President's Position

It's working

May 1, 1998

Last month I testified on your behalf before the very important aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The subject was the National Civil Aviation Review Commission (NCARC) report on modernizing the nation's air traffic system. In my testimony I outlined the reasons why your organization does not support the proposals made by the NCARC — the same ones that I have shared with you previously (see " President's Position: NCARC," October 1997 Pilot).

However — and to my surprise — at the conclusion of all the formal testimony, the chairman, Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), posed two questions "out of the blue." First, he asked how many members AOPA represents. I responded that 55 percent of all the pilots in the United States comprise our more than 340,000 members. Then he asked what has been happening to the pilot population in this country during recent years. At this point I had to paint a pretty dismal picture. I pointed to the dramatic 25-percent decline in certificated pilots that all of us in GA have witnessed over the past two decades.

As my mouth provided the statistics, with which I am all too familiar, my mind began thinking about what was behind these questions, especially at this particular hearing. Was it to point out to all who subsequently would read these proceedings in the Federal Register that general aviation is a shrinking environment and a very small special interest group? I discarded that thought, knowing that the congressman has a good appreciation for small airports and small airplanes. To answer on a positive note, I related the industry activities of GA Team 2000 to build up student pilot starts, praised the EAA's Young Eagles effort, and cited the success of our own AOPA Project Pilot.

It's hard to believe that our own effort to encourage more people to learn to fly is four years old this month. Many of you may recall when we first announced the idea of AOPA members' identifying and registering their friends, relatives, or business associates as students in Project Pilot and committing to mentor these newcomers in aviation. Subsequently, when the industry did research among those who had never been in a flight school but were "very interested" in learning to fly an airplane, 42 percent indicated that a mentor would make them "much more interested" — and half attributed their interest to a friend or relative who is a pilot. Little did we realize during the creation of AOPA Project Pilot that this would be such an important element.

Naturally I tested the program myself, by becoming a mentor to my wife Lois. When she received her certificate in 1994, I felt that I deserved an award. She has now gone on to mentor others and currently is seeing two people through the arduous process of becoming a private pilot. It's her current experience that convinces me more than ever that people need someone to turn to when the road gets tough.

Jim, our next-door neighbor, was a perfect student pilot candidate. He had the intense interest, time, and discretionary income to take lessons. But a huge hurdle was encountered when he visited the local flight school to inquire about lessons. Jim was born with no right arm below the elbow. The flight school said that it could give him lessons but the FAA would never approve him for a certificate. When Lois heard this, she turned to our AOPA Medical Certification department for advice, and Jim got the answers he needed — while Lois landed her first mentoring role. Just recently, both Jim and Lois' other protégée lost their original flight instructor. They were devastated, but Lois is helping them through this all-too-frequent situation.

The stories from around the country are similar: "A friend of mine…sent me the Project Pilot kit and indicated a willingness to serve as my mentor. Thanks again to the leadership of AOPA for moving me from thinking about it to doing it," wrote Douglas Kenny, AOPA 1280847, from Connecticut. "The package I received from AOPA fired my enthusiasm, and ... the newsletters came just when needed," added John Alexander, AOPA 1295765, of Michigan. (More success stories can be found on p. 21.)

In four short years, the AOPA Project Pilot program has surpassed 40,000 participants. Almost 20,000 AOPA members have identified and mentored 26,073 student pilots. Mentors receive a series of newsletters on how to support their students, and the students receive a complimentary kit containing a video, a recent Pilot magazine, and a series of six newsletters matched to the various phases of flight training. And, as their first student receives a private pilot certificate, the mentor gets a Sporty's Pilot Shop $100 Preferred Rewards Gift Certificate.

You can always register a student by calling AOPA toll-free. But something new has been added to AOPA Online on the Internet. Many of you commented that you don't know any potential students but would like to participate by mentoring someone in your area — and students continually call us, asking if we could provide an AOPA mentor. Therefore, last month we added a bulletin board ( http://flighttraining.aopa.org/projectpilot/) designed to allow mentors and students to identify one another. Unfortunately, there are twice as many students as mentors, indicating a need for more member involvement.

AOPA Project Pilot is working, and your association thanks those who have become involved to date. For the first time in more than two decades, student pilot starts last year rose 8.3 percent over the previous year — a statistic I was happy to relate to Rep. Duncan. Building the pilot population back from its losses begins with each and every student start. As 20,000 members, including my wife, have proven, you can make a big difference!