The Importance of Hitchhikers and Fence Lice

October 9th, 2013 by Martin Rottler

A few weeks ago I found myself at the airport on a beautiful Sunday afternoon after helping out at a practice for OSU’s NIFA competition Flight Team. It was one of those days where everything lined up near-perfectly (save for some annoying haze) that it seemed like the universe itself was begging me to fly. All I needed was an excuse, and that justification came from the fact that it had been two weeks since I had last flown, and that was just too close to the 90 day currency limit on our school’s insurance. With that reasoning in mind, I knew it was time to cheat gravity in our school’s Cirrus SR20.

As I finished the paperwork and waited for the plane to be pulled from the hangar, I noticed two students loitering in the school after Flight Team practice. While I cannot confirm nor deny that they loitered closer to the dispatch desk when they heard I was flying, it seemed like a waste  to let seats go empty for what was to be a flight for the sake of fun and currency. Magically, headsets appeared, and release forms were signed.

The flight itself was remarkably uneventful…a few landings at a satellite airport and a landing back at KOSU. The students had the opportunity to see their professor in action (and whiff a landing) and experience the side-stick controls of the SR20. Both are certified pilots who showed the child-like wonder of flight in a new type of airplane. This child-like wonder that is far-too-often lost on harried veterans of the aviation field.

I’ve spent the last several weekends out at the airport for Flight Team practices, where I see that same child-like wonder displayed on the faces of actual children who literally hang onto the airport fence watching our flight operations. Parents bring them to the airport to watch anything and everything from a Cessna 152 to Gulfstream V taxi by.

For many of us in the industry, this is how we got our introduction to the field–attaching ourselves like lice to the goings-on of the airport at the fence, or getting to hop along on a ride in a new airplane once we move to the other side of the fence. For many people I see at airports around the country, these young (and old, as the Fence Lice phenomena knows no age limits) are considered a mild annoyance or are ignored outright. We walk by, as vaunted insiders to the world behind the fence, not stopping to say “hi,” to point out an airplane taxiing by, or to engage those on the “wrong” side of the fence in our super-awesome aviation experience.

I make it a goal when walking from our flight school at KOSU to the FBO along a fence line to, at the very least, say hello and make sure to direct our airport visitors to a dedicated observation tower with a better view of the airport and information about the airport, including coloring books. If I have time, I’ll even offer to bring young visitors and their parents to the other side of the fence for a brief tour of a flight training aircraft.

How many of those kids, if given the chance at an impromptu tour, would return home that day ready to return in 10, 15, or 20 years to join those of us on the “right” side of the fence? It is our responsibility, as current aviators, to pass along the passion for flight to the younger generation. As I’ve written about before, we pilots are, on average, getting significantly older. We should make it our goal to engage these fence-lice and hitchhikers every time we see them at the airport. It represents a long-term investment in our community and our industry.

 

Martin Rottler

Martin Rottler is a lecturer at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies, in Columbus, Ohio and a Partner at First Segment. He is a commercial pilot and certificated flight instructor and has worked in general aviation, the airline industry, and international aviation. An avowed "avgeek" from a very early age, Martin maintains academic and personal interests in aviation education, outreach, flight training, and international aviation. He can be found via Twitter at @martinrottler. The views presented on this blog are Martin's and do not represent those of The Ohio State University, the OSU Center for Aviation Studies, or any other organization.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

    A great reminder about our obligation toward (and wonderful feeling we can get from) those who look skyward from the airfield edges! My home airport, KSNA, is a very busy Class C field which doesn’t lend itself to visitors with any sense of welcome. It’s all about fences, warning signs, barbed wire, police patrols, and high security. But even here, you can find the “fence lice” (never heard that term before!) if you look closely.

  • John Sheehan

    “Fence Lice” is the most pejorative term I have ever heard since I began my flying dreamer, fence watching, fence hanging, airport lounging, wanta-be pilot, airport kid career more than 60 years ago. If Rottler refers to his university students in similar degrading terms he’s soon destined to be an ex-lecturer. Remember, we’re trying to get young people into aviation; this can’t be done by referring to prospects in demeaning terms.

    • Peter Row

      I agree that “Fence Lice” is an enormously pejorative term – and quite frankly one I had never heard before. It bothers me to think that there are pilots who see outside admirers of aviation as parasites (lice).

      However, my read on the article was an indictment of US – the PILOTS – for thinking that way. It is fairly clear from the article (since he invited the “parasites” along for the ride) that Mr. Rottler does not view them as parasitic. The whole point of his article is to encourage us to change our behavior regarding this group. He agrees completely with you that the future of aviation lies along the fence.

      Writing can be a difficult communication medium, because there is no feedback from your audience regarding how they are understanding and accepting your message. It’s a shame that Mr. Rottler’s literary device did not work for you as it did for me. However, I don’t think anyone can indict Mr. Rottler on his behavior or attitude towards our admirers.

      I think the worst thing that can be said is that, in this instance, Mr. Rottler’s passion for flight and his piloting skills may have exceeded his literary talents. Let’s judge him on the former, rather than the latter.

    • Tim

      It’s ok to refer to them as “fence lice” since they go to Ohio State. They made the decision to go there so they know what they signed up for.

      • Mike Hawk

        Go suck a fat one Tim.

  • Rob Staib

    I fly a Citation Bravo for a living. Being a Citation we visit a lot of small airports where there are children and adults watching at the fence. I have seen the numbers of these people slowly get smaller. Everytime I see people watching especially kids I ask them if they would like to look inside. Without them aviation will keep getting smaller. I have noticed around the country (more in some areas) the aviation in not all to friendly like it was back 15-20 years ago. We need to change this for our future and theirs.

  • Roger

    I got my first introduction to aviation when a pilot saw me hanging around at an airport and asked if I’d like to sit in his plane. He explained what all if the knobs, dials and displays were and how they worked. He let me move the stick and the pedals and see what happened to the elevator, ailerons and rudder. He showed me how to do a pre-flight and why it was important. He showed me the checklists that he followed for takeoff and landing. 30-minutes later, I watched him switch on, taxi and takeoff in his fantastic exotic machine (it was a C150). I still remember that day as the best flying day ever, and I didn’t even leave the ground.

  • Dale Alexander

    I am an automotive instructor at our local high school. I mention flying as often as I can for their consideration as a hobby or vocation. I would love to take these students up if not for the “Full Employment Act for Lawyers” in California. I shudder to think about my liability regarding these students, therefore, no one goes with me from my classes. Shakespeare was right.

  • Ken Morrison

    I agree fence lice is a crappy way to refer to those who want to get through the fence.
    I’ve flown for 45 years and always give a tour to those on the outside.
    Even as a long time pilot I’m put off by the chain link fences and security gates and unfriendly attitude of those on the inside when I stop at an airport while driving.

  • Keith Wood

    We have an open-gate policy at the airport where I fly (actually, it’s a HALF-a-gate policy), and as the years have gone by, housing has come right up to the airport fence. We frequently get joggers, kids on bikes, dog-walkers, dirt bikers, etc coming around.

    Whenever practical, when someone comes to look at the planes, we open one up and let them take the cockpit tour, and I have a basic patter that I use (and anyone can feel free to borrow):

    “Most people think that flying is expensive, and it CAN be, but it doesn’t HAVE to be. I always feel sorry when I fly over the lake, looking at those people with their speedboats. What’s a boat on a trailer cost, $25,000? $30,000? And where does it spend all of its time? Yep, ON the trailer, in the driveway — or maybe they even pay to store it somewhere — because they don’t have the time to use it. Meanwhile, they’re making the payments, keeping the boat and trailer registered, etc.

    “Finally, they get a day with nothing else to do, so they can load up the ice chest, spend 20 minutes making sandwiches, hook up the trailer, fix the bad taillight (it’s a law of physics that there will be a bad taillight!), then drag it all the way from town to the lake.

    “Once they get to the lake, they wait behind all of the others who got to the boat ramp ahead of them. Eventually it’s their turn to put the boat in the water, fight to get the engine started, then over to the dock. They move all of the stuff from the car to the boat, go park the car, and NOW they get to go play . . .after what, two hours of messing around with it?

    “So, now what? They go around in circles for a couple of hours, before loading everything up and going home. Big thrill!

    “When I see those folks, I’m GOING SOMEWHERE. I might just be flying in circles myself, I might be on the way a couple of hundred miles from here, but I DECIDED where I’m going to go, I’m not trapped in a lake that I can fly across in moments.

    “And I do this in an airplane that cost less than HALF of what they paid for that boat sitting in their driveway!

    “It’s fun to fly, it’s easy, pretty much anyone can learn to do it — you just have to CHOOSE to do so. You can spend more money on golf, dirt bikes, boats or whatever. I choose to spend my money on flying.”

  • Brian Lynch

    I was recently visiting my mother-in-law in MA when the alternator on our 172 departed this world. A local FBO quickly replaced it but recommended that I fly the aircraft prior to our scheduled return flight to Tennessee the following day. Taking his advice, I flew a couple of patterns and deemed the repair OK. Having tied down the plane, I was leaving the ramp when I noticed a young boy with his Dad watching planes, both those parked on the ramp and a couple that were in the pattern. They were waiting for his sister who was playing a soccer game on a field adjacent to the airport. I walked by, said hi, and continued to my car. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity so I turned around, walked back, and asked the boy, while looking at the Dad, “Would you like to go for a flight?” We walked back out to the plane and, while I was untying the plane, the Dad helped his son get in the plane. I was about to get in when I noticed that his Dad had strapped him in to the back seat. I protested “You can’t fly from the back seat!” I cranked, taxied out, and flew a pattern, attempting to explain some basics as we went. He just sat there, wide-eyed. When we landed his Dad met us, shook my hand, and thanked me. As I was walking back out to my car his Mom, who was standing by her car about 150 feet away, yelled “Thank you”. It doesn’t take much, whether flying or in any other aspect of our lives, to go a little out of our way to make someone else’s day memorable.

  • Eugene letter

    Fences are like the Berlin Wall. Non federal airports without fences are the only places today that our youth can get a real
    close interaction with pilots and their airplanes . Fortunately for myself there were no fences in post ww2 days and had the
    opportunity to fly with the fire patrol in a J3 cub and get to log free time . Getting to the airport was an easy five mile ride
    on my bicycle . The biggest thrill was exchanging time spent sweeping the hangar or buffing for flight time which enabled
    me to solo before learning to drive.
    With opportunities like this it can still happen at small grass fields scattered all over the USA most within a short hike or drive
    to spend a Sunday afternoon enjoying and learning along with other youngsters that share the same interests.

  • Cary Alburn

    Actually, I liked the term “fence lice”–it caught my attention, pejorative though it may be, and isn’t that the purpose of a headline? In context, it wasn’t used to demean, only to explain.

    Critiquing language aside, being friendly and welcoming to non-aviation types can’t hurt our chosen avocation. Whether they’re fence hangers-on, or drive-bys, or looky-loos, or ramp wanderers, or whatever you want to call them, they’re an important source of future aviators.

    It is a shame that our airports look more like prison farms now, and to that degree, the terrorists have already won. But there are still opportunities to bring people inside the fences and gates, and whenever we have that chance, we should take it. There is nothing quite like the wonderment of a 5 year old who spots his own house, or the pool that his daddy takes him to swim in, from 1500′ in the air. The joy of the little girl who is told, “you can fly it” immediately transfers to the pilot who said it, as soon as she touches the control yoke.

    As for your automotive students, Dale, try whetting their appetites with this, which surely you’ve seen before: A mile of highway will take you a mile, a mile of runway will take you anywhere.

    Cary

  • http://www.wolf-aviation.org Rol Murrow

    I think it is wonderful that there are pilots who like to share their flying experience with others – whether with new pilots, our youth, or others – including airport neighbors!

    I learned to fly at Santa Monica Airport, but my first experience of that airport was when I was about five years old when my uncle visited, arriving in a military club Navion – complete with his leather flying helmet! He lifted me on the wing and who knows if that was the spark that got me into the flying club at SMO so many years later.

    Shortly after learning to fly I became immersed in the first big battle for SMO, when the airport almost closed in 1982. Eviction notices had been sent to all tiedown and hangar tenants, the FBO’s, and the FAA for its control tower!

    Now we face more battles, at SMO and elsewhere. I still fly from my home in Northern New Mexico to SMO for business periodically, and I like to tie down right in front of the observation deck of the admin building. I set up my laptop in the pilots lounge and conduct business from there. Often parents bring their children to watch the planes, so I never miss an opportunity to go out on the deck and invite them to come over and see my plane, and for the kids to sit in the seats and learn a bit about GA. Many of the parents are airport neighbors or citizens of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles.

    It seems amazing to me that I never see anyone else doing this too. It is a great opportunity to tell the truth about GA and dispel the fabrications and distortions sent out by a few anti-airport folks. Their persistent campaign has led to airport commissioners and city council members who have vowed to close this vital facility!

    Another great way to introduce new folks or aspiring pilots to aviation is to help them volunteer for one of the dozens of volunteer pilot organizations who fly to help others – transporting patients, flying for the environment, relocating animals, etc.

    Many of the groups will hook up the pilots with “right seat” helpers who can assist with the patients’ forms, talk with them during the flight, and even assist the pilot with various tasks. One can enjoy fantastic flight experiences with a variety of pilots in various aircraft – and all for free! And help others at the same time! This is a great idea for pilots who have lost their medicals, too.

    Interested folks can contact the groups directly to see if they arrange this, or attend pilot meetings of one or more groups to work it out directly with their volunteer pilots.

    To contact the groups see the complete list at http://www.aircareall.org

    Thanks so much for pointing out how important it is to provide that spark and then nourish it into an appreciation of – and maybe a love for – general aviation!

  • Greg W

    Indeed we should all encourage those who dream of flight. Those at the fence line should be welcomed to see our aircraft up close,or in fact offered a flight. Do not wait for an official program from an alphabet group to give a ride to anyone you can, it does not cost much for one more lap around the pattern. Many of those that I have flown ask with trepidation about the performance of my aircraft. I respond that it is a time machine and will transport them to 1946 as fast as they can climb in, and everyone has been thrilled with my ’46 Aeronca Champ.

  • Eddie King

    I was not going to reply but after reading the posts an haveing experanced most of the experances posted I decied to add another exprrances

    I also was a young Airport bum back in the late 30′s no fences and if you didn’t touch any airplanes nobody bothered you. But some of the pilots were glad to let you sit in the cockpit and explane the controls to you and I also got a few rides. But today things are different. you would get run off most airports. it’s sad. some pilots are in the young Eagle program, But i have heard some pilots say I don’t want the liability. And that also is sad. Today at 83 I am scraping afew bucks here and there to take Sport flying lessons. It’s slow but I’ll make it.

    • Cary Alburn

      Right on, Eddie! You give all of us oldsters hope! I’ll turn 70 next month, and as long as my doc and the FAA agree that I can still fly, I will.

      Cary

    • Mike Hawk

      It’d be faster if you knew proper English grammar.

  • John Bys

    Its unfortunate that such a term is used, but its great to see that everyone agrees. Maybe we need a new term, should we call them Fence Candidates, after all they are there with a hope, a shot , a wish to be in the air, to experience flight, and perhaps, with luck…today might be that day.

    The first time I took my daughter’s friend, we had to switch off the back seats once we got in flight. They were so excited, pretendng to be the pilot and co-pilot, then flight crew and so on. They still get a kick out of being in the air, and my daughter’s friends still queue up to be next in flight wtih Mr. Bys.

    Who knows, perhaps one day on one of the commercial flights I board every week, I will see one of those Fence Candidates in the front of the plane taking me to my next meeting….

  • http://grassairstrips.com G Grant

    Martin,
    I can’t think I have ever heard the term fence-lice. The article did bring back memories though. It was 23 years ago that I was a teenager with my truck parked along the fence line at KRYN in Tucson. The airport was a fraction of the size it is today and my lifelong passion was firmly set in motion when I was offered a ride in a Tri-Pacer. I will never forget that first flight so generously provided by someone that loved aviation and I honor the generosity by passing it along to others.

  • Mike Hawk

    Someone better investigate this pedophile. I can hear it now, “I have candy in the plane. I’ll touch your throttle if you pull my mixture.”

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