From the Wright brothers to The Right Stuff, the thrill of flight has sparked the imagination and stirred the human spirit. We take to the skies to experience the freedom and exhilaration of flight. Now more than ever, people look to general aviation as a way to speed travel and increase business. Consequently, it’s important for those of us who love general aviation to step back and examine the health and strength of this great industry.
General aviation is a large and active segment of the total air-transportation system in North America and Europe. Each year, in the United States alone, more than 166 million passengers travel via the GA system, and GA aircraft fly 27 million hours annually. Worldwide, there are more than 320,000 active GA airplanes, ranging from two-seat training aircraft to intercontinental business jets. With order books at unprecedented levels, we expect these numbers to grow.
In 2006, the GA industry broke records for shipments and billings of business jets. Although piston-airplane production will likely never again reach the heights experienced in the 1970s, there has been steady growth in this segment over the past four years. Year-end figures for 2007 will be released next month, and we expect another record-breaker. Strong worldwide economic growth has eased the cyclical nature of this business and provided the capital for companies and individuals to realize the benefits of using general aviation—whether it be in a single-engine piston or a long-range business jet.
Innovative ideas and new technologies have combined to revolutionize general aviation and spur growth. We only have to look as far as inside the cockpit to recognize this. Take GPS, for example: It serves virtually every sector of our economy, from boating to hiking to farming. Yet nowhere has GPS been so universally embraced and had more of a direct impact upon safety than in aviation. Today, more than 90% of piston airplanes and nearly all turbine airplanes are delivered with an integrated glass cockpit. Additionally, the availability of retrofit glass-cockpit technology is becoming evermore prevalent and affordable.
But as excited as we are about the increased acceptance of GA aircraft for business and personal use, we’re deeply concerned about the need to attract a new crop of young people to aviation. In 2006, the total number of U.S. pilots dropped below the 600,000 mark for the first time in several decades. The decline is alarming in light of the fact that the average age of our pilot population is now at an all-time high of 46. But it’s not just the decline in pilot numbers that concerns us. As an economic engine that provides transportation to rural America, general aviation is a vital industry that presents high-quality employment opportunities not only to individuals who fly airplanes, but also to those who design, test, build, sell, service and maintain those aircraft.
As advancements in aviation continue, we’re presented with the critical challenge of strengthening our workforce and pilot population. In response to this looming concern, GAMA has launched its own program targeted at filling the information gap about career opportunities in aviation, ranging from engineering to maintenance and even airport operations. You can help too. As an informed and active member of general aviation, you can play a unique and valuable role in inspiring a student to pursue an aviation career. Spend the time to share “war” stories, be the “old pro” who’s been there before, and be a partner and motivator to someone who’s interested in getting into aviation.
Looking ahead, the GA industry has many more promising years to come. But we’re challenged with the fact that to remain healthy, we must maintain a steady and vibrant workforce. As a community, we must also be responsible neighbors and work with our local airport officials to demonstrate how significant an asset their airport is to the area’s economic well-being. Our industry is healthy and strong, but we must be vigilant and stay active in order to keep this precious resource called general aviation safe, efficient, affordable and ever-growing.
Peter Bunce is a command pilot with more than 3,000 hours in fighter and training aircraft. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2005 and is now the President and CEO of GAMA. To learn more about GAMA, visit www.gama.aero.