Welcome to the minority

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.


  1. CJsMom says

    I want to share something with you from FA training:
    As someone who had basically never flown before, I was scared to death of the responsibility to my family of letting someone on my plane with a bomb. I’m not much of one for “I don’t care. I’ll be dead.”
    During training, we were repeated told in every way you can imagine that regulatory agencies, particularly the FAA only existed to pull our Airmen’s Certs (and the company’s right to fly, as well). I know now that this is so much BS, but I only had the instructor’s word to go by at that time.
    How big of a bag is too big for carry-on? Who makes that ‘final decision’? If a passenger insists on carrying something on, do we risk losing a customer by refusing to allow it?
    This was the ONE thing where I was more than willing to defer to my Captain. Anyone who every flew with me can tell you that my cabin was MY cabin otherwise.
    The reply?
    “Well, you need to know how to take control of your cabin!”
    Which is EXACTLY what we in GA need to do. Most of the politicos I talk with simply reply “I had no idea!” It’s our job to tell them.
    And to thank them, when they finally ‘get it’.

  2. Doyle Frost says

    Thanks Mr. Beckett, for a well reasoned and expounded bit of text. I really can understand your rounding us all as “people first, pilots second.” I agree with you, but one comment really hit home: youth is the future. Several times, I’ve tried to contact local high schools to get them interested in aviation programs, to no avail, even with a new program jointly set up, by the local community college and local Board Of Cooperative Education for an A&P school, at our former county airport. That school was originally given space at the former airbase, when the county took over that site as their new international airport, but ended up getting moved, due to local politicians not wanting anything other than corporate or commercial operations there, not even G.A. operations. (The local schools are more interested in “Liberal Arts” for their students than in any scientific endeavor. This is mainly due to a nearby state university campus, focused on liberal arts, as well as that community college, which is now growing with international and out of state students, and an increasing interest in technological studies.)

    • Greg W says

      ” local politicians not wanting anything other than corporate or commercial operations there,” unfortunately this attitude is much more common than one would wish. I have always thought it sadly ironic that grant funding is related to operation numbers. The airports authorities/boards would rather have one jet getting fuel than five light planes doing pattern work. They talk about getting grants and yet those “little” planes they don’t want in the pattern are what would give them the numbers to qualify for the state/ federal funds.

      • CJsMom says

        Greg, I attended an Airport Authority meeting last year. The newest member was assigned to read the report about GA. She highlighted the income from fuel sold.
        We have hangar rows that go up to letter “M”. Not one word about rental income.
        I keep encouraging the guys to attend some of these meetings, if only to remind the SAA that we are integral parts of their total package.

  3. Joe says


    My contention all along has been that we spend too much time talking to existing pilots, who are not only biased towards the past paradigms, but are aging fast. We should be talking to the 25 – 45 year olds, men and women, who large numbers of DREAM of flying, but haven’t tried yet. And, we need to understand what keeps THEM from flying, not just what is keeping our existing pilots from flying more.

    Lastly, its easy to focus on the problems, instead of the solutions, and there are a lot of GREAT innovations and changes coming, from the iPad to electric planes to ADS-B and more.

    I think the idea that the airport is a place where wealthy mix with not-so-wealthy is great, and its the tip of the iceberg. Airports are the windows to a world of wonder, from amazing machinery, incredible adventure, unique personalities, a sense of excitement and also a place to dream big. the worst thing we ever did was put so many dang fences around them!

    Call me crazy, but I think GA is going to have a great run in the next 30 years. For the old timers that still want to fly VFR NORDO and get AVGAS for $1/Gallon, they’ll be severely disappointed. but, for the next generation, that will happily share the skies with UAVs, use the latest gear to avoid traffic, fly IFR almost as easy as VFR, and operate quite, super efficient hybrid and all electric aircraft, its going to be a boom!

    What’s the old saying, “If you want the future to be different, be willing to create it!”


  4. CJsMom says

    Jamie, I most often hear the decline of aviation in the US being blamed on the increases in security due to the events of 9/11.
    At St. Louis’ Lambert Airport, right across from the end of one of the runways there is a graveled pull-off where families used to go picnic on weekend afternoons and just watch airplanes take off and land for hours.
    The last time I pulled in there (a couple of years ago) and spoke with a dad and son doing the same thing, we were accosted by law enforcement telling us to leave immediately.
    Conversely, I just attended an AOPA Fly-in at Indianapolis Regional Airport where I took a nap in the car in the parking lot.

    In trying to recall why I got interested in becoming a stewardess, it is still “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” Fiction though it turned out to be, I knew at age 11 that I could be Trudy. Any excuse to get out of Podunk and still be able to return occasionally.
    No one in my small community high school had the slightest idea how to help me achieve that goal. As far as I know, I am the single flight attendant to ever come out of my home county, population 17,000 +/-. We also had one American Airlines Captain, Dean Webster. Our daughters graduated high school together.
    I scored right on my ASVAB’s to be ATC. Again, this wasn’t even a consideration for someone from a town of 1200 people. And, in 1980, an Honor Society student was considered too intelligent to join the military.
    At the advanced age of 43, I got invited to flight attendant training at St. Louis for a Regional Airline, starting in February, driving back and forth daily 212 miles. Timing was right. My perfectionist attitude was not appreciated.
    Airline #2 came in October of 2006. My co-workers there told me I was more “View from the Top” than most.
    Some of my favorite movies feature planes. But, Denzel was an alcoholic who did coke. Harrison was a POTUS with a bit of flight experience. And Jody Foster (my birthday twin, btw) showed us all that the Captain isn’t always the most respectable person on board.
    While in Indy, I tuned into CMT and watched Dirks Bentley’s newest video for his song, “Drunk on a Plane”. He wasn’t the only one.
    Also while in Indy, I slipped my hand around Jeff Skiles’ waist and said, “You’ve lost weight. Everything ok?” I met Jeff at Oshkosh 2013 and had my hand on his waist when our pic was snapped by my travelling companion. “It’s trying to keep this Young Eagles program going.”
    I think the problem is best described as diverse personalities all seeking the one best answer to achieve the identical goal, and taking every slight and turn away personally.
    Mostly, it’s just not asking the right person the right question at the right time.

    • CJsMom says

      You know, I was wondering about the hairstyle of my local FSDO Director while he was flipping pancakes at our local Fly-in. Probably covering up his devil’s horns, ya’ think?
      And the ATC Director who had Tower Tours and his wife cooked out lunch for us? And the lady from Media at Great Lakes who kept replying to my e-mails when I was putting together my college presentation for Org Behavior in 2012 probably just wanted my e-mail so she could give it to the NSA. Thanks for wising me up.

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