Mayday! The Declining Pilot Population Part 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5

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Special Report Introduction (updated Oct 5th, 2012)

The dwindling number of pilots in the U.S.A. has the attention of a lot of people. There are currently far more questions than answers and it is unlikely that those answers will come from one source.

It will take a collective effort to reverse this trend, if indeed it is reversible. To that end Air Facts is working to get a dialogue going. We will be posting five essays to begin, one a day for five days.

We urge you to read these and add your comments. You can add them to the end of each essay or you can wait until all five are posted and then sound off.

The authors of these are coming from different directions so there will be a good diversity of thought. It will be up to you to expand on that.

Richard Collins’ Thoughts

Graph of private pilots

The number of active private pilots is in a steady decline.

It is no secret that there are fewer and fewer active general aviation pilots every year. Why is that true? Can we arrest the decline? Will the activity ever grow again?

The factors most commonly cited when discussing the decline are money and time. Those are excuses, though, not factors. Flying has always been expensive and learning how to use an airplane has always taken a lot of time.

One reason there are fewer pilots is because the mood in our country has changed. There is more of a tendency today for people to be needy and dependent and risk-averse. That is not a good demographic for flight training or for flying.

The only real way to increase interest in flying is to appeal to people who have a strong sense of independent individualism. The risks can’t be minimized. In fact, flying is something that takes a good mix of intelligence and coordination, both physical and mental. Lacking that, flying can be downright hazardous to your health. In other words, wimps are not good prospects for flying.

The aircraft manufacturers delivered 17,811 airplanes in 1978 and a few less in 1979. Then production fell off the proverbial cliff. One reason for that is the fact that the legions of World War Two and GI-Bill pilots peaked in their earning years at that time. No more built-in pilot population so things started to trail off. The numbers don’t show it but I have always thought that every measure of general aviation activity started to decline after 1979.

We have to acknowledge, too, that general aviation flying in piston airplanes is reaching a historic low level at this time. I am writing this on Labor Day. There used to be a lot of flight activity as people traveled on holidays. I just looked at FlightAware and there are a grand total of 159 piston airplanes flying on IFR flight plans in the whole country. That is just over three per state. VFR flights would make the number a lot bigger but nobody counts those.

The low and declining level of activity means that if we don’t arrest the decrease, at some point there won’t be anything left.

Historically, aircraft manufacturers were the main cheerleaders for learning to fly. It was good business. I have forgotten the numbers, but Cessna once did research that showed how many piston singles they sold for every 100 pilots  who got a certificate, and how many of those went on to buy a twin, then a turboprop, then a jet.

General aviation used to be a domestic cottage industry, run by the people whose name was on the product. Now ownership is either by a conglomerate or is offshore. There is little “feel” for general aviation in the corporate offices or in the boardroom.

EAA and AOPA have programs to promote aviation and we can only hope that these will gain some traction. They are motivated because fewer pilots mean fewer members. Of all the involved entities they are probably the most directly affected by the decreasing pilot population.

Some feel that a reduction in the cost of learning to fly would help. I have been watching this for a long time, though, and most schemes to reduce cost have been false promises. The same goes for schemes to make it easier to learn to fly.

I think there are only three possible ways to have a shot at increasing the personal and business use of light (under 6,000 pound maximum takeoff weight) airplanes.

Cessna 172

Even a Cessna 172 can be a legitimate tool for travel.

Rather than raw cost, the value of flying has to be the emphasis. Nobody uses airplanes to save money. But for people who have traps to run in a state, or a couple of states, there is nothing more useful and valuable than a general aviation airplane and it doesn’t have to be a jet. A piston single or twin will enable day trips over a wide area.

Some years ago I experimented with using a Cessna 172 with top-line IFR avionics as a business airplane. I lived in Little Rock at the time and routinely made day trips to Wichita, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth and even San Antonio which was at the outer limits on distance when flying at 120 knots. It might have been a short paddle but it worked for me for two years and was quite economical.

The airplane builders need to address a shortage of utility in the current crop of airplanes. The payload/range number on many airplanes is pretty pathetic.

There was once a time when the number of seats outlined the carrying capability of our airplanes, within limits. The four seat airplanes would fly with more than two people, some baggage, and enough fuel to fly for a decent length or fly for at least a little while with four on board.  The folks who build airliners have to design the ability to fill all the seats and then fly halfway around the world nonstop. That needs to be at least partially emulated in piston singles.

For lack of a better word, we need to appeal to the sense of adventure that some people still have. Put the “right stuff,” or the romance, back into flying. Let’s be honest and tell the public that this isn’t for everyone, it is for above average people who want to stand out by doing something special.

Back in the good old days, when people found out you were a pilot they often said that they always wanted to do that. Now they are more likely to ask why you would want to do that. That needs to change.

Your thoughts?

Article obtained from here:


Part 2

Stories about the declining pilot population never surprise me, because they never fail to trigger the memory of two sadly illustrative experiences that might have put me in that category.

Ground school

Are flight schools today delivering what 21st century consumers want?

The first occurred in the early 1990s when, having finished private pilot ground school, passed the knowledge test, and acquired my student pilot certificate/medical, I visited the nearest flight school to see about flight training. I found myself in a dark and dingy facility, partly excused by the “pardon our dust” construction signs but nonetheless uninspiring. No one at the counter seemed interested in helping me. When I politely inquired about flight training, they handed me a single sheet of crookedly-copied information on flight training packages. There was no conversation. No offer to show the facility or the aircraft. So there was also no sale. I wanted flight training badly enough to keep searching, and I eventually found a school that wanted my business. But I have often wondered how many potential pilots simply gave up at the counter.

The second occurred just three years ago, when I wanted an aircraft checkout in a city I visit often enough to make the exercise worthwhile. I was in the company of a couple who owned the nearly-new Cessna T206 Stationair we had just refueled. The counter attendant looked panic-stricken when I asked about checkout requirements, but pointed me to “one of the instructors” on the sofa behind me. Said instructor was engaged in a lively shoot-the-bull conversation with a fuel truck driver, and both appeared annoyed by the interruption from this pesky potential customer.

Neither bothered to stand. No one offered a handshake, an introduction, or an invitation to sit. And then, while I stood in front of them, the instructor proceeded to conduct an almost hostile interrogation on my qualifications and experience. His description of the overlying Class B airspace seemed designed to intimidate and discourage me–hard to do, not only because I’m relentless when I want something, but also because my home airspace in the Washington, DC Tri-Area Class B and Special Flight Rules Area makes anywhere else seem simple by comparison. Again, no sale. I found another school, but I continue to wonder how the first one stays in business. I do not wonder why anyone in search of flight training might well find some other way to spend large sums of money.

There’s a lot of competition today for discretionary income, and there’s a lot less tolerance for the kind of experience too many potential pilots have when they walk through the door of the typical flight school. The high cost of flight training is certainly one factor in the declining pilot population, but it’s not the only factor. I’m not convinced it’s the primary factor, either. Treating potential pilots like valuable and valued customers is certainly a necessary start, and I could write a lot on that particular subject.

But if we want to reverse the declining pilot population, it’s not enough to treat potential customer-pilots well enough to enroll them in flight training. We also have to keep them in flight training, and keep them flying when they finish.

Here too, my experiences–by no means unique–may be illustrative. During my primary training, I was fortunate to have a fine instructor. The school used a respected commercial syllabus. I never had cause to worry about the airworthiness of the training fleet. Still, the overall approach to training was unimaginative, an exercise in marching through set maneuvers-based lesson plans that sometimes seemed irrelevant to my reasons for learning to fly. Even for a highly motivated, absurdly enthusiastic student like me, it was sometimes difficult to keep going.

When I did finish, the school seemed oblivious to the marketing axiom that keeping an existing customer is far less expensive than acquiring a new one. They sent me off with a cheery “congratulation–have fun–be safe” farewell, but I was basically on my own to figure out how to use my shiny new license to learn. If I had not independently set my next aviation goal for an instrument rating, which gave me a reason to go flying and, eventually, a reason to sign up for more flight training, I too might have drifted into the declining pilot population.

To that end, I think another key to reversing the declining pilot population lies in principles outlined in The Experience Economy (Pine and Gilmore, 1998). With apologies to the authors for oversimplification, the premise is that the focus of economic activity in the last century has evolved through agrarian, industrial, and service phases.

Economic value-added now comes from carefully structured, staged, and “mass-customized” experiences–think Disney World or Amazon–that offer positive and memorable experiences that the customer wants to repeat. Pine and Gilmore posit that the next and final phase of economic evolution is the “aspirational economy,” in which economic value-added comes from helping the customer achieve a personal aspiration in some area.

Now apply those concepts to flight training. Although scenario-based training is verbally in vogue, the existing model still largely markets flight training as a product (pilot certificate) and/or a service (training needed to obtain it). At the very least, though, flight training in today’s highly competitive market for discretionary income needs to be a carefully structured, staged, and customized set of positive learning experiences – experiences that fulfill a customer’s aspiration (e.g., self-improvement through acquisition of a new skill), contribute to another aspiration (e.g., fly my family to the beach next summer), and provide reasons to keep flying.

FAA Wings program

Can the FAA’s Wings program help keep pilots flying?

Here’s how an experience-oriented, scenario-based training program might operate for a potential pilot who wants to fly for vacation and business travel. At the very first meeting, the school ascertains the customer’s goals in learning to fly so as to understand, and meet, that person’s individual aspiration. The school then uses standard tools to create a “customized” training program and–this is important–explains and discusses that program with the customer-pilot. Since the first part of any flight training program is necessarily a maneuvers-based focus on attaining fundamental stick-and-rudder skills, the school should use this discussion to motivate by relating those maneuvers to the customer’s ultimate goal (e.g., you’ll need short-field landing skills to use XXX airport for family vacations).

As to what the rest of the program could entail, I have often thought flight schools are missing a real training and marketing opportunity in states that have a formal airport visitation program. In my state, flight schools could include the “aviation ambassador passport” booklet and a recommended training and post-training sequence of airports to visit in the enrollment package. Since some of these activities would qualify for FAA Pilot Proficiency Program (WINGS) credit, the school could include that information as well. During the cross-country phase, each dual and solo XC is part of the airport visitation program experience, with passport stamps and WINGS credits serving as visible evidence of achievement and progress.

When the customer-pilot finishes training, the school encourages use of WINGS and the recommended airport visitation sequence as a structured post-training reason to fly. Since some airports are more challenging, a discount on dual instruction for certain trips would not only encourage safe stretching of the fledgling pilot’s skills, but it would also give the new pilot and the flight school an opportunity to reconnect, thus bolstering both training and marketing relationships.

In my state, completion of the state airport visitation program (which also requires attendance at safety seminars) earns the pilot a nice leather jacket. Flight schools could create their own form of recognition for “ambassador-level” pilots, which could bolster pilot community camaraderie and provide another opportunity to connect with the customer-pilot. Since a pilot who has visited the entire set of airports is likely to have both enough XC hours for an instrument rating and an appreciation for its utility, it’s also a perfect time to offer an instrument training outline.

Modern educational theories have a lot to say about the importance of meaningful experience, personal relevance (aspiration), and “scaffolding” to support and strengthen the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. I can’t help but think–or at least hope–that a flight training program that uses these principles for training and post-training support could do a lot to get ‘em flying … and keep ‘em flying, too.

About the author: Susan Parson is an active general aviation pilot and Master flight instructor in northern Virginia. She holds an ATP certificate, as well as ground and flight instructor certificates with instrument, single engine, and multi-engine land ratings. She instructs for her Leesburg-based C182 flying club and the Civil Air Patrol. Both for CAP and as editor of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, Susan has authored several online training courses and over 80 GA safety articles.

This article #2 was found here:

Part 3

Problem? What problem? We’ve been wildly successful in flight training. We’ve been successful despite ourselves. We’ve done a fantastic job of recruiting new customers and maintaining the pilot population at its current level, having essentially only one product to offer.

Pilot license

Is this all we’re selling? There is more to being a pilot than a piece of plastic.

The flight training industry has been offering a single product to consumers since the beginning of time; and not only does this product not speak or resonate with modern consumers, it has become, by necessity, complicated, time-consuming and expensive. I’m speaking of Private Pilot Flight Training.

Think of flight training as Baskin Robbins ice cream. Where would that company be, had it introduced plain vanilla ice cream in 1945 with very little change or innovation since? Instead, two ice cream enthusiasts developed a culture of innovation that led to the creation of more than a thousand ice cream flavors and a variety of other treats now sold in nearly 7,000 retail shops and 50 countries. In other words, the offerings evolved as consumer demand evolved.

The privileges available to a Private pilot, along with more complex airspace, regulations and equipment, have swelled actual training requirements to something far less manageable to most aviation prospects. Average time to obtain a Private Pilot Certificate is something north of 70 hours and 8+ months. This journey is fraught with complications and the potential for distractions and obstacles.

In addition, there is a school of thought suggesting that an instrument rating is required, or your Private Pilot certificate is dangerous. Moreover, there is a particularly vocal faction bringing a great deal of attention to “risk management” principles and to the “dangers” associated with flying airplanes, further discouraging an already risk-averse population.

While I favor an honest discussion regarding risk, and training that is aimed toward conducting consistent, safe operations, we must temper our expectations. We all accept a certain level of risk when we get out of bed in the morning, and there’s a limit to how safe we can make any activity. Remember, with each new mandate, we sacrifice a little more freedom and potentially, less appeal–which more often than not impacts those who were doing it right in the first place. I may regret saying it, but we very easily could achieve an airline level of safety in general aviation (GA) if we simply turned off the lights and went home–no more GA. We certainly don’t want that.

I understand that we’re not selling a product that will appeal to everyone; and I acknowledge that not everyone desires, nor has the aptitude, to pursue aviation. However,  I believe there is a massive, untapped market of potential aviators–individuals of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds who have the resources to invest in aviation. What we need is creativity, product innovation and messaging for the modern, savvy consumer.

We’ve “gotten by” in GA with a little luck, a government-sponsored consumer base following the War, and the romance of aviation. During an earlier time in our nation’s history, post-World War II when GA was booming, we had generation after generation with a personal connection to flight. These powerful, personal connections, accessible aircraft, and a clear understanding of what a pilot certificate can provide in terms of freedom, lifestyle, challenge and rewards, is why we’ve been this successful.

A growing general population with fewer and more distant connections to GA has exaggerated the declining pilot numbers–fewer people are captured by the allure, and bigger walls and fences are being built around our GA airports. Alternative and accessible forms of entertainment, a recent revolution in mass communication (e.g. email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and even advanced gaming options compete with our traditional product offering.

Couple these factors with a pilot profession suffering major image problems as a result of numerous, widely publicized blunders and a global, economic crisis leading to fierce competition for discretionary dollars, and you end up with an industry in its current state of decline. Let’s build an innovative product offering.

We must look at pilot training as a gateway. It’s not the training experience; it’s the pilot experience that offers appeal and utility. Informative statements like, “Pilot certificates don’t expire,” and “Aviation introduces you to a community of similarly-minded individuals with similar interests in challenge, adventure and freedom,” absolutely matter.

We must create a shorter tunnel and a more appealing, desirable product, while keeping in mind that nearly 70% seek flight training for recreational purposes. This is according to recent AOPA-sponsored research. Working within the confines of current regulations and certificate options issued by the FAA, pilot training can still be broken down into clear, manageable steps – steps that require less investment (time and money), provide highly accessible, short-term goals, and most importantly, yield instant gratification. We have the opportunity to package flights that may reside throughout an existing curriculum. We have the opportunity to create and market a track to first solo – a key step toward any certificate. Our own experience has shown that reaching the first solo milestone virtually eliminates the risk of a dropout.

We have opportunities for Sport or Recreational training options that legitimately can be accomplished in the traditional 40 hours that used to be quoted for Private pilot training. We even have the opportunity to offer just one lesson at a time. As silly as that may sound, keep in mind that given most busy schedules, people generally look for less commitment, not more. For those who may not wish to or be able to attain the first solo or a pilot certificate, there’s no limit on dual instructional flights. While that individual may not be the greatest customer and likely never will become the ace of the base, he or she may very well become the greatest GA advocate. Too often in this industry, I see more attempts to keep those not deemed worthy out than to open our doors and bring more people in.

There were 16,802 Private Pilot Certificates for airplanes issued in 2011. Consider that dropout rates are estimated as high as 80%. Now, consider the profound effect on the pilot population if retention rates were raised to even 50%. We conceivably could double the number of new Private pilots. In other words, the prospects are likely there, but the channels for acceptance and completion may not be.

Learn to Fly Here! sign

We have to mean it when we advertise it.

As a flight school operator, I find it devastating, to say the least, to lose an individual who has stepped up and identified himself or herself as someone who desires to be part of the pilot community and has invested the time to come to an airport for training. As important as it is to have a product that appeals to modern consumers, it is equally important to be ready to accept the prospects and to have a supportive infrastructure in place with the same modern appeal.

Including a student’s support network (friends and family) in the pursuit of their goals is a strategy that can help. Any activity taking individuals away from their normal routines will require some level of support from their network. Consider policies, or even formal procedures, that will be inclusive and considerate of the powerful influence of a support network. This includes fine details such as a quiet place to read, comfortable chairs, and clean restrooms for those individuals who aren’t regular airport-goers.

Other forms of modern channel readiness include clear, concise communication vehicles and a robust social networking presence to help build community and maintain contact when away from the airport. This includes openness, honesty, and the ability to deliver support material in a variety of formats for accessibility. Appealing learning experiences must be customized and personal. This doesn’t mean creating a custom training program for each of your customers, but it does mean providing the feel of a custom experience. Step 1 of obtaining the custom feel simply is becoming an active listener and learning why your customer is there and how that customer defines success.

There is much to be learned from other professions and industries in terms of customer support. In order for our pilots to come back to the airport day after day, our product must have value. Much easier said than done, but key to that value proposition is, once again, the pilot experience and not so much the training experience. Let’s be creative in our avenues for sharing that pilot experience during the training process, as well as creating opportunities to learn about the pilot experience from other pilots.

It’s only natural for many of us, who are a regular part of aviation circles, to take for granted the motivations and desires of others to join. The unique qualification of pilot is certainly part of the appeal, but an industry whose population continues to decline can’t survive. My challenge to us all is to do something different. Be bold, be creative, be inviting.

About the author: It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. “While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric is now President of Sporty’s Academy, the educational arm of Sporty’s Pilot Shop. He also heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.

Article found here:


Part 4

I was born and raised in the UK and learned to fly in a small Scottish flying club based around a Piper L-4 Cub. Group ownership of aircraft is very common across Europe as a way of dealing with the high cost of flying and can also provide a friendly social environment. For me the latter was especially true as one of the aircraft co-owners eventually became my wife!

GA airport

The humble general aviation airport–still America’s greatest strength.

Janet and I moved across the Atlantic in 2001 when I was hired to run the wonderful EAA museum in Oshkosh. We were completely blown away by the aviation environment we found in the USA–compared to the UK it felt like arriving in paradise! Half price airplanes, fuel at one-third the price, airports everywhere, free weather briefings, affordable hangars, no charges to fly in controlled airspace and, get this, no landing fees, anywhere… wow, this was the place to be!

We discovered important new freedoms from government interference and large associations to protect the right to fly. There were incredible huge expos like Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun, along with hundreds of local air shows and grassroots fly-ins. And what about these astonishing places called “residential air parks,” an incredible concept!

Even today, Janet and I still giggle with glee every time we experience the highest achievement of aviation civilization: the airport courtesy car.

Seriously, the range and quality of GA infrastructure in the United States can sometimes be taken for granted, but it’s like no other place on earth. One really comes to appreciate an ample supply of mechanics when you’ve had the experience of being grounded for weeks because no one is available, in a country of 60 million people, to make a simple repair to your plane.

With this background you might begin to understand the passion and commitment I feel towards my new job with AOPA. The organization has established a new unit called the Center to Advance the Pilot Community, and its mission is to reverse a slow decline in general aviation in the United States that has been underway for the past three decades.

Sitting on the desk on my first morning was an excellent research study published recently by a graduate student at MIT with help from the readers of AvWeb. It uses a large amount of statistical data to confirm what active pilots know from their own observations–by almost every measure available, GA has been in a slow and steady decline for roughly 30 years. There are fewer pilots, they are flying less, and they are getting older.

These words really jumped at me out of the MIT report:

…as the pilot population declines, in part due to increasing costs, the economies of scale in all aspects of cost in general aviation will diminish and will push costs up even more, creating a crippling positive feedback loop.

This is exactly what happened in the UK, and we simply can’t afford to let it happen here. Unfortunately, the MIT study shows that the downward trend seems to have been accelerating since 2008, and this is creating the sense of urgency that AOPA feels in establishing the new Center.

So what is to be done?

Obviously we need to be eternally vigilant about the cost and complexity of aviation, and I feel the biggest impact an organization like AOPA can have here is through government advocacy. There will always be defensive efforts like the ongoing fight against user fees, but what makes us feel really good are the times when we can get on the offensive and achieve a reduction in cost or bureaucratic burden. (The 3rd class medical petition being a good current example.) I would be interested to read your suggestions about where we might go next.

Some important work at FAA is being done by my former EAA colleague, Earl Lawrence, to reform and modernize the aircraft certification process. Faster and less costly ways to bring modern technology into GA aircraft will help meet customer expectations, and it should bring important safety benefits too. It is really good to see the FAA starting to think about customer needs–we should encourage this at every step, and also take note ourselves. Any industry that becomes disconnected from the needs and desires of its customers is surely headed for failure.

Flying club

AOPA thinks flying clubs are an important part of a strong general aviation community.

The first major new initiative of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community will be to get strongly behind the concept of flying clubs. We are announcing all the details next week at the AOPA Summit in Palm Springs. But, briefly, flying clubs do seem like a solid place to invest some of our time and resources. They work hard to keep the cost of flying down, usually with the type of supportive community that research has shown to be a vital factor in keeping pilots active and engaged. It seems to be a vibrant and successful model (our research identified over 650 flying clubs in the USA) with lots of room for growth and improvement.

We will also be continuing the work that AOPA began a couple of years ago with the publication of detailed research into the horrendously bad drop-out rate (80%) in flight training. If we could move that needle even 10%, we would capture thousands of new pilots each year. The research work is now translating into practical projects such as the Flight Training Excellence Awards, which have received over 2,400 nominations from customers for flight schools and CFIs. By recognizing the best in the business, we hope to motivate an improvement in standards. The Awards are also creating a way we can start directing new students to higher quality flight training experiences.

In addition to looking at how we bring new people into aviation, we’ll also be paying attention to the other end of the pipeline. There’s an old business adage that it’s cheaper to retain a customer than it is to acquire a new one. Yet every year we allow thousands of people to drift away–people that have invested all the time and money to earn their certificates. I see ways that we can work a lot harder to keep them, and to attract recently-lapsed pilots back.

So these are my initial thoughts on the activities of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community. But the real purpose of writing this article is to stimulate some discussion and feedback. I don’t have all the answers (yet!) and am really interested in your ideas on how we can turn GA around.

Finally, let’s try to stay positive and optimistic. I can’t think of any turnaround in history that was driven by negative thinking, and we actually have plenty of reasons to be cheerful! Aviation has lost none of its ability to provide incredible, life-enhancing experiences. It’s safer than ever before, and there are millions of people out there with the time and money to fly. We also have an incredibly strong community. Aviation seems to have an uncanny way of attracting some of the finest people in the world, and in this work ahead of us, they are probably our most important asset of all.

It’s a tradition as old as hangar flying–the old timers sit around and complain about how things are going down the tubes. While this routine can be tiresome for more optimistic pilots (including me), that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. Even a casual look at the numbers shows that general aviation is as weak as it’s been in a decades. Just glance at the graph on the right: the old timers might be right this time.

piston aircraft deliveries chart

Piston airplane deliveries have plummeted since 1979.

That graph tells me it’s time for a radical re-thinking of what general aviation means and who it appeals to. Society has changed dramatically since the 1970s; our hobby hasn’t.

That’s why so much of the talk these days is disappointing–everyone has their pet cause, and we spend too much time arguing about minor details. It’s as if the right engine has quit, the vacuum pump has failed and there’s smoke in the cockpit, but we’re running the checklist for a burned out landing light.

The first step towards a stronger future is to be realistic. Let’s admit that the good old days are gone forever, and they’re not coming back. So many of the factors that drove the great aviation boom in the 1970s are not repeatable: World War II pilots, the GI Bill, 30 cents/gallon gas and so much more. Indeed, when you consider all of these artificial stimulants, it’s better to view the 70s as a bubble instead of a normal level that we can return to.

We also need to be realistic about the cost of flying. Any discussion of the declining pilot population always seems to start here, and a lot of comments in this special series have focused on money. But as I’ve argued before, cost is not the only problem, or even the most important one, facing general aviation. Flying is certainly expensive, but it always has been and there’s not a lot we can do to change that in the short term. After all, aircraft manufacturers aren’t making any money and neither are flight schools.

Besides, the reality is that even with high gas prices and $300,000 Cessna 172s, there are still millions of Americans who can afford to become pilots. But 98% don’t, and they often go on to spend large sums of money on other pastimes. That means we’re failing, even with those who do have the money. To me, it would be far easier to convert a few more of these people into pilots than to invent $50,000 new airplanes and cheaper Avgas.

What we should focus on is why people learn to fly, and how to give them what they want from their pilot’s license.

People become pilots for three main reasons: to be a professional pilot, to have fun or to do serious travel. The first category is outside the scope of our conversation about general aviation (although suffice it to say their job prospects are not what they once were), so we’ll leave them aside.

The second group–the recreational pilots chasing $100 hamburgers on the weekends–gets a lot of attention, and for good reason. These passionate aviators who fly just to enjoy the freedom of being in the air are the backbone of general aviation, but they are suffering from high costs, dying airports and increased competition for free time. We need to dramatically increase the reward they get out of aviation, from making airports more inviting to getting rid of the Third Class Medical to overhauling the way we train pilots. Even electric airplanes may someday bring the cost of shorter flights down for these enthusiasts. These are all worthy efforts, but they’re not enough.

I love recreational pilots–I am one myself, often flying a taildragger low and slow at sunrise. But this category of pilots will never be the way to dramatically grow the pilot ranks. There are just too many options for fun today, and all of them take less time and money than flying. As long as “pilot” means being a die-hard enthusiast, we’ll remain a small club. Imagine if Ford tried to sell cars only to wrench-turning gear heads.

busy airport

Don’t think small airplanes are a good way to travel? Just ask the guy in seat 32D.

That’s why I firmly believe it’s the third group of pilots, those who use airplanes to go places, that holds the potential for truly growing the pilot population. Unlike for recreational pilots, general aviation’s value proposition for these pilots is strong. In many cases, the pilot here is a successful businessman with work or family commitments far apart. He has both the money and the need for a pilot’s license, making him more likely to finish his training and more likely to stay engaged after he passes his checkride.

Plus, one unfortunate change in aviation over the past 10 years actually benefits these pilots–flying the airlines is as bad as it has ever been. Whether it’s brutal TSA lines, overcrowded flights or declining levels of service, trying to stick to a tight schedule on Delta or United is either painful, impossible or both. Even a small single-engine piston airplane can give a Boeing a run for the money on trips under 500 miles by taking advantage of the United States’ incredible network of small airports.

And just because the primary appeal for these pilots is utility doesn’t mean they can’t someday become aviation enthusiasts. After a few hundred hours of successful transportation flying, they may find that the occasional pancake breakfast is fun too.

So how do we convince more of these pilots-to-be to take the plunge? First, we have to invite them. Many successful people assume that they can’t learn to fly or aren’t welcome. Growing this group of pilots will mean burying some of our stereotypes and reaching out to different types of people. We shouldn’t treat them as second class citizens just because they don’t wax poetic about slipping the surly bonds. And we shouldn’t make it sound harder than it is. I don’t believe flying is easy or that anyone can earn a license, but with a serious commitment to training most people can become a pilot.

Next, we need sell them on the safety of flying, especially the non-pilot spouse or business partner. Richard Collins said it well in his article: there is simply less appetite for risk-taking today than there was 30 years ago. If you had been shot at in World War II, your view of risk was dramatically different than someone who spends their life behind airbags and computer screens. Just think of all the helmets kids wear and the safety features in new cars. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they mean the average Joe is probably more concerned than ever about safety.

I think this increased risk aversion is why the airframe parachute has been such a sales success for Cirrus. Whether you believe in it or not, the parachute addresses a major concern of new pilots or non-pilot spouses today, and it was a feature few pilots would have even cared about in 1979.

Cirrus with airframe parachute

Safety sells, especially with new pilots and spouses.

That doesn’t mean we lie about flying. It involves risk, and always will. But risky is not the same as unsafe. One of the most appealing things to me as a pilot is that I get to determine how safe I am–I can cancel a flight or divert because of weather, I can upgrade my equipment and I don’t have paying passengers to satisfy. When that authority is used properly, in conjunction with good maintenance and training, personal transportation flying can be quite safe.

We also need to fix the certification process. Transportation airplanes need new technology, and it needs to come faster and cheaper. This is especially true for engines, which are stuck in the 1930s. But the current Part 23 process illogically tries to lump twin engine jets and Cessna 172s together, making clean sheet designs a terrible business decision. More modern certification standards might even attract some new entrepreneurs into aviation, adding a little Silicon Valley-style energy to our industry.

At the end of the day, people will go out of their way to spend time and money on things they really value–whether it’s college for the kids or a major home renovation. We need to make aviation competitive in this market, by delivering more fun for recreational pilots and especially more utility for transportation pilots.

Let’s also recognize that general aviation in 2025 won’t look anything like 1979. That’s OK. The primary goal is to make sure general aviation is still around in 2025.

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