By BRENT OWENS
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.
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.