As is my custom, I started the day at a friendly local coffee shop. The caffeine is essential to my diet, the camaraderie of the patrons is important to my mental health, and the slow ramp-up to my full working frenzy keeps me in the game for the long haul. I like going out for coffee each morning. But this trip was different than most. I welcomed a former resident back to town and made a new friend in the process.
More than 25 years ago she left a town that was too small, too unimaginative, too backward in its thinking, and too limiting for a woman with big dreams and the talent to make things happen. Now, two and half decades later, she’s back. The town is different, she’s different, and somehow she and this small city are an excellent match now. She’s staying.
Bear with me if you will as I shift gears to focus on the plight of General Aviation. There are something like 600,000 pilots in the United States today. If you weed out those who aren’t actually current the number gets smaller. Consequently, there are those who will tell you general aviation is in trouble. Some actually suggest it’s dying.
I think they’re overstating the point. My recent experience making a new friend over coffee is a good example of why I think they’re wrong. Basically, people come back. They come back home after being away for years. They’ll come back to general aviation if we encourage them, too.
Consider this. Most people who learn to fly are looking for a personal challenge. They’re testing themselves. They are often type A individuals who have taken the bold step of throwing open the doors to life’s opportunities and taking a giant leap into the void. I suspect most of them are hoping to find enrichment, satisfaction, and adventure along the way. Then something happens.
For many their lives become less me-centric over time, transitioning into a period of more we-centric priorities that are almost unavoidable as we become true adults. Marriage, kids, mortgages, car payments, orthodontist bills, family vacations, and all sorts of other issues suddenly rank higher on the order of supremacy than learning to fly, or continuing to use that pilot’s license to drill holes in the ether on the way to nowhere in particular.
That is not to say the lure of flight dims and blinks out of their minds. Recreational flying just takes a back seat, then moves back another row, and another row, until it is well in the back of the bus. But the desire to fly is still there. The individual who harbors it merely has to wait for a the right opportunity to put their keister back into the pilot’s seat.
Those opportunities look like this…the kids graduate, the last house payment is made, work schedules ease up, income has risen while the cost of living has subsided somewhat. Any and all of these occurrences provide the financial breathing room to allow the former pilot to become a current pilot again.
And in this more modern world we live in, the gender and color of the wannabe pilot is no longer an obstacle in and of itself. Everyone is welcome. Or at least they should be if we truly want to expand our numbers.
As our lives go on the game changes a bit. Given the alternative, most of us will choose to live vibrant, colorful lives filled with adventure and true joy. Aviation provides that alternative to those of us who participate in it.
So let me suggest that rather than bemoan what we perceive as dwindling numbers and a dying industry, let’s consider changing our opinion on the matter and choose to see general aviation as a massively underserved market with literally hundreds of thousands of willing participants who have not yet found their way back to the front desk at the FBO. Let’s help them find the airport again.
If those of us who are involved seek out those who used to be involved and share the good news that GA is still available to them – some will come back. As we get better at sharing our message of adventure and fun – more will come back. When each of those returning disciples of the air tell their friends and family how satisfying and enjoyable it is to be back at the controls of a flying machine – their friends and family members will stop out to see what all the hubbub is about – and our numbers will continue to grow.
My new friend left these parts many years ago with a sense that her choice to leave was a permanent decision. Yet here she is, back in the midst of her childhood home again. And she’s glad to be here where both of us can make new friends and revisit old haunts. You see, it’s never so late that you can’t go back and start again. But it gets a whole lot easier when there’s a warm handshake and a smiling face there to greet you.
Welcome back, former fliers. It will be so good to see you hanging around the pilot’s lounge again.