By the numbers

We all have a lot of numbers thrown at us every day. A few numbers I’ve heard in the last few weeks are worrying, but I’ve also heard some numbers that give me hope.

From Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President Craig Fuller at the Southeast Aviation Expo in Greenville, S.C., last month: Over the last 20 years, the pilot population in the United States has dropped from 800,000 to 600,000 — and it keeps shrinking.

It gets worse: As referenced in a recent post from Charles Spence, our Washington, D.C., correspondent, the active pilot population in the U.S. is below 200,000, and about 10,000 pilots are lost every year. Much of this is blamed on the costs of buying and operating an airplane, according to industry officials.

The average GA plane is 40 years old, while production of new planes is based on technology that old. That’s because it costs between $500,000 and $1 million to certify a plane these days — costs that must be recaptured by boosting the prices of airplanes.

The average cost of avgas today: $6 a gallon. In Europe, it’s topping $14 a gallon.

The average age of a student pilot these days: 40. The drop-out rate of student pilots: A staggering 70 to 80 percent, according to an AOPA study.

But not all the numbers are bad. The House General Aviation Caucus has grown to 190 members, making it one of the largest caucuses in Congress. The Senate General Aviation Caucus stands at 39 members.

As of September, 45 governors have issued proclamations designating a month or week for “General Aviation Appreciation.” Some states are on their second go-around with these proclamations, according to officials with the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a coalition of more than 5,900 individuals representing businesses, agricultural groups, FBOs, small airports, elected officials, charitable organizations, and business and aviation groups that support the interests of the general aviation community.

There are more than 660 flying clubs across the nation, of all sizes. During our talk at the Southeast Aviation Expo, Fuller referenced one in Palo Alto, Calif., that’s been around for 40 years. In those four decades, the club has trained more than 11,000 pilots and boasts 975 members today, as well as a fleet of 45 airplanes.

And while general aviation is competing with a number of other leisure industries — golfing, boating, motorcycles and Rvs, to name a few — we have something that all of those combined don’t, says Adam Smith, a new senior vp at AOPA tasked with leading the Center to Advance the Pilot Community (see separate story on page 5).

“We’ve got airplanes,” he says, noting they provide “some of the best experiences a human can have.”

And how do we let people know about those experiences? Many are turning to Facebook. Number of people on Facebook: 1 billion. Number of photos of planes on Facebook: Who knows?

“We may be competing with golf, but you never see people post a great picture of golf,” Smith notes. “We post photos of the amazing experiences we have in the sky. We can spread our gospel through this social network.”

And while AOPA and the rest of the GA community was taken aback by the research that found that fully 80% of student pilots failed to get their pilot licenses, efforts are already underway to reverse that trend.

The flight training community is working on new ways to teach flying to make it more accessible — and affordable — to students.

Take, for instance, Redbird Skyport in San Marcos, Texas, a flight school and FBO that was set up as a laboratory to see what works in flight training and what doesn’t. The focus is on incorporating simulators early in the training process, creating a foundation of knowledge that will increase proficiency — and confidence — when students get into real airplanes. Conceived by the founders of Redbird Flight Simulations, everything learned at the Skyport will be shared with the entire flight training community.

Then there’s Continental Motors, which launched its own flight training company, Zulu Flight Training. The first location is at Eastern Shore Centre, a mall close to the company’s headquarters in Mobile, Ala. The mall training location also features Redbird Flight Simulators.

If successful, the company — with backing from its owner, China-based AVIC International — plans to open additional locations in New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, as well as Beijing and Shanghai.

Continental officials say it just makes sense for the 80-year-old company to get into flight training: Without new pilots, they can’t sell their engines.

Here’s another number: 10%. That, say AOPA officials, could help turn the tide on the declining pilot population. What they mean is if these changes to flight training can help just 10% of the students who drop out each year actually become pilots, it will give us thousands of new pilots every year.

One last number: One. As our Politics for Pilots columnist Jamie Beckett has noted time and time again, if every pilot in the U.S. got just one person interested in aviation, we could double our numbers in no time at all.

Then, if the person you bring into the GA community brings another person into the fold, the growth would continue, on and on, like that shampoo commercial from years ago: I told two friends and they told two friends…


Janice Wood is editor of General Aviation News. She can be reached at

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