For the past week I have been acting in a very non-Floridian fashion. While the typical Sunstate dweller seeks shade and close proximity to a pool, I have been standing beside large expanses of pavement soaking up the sun with gusto. My excuse is a good one, however.
I was at SUN ‘n FUN, the kick-off event of the aviation season that attracts people from near and far to sample the delights of aviation from Remotely Piloted Aircraft, also known as drones, to homebuilts, Warbirds, Light-Sport Aircraft, helicopters, biplanes, the Thunderbirds, the Breitling Jet team, and pretty much anything else that flies or can be installed in an aircraft.
What it all comes down to in the end is not aluminum. It’s not composite materials, ADS-B, or rivet spacing, either. It’s people.
These events, large and small, would be nothing if not for the throngs of people who stream through the gates, then march across the grass and taxiways to see their favorite machines up close — maybe for the first time. Maybe for the last time. Either way, it’s the human element that makes it all worthwhile. The flying machines are just the magnet that brings them in.
After more than 20 years of attending these events, I’m starting to get pretty good this. I head out loaded for bear. I dress light, because the heat can get to you. I bring water with me, too. Lots of water. And sunscreen — SPF 50, exclusively. There’ll be none of that thinned out tanning solution for me. SPF numbers below 30 don’t even enter my consciousness. I want all the protection I can get. Age has uglied me up enough, I don’t need the sun to help the process along.
Yet, with all my experience trodding the grounds of the big shows, I encountered something this year I’ve never come across before. Never. I didn’t see it when I was a young-ish man in flight school. It wasn’t there when I was a fledgling flight instructor, either, all excited about the new adventures on my horizon and the pride that comes with carrying multiple FAA certificates in one’s wallet.
But this year I came across something that really caught my attention and got me motivated. I saw young people. Lots of young people. And I like the trend.
Could aviation be getting its cool back? I think so. I really do.
In all the years I’ve been attending fly-ins, airshows, or product demonstrations that pertain to aviation, I’ve never encountered so many young, bright, motivated men and women who were openly excited and curious about aviation.
The SUN ‘n FUN grounds were awash in young male hipsters with carefully tended mustaches, asking specific, intelligent questions about flight training requirements, cost-cutting options, flying club opportunities, and the long-term outlook of the industry. Their female counterparts were in attendance as well. They sported tattoos, dressed to impress, and showed every bit as much interest as their non-female cohorts.
There were teenagers, 20-somethings, and a good number of 30-ish urban dwellers mixed in with the old guard this time around. I haven’t seen that before. Never, in fact. But the undeniable shift in the makeup of the audience gives me real encouragement and a growing sense of confidence.
Yes, you can fly if you want to. While there is truth to the rumor that flying is expensive, there is no reason for it to be unattainably expensive. In fact, if done right it can be downright affordable. This younger crowd is hearing that message and following up on it accordingly.
Would you be willing to fly more if you could do it for $25 an hour? It’s entirely possible. In fact, I know a place where that’s an everday occurance. And yes, that rate is for flying a real live certified airplane with an honest to goodness engine and propeller, not a papier mache mock-up driven by a vivid imagination and the pilot making sputtering sounds with his (or her) lips.
Some of the younger crowd I intereacted with arrived on site with older men and women who were less trendy, a little wider in the waistline, and apparently shared some genetic code. These older folks filled the parental role in the relationship, which means a shift has indeed occurred.
Young, cool, hip kids were showing up at the airport with their dads and moms in tow. And they were there specifically to learn more about the world of aviation and how they could become regular participants.
The challenge for the old crowd is going to be a tough one. We’re going to have to give up our predisposed notions of what a pilot looks like and embrace the new reality we’re being presented with.
Pilots used to be predominantely male, white, thin, and at least moderately muscular. They were often perceived as daredevils, too. This new breed may be of either gender and a bit pale, perhaps. They’re significantly more attached to handheld devices than we are and speak of computer code as if it’s a language they can actually speak.
Frankly, I’m thrilled. It will be good to be cool again, even at this advanced age — and even if it’s only by association with this new breed of hipster aviators.