Current estimates of the population of the United States clock in somewhere around 323 million men, women, and children.
If we assume a quarter of those people are under the age of 18, as the US Census Bureau suggests, that cuts the number of adults down to fewer than 250 million men and women.
Now, if my math skills are to be believed (and there are several public school teachers in my past who would bristle at that statement) this puts you, dear reader, solidly in the dreaded 1%.
Don’t fret. There’s nothing wrong with being a one percenter. You worked hard to get where you are. You earned this distinction. Yes, it’s true the club you belong to carries with it a rarified air of awesomeness. But it should. It’s the 1%, after all. We’re special.
The group I refer to, of course, is the number of certificated pilots in the United States. The nation where powered flight was invented. The nation where in many ways it was perfected. Although a massive tip of the hat is due the French for inventing the aileron, the British for inventing the turbine engine, and the Germans for being amazingly ambitious throughout the first half century of aviation’s nascent years.
We pilots are few. Fewer than 600,000 of us at last count. Which means you’re not just in the 1%, you’re in the top quarter of 1%.
Simply put, when measured against the population as a whole, you are extraordinary.
This is about the point where some readers are going to start getting steamed. Some will go so far as to skip the rest of this column, disgusted by the obvious political and economic overtones that have no place in an aviation publication.
While that position could certainly be argued either way, let’s have some compassion for the folks who stomp off into the sunset, because they’re going to miss the point of this story’s introduction.
And it’s an important point that’s of significance to all 323 million of us.
Aviation functions as a meritocracy. There is no free ride, even if somebody pays your bills for you. You’re going to have to earn what you get in aviation.
Nobody inherits a pilot certificate. Not a single A&P mechanic obtained their license as a gift from a monied patron. There is not a tower controller in the nation who came to their profession because the head controller’s niece was out of work and he owed his sister a favor. That happens in other lines of work, but not in aviation.
In this business you have to earn your accolades. There is no other method of acquiring status.
You’ll notice I called you extraordinary earlier. I didn’t refer to you as a member of the elite.
Those two terms have very different connotations. The elite is considered to be the upper-crust, the very best. Elites have authority and influence. We are not the elite.
Yet even though we don’t count ourselves among that lofty group, we aviators truly are extraordinary.
In part because each of us took steps to raise ourselves up to a level we might have initially considered unattainable, but we tried anyway. We each set ourselves on a course to meet an ambitious goal, and we achieved it. That is by definition, extraordinary.
We have pushed ourselves beyond what is typical of our breed. We faced financial challenges, nervous concerns about altitude, airspeed, aerodynamic stalls, loud noises, and a runway looming back at us as we race toward the earth at what once felt like a breakneck pace. We studied when nobody was forcing us to. We persevered when others dropped out.
Because of all that effort, we became pilots. Perhaps you fly recreationally, only now and then. You’re still extraordinary. Few do what you do. Even fewer do it well.
For all this talk of achievement and pride, there is one point that must be made over and over again. Ideally it would be made by everyone who flies as they encounter those who don’t. That point is this: Aviation is a non-exclusive endeavor.
The airplane does not care where you were raised. The relative wind gives not one whit of interest in the color of your skin, which religion you subscribe to, or if you ignore that aspect of life altogether.
The thrust produced by the engine doesn’t vary based on whether the throttle is held by a grocery store cashier or a bank vice-president. The physics of flight are not affected by our petty human distractions.
Aviation is, was, and shall remain a meritocracy. It is expensive to get involved in aviation. That has always been true. But it is not prohibitively expensive. It’s possible to learn to fly for less money than you might spend on good used car. If you learn to fly in a non-profit flying club, you might well earn that certificate for less than the cost of a used motorcycle.
And unlike the car or the motorcycle, your pilot certificate will last for the rest of your life.
There are fewer pilots today than there were 40 years ago. Not coincidentally, there is a greater demand for pilots than there was 40 years ago.
That can be said of so many careers in the field of aviation — a fact that should grab the attention of all 323 million of us.
Our friends and neighbors don’t seem to make the connection that the pilot sitting in the left seat of the wide-body jet they flew to Europe or Hawaii may well have started out in a Cessna 150, or an Aeronca Champ, or a Piper Cherokee.
That pilot may have learned the material and honed the skills that led to that career at an airport very much like the one near your house. The one with single-engine piston-powered airplanes populating the ramp. The one where all comers are welcome and opportunities are nearly limitless.
The one where the one-percenters hang out.