Building a bigger tent

With the Republican convention only days behind us, and the Democratic convention going on this week, this is the obvious opportunity to take a lesson from their play books. Because whether you subscribe to this one or that one, you have to admit the elephants and donkeys have been exceptionally successful for many years at exactly one thing: They stay in the driver’s seat year after year, fending off challengers with the ease a well-waxed airplane sheds raindrops in flight. And they both accomplish that feat by using the exact same method. They work hard to build a big tent, and then build it even bigger at every opportunity.

In contrast, let’s consider ourselves — general aviation community. We are a minority. A small minority, actually. Very small. We are also undeniably shrinking. We’re losing membership and suffering from a long series of losses on the political front, from coast to coast. Airport closures, cessation of services, and user fees all make the news with alarming frequency. And while we abhor those problems when they come to our door, as a rule we tend to be on the losing side of the battle when a political battle ensues over any of them.

That doesn’t have to be the case. One of the great bright spots of being at the bottom of a deep dark hole is the realization that the only direction to go is up. We can improve our position with relative ease — if we work together. And there’s the rub. We can only improve our position by working together.

Building a big tent is necessary, and it starts with us — all of us. We have to learn to conduct ourselves as if our neighbor’s success is our success – and that’s true even if we don’t particularly like that neighbor.

If you have never once wanted to invite that neighbor over for coffee and a donut, so what? You don’t build a bigger tent by filling it with people who are of exactly the same opinion, or who qualify as close friends. You build a bigger tent by accepting those who have common interests, even if they’re kind of irritating when you run into them at the grocery store, or if some of their goals aren’t entirely in line with your own.

Can general aviation’s many factions find a way to bury the hatchet and work together? Will the warbird crowd bond with the ultralight fliers? Will the homebuilders get chummy with the certified aircraft owners? Will the fixed-wing pilots find common ground with the rotor-wing folks? I sincerely hope so. If not, our fate will be a dreary one.

Finding success with this first step is a particularly important challenge for us because before we even finish the job of bonding internally, we have to get busy making friends outside the aviation community. We’ve got to start making real progress in the non-aviation community where we can educate our friends, neighbors, and co-workers about the importance of general aviation. It’s incumbent upon us to mend fences and find friendly allies who will go to bat for us on issues that matter more to us than they do to our non-aviation enthusiast neighbors. Because as a minority we are outnumbered in almost every battle we wage — and the playing field is not leaning in our favor.

Every loss we suffer makes the next win harder to achieve. And the momentum is not on our side right now. Nor has it been for many years.

Consider this if you will: The vast majority of us are renters, not owners. That’s true of the aircraft we fly, the hangars we keep those aircraft in, and the fields we operate from. It’s the rare aviator who owns their own aircraft, hangar, and runway. So let’s get some perspective on the issue. More often than not we damage our cause by conducting ourselves as if the airport belongs to us, exclusively.

Yet most of us operate from airports that are owned and financed by people who don’t give a hoot about the airport, the aircraft, or us. Most of our neighbors aren’t particularly interested in aviation or aviators. Some actively oppose us for the perceived noise and risk we pose on our communities. Yet we rely on these same folks to subsidize the airports we operate from.

Now there are a lot of good reasons to preserve an airport. Accomplishing that goal requires us to maximize the use of our airports, seaplane bases, and heliports for industry, education, tourism, and a host of other civic benefits. Together, we can make that point most effectively if we build our tent bigger, including as many groups, organizations, and individuals as possible.

Here’s the ironic part. We’ve got to stop looking to the other guy to make a difference and start looking to ourselves. Because each one of us knows non-aviation enthusiasts who like us, trust us, and are willing to listen to us over a slice of pizza as we catch the NFL game of the week. We can get them on our team if we try. The challenge is getting us all to try.

So let’s commit to growing our numbers by a minimum of one person each. If you, and I, and every aviator you know brought just one new convert into the fold, it wouldn’t be enough to win the war, but it would be a great start on turning the tide. And getting our numbers growing again, instead of shrinking, is the best first step we could possibly hope for in our battle to secure the future of general aviation for the rest of our lives, and for the generation coming up behind us.


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. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to You can reach him at

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