What needs to be done to turn GA around

Aviation International News » March 2011
March 1, 2011, 3:00 AM

Next time you have some solitude, sit quietly and think back to that early part of your life when you began to wonder what itπd be like to fly. Now put aside the mixed emotions of how those dreams turned out–the predictability of the piloting routine, perhaps, the nights away from home, the sure push of thrust up and away from the runway as the wheels stow, the shrinking paycheck, "number 13 for takeoff," the tranquility of a healthy airplane carrying you through a clear silken sky far above the strife of life. Focus instead on remembering the fascination, the excitement and the anticipation that preceded the first time you shed the shackles of gravity, lifted off the surface of the earth and watched familiar scenery transformed by your admission to the third dimension.

I didn't leave the ground until 1970, when I was 15, but from the time I ran around the school yard with my arms outstretched and swept back like an English Electric Lightning's wings I was utterly captivated with the notion of flying and with all the fantastic machines that made it possible. The first time I ever watched the ground recede beneath outstretched wings was on an "air-experience flight" in a Royal Air Force DHC-1 Chipmunk as a cadet in the itchy blue wool uniform of my schoolπs Combined Cadet Force program. We flew over the school and looked down on my world from the preserve of clouds and peregrines, we did steeply banked turns and, if memory serves, we even did a loop and a barrel roll on the way back to RAF Manston (now Kent International Airport).

The experience far exceeded even the high expectations I had been building for the preceding dozen years. The point here is that when I did finally leave the ground and see the world from a perspective that until then I could only imagine, it was from the intensely involving confines of a Chipmunkπs cockpit, where I could see the stick, pedals, throttle lever and instrument needles move and witness their role in the sights, sounds and sensations of this utterly captivating experience.

How many youngsters out there today once yearned to fly, only to have that ambition fade as they reflect on the crowds, the security screening, the cramped quarters of seat 29B and the largely dull view out the small window of an airliner? How many people who have a job to do see flying these days as an unavoidable and memorably unenjoyable price of covering the territory?

Spark Interest Early

The way ahead for general aviation depends on lodging the innate fascination with flight that resides in so many young people in the forefront of their consciousness as they mature and begin to see themselves participating in the world of their elders. Of all the efforts under way to sow these seeds, the Experimental Aircraft Associationπs Young Eagles initiative is most on target, I believe, and most deserving of expansion and support. Since the program began in 1991, more than 1.6 million kids have flown in GA aircraft, thanks to EAA's coordination and the generosity of the aircraft owners and pilots who see benefit in devoting time and effort and their own good fortune to this deserving mission. "The oldest Young Eagle is now 34," notes EAA chairman Tom Poberezny, who will be revealing more detailed statistics on the quantifiable success of Young Eagles this month.

There have been other programs (NBAA's AvKids and the industry's Be A Pilot program, for example) but in the opinion of this observer, Young Eagles has nailed the target like none other. As the saying goes, children are the future. Their minds are uncluttered by the rocks and dead roots of why things can't be done, filled instead with fertile humus hungry to nurture the seeds of ideas.

Perhaps this explains the limited success of Be A Pilot, a well intentioned program that, seeking an early return on investment, targeted those with the financial means to learn to fly and those with a business need to put newfound flying skills to work for them. But those people do not necessarily have the time or patience to give the process the perseverance and dedication it requires.

In the words of one senior industry figure, "Be A Pilot had some noble goals, but I don't think we got the return on investment we should have got. A few years ago the industry ran some ads during the Christmas season, and I think we all came to the collective conclusion that if we had just taken that money and paid 20 people to get their private certificate it would have been a more effective use of the money. We inspired a bunch of people to go for a ride, but we couldn't ascertain whether even one of them went on to get a private certificate."

Russell Munson, a professional pleasure flier whose name will be familiar to anyone who has read Flying magazine in the last 40 years or so, has some theories in this vein. "The attention span of many people today who have the money to fly means they want immediate gratification. If the choice is between buying a Porsche and spending six months learning to fly so they can use an airplane, they'll buy the Porsche," suggests Munson.

And let's not forget what it costs the middle class these days to raise kids. There's the cost of college, of course, which relentlessly outclimbs working stiffs' pay raises and indices of inflation, but thereπs also the litany of stuff like the $100 helmet that's required for a kid to play hockey. Recalls Munson, "We just used to go out and get concussions." All this stuff mounts up, as does the time we spend with our kids as they grow and take on more activities.

If anyone had told me 20 years ago that it would cost $200 an hour in 2011 to fly the two-seat tube-and-fabric sport airplane I was then building, I would not have believed them. But that's what it costs per hour now to fly 50 hours per year when I divide the annual cost of hangarage, insurance, fuel, oil and maintenance by 50. Other than ultralights, flying can't get much cheaper than this: there's no note on my Kitfox, and its 80-hp Rotax 912 burns just 3.8 gallons of premium autogas per hour.

"Flying has always been expensive," says Munson, who over the years has owned a Super Cub and a Bonanza V35 and currently owns a Husky. "But the economic pressures on a middle-class family today make it more difficult than it used to be."

Long-term Investment

The Be A Pilot program seemed a logical enough way to spread the gospel to the immediate prospects, but some people see planting the seed in young minds as the real long-term hope for general aviation. Thatπs not a strategy that conforms neatly with a five-year plan so it's a tough sell, but the EAA has recognized how crucial the mission is to win young hearts and minds and its members have answered the call.

Sporty's founder and chairman Hal Shevers is a firm believer in the Young Eagles program and the recreational pilot certificate. Eighteen months ago his company launched a Next Step program for Young Eagles under which they receive a logbook and free access to Sporty's recreational and private pilot courses online. Last month the 6,000th kid signed up for it. "Once they have completed the course they get a signoff to take the recreational pilot certificate ground exam and have a free first flying lesson. We're working now on a video that Young Eagles will see before they take their flight, hosted by an 18-year-old private pilot who came up through the Young Eagles program. We're also working on a preflight video for the pilots who will fly the kids, and a takeaway video for the kids that tells them, age group by age group, what they can do now to develop their interest in aviation." The initiative is funded by the Sporty's Foundation and a private individual identified only as "someone better known in the financial world than in the aviation world who is particularly interested in Stem [science, technology, engineering and math] education." Shevers emphasized he is pushing aviation careers of all sorts–not just flying airplanes but designing, building and maintaining them and working in the cabin as a flight attendant.

Says Shevers, "Our educational products hit a low in January last year, but they're doing significantly better now. We were down about 40 percent a year ago; now we're down only 20 percent."

Shevers has strong opinions on the third-class medical: "If the FAA changed the medical rules for the recreational pilot certificate it would do more for the pilot population than any other single thing. The recreational certificate requires a third-class medical, and that's really too bad. AOPA twice petitioned the FAA to make the recreational medical requirements the same as for sport and glider pilot certificates, and the agency's reaction was to wait and see how [the relaxed requirements] work out for sport pilots. That was five years ago. The FAA should know by now."

Shevers would also like to see FBOs once again respecting the pilot who pulls up in a piston single: "FBOs are too focused on pumping jet fuel. The three most anti-GA places in the world are the FAA, the TSA and Signature Flight Support, and you can quote me on that."

Industry-friendly Legislation Required

NBAA president Ed Bolen asserts that business aviation values entry-level programs. "It's well recognized that the future of business aviation and the entry levels of GA are inextricably linked. The business aviation supply of pilots is evolving: like the airlines, at one point we relied on the supply of former military pilots, but that has changed. Business aviation has always had a strong number of pilots coming up through the GA ranks. We used to get some pilots back from the airlines, but fewer now since the age-60 retirement rule was lifted.

"We've hosted career days, we push for research and development because new technology attracts new generations to GA, and we fight for tax credits and bonus depreciation. Weπre focused on encouraging any legislation that promotes general aviation and on discouraging any legislation that would impede GA."

GAMA president Pete Bunce is concerned about the lower end of the GA spectrum, but he sees some short-term hope in tax legislation. "Pistons have normally been the lead segment when GA begins to recover, typically 18 months after the economy as a whole turns the corner. But I donπt know if weπre going to follow a normal recovery model this time. The lower you go in the spectrum of GA products, the more concerned I am. But to be able to expense the entire purchase price of an airplane in one year could really be good for us. Where we need the help is in the segment that, fortunately, can deliver an airplane by the end of 2012, which is when this provision expires. Purchase of an engine or avionics delivered this year also qualifies."

From a longer-term perspective, Bunce says GAMAπs members want to join with the FAA in rewriting the rules for Part 23 certification. "We know that the level we have to certify all Part 23 aircraft to is what drives up the price of entry-level GA aircraft. Under the current rules, we have to certify simple airplanes the same way we certify the most complex Part 23 aircraft, and we think itπs important for the operator community to join with us in pushing the FAA to look at the whole rulemaking process for Part 23, something that hasnπt been done in two decades. We have support for this in the FAA, all the way up to the Administrator level. This has to be made a high priority."

Bunce notes that there is a big price gap between light sport aircraft (LSAs) and the first certified aircraft. "It's a pretty significant jump. So are LSAs where we want them to be? No. Do they have potential to bring in people who just want to fly recreationally? Yes, and I think the LSA industry can grow. But we can fill that gap with certified aircraft if we can figure out a way to certify them at less cost. Thatπs where I see growth potential in our industry. If we can get back to selling high-end Part 23 aircraft the way we were in 2006 and 2007, that would be wonderful, but I think our growth opportunity is to keep the LSA segment growing and fill the gap between them and the $500,000, certified, modern, capable piston aircraft."

How long a process might it be to modify the rules to allow simpler Part 23 airplanes? "If you start by forming an ARC [aviation rulemaking committee], we started on the avgas ARC in mid-2010 and its appointment was just announced last month. With that timeline in mind, we should be able get something started by year-end. How long it would take to get new rules depends on how complex people view the issue to be. I think itπs realistic to expect new Part 23 rules by 2014-2015."

Has flying lost its magic for a video-game generation that has already traveled in airliners? Cessna CEO Jack Pelton: "I think the magic will always be there. The difference today is access to the experience that creates the magic. Not that many years ago, airports were more open and activities at airports were stronger. This gave kids opportunities for rides and developing relationships with potential mentors. Young Eagles today helps provide some of this access. But we as an aviation community need to do more at the grass roots to promote our airports and aviation activities. While you can try to ignite the passion through books, the Internet and other social media, nothing promotes aviation more than physically taking part in it."

As prime architect of the Young Eagles program, EAA chairman Tom Poberezny thinks the best is yet to come from efforts to expand the pilot population: "Under Young Eagles, 1.6 million kids have flown in small aircraft since 1991, and 1.1 million of them are currently eligible to get a pilot certificate, aged 15 to 34. Most new pilots are in the 40-plus age group, and growth in the pilot population is the cornerstone. Without pilots thereπs no foundation of aircraft ownership."

Poberezny and others regard the peak of airplane sales in the mid- to late 1970s as an unreal aspiration today since it was unsustainable: "People who lived through the end of World War II in their 20s were in their 50s and they had the disposable income to get their pilot certificate [if they didn't already have it] and buy an airplane. On top of that, you had the GI Bill training a lot of people. Put all that together and the mid-70s were general aviation's heyday, but not really a sustainable phenomenon. The supply of military-trained pilots and the GI Bill both disappeared in the ensuing years and we have been losing pilots since the 1980s."

Support for Young Eagles is oriented toward the individual, and they have donated millions and millions of dollars' worth of their time. But while Cessna and Socata in particular have been supportive, says Poberezny, "the industry collectively has not been too supportive because it has not seen the value. When we started the program it wasn't to boost the pilot population but simply to get young people interested in the idea."

Rod Hightower has a message for all pilots, and for the sake of this article's mission, let's ignore for a moment that he was appointed president of the EAA last summer. Hightower's message is this: Two cards belong in every pilot's wallet, regardless of what he or she flies. One is the AOPA membership card, to protect and defend your right to fly. The second is the EAA membership card, because that's the card that creates the next generation of aviators. It's not one or the other; it's our duty to carry both cards.

Hightower is dead right, and it is my firm belief that the Pobereznys (Tom and his founding father, Paul) and EAA over the decades have done more than any other single organization on the planet to fuel people's passion for flight. EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, which I attended every year for 22 years between 1979 and 2000, is a magnificent celebration of flying not only for people like us but also for people who aren't involved in aviation but would like to be. For my wife and I, taking our kids to the big Oshkosh show sometimes was as much a part of rearing them as sending them to school. Nothing spoke to them more eloquently than Oshkosh about their dad's thing about airplanes.

Observes Sporty's Shevers, "Few people quit between the recreational pilot and private pilot levels, but they sure as heck quit before getting their private if they havenπt got a recreational license. The national dropout rate is 80 percent before private and only 27 percent [at Sporty's Academy] before achieving a recreational license. Because of the lawyers, the microphone and the flight-hour meter, we now take 15 to 20 hours to solo someone rather than the eight to 12 hours it used to take. But now, with the recreational pilot certificate to strive for, we can tell them, 10 or 12 more hours–another $1,200–and you can be a rec pilot and take someone for a ride. Then fly around for a while as a rec pilot, then spend another $1,000 or so and get your private license. This is how to sell it. Not, 'Well, it's going to take six to nine months to get your private.'"

As one voice of experience emphasized to AIN, the task at hand is far greater than simply saying we need more pilots and launching a Be A Pilot type of program. "This can't be an event that lasts a year or two and then we go back to the old way of doing business. We need to build the marketing and promotional infrastructure to tell people that their interest in flying is not for the other guy to act on. We need a solid infrastructure of airports and sustainable flight schools to support the marketing, and we donπt have that in place strongly enough yet.

"How often do we hear people say, 'I've always wanted to learn to fly, but...'? That 'but' is the biggest three-letter word in the language. Those with a passion for aviation who follow us need to have the same chances we had. For too long we've been insular–'To be a pilot you have to be superhuman'–and we're proud of it to the point we don't want to let new people in. Pilots are special, but we can certainly do a better job encouraging a lot more people to learn to fly."

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