Safety Pilot:

A new dawn?

March 1, 2011

There’s plenty of aviation darkness to curse today. Aircraft sales and the pilot population are spiraling downward, manufacturing is migrating offshore, professional flying is not perceived as the glamour job it once was, and costs are up. We’ll see the light momentarily, but must first acknowledge a few causal factors.

New aircraft prices are too high. The “value argument” says it’s not the actual cost but what you get in return—that’s true until the item is priced beyond the purchase ability of a sustainable numbers of buyers. I think we passed that point a while back. A bounce in jet sales will not save the infrastructure of GA airports upon which much of the jet community depends. Sales for the lower- and midlevel aircraft that were the base of the infrastructure pyramid have been in decline for too long.

A basic four-place IFR aircraft in 1980 was about $40,000, but in 2010 the same model had ballooned to about seven times as much—$280,000. Today’s avionics are phenomenal, but their basic transportation function and reliability are similar to older models. Meanwhile, midlevel car costs only tripled from $8,000 to $24,000, about par with inflation, yet today’s vehicles are impressive for reliability and comfort. The 1980 aircraft cost five times as much as a 1980 automobile, yet the 2010 model is 11 times as much. You think a new $160,000, four-place IFR machine might sell better? There’s more to say about light sport aircraft in the future.

It’s not as if the manufacturers are making a killing. The profit margins are lousy and several hover on the edge of—or have tumbled into—bankruptcy. Product liability problems still plague GA out of all proportion to culpability, and the production numbers are small. Cumbersome federal certification adds significantly to cost but buys nothing in civil lawsuits.

The industry, AOPA, and EAA have made several attempt to boost student starts but it’s not about student starts or intro flights—it’s about completions and with roughly 75 percent never finishing, the problem is daunting. There are many reasons here, as well. But perhaps there’s a thin light on the horizon, a dawning awareness. It’s easy to criticize. and most fools do, so let’s focus on the fixable stuff. Is it too late to save GA? Like the New Year’s resolution to lose 10 pounds—if you say so—your prophecy is correct. Or, you can start working out.

First, flying safely is a great investment! Accidents are tremendously expensive to the entire community, not just the accident participants. Yet good safety information has never been more available. The Air Safety Institute, the FAA, and type clubs all provide free seminars, webinars, online courses, and publications to educate and illuminate monthly. The commercial providers have better training products than ever and they’re improving. Perhaps we are beginning the age of enlightenment in flight training.

At social gatherings pilots, somehow, casually let it slip that we fly and Shazam, instant intrigue. Capitalize on that! You’re part of a special group—less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population holds a pilot certificate. But this isn’t for everyone, and driving a car doesn’t mean success as a pilot. Strong math or science skills ( see “Safety Pilot: Math Myths,” January 2011 AOPA Pilot) aren’t needed, but attention to detail is critical, along with good judgment, a sense of responsibility—and, perhaps most of all, a desire to succeed.

Sadly, the attention span of too many these days is measured in nanoseconds, and flying never will be an instant-gratification activity. You can’t sit on the couch and vicariously vote someone off the island or savor the big touchdown. Aviation is not a virtual or spectator sport. We’re looking for players! Additionally, it requires disposable income and time, both of which are short supply for many. However, a net gain of only 250,000 new pilots over the next five years would do nicely. If every pilot brought in just one new pilot to join our ranks over the next several years, this activity would begin to thrive.

Invite the candidate to fly; pick a nice, calm VFR day; and give him or her a gentle ride, no stalls or steep turns for the first time. Still interested? Then guide the candidate to an intro lesson. It won’t take much time and, as noted, the payoff can be much bigger. Help the prospect negotiate the training process—if the instructor or school isn’t right, find another. Sport or recreational pilot certificates cost significantly less in dollars and time, but too many, including schools and CFIs, are somewhat prejudiced. One can always upgrade to private pilot and beyond later, but a new certificate at any level is hugely motivating.

There is plenty to criticize about the flight training system, and we can all indulge in “ain’t it awful,” but a far more productive approach is to be part of the solution. Flight schools and instructors, despite lip service to the contrary, have never been financially recognized for their crucial role in aviation’s success. John Gardner, the late founder of Common Cause, said, “Before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”

There is much more to be done, but all flights begin at takeoff where there is greater risk as both pilot and aircraft work hard to get airborne. Your help is needed in getting GA airborne again. Cynical “sophisticates” please clear the runway—we’ve got some flying to do.

Bruce Landsberg heads the AOPA Foundation in its mission to preserve and protect GA.