In keeping with the bylaws of ethnocentrism, everyone judges the rest of the world by their own standards.
By that criterion, I'm curious as to what has happened to the youth movement in aviation. We keep hearing about the pending pilot shortage, but it seems few young people are stepping up to take advantage of those professional pilot opportunities. It's true, airline flying isn't nearly as lucrative as it used to be, but it can still be a fairly decent living once you get past the initial operating experience and the first few years of food stamp pay rates.
Like many of you, I dreamed of becoming a pilot as far back as I can remember. In my case, my first flight was in the back of a J-3 Cub in Anchorage, Alaska, at age 13. The owner, Floyd Blethen, was a senior member of the Anchorage Civil Air Patrol and used his airplane regularly on SAR missions in central Alaska.
Blethen's Cub had been upgraded from its original 65 hp Continental to an 85 hp engine, so he liked to call it a Super Cub. On that first flight in late November and on many subsequent missions, I discovered the heater in Blethen's airplane was definitely not "super."
When I made that first flight, Anchorage was covered in snow, so Blethen had converted his J-3 from wheels to skis. Apparently, just to give a kid a thrill, he flew me across the Cook Inlet to a meadow covered in several feet of undisturbed powdery snow and flew several touch-and-go landings so I could watch the feathery rooster tails of white powder spiral back off the tips of the skis.
With an enthusiasm born of ignorance, I did practically anything to earn flight time: section-washing airplanes outside in 20-degree temperatures, holding flashlights for mechanics forced to work outside in the dark of day (there were only about four hours of daylight in deep winter), running errands for senior members and generally trying to endear myself to anyone in CAP with an airplane.
I was probably no more or less dedicated to aviation than many other kids in the cadet squadron. Flying became my consuming passion, partially unrealized because of a lack of money. It took another decade to earn a license with 58 legal hours and another 50 unloggable hours. I count myself more lucky than tenacious to have hung in there and prevailed.
I don't see that enthusiasm much anymore. Sadly, few kids seem interested in hanging around airports these days just to enjoy the sight and sound of airplanes. Is some of the magic that attracted me and so many other aspiring Yeagers, Hoovers and Crossfields slowly fading away?
Late in the last century (can it really be that long ago?), I ran into an enterprising young man at the Coronado Airport in Albuquerque, N.M.—an airport now long since decommissioned—as I was preparing to fly home from the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. He was probably about 15 and stepped up to admire my Mooney and asked if I'd trade a quick ride around the local area in exchange for a wash job. My airplane wasn't really dirty, but I admired the kid's chutzpah and accepted his offer.
By the time the airplane had been refueled, I had paid the bill and made a few phone calls, he had sprayed it off, wiped it dry and polished all the windows. It turned out he had a few hours of instruction and was eager for more.
I flew with him for a half hour or so, and he proved to be an excellent copilot, guiding my Mooney through the thin air above Albuquerque, looking down on several hundred hot air balloons still drifting above the city after the early morning mass ascension. He hoped to make it to the airlines some day, and if his enthusiasm was any indication, I'll bet he did.
Sadly, I don't see that level of interest in today's younger generation, though I don't fault them for their new priorities. The world has changed dramatically in the last several decades. Priorities are different; computer science, Internet technology, software developers and database managers are where it's at these days. The money can be spectacular.
Still, it's a little hard to believe that what used to be the dream job of so many young people is no longer regarded as such a plum. I have a friend who flew international for US Airways in Airbus 340s back in the 1990s and was paid over $150,000 a year…as a first officer. In those halcyon days, senior captains flying long-haul international routes for the majors in 747s, DC-10s and L-1011s used to demand salaries approaching $250,000. Today, an airline captain for a major line makes more like $150,000, and an experienced copilot's salary is usually about $100,000. While that's not exactly peanuts, it's nowhere near the royal remuneration some young pilots hope for.
Yes, but what about the seductive glamour and prestige of merely being an airline pilot, of getting paid to fly to exotic places several times a month? Even that has paled to relative insignificance as some lines cautiously schedule their pilots to fly more hours per month. One major line used to target their flight crews for 71 hours a month, or 850 hours a year, in order to avoid exceeding the FAA's maximum of 1,000 duty hours/year. (Scheduling more hours a month can be risky. Some lines schedule up to 80 hours/month, and that comes perilously close to the limit, sometimes leaving some pilots unavailable through the airlines' busiest time, the Thanksgiving/Christmas season. Ironically, that's also when weather delays are the worst of the year and can add to crew duty hours.)
There was a time when the younger generation might have considered the military a good flying job. Not so much anymore. In the last six years, Air Force and Navy flight hours have been cut back from 250 hours to less than 120 hours a year. That's only an hour every three days, not nearly enough to maintain proficiency on the increasingly more complex aircraft and weapons systems associated with modern aircraft. In early 2013, the USAF Air Combat Command had to temporarily stand down 17 squadrons in order to comply with a budget-induced reduction of some 44,000 flight hours. It's now estimated that American military pilots fly less than Chinese, Indian and some European military aviators. Add to that the college degree requirement for virtually all piloting jobs in the military, and the demands far exceed the rewards.
Corporate aviation may be one of the few areas where opportunities are expanding. The bad news is that corporate flight jobs often place their flight crews at the mercy of a beeper. Though the jobs often allow pilots to fly modern turbine equipment with excellent avionics and other modern flight systems, crews may be on call practically 24/7, and it's rare to see salaries much above $100,000.
Fortunately, flying still offers a sense of romance that few other occupations can match. Now, all we have to do is find people, no matter what their age, willing to fill those positions.