Pilots are social creatures. If somebody's listening, we aviators are happy to talk about our aerial adventures, and we love to spend time with other pilots, obsessing over modifications, the latest cockpit goodies or comparing notes on techniques and procedures. The well-known "$100 hamburger" is the most common expression of aviator interaction, and weekend pilots comprise a considerable majority of the aviation population. The question that always springs up on those gorgeous VFR-for-miles days is, "Where can I fly today?"
In recent years, a declining pilot population has lessened the number of hamburger runs and flights made for the sole purpose of enjoying the beauty of flying. So many other media sources compete for our attention that, as aviators, fewer of us are flying for the fun of it. Many fly-ins across the country that have been staples of the aviation community for decades have disappeared or attendance has dropped.
It's these two facts that spurred entrepreneur Jeff Simon to create SocialFlight, a website, mobile app and network of aviation enthusiasts that form what Simon calls "Facebook for pilots," and much more. Since creating SocialFlight six years ago, it has become the go-to resource for aviation enthusiasts to find local events, chat, upload event photos and network with other SocialFlight users. More than just a calendar, SocialFlight is a destination in itself: an active forum for communication and interaction, a source for information, a place to share images and thoughts about aviation, and a dynamic calendar of everything related to aviation.
"I created SocialFlight to answer my own question of, 'What do you do to get more people engaged in general aviation?'" said Simon. "I knew we had to reach outside of aviation to get more people involved, and I envisioned a place where we could do that and offer more than just a calendar." Today, SocialFlight boasts almost 25,000 direct registrations and reaches an additional audience of over 200,000 through the display of the SocialFlight event map on other sites.
Though other aviation event websites have been created since the Internet and aviation began to mingle in the early '90s, SocialFlight is more than just a site. Simon and his technical team have created a useful, intuitive, feature-rich (and free) mobile app that works on just about any platform, allowing users to access SocialFlight anywhere, anytime. The app provides pilots with an interactive map of aviation events and other important resources.
One key to SocialFlight's booming popularity is that everything is free. The company's revenue comes solely from advertisers who are more than happy to pitch their products to a focused and active audience that already has built-in interest in those products. One great feature of the mobile app is that it's nonintrusive and doesn't ask for access to all your personal data, unlike so many free apps that want to snoop on everything on your phone or tablet. "We also try not to be too commercial," Simon tells us, "and nobody gets our users' email addresses."
Engaging with the app is simple. You register with some basic information, including your event interests (fly-ins, breakfasts, museum events, etc.) and your location. You tell the app how far you want it to search for events, and what kind of aviation you're interested in (LSA, warbirds, jets, etc.). As soon as you launch the app (or sign into the website for non-mobile users), a map displays with your home airport and the number of events available within your search range. It's beautiful in its simplicity.
SocialFlight's event database includes nearly 10,000 activities important to pilots, such as aircraft fly-ins, type clubs, air shows, pancake breakfasts, radio broadcasts and podcasts, and FAA safety seminars. SocialFlight users can search for events, add events, chat, upload photos, get email notifications, send event notices to their friends and add events automatically to their Google or Outlook calendar. The app includes tools for organizations, such as aircraft owner's groups. Using a free web link provided by SocialFlight, organizations can provide their members with an interactive view of their own events right from the organization's web site.
Social Flight's event map pulls from a database of nearly 10,000 aviation activities.
"We use a ton of technology to scour what we call 'crowdsourced data' across the internet to find events," Simon explains. "That's in addition to groups that submit information directly to us." Simon tells us that many organizations are using SocialFlight as their exclusive calendar. For example, the Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA) uses SocialFlight to notify their members of club events. "This benefits the users because they can access events from anywhere," says Simon, "but also opens these events up to the public." Suddenly, anybody with an interest in seaplanes will see an event that, before SocialFlight, they'd only have seen if they had been a member of SPA. "The main benefit is that it accomplishes the goal of engaging more people in aviation."
Simon himself is a 20-year pilot, aircraft owner and A&P mechanic. He developed SocialFlight with a team of specialists and continues to refine the site. "We have big things coming in 2014," he added. Simon explained that the core of SocialFlight is about events. His dream of it becoming the go-to site for aviation events is quickly becoming a reality. Just last week, SocialFlight added 200 users, and those numbers are climbing fast. Simon has seen a change in the number of people engaging in these events. "I believe that just notifying pilots of these kinds of events will push them over the edge to go."
I have to admit that I had heard about SocialFlight several years ago, but never gave it much thought. The plethora of aviation websites that competed for my time kept me away. Since researching the site and talking with Simon, I'm happy to report that I'm now a member. Every Wednesday, a notification comes to my email address with everything going on that week. I find myself looking forward to hearing about what my fellow pilots are doing. There's a biplane get-together coming up that I had never heard about that I think I'll go to. Mission accomplished.