Aviation Education to the Masses: How do we do it?

I have been helping crew a hot air balloon lately, just locally where I live. Recently, during an event, we stood up the balloon up while it was dark out to get some awesome photos and just let the community get a look at it. While we were hanging on to keep it on the ground, a group of high school age kids approached us. They were obviously super excited about being up and close with it, which is great—I love seeing it. But after conversing I realized that they didn’t understand general aviation at all. What I gathered from them was that everything with flying seemed out of reach. It topped off a question I’ve had for a while: how do we help people understand aviation and GA in particular?

At the time of writing this, I just turned 17 a few months ago and completed my Private Pilot certificate two months ago. Thanks to my obsession, my friends know that is reachable. But it has always shocked me how many people, teenagers and adults alike, do not understand aviation. Aviation is somewhat of a niche thing in the fact that I do not think people just read or watch topics on it unless they have an interest. This poses an interesting discussion, and that’s what I want this article to be, a discussion, so please post your thoughts in the comments.

Anyway, how do we try to explain aviation to these people? Do we do it through Young Eagle flights? Fly-ins? Air shows? I know some will say, “why do I care what these people think about aviation?” Well, just think, these people may be the ones complaining about noise at your local airport or trying to close it. A little education can go a long way. As selfish as it sounds, it helps keep our passion, work, and hobby safe. However, it can also bring more pilots into our community, and that’s what we want.

Young Eagles
Young Eagles flights are a great way to introduce new people to aviation—what else works?

I recently became a registered Young Eagle pilot and am going to do my fair share of mentoring kids to follow their dreams, while in the meantime showing them and their parents a little bit of aviation as a whole. This can create the ripple effect because they may just go and tell their friends about it or help generate an interest in the community.

Just today, there was a 14-year old boy taking his first discovery flight. I made some small talk with his parents while he was flying and it made me get pretty reflective. I was 13 or 14 when I took my first discovery flight and just never stopped. It also brought back the countless numbers of people who helped me and inspired me along the way. Before his parents left, I gave them my name and phone number because mentoring kids is not only rewarding but it can bring more people into flying, which can help educate the community in turn.

At the end of the day we can try to educate the community on flying in each of our own ways, whatever way we feel most passionate about. Personally, for the people my age and younger, technology is such a huge aspect of what helps us become interested in things. YouTube was a huge contributor for me when I would want to look at aviation related content. I’m not saying everyone who wants to bring younger people into aviation need to start a YouTube channel, but some form of sharing through social media could most certainly combat this.

However, I think that the best way to try and get people into aviation is just to show that is obtainable. Yes, it’s not cheap, we all know that. But you don’t need to have a masters, a Phd, or even a college education to do it. We, as pilots, just need to explain and show to the people who are interested in it that it is a very much obtainable goal to the general populous.

In the age of COVID-19 it is hard to organize airshows, fly-ins, or Young Eagle flights. But all three of those are excellent ways to get people of all ages involved in aviation. Sadly, where I live in northwest Montana, we very rarely have an airshow—about once every 15 years. Due to this I challenge everyone, including me, who is in an area which lacks these kind of events to take on the burden of trying to organize some. No harm in trying.

I know my writing in this article hasn’t been top quality because it was more of me just trying to get some thoughts out on this idea, as I feel very passionate about this.

Again, please post your thoughts and comments below in their respective section, my email is also in my bio if you would like to communicate directly. Thanks for reading.

6 Comments

  • When I learned to fly, almost 50 years ago, we worked on our own cars. Most of the kids I knew had overhauled, for better or for worse, their bicycles. We had industrial arts…shop… classes in high school. In one of them, we overhauled a small engine…I don’t believe mine ever started. Flying was as much about making machinery work as anything else. We were mechanically curious. My buddy and I actually built our own hang glider, and it flew…a bit. Hidden somewhere in there was our parents’ wisdom that airplanes were a very controlled, supervised way of going really fast…relatively speaking…and a way to satiate our natural desire to test limits while under the watchful eye of a qualified adult. Note that in those days, women were institutionally precluded from mechanical curiosity, so this path to the cockpit, or the maintenance hangar, was yet another one obstructed for them by parochial absurdity.

    So the problem I see today is a general regression of curiosity, which I see all the time when I note how many passengers have their window shades pulled down before takeoff. Your point about how many people do not understand aviation can be augmented by how many people do not understand mechanical things at all, partly because mechanical things these days actually work consistently. It has been decades since I rebuilt my carburetor by the side of the road. Yet this regression is a learned behavior; the enthusiasm of the kids you met while holding the balloon was authentic, unvarnished curiosity. The trick is to facilitate that raw curiosity without bumping into the all-too-frequent roadblocks of a highly complex, specialized technology. Sadly these days, at least in my neck of the woods, there is relatively little aviation activity, so it is not nearly so easy to go to the airport and just watch airplanes. Hence, even that initial contact experience has become exceedingly rare. We could do with a revival of barnstorming, but I suspect that the insurance folks would have a cow if we suggested that idea.

    But I think you are spot on in the assertion that we need to facilitate contact with the possibilities of aviation. You could get into some pretty deep philosophical debates about what this requires, but I would cut to the chase and simply say that it requires leveraging a sense of awe, which is not a practical thing at all and will get zero support from a materialist economy. I have a picture my dad took at a 1959 airshow at Columbus, Ohio, of a B-47 executing a full-blown RATO-assisted takeoff, and I feel a sense of awe just looking at how much smoke and flame is pouring off the fuselage rocket mounts. With good reason, the environmental people, and the noise people, have pretty much taken the awe out of such a thing these days. But even now, as a nearly-retired 737 captain, I still get a powerful sense of awe at the sight of a hot air balloon.

    The owners of the operation at my little airport in Vermont have met the problem creatively. They have a pair of Cessna 150’s that they rent for 42 bucks an hour dry (you buy the gas). The airport is immediately adjacent to the district high school; they offer any kid who is interested 10 hours of dual for free. They have ended up with more solo shirt tails in their lounge than I have seen at all the other airports in Vermont combined. Some of the inscriptions on them clearly reflect a sense of self-deprecating awe at the experience and the achievement.

  • One group has been quietly, perhaps too quietly, educating youth, specifically and the public, generally, about aviation and aerospace since 1947.

    The Civil Air Patrol has a U.S. Congressional mandate to bring aerospace education to the public. Today, Civil Air Patrol is offering full-ride flight training scholarships to focused and motivated young adults, ages 12-21, through the Cadet Wings Program.

    For more information visit the CAP Youth Aviation Initiative at https://bit.ly/3j7JefD.

  • I am a young eagle coordinator I had 2 boys. 11 years old twins. on an YE flight. I asked who will get to sit in the front seat. One of the children said my brother is afraid. That is why we are going together. Can we both sit in the back. I said of course. I explained every thing I was doing. I told them we had 2 of just about everything in the plane. that’s why the dash looks so complicated. but it is really simple. The airspeed is just a speedometer. The altimeter, just lets us know how high we are. If you can drive a car you can fly a plane. I also told them if for any reason just after we leave the ground you are frightened. I will slow the plane down and land. We got over 1 mile of runway. I also asked if they were afraid, when they went over a big bridge , In a car, were they afraid to look down. They said No. it is fun! I felt we had 2 new pilots ready to go. The take off was very gradual the climb about 400 feet a min. I can do 1200 this is about keeping the children comfortable. They didn’t live far from the airport 3 miles so we went over there home. Try to do the best landing you have ever done. With children on there first flight, no need to scare them now. We taxied back to the FBO the children’s parents said thankyou. The child that was scared at the beginning. Came over to me tugged on my sleeve and said Mr. Pete. CAN WE GO AGAIN! It just tugged at my heart. I had to say not today we got a lot more folks that want to try flying. Here is my Phone number and a picture of my plane on a card. Have you mom or dad give me a call we will go again. Not all YE flights are like this but they are all rewarding. One other item There was an airport I use to keep my plane at in the NE of the US The airport wanted to expand. 7 people had to decide 3 were for it. 3 against. The deciding vote came from a woman who had an eagle flight at this airport a long time ago. and voted YES. You never know what an Eagle flight may influence down the road. Now the Bad My daughter in law will not let me take my grand children for a flight. There is nothing I can say or do to change her mind. Now my son is afraid of GA aircraft too. Go figure.

  • Aaron: You, and people like you, are the way we get more youth involved. Sharing your experiences with flying, costs and the fellowship of flight. The general public believes that airplanes are only for the very wealthy, and they are surprised to learn that most of the airplanes that we fly Young Eagles in are in the $30-40K range.

    We also need to explain that airplanes are not just for the $200 hamburger. They are tools for both business and personal. We need to explain the biggest savings of all … time. We all have 24 hours a day. If I can fly my C175 from Wichita to Kansas City, Kansas City to Hays (KS) and back to Wichita in one day, not only am I more refreshed, I also have the second day to spend doing something else.

    Thanks for the wonderful article! -Ron

  • Aaron,

    Purdue’s aviation programs are fantastic! You’ll be surrounded by others that share your passion, professors and mentors that care, and what will become lifelong friends. Don’t be afraid to push beyond the average student and innovate as a Boilermaker! Think about outreach around campus (plenty of students, faculty, & children in the local area). Maybe there’s a chance to improve the current student flight club or create your own organization.
    Be sure to get involved on campus with clubs outside your comfort zone as well, you won’t regret it.

    Boiler Up!
    Ryan
    Purdue University (Aeronautical Technology (AOT) 01’ & MBA ‘16)

  • Great write-up, thank you for sharing your experience! You are certainly an impressive individual with a bright future ahead of you. It is inspiring to see how so many different organizations and companies are stepping up to meet the need of further aviation education and inspiration of the next generation.

    Our company recently launched a new line of highly mobile flight simulator rigs specifically to assist with meeting this need at scale through partnerships with organizations, flight schools, etc. We are excited about the future of aviation and are encouraged by the excitement of individuals entering this important field.

    http://www.simforceinc.com

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