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 and Cessna 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.

Brent_OwensThere 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?

Maybe 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. Walter Rogers says

    Loved your piece, Brent… so much so that I quoted it in my blog: http://scriptogr.am/wrogerswx/post/why-did-california-city-become-a-glider-unfriendly-airport

    I’m a 45+ year competition glider pilot with a passion for the sport. Flight skills, stick and rudder and energy management expertise is invaluable not only for new pilots… but for the seasoned professional too. Your point is well taken… to bring the costs down for entry into aviation. I learned gliding in a club atmosphere at very low expense in 1968.

    As you’ll see in my blog, glider operations are disappearing due to zealous over regulation by Cal Trans and public airport sponsors (California City, Hemet, and Twenty Nine Palms, CA)

    Thanks for your poignant analysis and support of GA.

  2. Julie says

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I sort of fell into flying by taking one demo flight in a glider. Becoming a pilot had never even crossed my mind. Its now five years after that demo flight and I own 2 gliders, one Cessna, and have multiple ratings. I don’t think that ever would have happened if my introduction was in power – partly due to cost and partly due to the fact that gliding is simple and beautiful flying. Nothing beats thermalling with a golden eagle or red tail hawk.

  3. says

    Here’s an idea, lets reduce the cost of admission. Why does it have to cost so damn much to be able to learn to fly? Lets fly the stratosphere , but get our minds out of it. Lets get air schools online, and reduce the costs from $20,000.00 to get your GA, to maybe $10,000.00 or less.

      • says

        No I’m not kidding, why not lower the costs of getting in the air. I did not say make it free, I did not say reduce flight school hours, I’m saying make it to where even younger people can afford to learn to fly. When i hear things like $200k to get a GA, I’m reminded of the saying my mom used to use and it especially applies to us who fly, the bird that flies to high ends up in pile of cow stuff.

  4. Ray says

    Everyone should start thier training in GLIDERS. It is pure flying, teaches sound practices, stick and rudder skills, and is FUN. No noisy cockpit in which to learn. What could be better? And after getting your PPL in gliders moving to powered is MUCH easier. The bonus? If unfortunately you loose your medical you can return to gliding! No-brainer.

  5. says

    So true; take a GOOD look folks at the marketing strategy of Toyota – a car for EVERY need and pocket book – Corolla – Avalon – but the auto industry has ONE major advantage over GA – volume demand. However, nice and cent$able article!

  6. says

    I had an ultralight flight center before the SP came in. While everyone I know rushed off the cliff, I stayed with 103. Today I think that 103 is really the entry level for anyone interested in learning to fly. Great article. We do need to get back to the roots of the sport.

  7. Joseph says

    I’ve wounder a time or two if schools shouldn’t offer a program where 3-5 students could go in together and purchase a used airplane. The school could manage it for them for a small fee. If you look at this way a Cessna 172M cost 30-40k and if you take 4 people that 10k each. Add another 5k for the flight and instructor time and you could then for around 15k have a plane, your license, and new friends. Well I guess the flight time would probably be 6-7k if you do engine reserves, of if you need 15 vs 17k then do a 5-way partnership instead of a 4-way. Since the school is managing it then they could offer services and replace members of the group as they come and go. Not “cheap” but the cost of buying a boat or getting into golf could easily top 15k.

    • says

      Joe; Great innovative and cent$able concept. Several years ago I developed a program much like you stated; called the “4X4” plan. You have 4 owners of a $40-60k bird, C-172, etc and thus the “fixed cost” is divided by the 4 owners. BUT, this will only work IF the flight school/FBO is an aggressive and creative salesperson!

  8. says

    Great piece, Brent. You make some great points in a logical fashion. You’ve brought some excellent examples to light, including how the industry sabotages itself by promoting high-end aviation almost exclusively and providing minimal coverage of low-cost, grass-roots, bare-bones flying that is palatable and affordable to a much wider audience.

    Well done.

  9. Paul Schmitz says

    When I learned to fly, the FBO and my instructor had Friday night events. At these events I met other pilots, experienced and beginners. We had power on and power off spot landing contests, and similar types of activities to develop skills and a passion for flying. We should remember that the pilot never flies alone and develop the support of flying. It was so much fun flying my father after I soloed. Now my family was hooked.

  10. Kent Misegades says

    It all starts and ends with the costs of flying and the antique aircraft still in use in many flight schools. Look, we’re living through a nightmarish economy that is not going to get better. Prop,e have little extra money to spend, and thy fear the future. The simplest thing our vaunted alphabet groups and their so-called leaders could be doing – working hard to get cheap mogas onto our airfields – they refuse to do. This shows they are still beholden to their major donors and sponsors who seem to be happy to watch sport aviation die. It is all very sad.

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