By PHILIP HANDLEMAN
My first time at the controls of an airplane was 53 years ago. I have been a licensed pilot for 45 years and I currently fly a U.S. military aircraft of World War II vintage. My wife, Mary, and I operate a private airport in Michigan’s Oakland County, which we have owned for the last 28 years. We call our property the Handleman Sky Ranch.
Like other private airports, ours is characterized by generally open spaces and low-intensity usage. Contrary to popular myth, private airports generally contribute to the preservation of our environment by being veritable green zones that act as buffers to relentless encroachment.
At the Sky Ranch, we welcome first-time flyers. I have given many students their first plane rides. Representative of these young flyers, one went on to fly the vaunted U-2 spy plane at the pinnacle of an Air Force career. Another was motivated to overcome a disadvantaged background and pursue a fulfilling vocation as an airline pilot.
Yet, I have borne witness to the regrettable truth that light plane activity is only a fraction of what it used to be. Here are some grim facts:
- The U.S. pilot population has dwindled. From a peak of well over 800,000 pilots in 1980, we now have less than 600,000, a drop of 28%.
- The numbers for private pilots like me, who make up the bulk of private airport owners, are even worse. From that same starting point of 1980 to today, we’ve seen a gut-wrenching decline from more than 357,000 to less than 175,000, a whopping 51% falloff.
- It gets worse yet. The number of student pilots plateaued at about 210,000 in 1979. Thirty years later, in 2009, the last year that the FAA used comparable data, there were only about 72,000 student pilots, a drastic reduction of 66%.
- Not only are pilots disappearing, but so are their airplanes. Single-engine, piston-powered airplanes have shrunk in number by nearly 19% to less than 140,000 since 1984. In the next 20 years, the FAA expects the fleet to decrease by a further 14,000, or another 10%.
This bleak trend should be alarming to all who care about the preservation of America’s aerospace preeminence.
Our country’s continued leadership in air and space is not automatic. Our airline pilots, military aviators, and astronauts did not acquire their skills by some fluke, but had them nurtured through a mentoring process that started in many instances at small airstrips.
And that’s the point. The unheralded little airports that dot our nation’s landscape are the birthplace, the launch pad, the very foundation upon which America’s aerospace preeminence is built.
It is worth remembering that the first private airport was a cattle-grazing field lent to the Wright brothers by a Dayton banker. Today when you stand in the tall grasses of Huffman Prairie, you can peer into the airspace once occupied by the Wright Flyer and see glimmers of the rich legacy of the revolution that was sparked on that hallowed ground.
The crucial phenomenon behind the making of America as the world’s leader in aerospace is the freedom we have to fly. If you want to and if you have the qualifications, you can. And, for many years, flyers could count on a viable network of small airports.
Our nation’s justifiably-exalted leadership in aerospace stems figuratively and literally from the grassroots of fields like mine. The extent to which policymakers ignore, dismiss, or delay the bolstering of these fundamental building blocks in what makes our aerospace success the envy of the world is the extent to which they would permit that position to erode and atrophy.
And unlike times in the past, the current factors — economic, regulatory, political, and cultural — acting on our airports threaten not temporary, but chronic malaise and decay.
Right now, the many challenges facing private airports make them an endangered species. Ever-rising costs for equipment, fuels, insurance, regulatory compliance, taxes, etc., represent a growing burden.
That magical place where I was introduced to the wonders of flight so long ago is gone. The quaint airport with its inviting grass runway that served as a portal to the heavens has given way to the vagaries of real estate development.
Nothing of the property’s past glories is left except memories of little boys who felt the exhilaration of soaring on wings into an enchanted kingdom that stretches to infinity and is governed not by the laws of men but by the higher laws of nature.
Though there is no means to bring back that special waypoint to worlds far away, we who today own small airports safeguard that spirit and pass it on to the current generation of young enthusiasts.
When I take boys and girls for their first airplane rides, they learn that the sky is vast, open, and free — and uniquely the province of dreamers. Through the act of reaching for the sky, they come to understand that the dream of flight is the dream that anything is possible.
They can be Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and create the next Skunk Works to design the airplanes of the future. They can be Suzanne Upjohn DeLano Parish and fly any airplane they want to regardless of their gender. They can be Harry Stewart and make their mark in the air by scoring multiple victories for freedom. Or they can be Jack Lousma and explore the far corners of the universe.
It’s important to support small airports in their quiet and often forgotten — but vital — mission to keep an intrinsically-hopeful and eminently-majestic dream alive.