It’s Time to Change Our Image (part 2)

December 18th, 2013 by John Petersen

The perception disparity between aviators and the rest of our society is serious business. To start with, it’s serious for our business, because all of the things mentioned last month have largely eliminated the opportunity to easily engender the joy and wonder of aviation in young people – and right now, at least, we need people who like airplanes to pilot them. In its great wisdom, our government has built fences around even small airports which completely eliminates the ability of kids to hang around the places and learn about flying and airplanes. (I always thought there was a bit of irony in the commendable programs out there to give airplane rides to kids . . . who then are kept locked out of airports and away from airplanes by the government.)

And if you fight your way through the fence, you should bring a wad of bills. Ask the first person you meet on the street about what they think about flying small airplanes. A hundred bucks says that they respond: it’s hard and expensive to learn how to fly, it’s dangerous (you could kill yourself), and to own an airplane really costs a lot.
We in the airplane business really need to work on all of this. Our future is tied up in our being able to change this general perspective. In some kind of systematic, strategic way, the industry must come together around a set of common images, messages and communications that begin to offset the almost universally corrosive image we have with the public at large. Understand that this is not about slogans on lapel pins that are handed out at aviation conventions to the already converted.

This is about changing our image with the outside world.

This issue needs to be engaged at two levels:

• We need to work on the current image. We’re not talking about a magic act here – companies and industries do this all of the time. It’s about coming up with a new, very carefully considered concept that can be translated into easy-to-understand words and graphics that quickly and effectively offset the commonly perceived problems. Well placed, the new ideas begin to show up in movies, articles, on TV, in computer games . . . and, in time, people begin to see GA flying in quite a different way.

• We also need to change airplanes and flying. Our industry needs to come up with innovative solutions that give lie to the common perceptions. We should take away the noise (electric airplanes}, make flying easier (people friendly software on top of fly-by-wire systems), eliminate our pollution (new propulsion systems), find ways to make learning to fly affordable (computer games that teach the skills and count towards license requirements), and figure out how kids can play inside of the fence (find a homeland security leader who isn’t myopic). There are numerous ways that these things can be done and already some initiatives, like the Lindbergh Foundation’s Aviation Green Alliance, which provides a place where the industry’s environmental leaders can work on common problems, are beginning to sprout up.

We really should have been hard engaged in this repositioning when things were good and there was a lot of money around – but we didn’t. Now, we don’t have any alternative. I think the future of general aviation is at stake. We need to remake ourselves . . . soon.

John Petersen

John L. Petersen is a futurist, strategist, and pilot. He is a former aircraft carrier based naval aviator, aircraft builder, and author of three books. He founded The Arlington Institute, edits and publishes the free e-newsletter FUTUREdition, and is the chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation.

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

  • Richard Weil

    Very good. I find it infuriating the way TV “news” and drama shows, not t mention movies, reinforce stereotypes of pilots and aviation in general. Add to that a general lack of public knowledge on the topic–heck, on the basics of how most technology even works–and its no surprise we are marginalized. Some of this is due to less people doing hands-on repairs today, some to a lack of basic science/technology education, and there’s probably jealousy and fear involved too.

    I think we need an outreach to younger people–invite grade school classes, Scouts, whoever to GA airports and clubs. (Maybe the AOPA could create a package of how to do a tour.) Invite their parents, put up exhibits in public places– a big airport would be a perfect place to discuss the topic. Get volunteers; the ARRL (amateur radio society) has somewhat similar hobby problems. It has developed a network of local attorneys, emergency coordinators, etc. to keep an active, organized presence at least active in the background. Perfect? No, but at least proactive.

  • Rick Sheppe

    I actually think that our image in the movies is improving. Except helicopters, of course. Helicopters always explode. You’d never get me up in one of those things.

  • Grant Cossey

    We need to change more than image. I’m a qualified pilot, having been flying for over 20 years. For the past few years I have found myself flying less and less. Not because I want to, but because of the cost. You see, I’m not an owner. I’m a renter. And the cost of rental airplanes, where everyone wants to make a profit, is expensive. I can afford the gas and insurance, but the $100/hr air frame cost is just harsh.

    Every day I do fly, I see hundreds of privately owned airplanes just sitting there in rows. It’ obvious that many haven’t flown in months – some in years. Most are current, in annual and totally flyable. But most owners would rather have them sit in a hanger or on a tie-down rather than have someone else fly them. This is the attitude that needs to change. It’s well known that a regularly flown and serviced airplane fairs much better than one that sits.

    This should be a major focus. Find airplanes that can be flown and organize a syndicate of qualified, rated, insured and trustworthy pilots. I can find 50-100 pilots for a syndicate in Orange County, CA (KSNA, KAJO, KFUL – there are plenty of airports with empty airplanes) in less than a week.

    Know me, like me and trust me to fly your airplane. It’s a win-win situation. And there are thousands of pilots like me out there. Suddenly aviation isn’t “expensive” any more.

    • Mark

      Grant, I wholeheartedly agree. I remember walking the line at SMO a few years back and admiring dozens of nice Cirrus planes just begging to be flown. Sign me up!

  • Brooks

    Grant, I agree it would be nice to have more planes available. I own a plane, and I let my friends fly it. But the insurance cost, and fear of lawsuits, limit my plane to just my friends. Lawyers go after the deepest pocket. My friends are less wealthy than me, so guess who’s at risk if they crash…. I’d much rather have competent pilots keeping my plane in the air more frequently than I manage. But until I have a circuit breaker protecting me from lawsuits, I’ll not be able to participate in the expanded-access process you, and I, would like to see.

  • michael w. mckosky

    “We should take away the noise (electric airplanes}, make flying easier (people friendly software on top of fly-by-wire systems)”
    Teach the kids to fly, to be “good sticks”, not a bunch of robots….I just got through reading some of the NTSB reports, etc, especially about the Asian pilots, in particular the Korean pilots. We want competent pilots who can fly the things, not just manage the cockpit.
    (I really wanted to say don’t make the kids into a bunch of pussies, but that would be to harsh, eh?)

  • Andy

    This is what I hear, time and time again…

    Most of the general public gets their information about general aviation from would-be enthusiasts, or once-were enthusiasts. When these enthusiasts start to see the big picture of the cost of everything in general aviation, they get a vision of how difficult it’s going to be to pursue this hobby and some give up. Friends ask why and those enthusiasts then talk about why they gave up. General aviation is then placed in an “elitist hobby” category by the people they talk to. And they talk to 10 people and they talk to 10 people …

    When we can get costs down, we will grow again. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening. Products produced for general aviation have a shrinking audience, therefore the manufactures need to ask more for them to cover their development and insurance costs so they can start making money. Lawsuits are still being brought over things that should get sent away by the courts not put in front of a jury for the chance to win the lottery.

    It’s an aircraft with a difficult flat-spin-recovery design, and we’re in the flat-spin. When we can get lawsuits under control, insurance goes down and everything in general aviation will cost less.

  • Dan Winkelman

    I concur with the general theme… but take exception to a couple of points.

    1) Electric aviation, for the next several decades, will not be a serious solution for traveling. VFR puttering around the local countryside, sure… but the tech is not and won’t be viable for XC use for quite some time. Physics is physics. Yes, we can work on efficiency and emissions of gasoline-powered airplanes. We can improve noise characteristics with better propeller designs and specialized exhaust systems. Emissions and noise in hydrocarbon-powered airplanes should be a point of focus in the immediate future.

    2) Electronics are not a panacea. The news and NTSB reports are rife with examples of technology dependence & distraction contributing to wrecks. I’m an aero engineer, and one of the Human Factors guys I work with came back from a conference just a little while ago. One of the topics? The number of wrecks in the NTSB database and self-reported errors that resulted from the pilot focusing on the EFB (iPad or Android tablet, usually). I’ve done my training in a Cub, and with great experience in *flying* as a result. When there are no flashy screens to distract you, one learns how to **fly the airplane**. It has been argued by people far more experienced than I (including leadership of AOPA) that this kind of fundamental training & experience might have prevented the Asiana crash.

    Aside from those two areas, yes, we need to get costs down and share the joy of flying with as many people as possible. I try to do my part whenever possible… taking friends and family up with me, sharing stories, pulling non-pilots into flight conversations. Yes, it’s expensive. But on an engineer’s salary, I can afford to buy a share in an older airplane, and spend a few hours a month airborne. I hope as I get deeper into the aviation lifestyle, I’ll be able to find more ways of maximizing my dollars. The cost of certified stuff has ballooned to ridiculous levels (Cirrus SR22 GTS… as tested in AOPA Pilot, $829,000?!? For a fixed-gear piston single?!?). As a consequence, experimental is looking good to me. Plus we need to get the third-class medical exemption done. Having battled cancer in the past, it is now prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to pursue a Special Issuance medical (the FAA wants a number of tests that are not medically necessary, so insurance won’t cover them… CT scans aren’t cheap). So, I am stuck in the Light Sport world. This is a lot less worth my time and money, as the airplanes are very limited in capability. Either the allowable weights need to go up (quite a bit), or the third-class exemption needs to become reality so I can fly a 172 with my wife and bags for the weekend.

    To summarize: Cost and accessibility. These are the two biggies.

  • Bill Elder

    “The average man CANNOT afford to fly.” Told to us in class at Parks College, 1990 by Mr. McKlean. I have found that statement to be true to this day. (unfortunately).


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