Welcome back…

As is my custom, I started the day at a friendly local coffee shop. The caffeine is essential to my diet, the camaraderie of the patrons is important to my mental health, and the slow ramp-up to my full working frenzy keeps me in the game for the long haul. I like going out for coffee each morning. But this trip was different than most. I welcomed a former resident back to town and made a new friend in the process.

More than 25 years ago she left a town that was too small, too unimaginative, too backward in its thinking, and too limiting for a woman with big dreams and the talent to make things happen. Now, two and half decades later, she’s back. The town is different, she’s different, and somehow she and this small city are an excellent match now. She’s staying.

Bear with me if you will as I shift gears to focus on the plight of General Aviation. There are something like 600,000 pilots in the United States today. If you weed out those who aren’t actually current the number gets smaller. Consequently, there are those who will tell you general aviation is in trouble. Some actually suggest it’s dying.

I think they’re overstating the point. My recent experience making a new friend over coffee is a good example of why I think they’re wrong. Basically, people come back. They come back home after being away for years. They’ll come back to general aviation if we encourage them, too.

Consider this. Most people who learn to fly are looking for a personal challenge. They’re testing themselves. They are often type A individuals who have taken the bold step of throwing open the doors to life’s opportunities and taking a giant leap into the void. I suspect most of them are hoping to find enrichment, satisfaction, and adventure along the way. Then something happens.

For many their lives become less me-centric over time, transitioning into a period of more we-centric priorities that are almost unavoidable as we become true adults. Marriage, kids, mortgages, car payments, orthodontist bills, family vacations, and all sorts of other issues suddenly rank higher on the order of supremacy than learning to fly, or continuing to use that pilot’s license to drill holes in the ether on the way to nowhere in particular.

That is not to say the lure of flight dims and blinks out of their minds. Recreational flying just takes a back seat, then moves back another row, and another row, until it is well in the back of the bus. But the desire to fly is still there. The individual who harbors it merely has to wait for a the right opportunity to put their keister back into the pilot’s seat.

Those opportunities look like this…the kids graduate, the last house payment is made, work schedules ease up, income has risen while the cost of living has subsided somewhat. Any and all of these occurrences provide the financial breathing room to allow the former pilot to become a current pilot again.

And in this more modern world we live in, the gender and color of the wannabe pilot is no longer an obstacle in and of itself. Everyone is welcome. Or at least they should be if we truly want to expand our numbers.

As our lives go on the game changes a bit. Given the alternative, most of us will choose to live vibrant, colorful lives filled with adventure and true joy. Aviation provides that alternative to those of us who participate in it.

So let me suggest that rather than bemoan what we perceive as dwindling numbers and a dying industry, let’s consider changing our opinion on the matter and choose to see general aviation as a massively underserved market with literally hundreds of thousands of willing participants who have not yet found their way back to the front desk at the FBO. Let’s help them find the airport again.

If those of us who are involved seek out those who used to be involved and share the good news that GA is still available to them – some will come back. As we get better at sharing our message of adventure and fun – more will come back. When each of those returning disciples of the air tell their friends and family how satisfying and enjoyable it is to be back at the controls of a flying machine – their friends and family members will stop out to see what all the hubbub is about – and our numbers will continue to grow.

My new friend left these parts many years ago with a sense that her choice to leave was a permanent decision. Yet here she is, back in the midst of her childhood home again. And she’s glad to be here where both of us can make new friends and revisit old haunts. You see, it’s never so late that you can’t go back and start again. But it gets a whole lot easier when there’s a warm handshake and a smiling face there to greet you.

Welcome back, former fliers. It will be so good to see you hanging around the pilot’s lounge again.


  1. John Worsley says

    Dave Hill had it right in his first comment. The post war bulge of pilots in GA mirrored the baby boom in the schools. As that generation (my father was a pilot during WWII) dies off, the decline in pilot numbers is inevitable. In addition, the cost is the biggest problem now. I have a son-in-law who would love to fly if he could afford it (two young children). While I think the Young Eagles program is a good one, more attention should be paid to older potential pilots who are gaining more disposable income with houses and kid’s education getting paid for. I got my private two weeks before my 60th. birthday (don’t give up, Robert).

    • says

      Don’t worry, I won’t! Still have plenty of time! My uncle started flying before WWII and only stopped a few years ago, in his 80’s! (He didn’t get to fly in the war because he got ‘volunteered’ to be in the paratroopers.)

  2. Doyle Frost says

    Thank you all for your comments. But, unless we can get the youth of today interested in it, and the support for GA this will bring from all directions, (including our local politicians, too interested in gathering voters by closing off local airports to GA, all in the name of “progress,”) nothing is going to improve.
    We need to get back in the air, young, old, and in between, and that is a fact. We need our local communities involved. Have open houses at your local airport. Write “letters to the editor” for your local newspaper. Attend airport committee meetings. Attend county, town, and other community meetings, and talk up GA. Get it IN-FRONT of everyone, including your local, national, and state representatives.

    • Dave Hill says

      I’m a CFI in western Oklahoma. Most of my students are young men in their 30’s who are making good really good money in the oil field or older guys who are coming back to aviation. Let’s face the truth: Economics drives our industry. There are millions of people who want to fly but they can’t afford it. That’s the way it has ALWAYS been and IT IS NOT A PROBLEM THAT GA CAN SOLVE. Here’s another fact: The boom of GA came as the result of hundred of thousands of pilots trained in WWII. Those patriots are dying at the rate of over 1,000/day. No generation since then has had that many GA pilots. We can’t re-engineer the generations and you don’t have to do anything to get young people to want to fly. They’ll fly when they have money.

  3. Stu says

    Has been over 30 years since I last flew. C-152’s went for $25/hr wet back then, but as line boy I got the company discount of only $17.10. I made $8/hr back then and had few expenses. Today’s rental prices have climbed exponentially while my income has not. I’m not giving up- would love to build a certain kit I’ve had my eye on, but not holding my breath either. I’m very happy for those who are able to re-enter. But I’m thinking we need tort reform as well as more simple stick & rudder airplanes without glass panels to keep bringing costs down. And simple returns the focus to airmanship rather than fiddling with gizmos, nice as they can be. Sure there is a time & place, but for the sheer joy of flying it is hard to beat a semi-minimalist approach. And my pocketbook would entirely agree!

    • Dave Hill says

      Stu your story is a familar story. Remember 30-40 years ago you could buy a really good car for $10K and you could buy a house for what it costs you to buy a car today! It sounds like you’re a lot like me. I sure as hell don’t have $85K – $100K to buy a Light Sport and I sure don’t want to buy some dumpy old C-152 and end up paying an A&P a bunch of money. Kit building is a great idea. Just recently I realized I was suffering from “kit shopping paralysis” = always looking but never committing. I realized that the biggest hinderance is actually believing I can do it. Just the other night I watched an EAA Webinar that cured me of my affliction. Yesterday I sent off my $215 check for the plans for my kit. Is it perfect? No. Is it inexpensive? Yes. Can I do it? Yes. For me it came down to realizing that the actual building was going to be fun and exciting. When you think about spending $8K to $10K over a few years doing something you’ve always wanted to do then that’s a cheap thrill. Here’s the link to the Webinar – enjoy – YOU CAN DO IT! http://www.eaavideo.org/video.aspx?v=2634527737001

  4. Sarah Ashmore says

    Approve the 3rd Class medcal Request For Exemption or better yet eliminate the 3rd class and there will be a flood of aviators coming back to the airport. That is what has kept me away for 12 years and the only reasonable way back I could find was build my own LSA complient aircraft and that is a work in progress. LSA was a good step in the right direction but way too restrictive as to aircraft size, performance and features so it has not done as much as it could have. Even trying to get back through rental is near impossible as LSA aircraft that are available are few and far between.

    Maybe if we stop grounding capable pilots left and right due to medical conditions that do not impair their ability for safe operation of aircraft our airports will stop becoming Ghost Towns.

  5. Jay says

    The most important way to this type of people flying again is to approve and implement the Third Class Medical Petition. Why has it been sitting for the past 18 months?
    It could be approved by the end of the week with the stroke of a pen if there was the political will. No will = GA dies.

  6. unclelar says

    For once Jamie makes some solid points for discussion and action. So where is the AOPA in the search to get former and almost/former pilots back in the game? No where that I can see. How about some ads in local or even national media to “come back to what you enjoyed before?” Wonder how many people just couldn’t get it done for reasons that Jamie points out? This may be a cheap shot but I guess maybe the AOPA folks are too busy hobnobbing with the jet crowd in the member-provided jet or other aircraft we bought to be bothered with such a basic concept as Jamie lays out. Too bad.

  7. Jim Truxel says

    Get the FAA, of which I am retired, to approve the medical exemption for pilots so they can fly aircraft under the Recreational Pilot rules. I know many pilots that would come back , SAFELY, and fly for FUN without having to fight the FAA Medical route.

  8. says

    Guess I’m another example. Put my lessons ‘on hold’ because of financial reasons, such as getting engaged and married. Twenty three years later they are still in a holding position, with the exception of a flight here and there through the years, but I refuse to give up my dream of one day getting my pilot’s license, even at the age of 58! Hopefully there are many more that are keeping their dream alive and will one day find a way to get back into the sky.

  9. Kimberly Bush says

    Jamie, interesting frame of reference. I did an informal poll of IL Pilots Association Board members in conjunction with a USPA Board meeting in Sept of 2011. I asked them why they fly. None of them had an easy answer. So I supplied them with the same one you have here: it is fun. That’s all the reason most people need.
    While these two groups have been cautioning me for years about expense, I pointed out to them that many people collect items that aren’t worth as much held long-term as they originally cost, once you take them out of the box.
    I always use golf as a comparable. One doesn’t even need a license to golf, and many probably shouldn’t be golfing. But they cover the cost and do the rounds, because it is FUN. (And if you really think about that game: hit a little white ball, so you can chase it and hit it again, until it lands in a cup in the ground, then do it over and over again?)

    • Dave Hill says

      What does a round of golf cost? $80? 4 hrs of fun = $20/hr for fun not counting drinks and food. You can build your own airplane for $12K and it will take you about 400 hours. That comes out to $30/hr for fun and when you’re done you’ve got something to show for it – your own airplane!!! After that fuel will cost about $5/hr for all the flying fun you can stand. So, who in their right mind would want to play golf when you can build and fly your own airplane?

  10. Mark Stotesbery says

    Although at my request, a pilot friend and I flew his airplane on a 4.5 hour flight this past May to overfly my coworker who was on a three day hike near Alpine Arizona (USA); I haven’t flown by myself since a night flight on September 29 2012. So it has been almost a year since I last flew myself. What have I been doing instead of flying? At 57, with the help of a doctor, I had to sort out the reasons for rising blood pressure, and now take a little white pill that effectively brings that under control. Since I needed to engage in more regular exercise, I’ve focused my spending money on acquiring a load of state of the art hiking & backpacking gear. The lighter the gear, the more expensive it is to purchase, I couldn’t do both flying and the gear-up at the same time. I’ve been on a dozen hikes in the past 8 months, and think I’m about ready to get behind the yoke again, I really miss flying – it has been the most rewarding recreational activity I’ve ever done. I have about 300 hours and all the necessary time and experience for my IFR ticket, however, my written expired in February, and I’ll have to decide if it and the CFI ratings are still the direction I want to take. I too think promoting general aviation among fellow pilots, and to the non-flying public is the answer to many of our woes. Thanks for your post, it IS encouraging!

    • Dave Hill says

      A few questions: Do you NEED your Instrument rating for the flying you want to do? Do you have an IFR equipped aircraft you can fly? If not, why do you want to get your Instrument rating? Do you like teaching and helping people? If not, why would you want to be a CFI? Ask yourself, what kind of flying is the most fun for you? There’s lots of ways to be involved in aviation without riding the rating’s rail. Have you ever flown a Light Sport? Ultralight? Have you ever thought about building your own plane? You can build a true 3 axis single engine ultralight airplane for about $12,000. You can find used ones for less. If you love flying you can find a way to get yourself airborne that won’t cost you much. My advice – GO FOR THE FUN!

  11. Dave Hill says

    I’m the perfect example. I quit flying 40 years ago as a CFI, CFII, Inst. & Multi. with 600 hr tt, 350 CFI. Why? I couldn’t make a living and almost killed myself (& my students) 3 times in one week trying to keep the hobbs meter going. Family came – flying went. There was not a day I did not look up at aircraft engine noises in the sky. I drove by every airport slowly – taking it all in. Fortunes changed. My son-in-law who also loves flying began to make good money in his business and needed a tax break and an airplane and finished getting his PPL. He asked me if I’d like to run a flying club and for my 64th birthday paid for my flight time and instruction to reinstate my CFI. I was back. On my first flight I tried to taxi with the ailerons. Had I forgot that much? My instructor chuckled and said, “It’ll come back.” It did come back but I have to say that it took about 20 hours before the old muscle memory kicked in. Our club bought a Tecnam P92 Eaglet LSA which I picked up in Virginia and flew back home to western Oklahoma. At the end of that 5 day, 1700 mile cross-country I was finally ready to start doing flight training. I agree Jamie, GA is underserving the public. We have found that people don’t care how much they spend on flying as long as they are having fun. I’m looking for creative ways to open up flying to be more fun. Everybody needs basic ‘stick n rudder’ flight training but where they go after that is up to them whether they want to fly ultralights, get their Sport Pilot, or go on to get their Private Pilot. It is my goal to offer whatever type of flying people want and to find creative ways to make it affordable. How about Experimental Amatuer-Built fractional ownership? Talk about cheap flying. Enough said, I don’t want to give away my secret business plans. I’m back and I’m planning on flying for the next 30 years.

  12. Steve says

    Interesting, Jamie … In the past six months, I’ve brought four pilots back into currency — perhaps one indication of a trend …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *