You remember, don’t you, when you first fell in love with aviation? Perhaps it was a warm, sunny day with a jeweled, blue morning sky beckoning you to the airport on your trusty Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle. Maybe you crouched in the tall, brown grass by the run-up area, the stiff propeller wash blowing your hair. You blocked the sun with your hand and gazed up in wonder. Maybe a kind pilot saw you there, shook his head with a knowing smile and opened his airplane’s door for you while adjusting his Ray-Bans. Maybe that day you fell in love with flying and never looked back.
Aviation, however, has undergone a drastic change in the last decade. You won’t see any kids or bikes anywhere near run-up areas anymore. Neighborhoods have encroached on our local airports, and few residents, if any, appreciate the airplanes buzzing over their manicured lawns. Most pilots would be afraid of offering some random kid a ride in their airplane and, anyway, kids are too busy with their iPhones and Internet socializing to care about those tired airplanes creaking in the wind at the local field.
General aviation, and our place in it as pilots, is in trouble, and we’re waging the greatest battle aviation has known since Orville and Wilbur stepped out that fateful morning at Kitty Hawk. Airline travel is predicted to double by 2020, but general aviators are threatened with user fees, and fuel, insurance and maintenance costs are soaring. With general aviation serving as the main feeder of pilots to the airlines, we face a real crisis. What can we do to save general aviation?
We seem to always look elsewhere for the answer. “The FAA needs to create programs to reinvigorate general aviation,” says one pilot. “AOPA should go on the road with multimedia presentations showing people why general aviation is vital,” suggests another. The problem is, the FAA won’t fix it. They can’t. Neither can AOPA, EAA or any other alphabet organization.
To quote Bob Dylan, “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” and it is. The one who will save aviation is you.
|The "Six In 12 Initiative"
The Plan: Every pilot takes one person for a ride in a GA aircraft every two months for 12 months.
Candidates: The general public, especially people who have never flown or have misconceptions about general aviation.
The Flight: Use common sense. Select a day with average temperatures and excellent weather. Choose early morning or late afternoon. Photographers refer to this time as the “golden light,” as the low sun paints everything in a warm glow. Keep the flight gentle, short and safe.
Flying Youth: When flying minors, it’s critical to involve the parent up to and maybe including the flight. Written permission is a good idea. Use Scouting guidelines of no unsupervised one-on-one contact, two adults should always be present (except in the cockpit if you only have two seats).
Result: Every year, more than 3.5 million new people will fly in a general aviation aircraft who never would have under normal circumstances. Exposure and education is the goal.
Taking It To The Streets: The “Six In 12 Initiative”
The first thing that must change is the public’s perception. The only way to do that is to expose far more of the public to positive, rewarding GA experiences. One way to accomplish this is through what I call the “Six in 12 Initiative.”
According to 2007 FAA estimates, there are about 600,000 active pilots in the United States. That’s roughly 0.25% of the American population. By contrast, it means that 99.75% of the population doesn’t fly an airplane. Therefore, if each pilot gives a GA airplane ride to one different person every two months for 12 months, it will result in 3.5 million “civilians” experiencing the thrill and awe of flight in a single year! In five years, that leads to 18 million new people exposed to aviation in a way that no ride, movie, game or book could ever match.
The idea isn’t new. The goals, however, are different. Your charge is to alter the perceptions of the normal, average Joe and Jane—to expose people who may not even be interested in aviation to the joys you experience while flying. You’re selling aviation, and it’s a wonderful product: freedom and exhilaration and beauty and joy.
Teach The Children
The future of general aviation rests in the hands of our children. It must appeal to them before it can continue and grow. The easy part is that all you have to do is expose them to it. Nature will do the rest.
Introduce kids to flying through grass-roots organizations like the Boy/Girl Scouts, YMCA and others. Leaders are always looking for new ideas to present at meetings. Offer to do a mini-seminar on flying, perhaps with a visit to a local airport and FBO. Let these kids see, touch and feel what’s behind the barbed wire. Give them insight into your world of the sky.
We need better, safer, more comfortable aircraft. Luckily, some GA manufacturers have picked up on this. Aircraft designs from Diamond, Cirrus, Columbia and others reflect modern tastes and aesthetics. Their interiors are automobile-like with climate control, plush materials and modern safety features such as air bags and advanced restraints. Their technology and glass cockpits appeal to a new generation. The airplanes most of us fly are tired, boxy designs derived from the 1940s and, sadly to me, must evolve to attract new pilots.
While we’re at it, we need to encourage aircraft manufacturers to break the price barriers that stop many people from taking up flying. The good news is that some companies are developing LSAs and other less-expensive GA airplanes, which will enable more people to join the aircraft-ownership fray and encourage aviation’s expansion.
A logical place to start influencing the public’s view of flying is at the community level. From newspapers to libraries and schools, our communities offer open opportunities for promoting aviation.
|After the pilot boom caused by World War II, the number of certified pilots reached a peak in 1980, but it has declined since.|
Media outlets are perfect places to begin. Instead of complaining about the media’s perception of general aviation, you can do your part to change it. Start by introducing yourself to the “community” or “features” editor at your local newspaper. Offer a firsthand, front-seat look at the true nature of general aviation. If you ask just right and you’re knowledgeable and professional (and with a little luck), the editor will take you up on it.
Give the reporter the safest, calmest, most beautiful flight you’ve ever flown. Talk about the utility and diversity of general aviation, be accurate with safety statistics and point out positive facts about flying. Offer to assist with and provide commentary on future aviation stories and be a safe and informative pilot. Your gift of flight will trickle down like rain to every reader of that newspaper.
Libraries have display cases where they feature local exhibits and are in perpetual need of something other than pottery made from dung-beetle larva to fill up those cases. Volunteer to create a display about general aviation. Spice it up with good-quality graphics, models (airplanes, not people, though that would attract a crowd) and facts. List FBO phone numbers and add yourself as a resource.
Groups of pilots can organize “airport days” for the community. The twist is to get away from the simplistic, “stunt flying” aspect and focus on aviation careers and the diverse mission of general aviation. Provide job information, hands-on experiences and show visitors how airports give back to their communities. Offer rides and simple “ground schools.” The idea here is community involvement and awareness. Show them why you love to fly.
|Look for opportunities to introduce young people, like these Boy Scouts, to flying.|
Bring Back The Romance
Not long ago, my eight-year-old daughter and I were flying together for the first time. The late afternoon was a translucent orange and the setting sun against the cumulus to the east set the sky ablaze in a cotton-candy explosion of light. Ol’ Seven Sierra Papa was happy to be winging through the cool firmament, taking generous bites of the thick air ahead of her. My daughter was looking with great intent out the window, seemingly lost in thought. She caught my eye and cocked her head to the side in a contemplative expression. “Dad,” she said, “do people know they can see the whole world from up here?” I smiled and answered that, no, people probably didn’t. “Well it’s the most beautiful thing ever,” she continued. “Daddy, I’m gonna need to fly again really soon!”
We forget that flight will, in its own way and time, touch certain people’s souls. It seems, though, that many of us have lost the passion we felt when flying first touched us. We’re bogged down by the mundane intricacies of aviation instead of connecting with the spirituality of flight.
There was a time, from the 1930s through, perhaps, the 1960s when kids looked in wide-eyed wonder to the sky and saw pilots and flying as romantic icons of ultimate freedom. As the sixties wore on, economy and practicality took over and, by the eighties, general aviation lumbered to a near halt as the romance began to fade.
We need to restore passion to flying. We do that by passing down the reasons why we aviate. We also need to expose our kids to the rich, inspired writings of Ernest Gann, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Richard Bach and others. In bringing back the romance of flying, we pass on the freedom of flight and the fulfilling life that accompanies it. Aviating and aviators are special.
Flying, after all, isn’t about FADEC or WAAS or GPS or regulations. The real transformation one feels in aviation happens only in the sky. It’s there that our spirit meets the clouds and turns us forever into winged beings. Like the mythical baseball diamond in the corn, offer them flight, and they will come.