Maybe we aren’t as old as we think

If I told you 25-29 year olds with a third class medical were the largest segment of aviators, would you believe me? Thankfully, you don’t have to take my word for it. Download the 2012 Aerospace Medical Certification Statistical Handbook for a little light reading.

ActiveAirmenByAge_Table10 In fact, pilots with a third class medical between 20 and 29 years of age made up 26.71% of the pilot population in 2012. Huh. Who’d a thunk it? In fact, 20-29 year olds made up 42% of the third class medical population.

The next chart show even better the age breakdown…


Aside from the 16-19 year olds, this data is much flatter than I expected. Maybe we aren’t as old as we think we are.

Thanks to Washington Pilots Association president Les Smith for sending me the link to this report. Let the conversation continue.


  1. LARRY says

    I took the time to look through the entire 45 pages of charts in the AME report and found a couple of interesting facts based upon them. Slightly off topic but … the FAA is saying that 68% of medical certificates are to people they adjudge to be either overweight or obese. In fact, far more people with medicals are just ‘overweight’ than ‘normal’ … 250K to 168K.

    Despite the above charted findings by the FAA, only ~1% of applicants are reporting sleep apnea issues. Hmmm … could the FAA have a solution for a problem that isn’t there? YOU be the judge.

    A chart of numbers of special issuance certificates by age goes up exponentially with the largest in the 65+ group. I interpret this to support the notion that older pilots with ‘the aviation fever’ hang on tenaciously. If you added those who decide to go light sport only, I’d bet you’d see an even steeper curve.

    Until someone correlates the data in this report with the ages of certificated pilots, I see no reason to believe that pilots are younger than we all think. No place in those stats anywhere is a list of third class medicals with student pilot license paperwork. THAT would be a more reasonable reflection of what’s going on given the 80% drop out rate of student starts. SOMEWHERE in those stats are those 80%’ers but we don’t know where they are. In much the same way, those stats don’t reflect people who HAD medical certificates and decided to begin flying as a light sport pilot. In fact, The ONLY way to really tell what’s going on is to determine who is getting bi-annual flight reviews.

    Finally, it takes time to assemble and publish a report like this. No wonder it takes the AME Division so long to process Special Issuances.

  2. Olduffer says

    The last fly-in I attended looked more like an AARP meeting, than a “gen x-y-z” party. 95% of the flight reviews I conduct are with pilots that over 50. Something doesn’t jibe with the data.

  3. LARRY says

    Before everyone gets to celebrating, I want to see a chart of WHO OWNS THE AIRPLANES. WHO is BUYING new airplanes. How many hours does each of the charted segments fly each year. THEN it’ll have meaning.

    Until then, it’s just a chart of the age of who has a medical certificate…and nothing more.

  4. john says

    Anecdotal information regarding the activity of pilots of a certain age is clearly inaccurate. Flyins, bbqs with a bunch of older guys, simply does not appeal to 20-30 yr old aviators. And that’s understandable. I personally have been flying 200 hours a year for about 6 years, and have never been to a flyin; nor do i ever want to. Neither Osh Kosh nor Sun n fun sounds like fun. And every aviator I know under the age of 35 doesn’t have in interest in flyins, either. Nor do they just hang out at the airport, like the old timers; they’re usually busy working. I fly more than almost everyone at my airport; but I don’t know many people there (other than the guys in the EAA chapter) simply because, I go there to fly. Not to socialize.

    The next time you’re at Osh Kosh or Sun n Fun, look around; like attracts like. What’s there to interest a 20-30 yr old guy? I am going to guess that there are really young kids (younger than 16), their dads, and their dads’ dads. And almost no attractive single women…

    I mean, think about what you were interested in when you were in your 20’s…other than flying…

    • LARRY says

      Well, John, since you haven’t been to Sun-N-Fun or Oshkosh … and they “SOUND” like they’re not fun and you “guess” who attends … how the heck do you know there aren’t any attractive single women there. I’ve been to Oshkosh 35 different years since the mid-70’s and I can tell you that once you learn how to navigate the town and where the “action” is, you would likely be pretty surprised. BUT … since you’ve already pre-supposed and stereotyped what’s going on and don’t have time for much else than flying … you’ll never know. I liked Oshkosh so much, I built a hangar nearby and now have a summerhome there and am having the time of my life. On the one hand, you belittle “anecdotal information” and stereotype the activities with no personal knowledge of either large event and then moan about “no active single women … ”

      I have some VERY bad news for ya, son … you’re going to blink several times and you’ll be in your late 50’s wondering what the heck happened. Then what’re you gonna do? Wait … let me guess … watch your hair turn grey.

      People with horses socialize with … people with horses. People with Corvettes socialize with … people with Corvettes. People with airplane socialize with … people with airplanes … unless — I GUESS — one flies 200 hours per year and work and don’t have time for all that nonsense.

  5. 29 and Holding.. says

    Well, I myself am 29 and turning 30 this summer. I used to have a 1st class medical which has reverted to a 3rd class over time, and still do have a Single and Multi-Engine Commercial Rating with Instrument Priv attached. Having graduated from Embry-Riddle and always hoping to attain the dream of flying for a living, an interesting thing happened in the mean time called real life.. As such I do not work in aviation and currently work a 40-50 hour a week job and have taken home an after tax amount of $50,000 to $60,000 average over the last few years. I cherish my educational experience, enjoyed most every minute of it and as much as I would love to to have an office widow view from 30k feet, I in no way intend on taking a 50%-60% pay cut from my current career to do so. I have retired myself to working my way up the current corporate ladder, thankful to be able to rent a Cessna or Duchess on the weekends/ days off to tool around and get my fix of flying these days. Perhaps the uptick in 25-29 year old 3rd class Meds could be attributed to this, but in all reality, there are quite a few other industries willing to pay more even for those such as myself having only an Aeronautical Degree. Essentially, since graduating from college (ERAU) I have worked for (and still do one) two fortune 500 companies and the only thing I have ever been asked during background or during an interview was about the confirmation that I in fact had a completed degree. In my own experience and in talking to my fellow alumni/friends, a piece of paper is really the only thing I feel a company is looking for to at least get one in on the entry level at a livable, comfortable wage… Here’s to holding out hope that all us late 20 somethings and early 30ers can dive back in head first to the hobby/industry that we love…

    • 29 and Holding.. says

      P.S. As for the looming “pilot shortage”, I’m quite confident of the fact that there are plenty of qualified bodies and/or folks such as myself or even those already in the 121/135/141 cockpits waiting and/or moving to the sidelines awaiting the entry level career aspect of aviation to straighten up, fly right and pay right.. Or at least pay decent enough so that we can have a better argument to talk our spouses into supporting us and the family for a few years ;-). To quote a very good friend of mine who has recently left the Regionals after 7 years of service and having pulled a left seat upgrade after 4 of those years, “moving overseas to fly turned out to be amazing for the family and me after all; see you next Christmas..”

  6. Phil says

    Thank you for posting this. It is really nice to have the actual facts as opposed to hunches and feelings. And it’s nice to know that maybe we can take GA off life support after all.

  7. Bill Dominguez says

    Based on my observations, the majority of younger pilots are pursuing careers in aviation. The vast majority of pilots I know, who fly as a hobby, are over 45. It is the later group that I see more often participating in GA as a community.

  8. Mark says

    This does raise a number of questions. I wonder to what degree this reflects the 80-percent student-pilot dropout rate. Consulting Table 12, Estimated Active Pilot Certificates held by Category and Age Group of Holder of the FAA’s civil airmen statistics for 2012
    one sees fairly similar numbers for Total Pilots with a surprisingly even distribution over the age categories. Of the 57,463 pilots in aged 20-24, 30,168 are students. For ages 25-29, these numbers are 64,847 and 24,263. For age group 20-24, there are 27,174 pilots (PPL: 15,578, Commercial: 11,446, ATP: 150) and for 25-29 there are 40,450 pilots (PPL: 15,296, Commercial: 21,382, ATP: 3,772).

    I think the take away is that there is sustained and significant interest in aviation among young people. All too often we hear older aviators complain that young people lack a sense of adventure, are glued to their I-devices, satisfied with flight simulators rather than the real thing, or do not have the discipline and drive to become pilots. This is belied by the fact that there are almost exactly the same total number of pilots aged 20-24 (57,463) and 25-29 (64,847) as there are aged 40-44 (57,264) and 50-59 (65,456). The failure is not in generating interest in aviation among young people. Even with current financial difficulties and bleak professional outlooks, young people appear continue to enroll in aviation and flight schools. The financial headwinds and other well documented obstacles they face once they become student pilots appear to be a far more significant problem. Hopefully, some of the initiatives by organizations like AOPA will begin reduce the massive drop out rate of student pilots.

    We may not be as old as we think we are, but we are certainly as old as the people who attain a certificate.

    • Buck Rogers says

      I wouldn’t count on AOPA. Remember their whole “flying club” initiative in trying to get the pilot population going? They fired Adam Smith after a year. Yeah…smart move by AOPA…not!

  9. Skippy Britt says

    This study also blows me away. The 20-34 age groups have got me thinking; maybe this pilot shortage (that seems to come up every 5 years or so) really is just another meaningless scare? Much like the comment before this, I’ve also judged the numbers from who I see at fly-ins, and it seems as if this time there really was a shortage. But numbers don’t lie. There’s no doubt the industry has taken a hit, but so has everything. When things start picking back up, so will our GA spirits.

    • Buck Rogers says

      There is no “pilot shortage”. Those who scream this are the alphabet groups and flight schools/academies. Why? Welp, money. They can never have enough pilots to pay into their membership dues and flight programs.

  10. H. Harrison says

    My guess is that the heavy numbers in the 3rd Class Medical column are due to start-ups. It is interesting to see the drop in the 2nd Class column. This pretty much proves that there is indeed an interest in learning how to fly, but that the cost prevents many from going further. I would like to know how “Active Airmen” is defined for the second graph. If you take the 20-29 age group, there are ~125,000 so-called “Active Airmen”. Where are they? Considering the entire graph, we are north of half a million “Active Airmen.” What?!?

    • Greg W says

      A have been told by FSDO personnel, but do not have a written source, that active is “a current flight review” and so legal to act as pilot in command. One does not have to be “current” to carry passengers to be active. If this really is so, than it would seem as well to indicate “interest” and so something else is keeping people from flying. That something in my opinion, is cost as cost of fuel and insurance effects the cost and availability of rentals just as it does private owners.

      • Buck Rogers says

        Of course it is about cost. The alphabet groups and flight programs would have you believe that it’s not about cost.

        Yet they’re the first to sit around a camp fire and fire off the “what makes an airplane fly? money!” joke.

      • John says

        How would anyone measure who has a “current flight review” (or what is known as a BFR for us old guys)? Do CFIs report this to the FAA? I thought it was just a line of ink in your logbook.

  11. unclelar says

    This is startling to me. And it has so many implications that I can’t count them right now. I have judged numbers by who I see at fly-ins, airshows, etc. From that observation point I would have thought that the reverse was true. Wonder why the alphabets haven’t picked up on this since it can affects so much of what we focus on in gaining more participation.

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