For the past 30 years, there has been a slow, steady decline in the number of pilots in the U.S. In 1980, there were 827,000 active, certificated pilots, and by 2011, that number had dropped to just 617,000, and it continues to fall. Dropout rates for student pilots are as high as 80 percent.
For the past three years, AOPA has made understanding this phenomenon and reversing the trend a top priority. We have delved into the reasons for the declining numbers and the student dropouts. What we’ve learned has been enlightening—and it has given us cause for hope.
We discovered that many thousands of people still want to fly. Children still look at airplanes with wonder. Adults still dream of taking the controls and rising above the earth. People of all ages still feel a connection to machine and sky.
We also discovered success stories of people who are making those dreams come true, of flight schools where students prosper, of flying clubs that are seeing record growth, and of pilot communities of all types that welcome aviation enthusiasts with open arms and support them on their own aviation journeys.
AOPA has a powerful voice in Washington, and we are doing everything we can to keep the rising cost and complexity of aviation under control. But it will take more than just government advocacy to reverse the decline in general aviation. That is why AOPA has committed staff and resources to focus on the following programs.
The newest initiative underway is to support the development of a network of flying clubs. Extensive research has shown that flying clubs are a valuable part of the aviation landscape. Pilots involved with the most effective clubs find aviation more affordable and more accessible, and flying clubs create the type of supportive community that keeps pilots active and engaged. AOPA will work with flying clubs nationwide to provide the tools and resources clubs need to build on their own success and that of their members. As part of that effort, AOPA will develop a flying club network to strengthen the bonds among pilots and clubs nationwide. Our goal is to link 1,000 clubs over the next five years.
Continuing the work that AOPA began a couple of years ago with the Flight Training Student Retention Initiative. Our detailed research proved our worst fears—as many as 80 percent of student pilots drop out of training without earning a pilot certificate. If we could reduce the number of dropouts by as little as 10 percent, we could welcome thousands of new pilots into the aviation community each year.
Our initial work in this area is now translating into practical projects such as the Flight Training Excellence Awards, which recognize flight schools and CFIs that provide top-notch training experiences. In 2012, the first year of this project, we received more than 2,400 nominations from satisfied students and customers. By recognizing the best in the business, we hope to promote best practices. To help flight schools, instructors, and students create the kind of collaborative training environment that produces success, we are launching a collection of three Flight Training Field Guides.
In addition to looking at how we bring new people into aviation, we’ll also be paying attention to how we keep people involved. Each year thousands of pilots drift away from flying. Our research is helping uncover the reasons why people stop flying and revealing ways we can help them continue to enjoy all the benefits of flying.
But there is much more to do. The decline in the pilot population didn’t happen overnight and reversing the downward trend requires a long-term commitment. These initiatives are just the beginning of what will become a much more robust and wide-reaching program that builds a community in which more people earn pilot certificates, pilots are more active, and the flying lifetime of pilots is extended.
AOPA has made the commitment to reversing the decline of the pilot population. Through contributions to the AOPA Foundation, this effort will grow and be sustained in order to strengthen general aviation now and for future generations. Visit often to see the programs being developed, plans for the future, and how you can help.
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