Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.
I still think most people underestimate the role of World War II in the modern growth of General Aviation. After all, 2011 marks 65 years since 1946 when the world was new again and all things were possible for Americans. At 65, has GA now reached retirement age or are there new “Boom Years” ahead?
Most people know the stats: U.S. General Aviation manufacturers built 35,000 planes a year in 1946 and 1947, expecting sales to the half-million Americans trained to fly for World War II. “A chicken in every pot” was the slogan during the depression. “A plane (or helicopter) in every garage” was the forecast post-war. And in 1946, every town was scrambling to build or improve its entre into the new Aviation Age – the local airport.
I was always fascinated with a period cartoon poster that captured the issue and the era. Titled “Caught Short in Post War,” it depicted a riot of last-minute airport building. Cows are shooed, houses moved, bulldozers plow and politicians rush to open their new airport in time for post-war planeloads of people and commerce.
Published by Shell Oil Company, the poster asked aviation and civic leaders, “Is Your Community Prepared for the Coming Age of Flight?” This little gem hung at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association for decades, a legacy of the old Utility Aircraft Council (its predecessor.) I admired it from Day One at GAMA. I was allowed to preserve it for reflections like this.
I can excerpt only little of this 3-foot-wide glimpse into an era passed. However, it’s enough to reflect the widespread public and government optimism in aviation’s future and the need for infrastructure to support it. Today, the current system is largely built-out, GA traffic has dropped, and the pilot population and aircraft sales are in free-fall.
Of course, there are still local success stories – as in Austin, Texas, where a new GA facility replaces assets lost in previous decades. And some GA people are doing good work building public support for their airports – like AOPA award winner Jolie Lucas at San Luis Obispo, California. But long term, the beat goes on. For decades, GA has lost one airport a week.
As post-war GA turns 65, it’s no surprise the party’s over – at least for now. The Twentieth Century is well and truly gone except as it hangs on in post-war generations (and their children) continuing to fly.
If you’re in my age group, you’re preparing for something new – retirement. Some interesting people in GA are far from “retiring,” however. They have bold ideas. We’ll soon enjoy their new products in the marketplace. So we’ll want those airports. I hope we’re able to hold on to them.
Deflated wartime prosperity and widespread unemployment killed the first post-war GA boom. Today’s economic circumstances will be a time-out again, for now. Declining government budgets, lagging public interest and ever-more-critical taxpayers will test GA and its airports for sure.
© 2010 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved