Cessna on grass
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There is a lot of discussion about the state of GA, whether we are in decline or at the beginning of a renaissance. Briefly setting this ever tempting discussion aside, I’ll propose we are in an intermission: at nearly a million strong in the 1980s, active pilots halved a decade later; now, we are told, there’s been an increase every year since 2016. Somewhere between the GI Bill of our grandparents and the innovations in flight tech that are bringing our kids (and all ages) back to flight, we drift.

I work in venture capital, which means that by definition I bet on the future. I also fly to work, in a plane that was built on little more than 1950s technology. My days are spent with companies working on the future of air taxi, heavy lift autonomous flight, and even helicopters flown by amateurs off iPads. We have a motto—“The Future is Broken, Let’s Fix It”—so rather than wonder if GA is in a renaissance, I tell my kids we are straddling two great generations, the second of which will be theirs.

Both inside and outside of my professional life, I see a high correlation between people who fly and people who build things. I myself am no builder. I push paper. But type in “founder + pilot” into Linkedin and the results are in the thousands. Personally I use aviation both to commute and as a conversation starter. The plane, for me, is a kind of calling card.

Disconnecting in an over-connected world

Cessna on grass

Grass runways have a way of encouraging disconnection from the outside world.

I spend my summers flying off a grass airstrip in Idaho. This is a forced disconnect to my life in tech, which often amounts to feeling disconnected in an overly connected world. Our town in the Sawtooth mountains, population 62, is the last stop before The River of No Return Wilderness, a roadless area unmatched until Alaska to the north and maybe the Amazon to the south. The only way through it is to float or fly. We have over 200 airstrips.

Our airstrip sits on a bench above the confluence of two rivers, which join to make the longest salmon run in the country, nearly 900 miles long. From my cabin building site I look upon a thin line of wings perched next to a typical Western-front town of dirt streets and pick-up trucks. This provides a feeling of being connected to something larger. Our planes deliver guides, sportsmen, miners, and even “fly the mails.” We have a flying pastor and most ranchers are pilots. My grandfather, my mother, and many of my cousins are all pilots. The GI Bill of WWII produced a generation of them, and rivers like the Columbia and Snake, which our river flows into, allowed us to smelt so much aluminum through cheap hydropower that historians say we simply out-produced the Axis powers with planes.

And similarly, in the new economy, America is now awash in information. We are not building so much as writing. Writing code, software, and social media. This is not enough. But when combined with 3D printing, advances in material sciences, and energy storage, we might find that humans are removed from flight altogether. And this, I would argue, is too much.

Such are the ruminations of a knowledge worker straddling not just two generations but two geographies. When not in Idaho, which is most of the time, I fly off an airstrip just a few miles north of the Big Sur coast. A quiet coastal community, by air only 19 minutes to Palo Alto —which by contrast is the busiest and shortest towered airport in the country. I pass through nine air traffic controllers, including Moffett Field, whose Hangar One is one of the largest free standing structures in the world. It was built as a defense against the Japanese (some say our wicked fog) but now it houses NASA and Google-related flight operations. The irony of flying a piston plane into a place rebranded “The Silicon Valley” is not lost on me — a valley I knew as a kid for summer jobs in the apricot orchards, or ‘cots as we called them.

I don’t commute listening to podcasts and I don’t text while I fly. I just feel lucky to be above the parts of our future that will probably never be fixed, namely Bay Area traffic. The plane is both an end and a means.

Connection vs. connections

My job as a connector of sorts means I think a lot about the difference between connection and connections. This is where the first generation stands out so much. Before we had eight billion people on the planet, it was easier to have (and perhaps offer) connections. Maybe it actually meant something. How or what you served, what school you went to, or being a GE executive or part of the “HP way.” Careers were more stable, our lives less mobile. To over index on any of these is a mistake (especially school) but I would argue we were better known by our friends, certainly more than our Instagram profiles today would suggest.

Cessna on ramp

An airplane can help you connect or disconnect—it’s up to the pilot.

By contrast, this current generation is obsessed with connection. Because connection sells. Offer a product or a service that provides it, and you are tapping into a neurobiological need that runs directly to our amygdala. Its location so deep in our brains is an indication of its importance. It also says a lot about how primates’ brains evolved. Just as rejection from the clan was death, today we are bombarded by constant triggers to be liked, seen or connected with in a way that not having them leads to depression and isolation. A kind of modern day death.

Cartographers of the next generation

How does all this relate to aviation? As GA sits at some kind of crossroads, between a great generation of builders and a rising generation of innovators, today’s pilots are connectors. We are a link from the past to the future. Even on an anecdotal basis, most readers of Air Facts will agree: aviation is the greatest of conversation starters. Tell someone you’re a pilot, and the questions start flowing. “How long does it take to learn?” — they are always shocked at 40 hours — and “Is it safe?” More often than not, telling someone you’re a pilot or that you were late for a meeting because of weather is met with joy and the instant rejoinder, “I have always wanted to learn to fly!”

A renaissance or a retreat?

Needless to say I fall in the camp that believe GA is in a renaissance. The aforementioned company modifying helicopters to fly off iPads has smartly focused, for now, on just being a layer of safety. We refer to this as “human-augmented intelligence,” building tools that allow humans to make better decisions. Deep Blue may have beat Kasparov, but hand any amateur chess player a piece of technology with little more than what’s in a cell phone and they can beat the world’s fastest computers. Humans are actually pretty good at pattern recognition. We just can’t do it at scale, and can’t do it all the time.

Working remotely, or having so much computing power in our hands, for better or worse, now means we can. But we must be aware of the longview. It took two world wars to produce modern flight and smelt aluminum. The cycles now appear to be shortening. Materials and computing are coming together at astonishing speed. The point is that something is afoot, even if it feels we are adrift. The next generation of cartographers are taking flight lessons. They will become builders. And hopefully they won’t forget how they got there.

Peterson Conway
18 replies
  1. Robert Elves
    Robert Elves says:

    That future of intermission or renaissance in general aviation will be written in the FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on MOSAIC (Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates) to publish in August 2023. That announcement will contain modifications to the light-sport airplane (LSA) and Sport Pilot rules that will, for good or bad, forever change the face of aviation.

    Reply
    • Rick
      Rick says:

      Personally I feel the cost of being a GA pilot pushes the “common man”, people like myself, away. Cost of used aircraft today (long gone are the 15k C152s) not to mention all of the associated cost of maintenance, hanger fees and so on is just too much of an expense for many and I feel has directly affected the GA numbers and interest.

      Reply
      • Rich R
        Rich R says:

        Budget extending options include experimental (build or used) reduces acquisition and maint cost if one is willing/able to (or learn to) turn a wrench. All costs can be shared if part of a club. Most pilots fly by themselves and would welcome someone sharing fuel costs/annual wrench turning chores. I’m not saying John Q Public is willing to make that effort, but If someone really wants it, there’s a way…and for those that don’t have that fire in the belly…there’s a boat out there for them.

        I introduce folks to GA flying on a regular basis, the time/focused commitment seems the biggest hurdle before there is any discussion of cost. Video games/VR seem to scratch many of those folks’ itch.

        Reply
      • Joe Davis
        Joe Davis says:

        I’ve owned my 1970 Cardinal for 8 years. I’ve flown it from the east coast to all of the other coasts. To Catalina Island and to the Bahamas 3 times. I flew to Block Island 53 times in 2018. Costs to own are much less than a casino habit or a Boat!!

        Reply
      • José Serra
        José Serra says:

        I agree with You, Mr. Rick. Although the costs in GA in every aspect have increased so much and do not have a great effect in me personally, the true is they affect a lot of people that was interested in GA and can’t afford those high costs. In that unfortunate context, I think GA is and will be for a long time in a very steep state of decline.

        Reply
  2. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    …and today’s GI Bill penalizes pilot training over other trades…something that seems ripe for reengagement by the industry/alphabet orgs. Fraudulent practices of a few got the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

    Reply
  3. Edward Seeley
    Edward Seeley says:

    I live very close to a flight academy that hosts students from foreign countries with hopes of becoming airline pilots. I live even closer to another airport that could host students but does not. It appears to me that GA here belongs to only a few older pilots and the younger ones (with exception of foreign students with hopes of the airlines) are unable to just fly for fun due to cost. An hour lesson now runs over 200 dollars. Although here in Fla we have alot of good flying days i think GA here is dead due specifically due to cost

    Reply
  4. Chris
    Chris says:

    Flying is expensive, but I love it and I drive a 2012 Toyota and spend my money on the 182. It comes down to choices and priorities and budgeting. Also, if there are fewer pilots today, how come everywhere I go there is no hangar space available?

    Reply
  5. Chris
    Chris says:

    Grass strips have a way of encouraging disconnection from the outside world? That depends on what you believe is The Outside World. My own take on this is 180 degrees from that stated in the article.

    Reply
  6. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I haven’t seen anything but a decline in general aviation. Flight schools that closed, including mine. Prices that have risen faster than my earnings have, runways closed that haven’t opened up yet, etc. I am not trying to come across as pessimistic, but more as a realistic point of view. The flying club I used to belong to, the schedule is wide open. None of this tells me that general aviation is moving forward. It’s either stuck in neutral, or going backwards.

    Reply
  7. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    Back in the heydays (1950’s), airlines were slow and expensive. A Bonanza was a good alternative, although somewhat dangerous trying to go VFR as most did in those days.
    Then airlines became fast and cheap. To justify an airplane now requires some very specific needs which 99% of the population don’t have. Now days most of the private aviation growth will be for recreational use which will not support the infrastructure that we have now. Probably look at Europe to see the future.

    Reply
  8. Phil Tua
    Phil Tua says:

    Weather and intermission or renaissance GA is in a current downward spiral orchestrated by the practitioners of GA themselves.

    I originally got my pilot’s license back in the early 1990s and while it was not cheap, it was still within the economic resources of the common man. Back then you can rent a Cessna 150 for $64, and instruction was $20, while not cheap it was manageable. In the 1990’s you can fly to various small GA airports, use their facilities and be on your way.
    In the past 40 years the price of flying has reached a level that is beyond the common man’s economic resources with the price going up and the number of pilots going down. In all this time the various organizations designed to promote GA have been writing articles and promoting studies telling the current pilot population that a quarter million-dollar GA airplane based on 1950′ s technology is an affordable product for the common man.
    The reason the pilot population in the United States is shrinking has to with economics and not the lack of interest among young adults. Today it cost between $120 to $160 to rent a single engine aircraft and another $60 for instruction. When you take into consideration that you must have renters’ insurance that is around $300, you are looking at an hourly rate for primary instruction of $205 to $245 not including other material and landing fees that most airports now require weather you buy fuel or not. If you fly an hour a week, you can see that we start approaching the $1000 range for primary instruction. This is not within the economic capability of the young adult who looks to learn how to fly in the hopes of being able to do it professionally with the airlines.
    I understand that there are a lot of factors that determine the cost of GA, but I predict that the age of private flying is slowly coming to an end in the United States. We will become more like Europe, where the only people that can afford to fly is the well to do and very rich.

    Reply
  9. Drew
    Drew says:

    Great article, Peterson. I also may be an optimist, but I believe that flying is undergoing a renaissance, too. There is so much growing interest in flight from various groups, including new younger GA pilots, new companies working on electric, hybrid electric aviation, and automated flight systems, as well as amazing experimental and homebuilder companies and projects. I think that this is also shown in the high demand for used certified aircraft as well as long lead time and availability for hangar spaces and available CFIs. I just wish that it was a less expensive skill to learn and grow, to make it more accessible to everyone.

    I am a mechanical engineer in the Aerospace industry, part of the founding team for our startup, and also a solo student SEL pilot. For sure, I see a large overlap in pilots and engineering leaders and entrepreneurs. I think that flying is a life-long passion- you will never stop learning and driving to be better, safer, and more competent than you were before. I think that sort of challenge attracts and drives a certain kind of person.

    Weather permitting I should get to my Private Pilot check ride in February 2023 out of Palo Alto (KPAO). I can vouch that it is indeed very busy, but I think that the Bay Area is a great place to learn to fly. Traffic, airspace, weather, number of GA airports- it is a great place to learn and fly. Our instructors and my flying colleagues say that if you learn to fly here, you will feel ready to fly anywhere.

    Cheers.

    Reply
  10. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    Good thoughts. As a fellow founder and VC myself, I’m an amateur economist by necessity, and have mused on the economic factors that underlie GA popularity. Affordability is a relative thing, and many variables affect the differences in costs (fixed or variable) of flying between the 1980’s and today. But the new information that I think you highlight well is the emergence of the highly mobile knowledge worker, whose productivity does not depend on a fixed zip code, and can afford to live in a place they prefer vs. the factory/lab/office building/city of her predecessors. That fact that this person is also likely to be let’s say, ‘non-risk-averse,’ smart, affluent, challenge-seeking, and goal driven is a pretty good description of today’s tech knowledge worker and a good combination for GA!

    Reply
  11. Blake
    Blake says:

    Peterson is obviously very wealthy and I have noticed after being active in GA for over 40 years, and attending Osh Kosh and Sun N Fun every year, that GA is splitting in two. One part is the Uber wealthy buying TBM850’s, Polaris’s, $1MM C206’s, $750,000 C182’s, $1MM Cirruses, etc. The other part of GA is the remaining upper middle class normal people who are continuing to participate in GA using retaining 1960s-1980’s vintage aircraft. Since COVID I have seen the price of a very used early 1960’s Cherokee 180 go from about $45K pre-COVID to around $135k now. It won’t be long before all the vast majority of the vintage aircraft are worn out, crashed, and retired. About one GA aircraft crashes every other day. There will be a few people like Peterson that can afford to pay $2MM for a Baron or $400K for a Carbon Cub, and that is pretty much what will be left of GA. Other than that it’ll be the training mills producing airline pilots… sucks.. but that’s the way it’s going. Yes- take a look at Europe. That’s how GA will look here in 20 years.

    Reply
  12. Flt Tester
    Flt Tester says:

    I would hope GA is in Renaissance not decline but as with the Moller flying car and others of decades past, advances will occur when technology is mature enough to uphold the safety desires of the common public. Deep pockets of tech money do not over come the ignorance unearthed by decades of accident investigation and subsequent regulation. Even E-AB must weigh the cost of professionally engineered designs that are amateur built using proven engineering & hardware vs. those that are both amateur designed & built using eyeball engineering & ACE hardware components. As an aerospace engineer and experimental test pilot entering my fifth decade of flying, I’ve seen the consequences of both- good and bad. We are due for a Renaissance in GA but it must be positive not fanciful answer to those that are trying to capitalize on the Jetson dreams of a generation.

    Reply

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