It's never too late to learnFew sights match the smile on a person's face after he or she has piloted an airplane for the first time. Add the richness of seeing a dream fulfilled for someone who has harbored the idea for many years, and then multiply by 30 for a hint of the excitement at the first-ever Aviation Elderhostel, hosted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, in May.
For those who are not familiar with the organization, Elderhostel International is a nonprofit group that offers worldwide educational travel opportunities to participants aged 55 and older. Since 1975 several hundred thousand seniors have attended Elderhostel courses covering topics from art appreciation to mountain climbing, but this was the first about flying.
Embry-Riddle's Andy Ferencak first approached Elderhostel officials with the idea. "Do you do anything with flying?" he asked. "No," came the answer, "nobody's ever put together a program."
Believing that seniors want to learn about aviation, Ferencak and his staff at Embry-Riddle created that program. Now we know that their intuition was right, because every session scheduled to date has sold out as soon as it was listed in the Elderhostel catalog.
When you think about it, aviation promotional programs target young people and other demographic groups, but little has been done to attract seniors to flying. I've always wondered whether we've been missing an opportunity here, especially considering how many already-certificated older pilots there are.
To find out more about what attracts seniors to flying, I interviewed Elderhostel attendees in Prescott after their first airplane flight. Hostelers ranged in age from 55 to 74 and represented careers including sheet-metal estimator, homemaker, realtor, and retired Stanford University medical professor.
Hostelers invested $370 per person to attend the four-day course; the fee included room and board in Embry-Riddle dorms and two hours of flight in a Cessna 172, with one student observing and one at the controls. The price did not include transportation to Prescott. Six-day summer courses were also offered for $678, which included four hours of flying. And for "intergenerational sessions," attendees had the option to bring along a grandchild or other teen to share the adventure.
Why did these senior citizens want to fly? For most, the reasons were no different than anyone else's-flying an airplane fulfilled a childhood dream.
"I've always had the fantasy of wanting to fly but never in a million years thought I'd get the opportunity," said Virginia Zabella.
Hostelers toured Embry-Riddle's maintenance shop, an airport control tower, and an automated flight service station; they also tried out the university's computer lab and flight simulators.
But of course the high point came when, under the tutelage of Embry-Riddle flight instructors, attendees flew Cessna 172s to one of three scenic Arizona destinations: Flagstaff, Sedona, or Payson. "The idea," said Elaine Pecaut, "that you would actually sit in the left seat and take over the controls!"
"I was amazed at the quality of instruction," said George Wilson. "[I] couldn't believe we'd be able to take the controls in such a short time."
While not everyone started the course feeling confident, Leo Zabella reflected the general feeling that the staff made participants feel secure about flying. "I was impressed with the way this program was presented to us-it put everyone at ease before we flew and removed the fear for almost all of us," he said.
Of course, a few participants were nervous right up to the flight itself.
"I've always had a terrible fear of flying," said Janice Juell. "The only reason I came is because my husband loves flying, and we do everything together. When we signed up, I'd planned to give my flying session away to him, but of course they wouldn't let me do it."
The night before her first flight, Juell was so nervous that she couldn't sleep. But once in the air, "my fear began changing to excitement while I was still riding in the back seat."
"She ended up liking it so much," added her husband, Howard, "that on Janice's turn to fly, the instructor asked if she'd like to try stalls, and she said, 'Sure!'"
"I loved every moment of it!" said Janice Juell.
Fear is not the only obstacle faced by aspiring pilots, regardless of age. Sometimes pressure from others is an even bigger obstacle.
Embry-Riddle's Ferencak tells of one applicant who inquired about math skills required for the course. "Only basic math skills are needed," he told the applicant, "and in any case, our instructors will help you complete the flight planning."
"Good!" said the woman. "My husband always told me I was stupid at math so I could never be a pilot, but he's dead, so now nobody can stop me from flying!"
Hostelers were not treated any differently from other flight students, and they appreciated not being treated like old people. "No one said, 'Watch your step,' and no one made me feel that I'm 55," said Zabella.
"[It] made you think about age and stereotypes," added Carol Rose. "I asked my flight instructor, who looked like a high school senior, how old he was. He said, 'Although I look like I'm 30, I'm actually only 23.' Both of us got a good laugh out of that?."
Attendees weren't the only ones who enjoyed themselves at the session. As hosteler Paul Hembise observed, "I think the instructors had even more fun out of it than we did!"
I understood how right he was after talking with Christine Hamilton, ERAU flight instructor and Elderhostel program director. "I wish all our students were like these," she said. "They showed up prepared, on time, every day."
Clearly, seniors are willing to invest money to experience the joys of flight, and judging by how quickly courses fill up, many more would like to try it.
So now that they've tasted it, do these Elderhostelers think they're too old to fly? No way! Amid good-natured jokes about what tower controllers thought of their airplanes meandering Prescott's taxiways, over one-third of the hostelers expressed interest in taking more lessons and earning a private pilot certificate.
Clearly it's time for those of us in flight training to more aggressively pursue this large audience of young-at-heart potential customers who have the ambition, maturity, and financial resources to become pilots. But doing so may require a different marketing approach than we use for other audiences.
Before attending the session, most hostelers said they did not feel that they were qualified or capable of becoming certificated pilots. They came expecting a single two-hour flight to fulfill their dreams of piloting an airplane. Only after ground school and initial flight training did they realize it was not too late to pursue their bigger dreams of becoming pilots.
So to attract this audience it may be most effective for us to follow the lead set by Embry-Riddle's Elderhostels, by offering introductory programs to whet the appetite and build confidence with continued flight training available to those who are interested.
But one way or another, let's do a better job of promoting the adventure of flying to the largely untapped market of "lifelong learners," as Elderhostel calls them. After all, the dream of flying burns just as hot in those people as anyone else-maybe more so, given how long they've waited.
Take it from Elaine Pecaut. "Flying is something I just had to do," she said. "My ex-husband was a P-38 pilot in World War II?and my name was painted on the side of his airplane."
By Greg Brown