just doing the Young Eagles thing, but just tinkering with, building, testing, and flying aircraft together. Some of the chapters hold monthly meetings and/or monthly pancake breakfasts.

    Another good organization is the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF). They are national and are built upon shared social flying by their members, and they have state liaisons in most every state in the Union. Go to their website at http://www.theraf.org, and you can email your state liaison and I guarantee they will love to hear from you and provide you information on their past and planned future activities. They’re a very social crowd.

    Another thing to do is to check with FBOs or airport offices at busier airports within a reasonable flying range – say, an hour’s flight from your home base. Call up the airport manager or FBO manager and ask if there are any groups that meet regularly at their airport, whether formally or informally. The best candidates are airports that have a cafe or restaurant either on the airport or in town outside the gate. Lots of airports around the country have informal groups of pilots who fly in for the hundred dollar hamburger or stack of pancakes.

    Another source of social activity are the various type clubs (Cessnas, Pipers, etc.), floatplane folks, antique aircraft groups, or activity groups (like back country flyers), and you can generally check out their club websites and learn what kind of activities are going on and where and when.

    Finally, some states have very active state pilot associations, particularly in the western region (such as Utah, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, etc.). They all have websites, so you can browse through their sites to see what they’re doing, planning to do, activities, contact persons, etc. Sometimes even local airports have their own pilot associations, obviously the more active airports are likely to do that.

    It may take a few hours of research on your part, but one of the neat things about these various communities is that they all tend to link up … so if you get active in one group, chances are you will get linked up with related groups allowing you to expand your notion of the “community of pilots”. It’s all there, but you have to look for it, at least a little bit.

  • Unfortunately this goes beyond just Airport Community. The idea of community has become a dying way of life in our society. I had a modern anthropology professor describe the loss of community in today’s society as “The Garage Door effect”. We open our our garage door from our car, drive in, and close it behind us. Most new homes have small front porches, if any at all. We have are no longer visible or social with our neighbors. I see the same thing happening at airports. I live very near a GA airport. 2 eateries, a few flight schools, and a plethora of hangars. Most days, and even on the weekends, the hangar opens, the owner/pilot pulls the plane out, and taxi’s away. “The Hangar Door effect”. There was a time when hangar talk was when anyone walked passed a hangar, peered in and started a conversation. Hell, it wasn’t unheard of for the owner to just be sitting in a lawn chair, enjoying the ‘air show’ that happens everyday. A cooler of soda and some chips were always available to anyone that wanted to sit down and chat. Those days are gone.

    We can theorize for hours, years, decades, as to what happened to a society that barely knows its neighbors or welcomes any hangar talk. We can assign blame to the high cost of aviation, or its perceived high cost. After all, in retrospect, everything in the golden days was much cheaper? It’s all relative. Is the loss of community due to the internet or gentrification? I can walk into the FBO any day of the week and see the same coffee clutch of 60+ year old pilots talking about the glory days of when flying was cheap. It’s all relative. I have tried to join in, but am often looked upon as the problem. Youth is wasted on the young and we don’t understand what it takes. It’s all relative. They were young once.

    Organizations have tried to bridge the gap of the aging pilot population and lack of community with Young Eagles (which, for some young people, is the only avenue to something they have a passion for). I also believe that so many have tried to address this issue of ‘community’ in so many different ways. Flying Clubs and Fly-Ins have had some minor success, but they don’t create community, they create events that pull people away from the airport. Not to mention, they tend to be filled with that same coffee clutch that I mentioned earlier. Some clubs do have membership drive BBQ’s at their hangars, but they are often hosted by members that don’t want outsiders eating their food. Why have it at the airport if you don’t want people to come by and ask questions about joining?

    Perhaps its the negativity of some, which tend to be the loudest bunch, the expense of flying, or the perception of GA in general. Is there a magic bullet? Is it an entire arsenal of ideas? Maybe we just need to start with something small and simple like putting out a couple of lawn chairs in front of a hangar, or on the grass near the FBO with a sign that says “Coke and Chips. Price of admission: Take a seat and join me for some hangar talk” . Not a flying club, but simply a lemonade stand on a hot summer day. Sounds crazy, I know, but its how I met my neighbors. A cooler, some food and a few lawn chairs on my driveway with a sign that said “Nice day to watch you mow the lawn”

    • Eric makes an excellent point. As we have all become more connected on the internet (Facebook, etc), we have become extremely disconnected in person. We no longer need to take a drive (flight?) to catch up with friends, nor even pick up the phone. We have our information update right there in near 160 character bits. Its no longer necessary to stop by an airport and inquire about ‘a thing’ when information about ‘a thing’ is a web search away on our phone.

      We have become profoundly disconnected as a society as we have become more connected online.

      Cost of general aviation has gone up, no doubt about it. Pick a reason from litigious society, to more strenuous regulations, to Income has not keeping up with inflation. And, you know, we nickel and dime ourselves to death. And funny enough, if you took a good long hard look at your bank statement, you would be surprised at what you pay for NOW than you didn’t pay for 20 years ago. It’s not enough to have a cable bill, but now we have an internet bill. We all spend a couple hundred bucks a month on cellular phones for us and our family. How much more are you eating out, buying coffee, etc than you did before? It adds up, in some cases, tremendously so. If you ask someone to give some of that up to be a pilot, what do you think they’ll say? Probably something along the lines of “You can pry my $10 a day habit double shot double mocha latte from my cold dead hands”.

      So I am not sure disposable income or the high cost of aviation is the problem (though a primary contributor), but asking people to sacrifice X Y or Z to go fly a plane is probably a no go.

      On the other side, I sometimes wonder if general aviation is going the way of the country club. Is it the last refuge of old men? Is it no longer cool to be a pilot? Are the airplanes, with the exception of the Cirrus or Diamond or RVs just too ‘old’ looking? I don’t know.

      Plus being a pilot is HARD. Well, for me, flying a plane is easy. It was natural. The regulatory stuff (i.e. boring) is tough, but add everything up and its not for everyone.

      So I’m not sure where I’m going with all this…just felt compelled to offer…something…

      Have a great day!

  • I grew up on the airport in Roanoke, Virginia – like my instructor before me. It was a social place – a gathering place for all who enjoyed aviation. I even remember when the local radio stations would do remote broadcasts from various hangars on the field several times a year, and the general public was invited to come out and enjoy the day – perhaps taking a ride over the city. There was music, and food, and bunting and banners, and good fellowship with like-minded citizens; Folks were everywhere, and business was good… Today, the airport is a ghost town. The security fences scare everyone away with their ominous warnings. The public can’t get on the field anywhere. They can’t even park in a common area to sit and wait to see the very few planes that do operate. I really don’t know why the city doesn’t simply finish what they started and put up “unwelcome signs”: “Go AWAY!! You’re not wanted here.” Is it any wonder why young people in general have little to no interest in aviation?

  • Good grief, get involved. Start with a local EAA CHAPTER. I LIVE IN AN AIRPORT COMMUNITY.
    Find an airport that has a breakfsst restaurant and show up there.
    Join a flying club for aircraft rental

    • Let me guess, you Sir are retired and owning a Plane? As someone just a tad older than the writer of this post I have joined a EAA chapter. The closest was an hour away and the average age of the group was 65+. Aside from watching videos on a Monday at 7pm with coffee and cookies this group did nothing else. They didn’t even engage with me until I was a few meetings in and they realized I’m here to stay. At that point the president suggested I should ask some guy if I could fly him in his plane since he just lost his medical. While honorable I never got a reply. A few weeks later at a hangar BBQ I find out that most members had one if not two flying planes and we’re building a next one. Noone offered me to fly theirs shut always offered to fly others.
      Also, there are no flying clubs anywhere within a 2h radius from where I live. The only one is ONLY for high school students which is very frustrating.
      Since I have joined another eaa chapter, 1h in the other direction. While they are a bit more active, the flying club has one plane for 10 pilots.
      Recently I’ve had the chance to share a hangar at a local airport to built my own airplane. It’s difficult to get hangars nowadays in the first place, and most require a flying plane inside. So while I built a friend stores his minimax inside. But like previous posters said, while I hang around there, all hangars are closed or only open for the plane to taxi out. Very difficult to meet anyone, let alone find anyone who’d want you to fly their plane.
      Lastly, I’d consider myself middle class, with a masters degree and teaching as a professor.the closest airport community is asking $90k just for the property with nothing on it. Hangar homes in this area start at $300k. Who in their right mind can afford this? I’m living in a 28foot trailer right now to be able to buy the parts for my kit plane but I’m sure it is going to take years before I’m done.
      The attitude I’ve perceived in your post is exactly what I have found erong with the GA community. I agree to all the posts above, and I’d like to add that those who spend their GI bill on a plane, or get a second mortgage to buy their dream plane should try and come off their high horse and realize that today’s youth has a lot more distractions and with inflation makes a lot less than in 1974. We need to keep the hangars open, the airplanes flying and built a bridge over the generational gap of Aviators…

      • Phil – Sounds a bit from your comment that you’re simply looking for a cheap way to get flight time in someone else’s bird, by expecting old geezers without medicals to invite you to fly their pride and joy. That’s a false expectation you should get over.

        If you want to fly you’re going to have to pay. You can buy a club membership, or join up with some partners, or or you can offer to partially buy out the old geezer that you’re complaining about not giving you free stuff.

        Sorry, these complaints that people won’t open up their hangars, their cockpits, and their checkbooks to younguns aren’t going to accomplish anything. If you can’t afford to fly, you aren’t going to fly, period.

        Now, if you buy into the game, in whole or in part, then there are lots of membership organizations that do welcome members of all ages and financial capabilities, and will treat you just as well as you treat them. A young kid or up and coming middle manager shows up in a cheap one or two place homebuilt, a 65-year old C-170, or even a ultralight or trike that he keeps on a trailer in his garage at home, is going to be just as welcome as the guy who flies a Bonanza or a late model Super Cup with floats.

        Just don’t expect to show up at the party uninvited and unknown, and then expect to drink the owner’s booze and eat their food, and not contribute to the kitty.

      • Phil,
        It sounds like you should consider starting an EAA Chapter in your area if you are an hour from the other ones. All you need is 10 members and we can assist you in finding them. Chapters take a bit of work but the payoff is well worth it. By starting one you have the opportunity to set the tone and spirit. At my chapter, I make a big point of everyone wearing nametags to help break down the barriers. We also try to connect new members with people that share their aviation interests. Also, when building a plane like you are, you need the support of others. I work at EAA and we would be happy to help you start a chapter, just call 800-564-6322 or email chapters@eaa.org. For a little inspriation, watch the Youtube video “How Pilots Go Camping” by EAA Chapter 1342 (link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_AztwklyIc ).

  • I actually think that bashing the Facebook culture is part of the aviation problem.
    I’m 28, father of 3 with too little discretionary income to utilize my PPL but can’t wait for the chance to again (daycare is pricey)

    I live in a town of 6,000 in Wisconsin and in my town there are 10+ Facebook Groups. These range from the general community network to a buy/sell group, the list includes a housing group and a group for young professionals. Even a group to express opinions/interest in local businesses. Per capita there is roughly a Facebook group for every 30 citizens. That seems preposterous to me but it’s the way of the world.

    I’ve attempted to reach out to local flying clubs on Facebook, none of them keep an up to date Facebook page but a few at least have one. How great would it be if local pilots took the opportunity to create “SouthEast WI Pilots” or “XYZ GenAv Pilots” Facebook groups to catch up with the times?

    Need a safety pilot next weekend? Post it to the FB group and you hopefully have 20+ pilots that can instantly see it than rely on them to get to a special website or worse in person at an airport board.

    It has to be more than checking the box when it comes to social media presence, it has to entail a full fledged, engaged approach.

    Even my local FBO network does an extremely poor job of maintaining there Facebook page and responds to questions in a few days.

    I’m eagerly seeking an opportunity to create a living in General Aviation and increase that community aspect of it, because I know many dads that are interested in pursuing aviation but need that somebody to drive them to the airport first. Which is hard to find.

  • I grew up in the the seventies at small airports with my Dad. There seemed to plenty of “characters” around who had both the time and inclination to shoot the bull. Now I’m in the same relative position as my Dad was (middle-aged small businessman with an airplane). Folks seem to lack both the time and inclination to hang out. Don’t know why. I have fond memories of the way things were, but the way things are also seems to work well for me.

  • I think some are missing the point of ‘community’ vs ‘activity’. Community is defined as “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”. There maybe some that are looking for a free ride. There are always those. There are plenty of clubs to join, and activities to get involved in. The issue, as I see it, is the lack of community in and around an airfield.

    We all are part of aviation because we love to fly. We share it with any non-pilot that will listen. However, we get on the field and that love of being around other pilots and sharing stories is gone, or at least shared only among a few select clicks. High School anyone?

    I don’t, nor does anyone that has read this article, expect to be welcomed with open arms into any of those clicks, but for the sake of community, if you are in that click, welcome the new comer and share stories. They aren’t asking for the keys to your precise plane, just some conversation and belonging. If any of you are SCUBA divers, you know what I am talking about. I can go to any dive destination on this planet, and if their are divers there, we are instant friends.

    On another note, I am an engineer and design mobile and web applications for fortune 500 companies. We can blame technology for many things, “glass cockpits make for bad pilots”. We can blame the internet and Facebook for eroding social skills. Data doesn’t support either of those assertions. We can blame the bullet manufacturer for killing Kennedy. No matter what side of the argument you maybe on, it comes down to commonality, society, and a desire to include others in our passions. Non-pilots or not. I don’t care if you are rich, middle class, or scraping by, have an open mind about people that wander around the airport. Walk up and talk to them. It can’t hurt. Chances are they aren’t there to steal your plane, want a free ride, or complain that your club never looks at its Facebook page. We all get busy, it happens. Try to be a part of the community and not one who stands in its way because you feel like everyone wants something from you. All they want is a friend in aviation.

  • I agree with Eric regarding cliquishness as an impediment to social interaction at airports. As a veteran airport bum (at several different airports over the years) I can offer the idea of only one activity that engenders egalitarianism at the airport: eating. Talk to the FBO, clear it in advance, post a notice, and fire-up your grill on a Saturday. Ditch diggers, attorneys, renter pilots, and turbine owners will all stop-by for a free hotdog or hamburger.

    • Great Idea Dave! If everyone that is posting here, or reads this article and takes that one small step to doing something small and inexpensive at their home field, we maybe one stop closer to “the good ol’ days”. If we rely on FBO’s or flight schools to do it, I think we may be living in floating cloud cities by then.

    • Dave – Yup, that’ll work. In fact I’ve kept my airplane at a couple of different airports nearly a continent apart and saw that in practice. At one, a small town New Mexico airport (Hobbs), the guys just get together, fire up the grill and share some burgers and brews and talk about once a month. At another small airport here in South Florida (Everglades Air Park), a part time aviation business guy (charter operator/banner towing/and part time Alaska bush pilot) simply set up a small grill in the public airport office and started cooking flapjacks one Sunday a month during “season” (November through April here in south Florida), and lo and behold, not only local pilots showed up but a lot of townspeople and area visitors arriving by car showed up to in order to hang out with the pilots.

      However, that kind of community is only part of what the author is yearning for. That’s where the membership organizations such as the ones I listed above come in. That’s the kind of scenario where pilots can get into some serious recreating, learning, sharing, and advancing in their aviation hobby.

  • The “Airport Community” is alive and well at C77, Poplar Grove Airport.

    We have an active EAA chapter, a museum on the field, grass and paved runways, a park-like atmosphere, and airport owners who are not only vintage aircraft restorers themselves, but are dedicated to fostering a sense of community among the airport tenants, customers and the local community.

    If you want to see how it’s done, come on out and see for yourselves!

    No, I am not a salesman. I am a pilot who was looking for the sense of community that this article speaks of and found it here. I have an airport 10 minutes from my home, but I gladly drive 45 minutes to get to my plane at Poplar Grove.

  • Ed makes another good point. I also have an airport 10 minutes away, and another one maybe 25, but I make a 50 minute drive to my airplane, because that’s the place that offers the environment I was seeking. There are plenty of pilots for whom the sterile, fenced in airport is perfect. Flying is my recreation, and the airport is my sanctuary. I usually spend more time “hanging-out” than actually flying. The friendly, social airports are still out there, but there are far fewer of them than there were 37 years ago when I started flying.

  • Maybe I am the “old fogey” here having started flying in the 1960s, but here are my two suggestions to get in contact with other pilots in the area:

    a. AOPA meetings – monthly events which take place are always welcoming new “potential members”.

    b. Probably the best way to connect in my experience, is the local airport diner/restaurant. The weekends during VFR conditions are the best time to sit down and chat with pilots with all levels of experience. The comparison of flight time hours, who has the bigger plane, etc., all go out the window. It is especially conducive to meeting fellow pilots is if they have a patio where you can watch the planes while having a weekend breakfast or lunch.

  • I wonder how much of the change in airport culture from the golden to today stems from the fact that the golden age pilots were mostly a result of army air corps training and they came from a wide slice of personality types. It seems that most of today’s pilots who have self-selected aviation tend to be engineers, doctors and other “nerdy” people. Speaking as a nerd, many of us are less social than the general population. Were ok with being alone at the airport. Not that that is a good thing, just a consequence of our being more interested in machines than people.

    • I think your characterization of today’s pilots as all doctors, engineers, and “nerds” is not accurate at all, and is unfair to boot. Even “nerds” enjoy getting together with their peers (just like the proverbial high school chess clubs), certainly engineers and physicians do so , as do lots of other pilots do today.

      Pilots come from all personality types, occupations, and avocations. There is no stereotyping them, other than that we are all high achievers, or we couldn’t be pilots.

      The majority of small general aviation airports today simply aren’t very active because they do not have a sufficient core of local users. It takes a significant population of users to create a socially-conducive environment. People who are in the resort and hospitality business recognize this very factor, and understand that for a resort to be perceived as vibrant it has to have a minimum “density” of members or customers, otherwise it seems dead. You don’t build a social resort with only a dozen members, yet many of today’s small airports have less than a dozen based aircraft, and host only 1 or 2 operations a day.

      Pilots have to search out their peers, because at most airports there simply aren’t enough based aircraft and active owners to support a “community”. It’s unrealistic to expect otherwise.

      On the other hand, there is a subset of more popular airports at which there is sufficient “density” of users to support an active community, and when such is the case, the based users (as well as visitors from other non-based pilots) are more than willing and interesting in supporting a vibrant pilot community.

      Bottom line – if you’re based at a low density airport, you’re going to have to reach out beyond your home base to experience the pilot community.

      • Duane,

        I agree with your assessment. I have my plane based about 15 drive from my house. That airport has a low density of “flying” aircraft. Most are just stored and not flown much for various reasons. About 15 mins by air or 30 minutes by car is another airport that during the flying season has “hangar night”. Basically show up, bring some food to share, fly, and shoot the breeze. More community, but even it has a limited number of folks who partake, but it is a start.

  • Here’s something no one else has mentioned, is free, and works: find a good mechanic and hang around (if he’ll let you, and if you don’t bother him as he works!) while he performs his magic on GA airplanes. Aircraft owners who have trusted their mounts to this mechanic will frequently stop by the hangar. Open a conversation with any of them by asking about HIS airplane. Your interest in HIS airplane will certainly warm up a conversation. Soon, you’ll have met more and ever more local pilots. Your interest in THEIR flying activities will soon find you with as many flying friends as you could possibly want. And it hasn’t cost you a cent! Better still, offer to buy coffee or lunch for these active fliers and aircraft owners. It’s cheap, it’s fun – – – and it works! Next thing you know, flying invitations will begin to open for you. Try it . . .

  • We have a pilots association based out of KPTW, the Pottstown Aircraft Owners and Pilots association with about 80 local area pilots and aviation enthusiasts as members. It has been in existence nearly as long as AOPA. We hold monthly dinners, monthly Fly-Outs and an annual Fly-In breakfast. We recently hosted a seminar on lowering the cost of flying with AOPA providing the speaker. We also had a chance to take a tour of the KPHL control tower as one of our members is a former ATC.

  • When I learned to fly there were no fences around the airport. I know times have changed and that fence works both ways.
    As kids we got to ride in planes if we would walk or ride to the airport and help with what needed to be done! Now it’s hard for us to enter at times and there sure isn’t any open borders at airports today for kids to learn to interact with the things that grow pilots!

  • Full disclosure, I work at EAA and I’m a lifetime member.
    The single best way to improve the community at your airport is to join a local EAA chapter. I have been a member of 5 different chapters across the country over the years and each one has made my aviation life better. I’m currently president of my local chapter and we have twelve monthly gatherings (with food) of an educational nature. Tonight we have a presentation on aviation photography by world famous aviation photographer Jim Koepnick. We hold to two pancake breakfasts and fly Young Eagles each year. Yes, most of our members are 50+ but we have some in their 20s. The friends I have made through EAA have enriched my life beyond measure.

    Chapters are what you make of them. You can change them by simply getting involved. Volunteer to head up a fly in or fly out. Chapters are simply an opportunity. It is up to you to make something of it.

    If IFR is your game, EAA acquired IMC Clubs and you could start one of those if that is your type of flying.

    There are nearly 900 and if there is not one near you, consider starting one. (www.eaa.org/findachapter) All it takes is your commitment and 10 EAA members. If you don’t have enough people to get started, we would be happy to help you get in contact with EAA members in your area. Contact EAA at 800-564-6322 or chapters@eaa.org.

  • How we interact today is different from our fathers day. Back in the 50’s there were clubs and associations of all kinds that enjoyed vibrant memberships. Today may of these organizations are gone or begging for members.
    Same with aviation.
    That doesn’t mean aviation isn’t a “community” or it is dying. It has just changed. It is what you make of it. Let me give you some examples.
    4 years ago at our airport there was one lonely 172 on the ramp. Today there are 10 to 15 tiedowns and every hanger is filled. We all know each other. We socialize, help each other work on their planes or just admire what the other guy has. So what has changed?
    A willingness of the FBO manager to allow us to hang out in the terminal, tables and chairs were installed to accommodate us eating our lunch together. The local EAA chapter has new life, does Young Eagle flights and a lunch once a month. There is the South Carolina Breakfast Club, an loose organization that flies to a different airport every other week year round. Many times 50 to 60 aircraft, from Cubs to warbirds. We meet a lot of new people from around the State.
    In my case at the end of the day we will often invite who ever is on the field over to the hanger to have some pizza, a few cold ones and watch the sun set. This fosters the feeling of community. Some days only 3 or 4 of us, other days 10 or more!
    Introduce yourself. Just make yourself known and be opening to others.
    We now have a vibrant aviation community where 4 years ago, nothing. We aren’t special we all just are making the effort. I see the same thing at any number of airports around the State, so we aren’t the only ones.
    Make the effort, it will pay off.

    • Jeff,

      I think that is it!

      “We aren’t special we all just are making the effort. I see the same thing at any number of airports around the State, so we aren’t the only ones. Make the effort, it will pay off.”

      A lot of folks are too busy or in reality, just don’t want to MAKE the EFFORT.

  • It is a challenge finding the airport communities. Flying clubs sometimes have get togethers or regular maintenance nights. EAA chapters (at least around here) have frequent builder meetings. The Civil Air Patrol, if active in your area, can be a good place to stay active in the community too.

    Individual pilots, not so much. Everyone’s busy and in a hurry. Unless in a group of some kind it’s not likely you’ll find the community you seek.

  • Where is the airport community? They are leaving or dying of old age. Sorry. The FAA has made so many burdensome regulations why bother? We need EAA type management in the FAA not lawyers. I don’t see it ever changing.

  • David,
    Great article and hope with the efforts of people like you we can bring back general aviation, but it will be an uphill battle. However, you have my support.

    Some of the problems we face:

    Flying has gotten more expensive.
    Restriction and government interference continues to get worse.
    The middle class, that could support flying is diminishing.
    Airports are becoming more restrictive.
    Flying clubs and social events at small airports are fewer.
    Younger people are finding other things to do rather than fly.
    Aircraft production and fuel sales continue to diminish.
    The support for aging aircraft is dwindling, but some recent things like the revision of aircraft parts approvals look promising.

    Some of the solutions:
    It’s easy to convince a successful business that travels to get a plane.
    People HATE to fly commercial.
    EAA still thrives and has a lot of thrust in promoting GA, and provides some good solutions for economical flying.
    Flying GA is still cost effective for a lot of flights, and faster.
    The light sport and experimental categories have offered better cost effective solutions.
    We need to fight the government interference, which is the SINGLE BIGGEST REASON that GA is failing. They are the cause of virtually all of the issues of why GA is failing.

    We can get involved and promote GA, but will take a huge effort. We can form a flying club and reduce costs. We can plan social events more often. We can patronize the services, businesses and restaurants on our airports. We can fight government against unreasonable restrictions and fees…. and need to do that at the local level, too. Support the politicians that are GA friendly.

    I’ve enjoyed the best of GA, and have enjoyed the freedom of coming and going when I wish, without restrictions. I’ve also enjoyed the camaraderie of the social time at the airports, when anyway of the week there would be several pilots out there and every Sunday we would have 5 to 15 planes fly out for breakfast… homebuilts to Navajos. That’s all gone, and on a busy weekend, I may see a handful of the 60 tenants at my hangar spot. Few breakfast runs. And we can’t even get to our planes without a security clearance and annual testing.

    Hopefully we can save it.

  • The world has changed in many ways. Aviation culture is fading away. Car culture is too – when I was young thousands would attend drag races.

    The internet is a decent place to connect up with these communities. I talk more with other pilots on Facebook than I do in person and that’s good for what it is.

    Joining a club like the EAA is worth considering. I did that for a while. But now it’s mostly just me and my airplane and a few familiar faces that I see at the airport now and then.

  • Join or start a flying club! At KTTA Wings of Carolina Flying Club (www.wingsofcarolina.org) we have over 400 members who hang around the Club, have cookouts every Second Saturday, have “Pizza Nights” (safety training over pizza) once a month, have a chapter meeting of EAA/IMC Clubs once a month, and have group destination flights. We also sponsor private, instrument and commercial ground schools. But we aren’t doing anything that any group couldn’t do. AOPA has a flight club locator on their website (https://www.aopa.org/CAPComm/flyingclubs/flyingclubfinder/). They also have materials and sample documents on how to start your own.

  • For me to participate in anything aviation,I have to do one of many things: wait for an invite from AOPA for a “Rusty Pilots” seminar at an airport about forty miles or so away, in the next state over, travel to a small airport about fifty miles west of us, (and occasionally has some AOPA seminar or FAA safety seminar,) or sit on my back porch and watch the charter, on-demand vacation airlines our local airport calls their main business, fly over my house on their way to vacation resorts down south. Forgot, GA is not welcome there.
    I can’t even get on that airport with an escort from the FBO or airport management. Can’t access any friends I once had. No planes for rent or instructors there. Oh. They will charter a corporate jet for you.
    Te really sickening thing there, before the county took it over, the company I worked for on redeveloping this former S.A.C. base, had me as their airport ground operations supervisor. Now I can’t even get on MY airfield. Politics at its best, run by people having no understanding of aviation, and maybe, just maybe, two of their appointed “Airport committee” might have a PPL.

  • For me to participate in anything aviation,I have to do one of many things: wait for an invite from AOPA for a “Rusty Pilots” seminar at an airport about forty miles or so away, in the next state over, travel to a small airport about fifty miles west of us, (and occasionally has some AOPA seminar or FAA safety seminar,) or sit on my back porch and watch the charter, on-demand vacation airlines our local airport calls their main business, fly over my house on their way to vacation resorts down south. Forgot, GA is not welcome there.
    I can’t even get on that airport without an escort from the FBO or airport management. Can’t access any friends I once had. No planes for rent or instructors there. Oh. They will charter a corporate jet for you.
    The really sickening thing there, before the county took it over, the company I worked for on redeveloping this former S.A.C. base, had me as their airport ground operations supervisor. Now I can’t even get on MY airfield. Politics at its best, run by people having no understanding of aviation, and maybe, just maybe, two of their appointed “Airport committee” might have a PPL.

  • David, you’ve hit the nail on the head! But maybe you need to look a little to the south to find the community. For all the years I was on faculty at Mississippi State (teaching MIS!), I was pleased to be part of a great pilot community. I think this was fed by several things: the contract to train Air Force student pilots at Columbus Mississippi’s GA airport, the work MSU aviation faculty was doing with Honda, the presence at MSU of a supersonic wind tunnel for testing, and a strong EAA chapter. I could always wander over to the EAA hangar and watch planes being built. And open hangar doors made for great opportunities to hangar-fly.
    A couple things have changed, though. Today, GA is expensive. That means fewer hours of flying, so fewer hours at the field and fewer opportunities to see other pilots. And we pilots are getting older.

    Finally, and on another subject, Oxford’s airport is called “home to the best crosswind pilots in the world” because the strip is E-W while prevailing winds are N-S. I’ve landed there a few times. At least once I needed to clean the upholstery after landing.

  • When I was little my dad always took me to the airport with him when he had days off. I have to say that sense of community was very much fostered in that little airport. My dad has a lot of friends that he made at the airport that he talks to nearly every day. Thanks for sharing your experience, I hope you find the community you’re looking for.

  • It must be Kansas. My experience is entirely the opposite. Come to K64 or 1K1 or even the flying clubs at larger airports like OJC and IXD. A little aviation excitement at Stearman field will get you a free ride, frequently in a Stearman. The ramp at We-B-Smokin BBQ in rural Miami County is full any clear day. The grass strip that leads to a city street to the Beaumont restaurant is a hot spot most weekends. Aviation is what we make it.

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