We in the aviation family spend a great deal of time discussing how to bring young people into flying, so they can grow up, get their tickets, and eventually become the aviation consumers and advocates of tomorrow. As our senior pilot population goes west, it is the responsibility of what society has dubbed the “Millennial” generation (roughly 13 to 30 years old today) to step up and lead GA into the next few decades.
While it is far too easy to take the pessimistic, “cup half empty” road to ruin, after interviewing three young pilots, I have seen the future of GA, and it looks quite good. All it takes to know this is to spend a few minutes with some brilliant teenage aviators on their way up to realize we might just be all right.
I felt privileged to witness this unbridled enthusiasm that the next generation of fresh pilots possesses last summer at Oshkosh as I enjoyed a ridiculously fine burger with two of the Twitter #Avgeek community’s most active participants, Neil Reagan, aka @Ntr_09, and Thomson Meeks, aka @THM_18. In this article, I will introduce you to them, along with another of their brethren, Trevor Wusterbarth, known on Twitter as @Wustypilot16.
Meeks and his father, along with Reagan, picked me up at the Appleton Airport as I flew in for #OSH13, and we accepted vectors direct to Oshkosh’s famed Ardy and Ed’s Drive-in for burgers. The drive-in’s patio sits directly under the approach end of KOSH’s runway 27, and as we sat there enjoying crazy-good food and “Black Cow” floats, I was able to get inside the head of these young aviators, and I liked what I saw.
Remember that feeling you had when you first soloed…when the CFI cut the tail off your t-shirt? Remember the way you fell in love with flying, and with wide-eyed optimism, propelled yourself onward and upward at warp speed, eager to see what is behind the next cloud? Yes, that was Reagan and Meeks on this day. Their cups are 15/16ths full, and the noise of pessimism that we hear too much of out at the airport has not yet entered their lives. To them, the sky is still the limit. And had Wusterbarth been there at the table too, he probably would’ve shown an equal amount of the abundant joy for all the things we love about flying.
This is not to say these young men are naive, they most certainly are not. They know what is going on in the aviation world, and have just chosen to repel the urge to drag pessimism into their unbridled desire to complete a life of flying. These are the decision makers of tomorrow, and as current and future pilots who have achieved their goals in an environment riddled with both chutes and ladders, they are perfectly positioned to be proactive in finding solutions to the problems plaguing the GA world.
The first of the three young aviators I introduce is Meeks, who at age 14 is not yet a pilot, but has all the enthusiasm of anyone with a private pilot’s license. He’s flown in a 1945 Piper J3 on floats at the Airventure Seaplane base during OSH12, and numerous C172s at his flight school, and has firm plans to earn his ticket.
When he earns that ticket - and spend five seconds with him and you know he will – Meeks plans “to make this world a better place” by donating time to the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF). In three years, he expects to be flying left seat in a Cirrus SR22, and in 10 years, he hopes to have a vintage Cessna 152 in his hangar. He’s very active on social media, especially in the X-Plane sim community, where he’s been “flying” since he was six-years-old.
Reagan is a bright, motivated and completely pleasant 17-year-old student pilot from Jamestown, TN who plans on becoming a corporate pilot after earning his ratings all the way to ATP. He currently has about 30 hours flight time, mostly in various Piper Cherokees and Cessnas, and clearly remembers his 100th landing. “It was the last landing on a three-hour solo cross country, and it really made me have that ‘hey I’m actually a pilot’ moment which felt great!”
This student pilot is wise when it comes to knowing that his young age could be used to motivate others. “I think one of the best things a young pilot can do is spread the passion for aviation to the upcoming generations,” he said. “Helping to keep GA alive and well by volunteering at fly-ins and conventions doesn’t even require a license to fly. In my mind, the largest impediments to my demographic getting interested in flying is people saying flying is for the rich and for young people to think they don’t have the time to take lessons. The acronym groups need to prove to young people that they CAN do it, and they do that by using people like me as examples.”
In three years, Reagan will be on his way to the left seat of a corporate jet, but there will be “some sort of Piper Cherokee” in his hangar. But in 10 years, you’ll find a “larger, faster Cherokee” in his hangar, and he’s “especially attracted” to the PA-28-235 for its price to performance ratio. Nice choice. I own a 1964 Cherokee 235, and can confirm his opinion of that airframe is right on.
And the last young student pilot you will meet today is Wusterbarth, a 17-year-old from Fond du Lac, WI who has been going up the road to Oshkosh since he was a toddler. He plans on starting flight training during Christmas Break, and will earn all ratings including PPL, instrument, commercial ASEL and AMEL, CFI, CFII, MEI, and ATPL on his way to becoming an airline pilot. Some of that training will happen at Minnesota State University – Mankato where he will major in Professional Flight with double-minors in Spanish and Business Administration.
His training received a major boost recently when EAA awarded him the $7,500 Gathering of Eagles Flight Training Scholarship thanks to the Young Eagles Program. “Trevor is a fantastic young man,” said Bret Steffen, EAA Director of Education, “and we are excited that another Young Eagle has been able to qualify and win a flight training award from EAA and the Young Eagles program. Trevor is well on his way to earning his wings after passing his FAA written exam and fulfilling the ground school component.”
In three years, you’ll find Wusterbarth flying left seat in a Piper Seminole or Warrior, but a decade from now, there will be a V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza in his hangar.
Sitting there in Oshkosh on a warm summer evening watching really low airplanes in close trail arriving at the world’s biggest airplane party and family reunion with these young aviators…I saw myself. It was like looking in the mirror. But the big equalizer that made this particular meal an aviation memory I will cherish always was that it was not a 57-year-old pilot chowing down with two teenagers. It was three guys sharing a common love for airplanes, savoring the opportunity to enjoy the camaraderie of aviators that at times seems truly magical.
When you are trying to find some hope to help you feel like the future of GA is going to be bright, go spend a few hours with a young pilot or flight student who has not yet even made the ripe age of 21. You will see that if we can just recruit this demographic to step inside our world, they will bring with them the enthusiasm, the passion and the tenacity to fill the left seats of the GA fleet for many decades.