Something interesting is happening in General Aviation. It’s largely being driven at the grass root level, and frankly these developments fascinate and encourage me.
The industry has noted a loss of participation in past decades, with fewer active pilots taking to the skies. We’ve bemoaned this reality for years. While some point a finger at regulatory issues, others single out high cost as a detrimental factor, while a handful of us blame an aging fleet as the reason fewer of us are climbing into a cockpit, firing up the engine, and rotating skyward.
All these factors play a role, certainly. But none of them is truly insurmountable. None are so universally daunting they can’t be overcome. They are valid reasons for concern, but they are not even close to representing the end of GA as we know it.
There is a bright shining light on the horizon, with blue skies above. Truly there is.
Atlantic Aviation in Orlando, Florida, hosted an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Rusty Pilot presentation this past Saturday. Given in three parts, by three men who each possess a wealth of experience in different aspects of aviation, the intent of the program is to cover the information required for the ground instruction portion of a flight review. These events are often conducted in conjunction with a flight training provider to make it easier for attendees to book and complete the flight portion, as well.
It was a fascinating event to witness. But then they almost always are. Perhaps that is why I’ve become so enamored of these gatherings over the past year or so.
Those in the room cover a wide range of ages, although the median age skews in the direction of seniors. There are men and women in the room. Some are low time pilots who haven’t thought about flying for years. Some are displaced professional pilots who left the cockpit unwillingly, yet have dreamed of getting back into the front seat every day since. Some have military experience, some flew for an airline. Some never flew anything more complicated than a basic trainer – but they all have the same longing to get back into the air. The AOPA Rusty Pilot program helps them get there.
This is a great example of an important business goal – recapturing lost customers. Whether the loss is to the FBO, the local flight school, the maintenance provider, or GA as a whole, it’s critical that we address the issue and offer solutions that bring our former customers and compatriots back to the airport, put them in an aircraft, and support their desire to get airborne again.
The attendance numbers at these events suggest the pool of individuals who are ready and willing to come back is quite high. Yet, until relatively recently the method of offering support and essential services was not well known.
That’s changing at long last. Thank goodness. There will be another AOPA Rusty Pilot seminar in Lakeland, Florida, at SUN ‘n FUN this Saturday. I’ll be there, too, standing in front of the room, addressing anyone who wishes to be there to take one more step toward being an active participant on the flight-line.
That’s all good. But the news gets even better. I sat with a 16-year-old girl and her parents last week. We met at the FBO near her home. She’d never been there before. Neither had her parents. Our discussion focused on the girl’s desire to fly professionally.
Not long before our meeting her parents arranged for a friend from their church to take their daughter for a ride. She loved it. They did steep turns, and she still had a smile on her face. They did a couple stalls and she giggled. She’s hooked.
Because an older gentleman was current and had access to an airplane, this young lady was presented with an opportunity to experience something she’d been dreaming of but had no experience with.
Now, with the full support of her parents, we found ourselves in a discussion about what her path to a career in aviation might look like, and what it might cost. The young hopeful pilot asked good questions and took note of the answers. Her parents remained steadfast in their support.
There is a link between these two events. One provides an opportunity to bring lapsed pilots back to active status. The other illustrates the strong desire felt by some who have no previous connection to aviation, but feel it calling out to them just the same.
Was that young girl influenced by an older pilot? Certainly, she was. It is left to us to recognize the potential created by someone she doesn’t even know particularly well, but whose passion for flight lit a fire in her imagination that led her to a path she might never have pursued without that connection.
That’s a powerful return on investment for our industry and our way of life. Personally, I’m delighted to play even a small peripheral role in either scenario. Whether I’m signing a flight review endorsement for an individual who hasn’t seen the inside of a cockpit in decades, or introducing a teenager to their first flirtation with aeronautics – I get the same sense of accomplishment.
But the accomplishment is theirs. I’m merely the facilitator. Still, it feels pretty darned good.