One of the more common conversations around the water cooler these days concerns our younger generations and how they have trouble seeing past their iPads and cell phones to the world beyond. However, something happened at the aerodrome over the last couple of weeks that may have started me on the road to recovery from terminal pessimism: I had three students who clearly showed that contrary to the youth-is-wasted mind-set a lot of us have developed, the world really isn't lost. The new generation does, indeed, have its bright spots, and aviation seems to attract a disproportionate number of them.
When the first student checked in with me by phone, a high-school senior headed for college, I had my doubts. One of my former students was footing the bills for him and, somehow, that hit me wrong. What was this? A charity case? A kid with a sugar daddy? What? Then he showed up at my door, and it took about three minutes for me to see why my student was sponsoring him: He was obviously bright, constantly smiling and, more importantly, he was a young man on a mission. He was a low-time PPL holder and determined to know more about flying airplanes. Aviation was his life. The last I heard from him, he had cornered a low-dollar flat-wing Pitts and was looking for someplace close to campus to keep it. Buying an aerobatic airplane may be a stretch for a college kid, but I have no doubts we'll be hearing more good things about him.
The week I spent bashing around the pattern with him was so wonderful that I should have been paying him. Not the other way around. I felt guilty taking my former student's money because nothing makes an educator's day more than a student who's obviously hungry for the knowledge you're handing out. And he was ravenous: He had lots of questions and barely-contained giggles every time he conquered a new task or discovered an aeronautical nugget that he had never seen before. He was having a helluva good time. And, so was I.
Then the other two checked in, and the fun continued.
Both were in their early 20s and had been good buddies since high school. One was rapidly moving up the ladder in the corporate world. The other was an Air Guard mechanic on F-16s. However, by the time you read this, he should be well along in USAF flight training, headed for the very airplane he had busted knuckles on. The very fact that the Guard had given him one of their cherished fighter slots says they saw something special in him. And, so did I. Both of them were exactly the kind of kids you want your own to be. They were focused on their lives, and their passion for aviation was so close to the surface that it was empowering just to be around them. Even better, they were determined to get a high-powered akro bird of their own.
Speaking as the one privileged to usher them into new, more challenging realms of flight, I'd have to say that I fully recognized the responsibility thrust upon me. I considered it a rare opportunity to work with these three young 'uns, and it brightened my outlook considerably.
Most of us gray dogs look at twenty-somethings and snicker when, in actual truth, these three represent a part of their generation that many of us seldom see. I, in fact, almost never see it. But, that's not because it doesn't exist. It's because the way many of our personal worlds are structured, we just don't see many young people. I'm certain that if any of us were closer to something like the EAA's Young Eagle program, our attitudes would be different. Unfortunately, most of what we know about kids their age is what we've learned from watching neighborhood kids or the news, which often isn't good. I can't even rely on observing my friends' kids because I don't have many "civilian," non-aviation friends (as in next to none). So, almost all the kids I know are being brought up in aviation households, and they're undoubtedly a skewed population sample.
My time with the three young students started me looking around at aviation as I made my daily rounds. And, I surprised myself a little. At fly-ins, yes, there was a predominance of gray hair, but it took only a casual perusal of the crowd to realize that there are more youngsters out there than I had thought. Then I began looking at the occupants of the aircraft that pull up alongside me as I'm running up and found that a good percentage of those are youngsters getting training. So, young blood is out there, it's just not as prevalent as we'd like.
We all know student starts are down, and they've been down for what seems like forever. But, they aren't zero. More importantly, I think the quality of those young people who do jump into aviation is higher than at any time since I got into flying in 19mumble-mumble. And, the increasing regulatory complexity and the expense involved in getting into aviation has had a form of Darwinian effect: Only the strong dare apply. Yes, the obstacles do slow growth in numbers, but those who make it through are the better for it, and aviation is getting the cream of the crop.
So, all is not lost. It's just a little slow in coming.