The numbers can be depressing: The general aviation market is down, pilot starts are down, fuel use is down. And while GA’s alphabet groups are working to change those numbers by advocating for their members, they are only reaching people who are already pilots.
“And even people who are in aviation are flying less,” noted Jeff Simon, one of the co-founders of SocialFlight, a new app and website with one goal in mind: Re-energize general aviation.
“We were wondering what could change that,” he said. “If you think about the $100 hamburger, which has existed ever since the Wright brothers could go far enough to get a burger, that’s great, but it’s not really a motivator.”
That’s because so many pilots fly alone, he said. “Too many times they ask themselves what they are going to do…’Should I practice approaches or go get some coffee?’”
Then that translates to, ‘oh, I’ll have to pull the plane out of the hangar and pay for fuel and wouldn’t it be easier to just stay here on the couch?’”
That’s why Simon and his co-founder Jason Clemens, the forces behind Where2 Interactive, came up with the idea of putting together a database of all the aviation events around the country — from fly-ins and airshows to pancake breakfasts, Young Eagle flights, FAA Safety Seminars and more — and then create an app where pilots can put in their location, how far they are willing to travel, and what type of events they are interested. In response, they get a list of events tailored to their desires.
“Then the pilot sees that ‘oh, there’s a Stearman Fly-In close by, I can go and get a hamburger there,’” Simon said. “Almost everybody will get off the couch then.”
It seems to be working. Membership — which is free — has exceeded 12,000 users and is growing every day.
“As pilots, we’re constantly on the lookout for new places to fly and fun things to do. SocialFlight maps out all of the events and motivates us to get out there and enjoy them. It’s the first app I’ve seen that actually promotes general aviation and fosters our community,” said Rob Holland, world renowned aerobatic performer and part of the SocialFlight beta test group. “SocialFlight is intuitive, user-friendly, and will really energize GA flying by answering the age old question: Where am I going to fly today?”
Since its launch last summer, the database has grown to more than 3,000 aviation events.
“That was our biggest eye-opener,” Simon said. “We found out that — wow — there are a lot of things happening.”
While Simon and Clemens look it as their job to add events to the database, users can also add events. He noted they receive between two and three new events every day.
It’s a win-win on both ends, he added.
“In the same way that we as pilots didn’t know where to find places to fly, the organizers who put on these events faced the challenge of getting the word out,” he said.
What usually happens is that the group holding a BBQ or pancake breakfast will advertise the event at the airport, through flyers, and through limited advertising. And who are they reaching? Their members. “They are basically telling people who already know,” he said. “That’s really not reaching out.”
By placing the event on SocialFlight, it can attract more people, which may spur the group to put on more events, creating a “positive cycle,” Simon said.
“We think it is working,” he noted. “People are flying more because of SocialFlight.”
He knows that because the company receives fan mail and feedback from its members, who tell them, “I would have stayed home until I found out about this event.”
But Simon and Clemens aren’t content to just create an app and a website and hope people will visit it to plan where to fly next.
“Our job is to present the information to you,” Simon said. “We are the motivators.”
That is why each member receives a weekly email with events in their region and in their areas of interest. The developers realize that people get busy and need reminders of all the great places they can fly during the week.
But there’s more: The newest version of the app includes a “Hangar Page,” where pilots can chat, join together in “flight clubs,” upload photos, send event notices to their friends, and even add events automatically to their Google or Outlook calendars.
SocialFlight also includes tools for organizations, such as aircraft owner’s groups. Using a free web link provided by SocialFlight, organizations can provide their members with an interactive view of their own events right from the organization’s website. One of the newest to join is the Beechcraft Employees Aero Club.
The FAA also has reached out to SocialFlight, sending it information on every FAA Safety Seminar around the country. This helps the agency advertise the seminars to people who don’t normally attend them, Simon noted.
He also hopes the app and website can spur additional events, such as airframe manufacturers traveling to GA airports around the country to demo their latest models. “If pilots knew where all the new LSAs or Cessnas were, they would go to that airport,” he said. “They don’t view it as an imposition. Rather it’s like, ‘really, they are going to be at a local airport?’ It could create mini-events.”
The developers also plan to reach out to other communities, such as car enthusiasts and motorcycle fans. “Everybody has a passion and those are healthy markets,” he said, noting that success in those areas can only help SocialFlight. “It’s better to make money in other areas and spend it in aviation,” he joked.
He also hopes that the free app will bring more people out to the airport and, ultimately, into general aviation.
“Think about the people who take their kids out to the airport to watch planes,” he said. “This is a really great opportunity to make more of that happen. Parents can look at SocialFlight and then take their kids out to the airport to see World War II planes or attend other events. It will open up our community.”
That’s important, he said, because aviation is viewed by most people as a closed community that is “super expensive” to enter.
“I didn’t come from an aviation family,” he recalled. “My parents said you had to be wealthy to be a pilot. It wasn’t until I met a pilot after college that I learned the realities of it. If we can meet more people, we can break down the myths.”
And it just makes sense in this day and age to use an app and website to expand the general aviation community, he added.
“These days lots of people do things based on apps,” he said.
The free app is available for the iPad, iPhone, and Android devices at the App Store on Tunes and at Google Play.
For more information: SocialFlight.com