Aviation’s gateway drug

Guest Editorial by BRENT OWENS

When it comes to promoting aviation are we on the right track? If someone has never seen a light airplane before and decides that maybe this is something they are interested in, what is their first exposure? For many it will be via an Internet search engine or the newsstand. And what will our new pilot-to-be see when he or she looks?

If you search the Internet for the term “learn to fly” a couple of gaming sites will come up and then you’ll hit the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s and Cessna’s learn to fly websites. After a little more digging you’ll find that a license is upwards of $10,000 and airplanes are north of $100,000.

Next visit your local newsstand. Prominently displayed in most places are a variety of aviation-themed periodicals. Crack open the cover and the glossy ads that pop out all show high-end machines that cost more than most people’s homes.

Not exactly a good start for our would-be aviator.

There is nothing nefarious about all this and if our expectant airman doesn’t throw in the towel and keeps digging, he or she will find cheaper ways to break into our ranks. In fact, many people, including myself, have dedicated resources to that effort. But the simple fact is flying is expensive — especially the kind of flying that is popularized within the industry.

This begs the question: Are we taking the right approach?

The current structure would have you jump into the deep end of the pool with large expenditures and intense training before you really have much exposure to the sport. Walk into one of a thousand “pilot factories” around the country and they’ll whisk you in, give you an intro ride, and then sign you up for an expensive course. Then they start feeding you information through a firehouse while you are writing sizable checks — and we wonder why student starts and completions are at an all-time low.

Can’t we ease people into our community another way without having them mortgage their homes?

brentowensMaybe before committing thousands to a private pilot or sport pilot certificate, would it be more appropriate to get trained in a glider or something similar?

What I’m suggesting is that instead of the industry promoting these tired old ideas that clearly don’t work under the crushing weight of the costs, we should promote getting back to our roots.

Image having “fun flying centers” around the country where you can learn to fly gliders, ultralights, hang gliders, etc. Putting more energy into setting the hook this way will garner more folks who graduate to the big iron later on. There are certainly pockets of these kinds of places scattered throughout the country, but if you don’t know how to seek them out, you aren’t likely to even know they exist. Most of these specialize in a single discipline, making them rather small and invisible to the average Joe.

By using a gateway drug that’s fun, relatively inexpensive, and teaches the fundamentals of flight, we come away with a new crop of pilots who have a solid foundation upon which to build. As their interests and financial standing changes, that private pilot ticket and eventually a Cirrus or Diamond could eventually be realized.

When was the last time a flight instructor or flight school manager followed up with someone who expressed interest, but didn’t come back out? Probably not often, if ever. Further more, if that did occur and the potential pilot expressed financial concerns, did they suggest that there might be other options to get airborne? I would bet that almost never happens. We could tell them about that countryside glider port or hang gliding center a short drive away. What would be the harm in that?

So to everyone who is dedicating resources to promoting aviation — including folks who are making their living from it, like instructors and schools — I suggest shifting our focus to creating a pool of ready reserve aviators by niche’ing down our businesses. If that’s not possible, we should at least suggest alternatives to clients who can’t participate in our expensive old system. Those folks have a high potential to eventually pursue the “conventional” pilot track later on, and of course, we’ll welcome them with open arms.

Brent Owens is the force behind iFLYBlog.com and FixedWingBuddha.com, which offers money-saving tips for pilots. A corporate pilot, he built and flies an RV-8.


  1. says

    Gliders would be a wonderful way to start people off. Unfortunately glider ports seem few and far between, but for those who live near one, it’s a fantastic resource. Hang gliding and even RC flying are inexpensive ways to get one’s fix.

    I had one commenter on my site suggest that an 80% wash out rate was a good thing, that most people don’t have what it takes to fly and without WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and other such things creating new pilots via the military who later flow into GA, we’d have seen this drop many years ago. I don’t know if he is right or not, but even if he is, there are people out there who do have the passion, skill, and judgement to fly.

    As with many things, I think kids are they key. That’s why simulators are such a great idea. Kids are very comfortable with computers, and sims are improving rapidly while coming down in price. Heck, there are video games in arcades which involve nothing more than trying to land an airliner. I like the idea of putting a sim or two into a mall and see what happens.

  2. Joel says

    Some great thoughts.

    I’m that guy who’s had more than a couple false starts in the pursuit of becoming a private pilot. My intentions were always good. My passion has always been intact. It always came down to money. It was just too expensive. Even assuming I could handle the cost of obtaining a licence, (I could pass the written test tomorrow…not so much the ‘behind the yolk’) the hours required to maintain the licence, rentals (or a purchase) of a plane, fuel, airport fees, gear…I could see the writing on the wall–the stress of trying to pay for this addiction would override the fun fairly quickly.

    So I did exactly what you are suggesting. I looked into gliders, ultralights, helicopters…I planned ahead by finding non-profit skydiving groups that own a plane, and invite pilots to log hours in exchange for ‘dropping them off’. But perhaps the romance in the marketing efforts had too tight a grip on me. After exploring these alternatives, it felt like this:

    “Hey. Sorry, man. I know you can’t afford this Lamborghini (which in my heart is a Cessna 172) and really had your heart set on it…but good news! You can still get on the streets with this top of the line bike! It’s a great way to learn the rules of the road, you can still experience what it’s like to feel the thrill of piloting your own craft. Maybe someday you can afford the Lamborghini.”

    It’s probably helpful to mention that I work at a software firm, and make low six figures. And even with that…a licence seems unreasonable.

    You’ll excuse me now, while I fire up my Sim.

  3. Joseph says

    I think groups (EAA comes to mind) should take something like a Kitfox or an RV-12 (the wings fold or come off) and take these to non aviation events. County fairs and festivals come to mind. Car dealerships, you can’t tell me having a plane setting out wouldn’t cause a few people to stop; the car dealer ship gets potential business and aviation gets exposure. Malls as mentioned above, not only have the redbird but have a plane set up. The only place I see aviation advertised is airshows, flying magazines/publications, and occasionally a radio spot on talk shows. Advertising to people already in aviation about flying lessons may appear to get more bang-for-the-buck but in reality most of those people will as soon as they can afford to go to the closest and most cost effective flight school and get their license.

    Also as this article alluded to flight schools need better websites, personally if I can’t communicate with a business over email and website interaction I usually don’t do business with them.

    • Joseph says

      Also I think some of the car shows like Gearz should do a airplane build. I’ve even sent them emails suggesting it — probably wouldn’t hurt for others to suggest it. Can you imagine what people watching that show that already has 10k in tools, has probably built atleast a dun buggy and probably a race car would do when they realize that they can build a kitfox/rv12 for $70k? And they see how easy it is.

  4. says

    Brent and Dan: awesome POV’s! And how about the debut at Sebring’s Expo this January? Like a launching pad for all to take home to their respective communities? Guys are on to something…BIG!

  5. says

    Great article, Brent! One thing I want to add: Every mall in America has open spaces where stores full of women’s accessories once stood. Let’s get Redbird’s new Chairman Craig Fuller on board to rent one of these in every mall, load them up with real flight simulators (not just games) and really try and hook ‘tweens. If financing through grants would be found, use of the sims could be free, but before the kids can use them they would need to take a short mini-ground school and pass a simple but pointed test to weed out the lazy kids and keep the ones who really have an interest in learning more about aviation. We decorate these “Community Flight Centers” with lots of edgy posters, wall murals, and maybe with financial support from major manufacturers, throw in contests, giveaways, maybe bring in EAA for Young Eagles support. Actually, this idea is pouring our of my head as I types this, but day-um, it’s got some legs.

    So O.K., who has Fuller in their Rolodex?

    • Joseph says

      What is a Rolodex? Ok Joking but the tweens you are trying to attract wouldn’t know what it is, and that is one of the problems we all have a lot of antiquated equipment in airplanes. So except for the “nerds” (I include myself in the nerd statement, I even have a vacuum tube tester and I’m in my 30’s) no one wants a history lesson on the 4 course range. I do agree with you the biggest problem I see is Aviation advertises and sells to the aviation community, that will never attract outsiders into aviation.

      • lindsay petre says

        Back in the 60’s companies like Cessna advertised in general interest magazines like Esquire. It might be a good idea to do that again.

      • Greg W says

        The “antiquated equipment in airplanes” may be a problem to some however many consumers still buy vehicles with manual brakes/steering and manual transmissions, they are called motorcycles. A new bike can cost as much as a good used airplane and you learn to operate both with a learner/student license. A big difference is the treatment of the person that walks up to an airport, many airports and pilots are outright hostile, the opposite of the Motorsports store down the street. The lower cost options must be pointed out by friendly people in aviation. The cost of training can also be shown to be money spent doing what you wanted to do, the training is in the air,or at lest it could be, the training is FLYING!

        • says

          So true! We MUST fix this issue immediately. I can’t believe how the people who make money from pilots actually shun newbies! It defies logic!

        • Joseph says

          True, that is a big issue. I’ve never asked someone how much does that bike cost and got the answer “All of it” Same goes for boats you can get a pretty nice airplane for a new speed boat costs, but no one has ever said the boat cost “all of it” Though the boat and bike cost $3-4 gal and verses $6 gal. Even at the 5gph in a rotax LSA unless you can get auto fuel it does add up, though I’ve never been big into sail planes I should give it a look.

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