A question I recently found in my e-mail inbox intrigues me. “So how do we, as aviators, get the general population to engage?” Steve, from Midway, Georgia, poses this query. And in doing so he puts his finger on what is arguably the greatest challenge to pilots and aviation enthusiasts in the political arena. Because without engaging the public at large we are little more than a minority splinter group that appears to insist on special treatment.
More often than not, that’s the public perception of us. Fortunately, we can change that.
The easiest way for us to make a pro-aviation impact is on a personal basis, one-on-one. Last week I was talking with a city resident who had asked to get together to discuss her involvement in a non-profit organization. During that conversation we chatted briefly about our kids. She mentioned in an off-hand manner that her teenage son is interested in aiming for a career with the U.S. Air Force. With no background in aviation or the military, she was torn between her maternalistic instinct to support her child’s dreams, and her acknowledged ignorance of all things aviation.
I took that opportunity to let her know that the Civil Air Patrol has an office right here in town, located on the airport grounds. This composite squadron welcomes teens as readily as adults, and so I assured her that she had a valuable resource available to her, if she chose to pursue it.
Like most people, she was unaware that the CAP is the civilian arm of the U. S. Air Force or that the CAP does real work to train their members for search and rescue operations. However, she was impressed enough with the short description I offered her that she visited the CAP office within a matter of days. Today the CAP has a new member, and I have a new aviation friendly ally here in town.
Of course one-on-one conversions are great, but making an impact on larger numbers is even better.
A civic organization in my city contacted the airport manager last month to include a tour of the airport for teenagers participating in a jobs program, on three consecutive days. As a city commissioner and a CFI, I was one of the lucky few who were tapped to help conduct the tours. Tim Preston of Preston Aviation pulled his Stearman out of the hangar to allow up-close inspections. Jon Brown of Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base had a Cub on floats tugged up to the ramp to illustrate a different aspect of aviation. And Richard Parish, our FBO manager, pulled his Piper Arrow out to show an even more diverse cross section of the GA fleet to the kids.
For three days we had roaming bands of teenagers prowling the ramp and the FBO building, asking questions, listening to stories, and getting an earful of aviation jargon like they had never heard before. And, to be honest, most of them probably thought the experience was no more than a casual curiosity. But at least two of those teenagers came back afterwards to apply for line service jobs, which would suggest that there was a positive transfer of enthusiasm for aviation to at least some of the visitors.
The importance of getting visitors on the field can’t be overstated.
Tailwheels Etc, is the flight school on Gilbert Field, and they have undertaken a campaign to put their best foot forward by welcoming the community as a whole onto the field by holding an annual Aviation Days event. The weekend gathering is part carnival, part cook-out, and part flight school. It’s been a rousing success by any standard. I have met people on the ramp during Aviation Days who have lived in town for years, but were completely unaware that there was an airport in town until they read about the event in the newspaper. In each case, those people were transformed from being apathetic, to being interested, in a single afternoon.
Make no mistake, our work will never be finished. Pilots and aviation enthusiasts will be in the minority for the remainder of my lifetime, and probably for the remainder of my children’s lifetimes too. But each and every one of us can help to even the playing field by doing nothing more difficult than enthusiastically singing the praises of aviation when given the chance. Speak well of our chosen diversion to young people, or middle-aged people. Heck, talk to anyone who will listen, including to people who have only the slightest understanding of how aviation and aviation organizations might be of some benefit to them and their families.
Nothing spikes the interest of a potential convert like the realization that they are welcome into a world where they can participate by merely drinking coffee and telling stories. And if they get to feeling just a bit more adventurous, we can accommodate that desire too. But we need to get them in the door first. And nothing does that more effectively than our willingness to share our excitement, satisfaction, and persistent desire to be involved in aviation.
Thanks for the question, Steve. It’s a doozy!
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.