When the topic of aviation comes up, it is almost a given that the conversation will come around to pilots. Even if the discussion isn’t about flying itself, the chatter still turns to pilots. Whether you’re interacting with an aviation-centric audience or a rabble that wants to shut down the local airport, the person most identified with the airport is a pilot.
The aviation audience sees the pilot as a highly trained, generally affable, sociable individual who would love nothing more than to share his (or her) love of aviation with others who show an interest.
Many non-aviation enthusiasts imagine a wealthy, privileged parasite who has taken advantage of society by getting the locals to pay for the airport, which is nothing more than the pilot’s personal playground.
Both assumptions are wrong. Sure, pilots are generally decent people. Some of them do consider the airport to be their own personal playground. And quite a few are happy to share their affection with aviation by filling an empty seat with someone who would like to see the world from on high.
But pilots aren’t the best or the only measure of what aviation is about, even if we are the most visible representatives of the industry.
Consider this: As of December 2013 the FAA estimates there are just shy of 600,000 active airmen certificates out in the world. Yet at the very same time the agency acknowledges more than 700,000 non-pilot airmen certificates. Those job descriptions include ground instructors, mechanics, flight engineers, repairmen, parachute riggers, dispatchers, and even a handful of navigators. Heck, there are nearly 180,000 people walking around out there with flight attendant credentials.
Admittedly, there are others, like myself, who fall into both the pilot and the non-pilot category, thanks to our penchant for getting more deeply involved in this business we love. We carry more than one certificate, and that can skew the stats a bit.
But the underlying message here is a big one: Pilots are a minority. They’re a minority in the general population, for sure. Pilots equate to a tiny percentage of the total population of the United States. But even when compared to the aviation industry as a whole, pilots are a minority population.
I consider this a good thing. No, good isn’t a strong enough term. I consider it to be a great thing. The numbers don’t lie.
Pilots aren’t the whole picture. In fact, pilots aren’t even the largest part of the picture.
That reality is critically important to those of us who work to educate others about the benefits of aviation. What we should be focusing on when we discuss aviation, plan for events, develop programs of education that could lead to aviation careers, or work to build support for the local airport is people. Not pilots, people.
It just so happens that some of those people are pilots, but not the majority of them. Most fall into some other category. Even the majority of those who earn their living in aviation are categorized as something other than a pilot.
When you take into account the FAA’s own stats about pilots vs non-pilots, traditional beliefs can be challenged and corrected. Now add to those non-pilot certificate numbers the line service workers, the receptionists, the administrators, and all the other non-certificated positions that exist because of aviation. It becomes clear fairly quickly that non-pilots benefit from aviation and access to an airport in a significant manner.
If that’s the case, and it most certainly is, why are we not out beating the drum to celebrate aviation as the industry that welcomes teenagers into a highly structured environment where taking responsibility is paramount and upward mobility is available? Why aren’t we cheering on our educational institutions, like the local high schools, technical schools, and colleges, to include aerospace education in their curriculum?
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful step in the right direction if we could let non-aviation-minded folks know that the airport is one of the few places in town where the millionaire and the relatively low wage worker interact as peers.
It’s my fervent belief that we as an industry have a great gift that we’ve been ignoring for far too long. Aviation isn’t about us, the pilots. It’s about us, the people.
The airport population is far larger and more diverse than the average person thinks. If we can share that reality, spread the word about what’s available to the general public on our airports large and small, we’ll find we’ve got fans just waiting to jump onto our bandwagon and become a part of the action.
If we’re going to be truly successful throughout the 21st Century, we’re going to have to look at aviation and ourselves differently. It wouldn’t hurt one bit to look around, take stock of the situation, and recognize that we’ve got a whole lot of potential to develop, if we choose to.