President's Position

Building our pilot community

February 1, 2012

Craig FullerWhen AOPA’s founders first gathered at Wings Field outside of Philadelphia almost 73 years ago, they were part of a small but growing general aviation community. As private aviators flying rapidly evolving general aviation aircraft, they recognized the need for an association to protect their interests, their freedom to fly.

Today, AOPA exists to protect that very same freedom from those who would tax and regulate us into the history books. We have always fought for our freedom to fly, and we will continue to do so. With your help, we are very good at winning the battles in Washington, D.C., and in the states. However, as we entered this new year, I was struck by the overwhelming evidence that just fighting the fight will not be enough.

What concerns me most today is less the threat from a government that is sometimes too domineering, but rather the stark difference between our numbers today and those of the past. In 1939, when AOPA was founded, the general aviation pilot population was small, but it was growing. Today, we are seeing a continuing decline in our numbers that has been going on for two decades!

There is no one issue causing this decline, and thus there is no one solution. But, what we have learned during the past few years is that there is a strong sense of community among pilots. And where you find a strong pilot community, you find aviators of all ages and ranges of experience.

During my travels over the past few years, I discovered a successful flight training program in Nashville that seems to be thriving in the toughest of economic climates. I met with hundreds of the 900-member Plus One Flyers in San Diego, a flying club that operates dozens of aircraft out of four separate locations.

In order to confront the challenge of a declining pilot population, much more of my focus in 2012 will be on these and other success stories. We simply must build our pilot community to survive. I’d be discouraged if there were no good examples of people doing that today—but the reality is that there are outstanding examples of aviators who are building our pilot community. To the extent that we can both celebrate and help replicate their success, we will be securing our future.

As I’ve discussed before, in 2009 we began an in-depth, two-year look at the flight training situation in America. Upon learning that between 70 and 80 percent of student pilots never become private pilots, a number of us were alarmed. Our research and a year of interacting with the flight training community have given us keen insights into what increases the likelihood of success when it comes to flight training. And, one important element is establishing and building into the process a sense that there is a pilot community to welcome a new aviator. Flight training programs that hold evening gatherings, weekend cookouts, and other social events to build a pilot community are more successful.

In 2012 we will focus on this and other elements that contribute to successful flight training—indeed, we’ve identified more than 40 factors that help determine success. We want to share what works with the broadest possible audience, and we want to make sure that we give those thousands of individuals interested in learning to fly the very best chance to become pilots.

If building a sense of pilot community is important in flight training, it may be even more important when we focus on how to keep people flying! So, as we examine the factors that contribute to a successful flight training experience, we will also focus on how the pilot community can be strengthened to support individuals who become private pilots.

Whether out in California with Plus One Flyers or in other communities across the nation where a few hundred flying clubs exist, we find clear patterns of success. We are working now to analyze recently completed research into what makes successful flying clubs. Soon, we will share these findings and invite you, our members, to share your views and experiences. As with our flight training effort, the purpose here will be to recognize and honor programs that build our pilot community.

Our future depends on the success of many to build the pilot community. At AOPA, we want to do everything possible to advance and accelerate the process. You will read more about this exciting undertaking and I am hopeful that you will join us, for if we do not dedicate ourselves to expanding our numbers and strengthening our community, who will? I honestly believe we have no option. I also believe we can succeed!

Email AOPA President Craig Fuller at craig@aopa.org.