Washington, D.C. — We learn from history that we learn nothing from history. But having been born just 19 years after the Wright brothers made the first controlled flight, personal experience might help in the current attempts to gain greater acceptance for aviation. (Note the word “general” is not included.)
In the 1960s when William Piper, Sr., was alive and active in aviation, he commented to me that it would take many years before the public would understand and accept what was then called “general” aviation. “After all,” he said, “it took the public 50 years to learn that highways should be routed around communities and not pass through the main streets of cities.”
On that same occasion he said to me that when multi-lane highways were being constructed, runways should be built at frequent locations along them as that was the most inexpensive way to make flight facilities available. His thoughts were that businesses would not be needed at these runways until activity grew to require them and maintenance of the strips could be managed by state and local highway departments.
That was about 50 years ago. Are his comments beginning to come to pass? Perhaps.
Until the last few years, what is now called General Aviation had little recognition in city, state, and federal governments, while many in companies that built “that” kind of airplane wanted to “keep a low profile.”
But that is changing. In 2010 both the Senate and House in Congress formed General Aviation caucuses. Last year, according to the Alliance for Aviation Across America, about 20 governors and mayors issued proclamations citing the importance of General Aviation.
In the 1950s veterans received government help earning pilot licenses but manufacturers discovered they were selling new and bigger airplanes to the same people — those who enjoyed flying —and training and sales began to decline. As a group they started a promotion effort and sold more than 15,000 airplanes in 1966 — as many in one month as now are sold in a year.
The program was successful, although many people at the airport level never even opened the promotion materials sent to them free. After all, they loved flying and thought everyone else should. With success came complacency. Although the promotion expenditure was small, the head of one company commented that enough money had been spent, so the program was discontinued.
What made the program successful was something Arthur “Red” Motley, then the publisher of Parade Sunday magazine, had said to all marketers: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”
After all, people don’t buy clothing to cover nakedness. They pay hundreds of dollars to be attractive. Automobiles are not purchased by most people because they love to drive. They are bought to impress others, as well as to make it easier to get to work or get chores done and any of the other benefits that mobility provides. The automobile is the instrument for doing other things individuals want.
In the early 1960s a survey by aircraft manufacturers found that in the Washington/Baltimore market alone, more that 5,000 businesses could profitably use aircraft to increase their markets. But flight training promotion has been aimed to people on the theme of liking to fly.
Maybe this is starting to change and the potential for flight is just beginning. Another point Mr. Piper said to me was we should call ourselves aviation and let others explain themselves.
Prior to World War II our kind of flying was called “personal” flying. It was changed by the manufacturers to “General Aviation” to take away the stigma of using scarce fuel for “personal” pleasures.
Maybe it’s time to listen to Mr. Piper.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.