The year was 1968. The place was Wes-Tex Aircraft in Lubbock Texas. I made the plunge to satiate my urge to fly by going by to sign up for an introductory flight. They were $5.00 at the time. Needless to say, I was hooked, and shortly thereafter began instruction to slowly but surely work toward my license. On the ramp were several new airplanes. Three were Cherokee 140’s that rented for $14.00 an hour. The instructor added another $4.00. Not a lot seemingly, but to a college kid making $1.65 an hour, it added up.
The planes were factory fresh, equipped with the latest in avionics. That, of course, consisted usually of one Narco Mark 12. The first thing you did after the engine was running was turn on the radio and wait a couple of minutes for the vacuum tubes to warm up. One of the planes was especially well equipped. It had two Mark 12’s and an ADF. It obviously was the instrument trainer. Transponder? What’s that? You called approach and told them approximately where you thought you were, and they assigned you a heading to fly and after a minute or so another heading, and when they saw you doing what they requested, they assumed that blip on their screen was you. Headsets? Intercom? Unheard of. You yelled to communicate, and hearing loss wasn’t even considered. To talk on the radio, you picked up the microphone.
Times have changed, obviously. That new Cherokee 140 that came out of the factory with a sticker price of $12,000 is now going for 5 times that, even though it’s 55 years old. It’s not hard to spend as much upgrading a panel as you spent for the whole airplane. I worked for about a year in the parts room of one of the local repair shops. The hourly charge for an A&P was $8.00 an hour, and a helper was $6.00. Those prices have also skyrocketed by a factor of 10-15. Gas that was 50 cents a gallon is now $7.00 or more.
Of course, on the other hand, the capability of modern planes would have been science fiction in those days. A thin little hand held computer that contains every sectional, approach chart, enroute chart and airport facility directory in existence and shows you where you are on the map? Surely not. You can look at the map and there’s radar overlaid on it that is coming from satellites. It shows you where other planes are around you, their altitude and which direction they’re going. You know exactly how long it will take to your destination, and navigation concerns consist of keeping the airplane symbol on the magenta line. We never dreamed of such.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. A recent visit to the old airport involved my brother showing me updates to the panel on the Mooney I used to be part of. We then went across the ramp where Wes-Tex used to operate. There’s still a flight school there. It still has Cherokees on the ramp. In fact, they are the same vintage Cherokees that I learned to fly in 55 years ago. Avionics have obviously been upgraded, but when they fly, I’m sure they fly just like they did when they were new. I shudder to think how many thousand hours are on those airframes, or the amount of maintenance required to keep them in the air. A ragged old 172 and 150 rounded out the menagerie of choices.
As we perused the hangar, there was a Twin Commanche that was awaiting a new wing after a gear collapse. One of the Cherokees sat at the back, it’s nosewheel cocked to one side due to an errant landing by a student. One had the cowling off, the engine in pieces. Another was down for a hundred hour. One of them looked horrible. The paint, at least what was left of it, I’m sure was original, and not well kept. I mentioned how pathetic it looked, and my brother replied “Yeah, but it sure flies good.”
I daresay that most recreational pilots are training and renting old planes like this, and in fact, this school even has some international students who come there to train. There’s a reason for that. While the price for renting one of these old planes is on the north side of $150 per hour, a school that was trying to pay for a new $400,000 airplane would obviously be much higher, and those schools cater mainly to pilots on a professional track anyway. Anyone just wanting to fly for fun doesn’t have a lot of choices.
Is this going to change? I can’t foresee how. Used planes on the market now routinely advertise 4,000-6,000 hours total time. Prices are through the roof. I saw a five year old SR22 advertised for over $900,000. No wonder new ones are still selling. The cost to properly maintain a plane is obscene. Finding a good shop is harder and harder. Currant A&P’s are aging, and new ones aren’t coming in to replace them. What does the future hold? Hopefully market forces will cause things to correct, but at what cost? Is recreational flying doomed?
I wondered what would happen this year at Oshkosh with fuel prices at new highs, but the result was pleasantly positive, and hopefully that bodes well. The homebuilt market seems to be healthy, and that may well be the future of recreational flying. But I fear the days of a college kid working for minimum wage being able to afford to realize his or her dream appear may be fading.
There are airplanes close to 100 years old still taking flight, but they are rare. The registry of older planes is declining every year as some are simply not economically feasible to keep in the air. I see a plane built in the 1980’s and think of it as being fairly new but then I do the math and realize it’s 40 years old.
I trust that somehow the industry will adapt, but my crystal ball isn’t showing me how that will take place, and I’m probably not going to be around to see it happen. I simply hope that those with dreams of flight like myself will still have a chance to experience what I have been able to, even if it is in an old airplane that isn’t pretty, but sure flies good.
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I was first presented to the wonders of GA flying in Brazil, 2007, while visiting the main flight school there at the time. Their hangar had at least a dozen Cessnas, a couple Cherokees and a Seneca. I had no idea, then, how old they were. Fast forward five years, and I was in Florida becoming a pilot myself. From “zero to hero” in little over 8 months, the time sharing part got me hooked forever, as the truth of flying was still there, low and slow VFR – occasional IFR too – 100LL smelling. From that on, I have dreamed to be back on it, and ownership, 10 years later, is closer than ever – but still out of reach. It is hard to compare these values: a bicycle that costed me 42 dollars in 2012 is selling at 100 now in the same shop. So, in the end, these half a million new Skyhawks might be just slightly more expensive then they used to be, inflation out, back in the day. We are, certainly, making less money than our jobs used to pay, not to mention careers back steps that many Baby Boomers did not go through (most of the captains I have been flying with in the airlines for almost a decade had their upgrades with much less experience and much faster than I an my generation have now). But, like you said, maybe the homebuilt is the light; and although less affordable, if GA is a priority for someone – specially in the US – he or she can always go for it (in other parts of the Earth, it is simply too expensive to be considered). One day, half a century from now, we might be moving into an era where flying will be like sailing is: once the only way around for long distances for people or goods, now something done only for pleasure or sport. And that might be the breaking point for a GA rebirth. I don’t know – and will be probably not holding any valid medical by then either – but I sure hope to spend the next couple decades doing what I was born to do: flying my own small piston around with family and friends on my time off. I can’t quit, it is stronger than myself.
Great perspective, thank you. My fear is that GA will continue along the declining path we’ve witnessed in the last 40-odd years. The absorption and disappearance of Mom and Pop FBO’s, replaced by Big Box Class B facilities. To purchase, maintain, insure, and operate GA aircraft takes deep pockets. The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing. I am encouraged, however, by collaborative efforts of EAA Chapter 640, Learn Build Fly, Wausau R/C Sports, and the Wausau Flying Service to be inclusive, and forward-thinking. They host weekly Build Nights, where youth and adults are encouraged to participate, for free, in STEM-skills assessment and training. Young Eagle events, and demonstrations with model aircraft, helicopters, and drones. Reaching-out to area schools, technical, and college campuses with introductory programs designed to illuminate the critical need for trained persons in all facets of aviation. Helping parents sift through the kaleidoscope of internet sales pitches for the relative abundance of scholarships available to assist the lofty dreams of the next generation. The conversation I never want to have with my grandson is the one where he asks about the good old days. Did people actually populate and use airports outside metropolitan areas? Did people actually learn how to build their own airplane? Did people really fly for just the challenge, or fun of it, or to explore the country? What happened to all those people, Grandpa? Let it never be said our generation extinguished the flame of our successors. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
I’m a 71 YO ATP still flying a King Air 250. Talking to a good friend today, another 70+ YO ATP, we both agreed we hit the jackpot. Both of us have had the good fortune to fly for almost half the time that humans have taken to the air in powered flight.
Maybe like all human activities, the novelty to some degree, is the attraction. Flying has been commonplace for nearly 100 years now. I took my wife’s grandson on a flight from Jackson Hole to Helena, Montana with him in the CP seat. After about 10 minutes he had his iPhone out. I heard afterwards that he thought the flight was boring.
Since I fly SP I occasionally have other passengers in the CP seat. Generally, the older ones are thrilled but to the younger ones it’s sort of, “Meh”.
FAA is very talented to keep this retro-oligopoly working all these years. But seems like now, after COVID they really begun trying to destroy GA deliberately. Sorry, but the conspiracy theory guys are getting out of theories
The decline of GA goes far beyond the cost of buying a used airplane. The issues are legal, cultural and societal.
The 1970s saw the greatest level of new aircraft sales since the the end of WWII with over twenty thousand units sold, then some savvy slip and fall lawyers looked at the aviation business as a cash cow to be milked and extended the product liability concept to general aviation. Aircraft and their related products that were certified as safe from the all powerful FAA, were deemed defective in the eye of the courts and the public. So, if Joe aviator flying from Florida to Texas in his Cherokee 180 runs out of fuel because he failed to switch tanks, then it must be the fault of Piper and its defective fuel delivery system. How can a product be deemed safe for production by one level of government be deemed defective by another branch of government?
Culturally, people are no longer mesmerized by the allure of flying as they were before WWII and as such less young people are interested in being pilots or mechanics. In the current cultural climate aviation is seen as something that is in the purview of the rich and as such it is not something the common person can easily due. Also the common citizen living near an airport thinks that something unsavory and unsafe is constantly going on at the airport. And, for the governing authority weather it be a city or county see the airport property as a source of future tax revenue and as such will exploit any situation to convince the public to close the airport and converted into something the will increase the tax base.
On a societal level the last twenty-five years has been devastating to GA. We first had the idea that everybody has to make some nebulous concept of a living wage, and as such the price price for primary instruction has exploded with some instruction going for $75 and even $100 for one hour. This is before you spend $300 a year or renters insurance and $200 for a Cherokee 180 wet rental. When I got my PPL in 1991 instruction was $20 an hour and renting a Cessna 150 was $55 and hour wet, which translate to $42 and $118 respectively today. This high level of cost does not inspire any young adult to learn how to fly, let alone the common private pilot looking to fly on weekends. Finally, in my estimation 9/11 crippled the ability of GA to advertise its existence, namely through the availability and openness of GA airports. No longer can you just go to a GA airport and walk on the field to talk to other pilots about what they do. Today, most airports look like prison camps with razor wire and gates to prevent the “un-invited” public access to the airport. If you happen to visit the airfield and talk to someone in the FBO or maintenance hander, you are treated rudely and with suspicion.
I predict that the days of private flying being open and accessible to all Americans is slowly coming to an end. It will be a world exclusively controlled by the big airlines and big aviation business. For the airfields that survive and can be use for private flying, they will be modeled like many European GA entities where the individual pays for super high fuel prices, being on the airfield, filing a flight plan, getting a weather briefing, etc. In short it will be the purview of the very rich.