258 and Counting

June 7, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

Last Saturday was International Learn-to-Fly day. To pilots, this may seem rather mundane, but to the future of GA—it’s the numbers thing. AOPA, working with the airport management, the flight school, and our EAA chapter, teamed up to invite the community out to the airport. I made five flights with kids, parents, and a British couple.

The airport has been here since 1949 and is the second busiest in the state, but many of the people who came out, “Had no idea that this airport was here.” They lined up by several hundred to get a flight which was offered as first come, first served. The reasons for an intro flight were as varied as the individuals: some had never flown at all, some wanted their kids to see what GA flight was about, some were inactive pilots who wanted to remember, and some were just enthusiastic about flying and the adventure.

Everyone had a good time and genuinely appreciated the enthusiasm and care we took with them on each flight. I liked being “ambassador for a day” and am certain to do this again. Having seen the eagerness, I’m not convinced there is a lack of interest in flight, but rather that we need to work on the so-called “value proposition.” More on that later.

Handling that many people involved plenty of considerations:

No personal interaction with propellers was high on our list. EAA Chapter 524 did a superb job of ground-handling aircraft and helping pilots keep everyone from a close encounter. Ground Rule #1: No boarding or disembarking with engines running. Rule # 2: Pilots will accompany passengers to and from the aircraft—staying behind all aircraft at all times.

My assigned aircraft was fuel injected, and we all know that hot-start success is inversely proportional to the number of people watching. No starters or batteries were harmed during the exercise and amazingly, by following instructions, the beast started every time. I’m still in shock.

With nine aircraft involved, in addition to the usual itinerant traffic, collision avoidance was on everyone’s mind. KFDK is now Class D, and the frequency was entertaining. The tower helped to manage the flow (and this could have worked in a non-towered environment), but everyone has to play according to agreed-upon rules. We worked out an extended pattern (staying well clear of a Presidential TFR in effect that day) that gave everyone about a 15-minute ride.

There were headsets for every seat so passengers could hear the action, and a balance was needed between answering questions and maintaining a sterile cockpit. I explained what was happening and what we would do before takeoff. In the air, we had a game pointing out other aircraft—of which there were plenty. The kids were very good at it.

We could have spent more time in briefing the passengers on what GA was and how we serve 5,000 public use airports while the airlines serve less than 400. We might have pointed out that no “fat cats” were on the airport (at least that I could see), but there were some business jets going about the very legitimate business of moving people around the country, along with a medevac and police helicopter, and a number of people using their aircraft for personal transportation—sort of like a car. Not many of our guests came via public transportation.

There were people interested in learning to fly, so I’ll be curious about our percentages on completions, say, in a year. Despite all the people that flew, there were probably another hundred or so that were turned away because we ran out of seats. Again, if each of us just took a couple of neighbors or friends on an intro flight during the coming year, we could get more than a million people exposed to GA in a year. Think of what that might have the potential to do.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • pranesh dey

    Hi Bruce,
    A lifelong love affair with aviation often begins with a joyride. I had my first intro flight in 1995 in a winch-tow glider at our local airport. After that, my life, as they say, changed forever. It was early morning. I had rushed to the airport on a cycle. I was one of 200-odd students hoping to get lucky that morning. Lucky, I did get when the flight instructor waved at me to strap up. Some of the memories that have never left me: looking at flight instruments for the first time, getting airborne, scattered low clouds, view of the ground below. In flight, I was a bit disoriented. I didn’t know where the runway was or where the glider was heading. Then all of a sudden, I could see the runway straight ahead, a black narrow strip at first that gre wider and wider as the glider descended. Now and then, we come across statistics-loaded articles that worry about how the huge demand for pilots, engineers and technicians will be met in future. I feel we unnessarily worry. Intro flights in GA aircraft is the best way to meet that challenge.
    Pranesh, India

  • Jim

    Thanks are due to you and the others who flew those rides on “International Learn to Fly Day”. It is a great thing to put over 200 new heads in the air, and like you I will be interested to see if that crowd results in a dozen or so new pilots by next June.
    You indicated that the rides were ‘first come, first serve’ but it is not clear whether the passengers were charged for the flight. Were these run as the routine “Discovery Flight” from the local flight school, or as a free ride courtesy of local pilots? Even nine trips around the pattern would run up a nice fuel bill. It would be worth the investment, to be sure, but still many folks do not fully appreciate something they do not pay for.
    I must say, I was a little surprised that I had not heard earlier about the International Learn to Fly Day; I read at least four aviation magazines, get the ePilot newsletter, and hang out at the airport every week. How did I miss this? I would gladly have volunteered at a nearby airport to supply rides, and our club’s Skylane, had there been publicity about a local event. I will be looking out for news about this next year.