Much has been written about the decline in the pilot population in the United States. Over the last 20 years, both AOPA and EAA have launched major initiatives to reverse the decline, yet the population continues to trend downward. Perhaps it’s time for pilots to start their own grass root effort to reverse the trend, rather than wait for industry organizations to solve the problem.
Lest you think the situation is hopeless, consider, that some other countries have reversed the decline in their pilot populations. According to this week’s IMC Radio “Plane Talk” podcast, former AOPA VP Adam Smith said, “When I mentioned that the pilot population in my home country in Britain is growing again, I think it’s because eventually it got through the horrible crisis of the decline and the rising costs, etc. And people got positive and optimistic again and this fresh air of enthusiasm blew through aviation and so for me that’s what I would look to happen in America.”
Perhaps we need a grass roots approach in which every pilot commit to replacing him or herself in the pilot population by actively recruiting a friend, coworker, or acquaintance to become a pilot. For better or worse, from the outside looking in, aviation looks like a club. And to get people to consider joining a club, YOU need to invite them in.
Here are positive steps you can take right now:
- Go through your contacts list
- Identify people you think would enjoy being a pilot
- Call them on the phone today, not a month from now, and ask them if they’d like to go flying with you.
- Before the flight, find a flight instructor with time in his or her schedule to start giving your friend flying lessons within a week after your flight. That’s important as increased airline hiring has led to a CFI shortage in some areas.
- Plan your flight carefully. Select a place to fly with your friend that’s a fun destination, perhaps with an airport museum or a restaurant on the field. Choose a time when turbulence will be minimal, such as earlier in the day.
- After your flight, get them to meet with a flight instructor within a few days while they’re still pumped up from your flight together.
To get the best return on your efforts, select someone who not only has an interest in flying, but who also has the means to afford flying lessons. Flying a lot of teenagers may pay off a few decades from now, but what we need are pilots who have the time and means to take flight training NOW. In my experience, that’s often people between the ages of 30 and 50 years old, unless they’re considering aviation as a career, in which case they may be much younger.
For most people interested in learning to fly as an avocation, flight training is a lower priority than buying a car, building a career, forming a family, and buying a house. So they may not have the time or the means to learn to fly until they are at least 30 to 35 years old. People in their 60s and older can still train for a pilot certificate, so definitely consider recruiting them too. But you may want to counsel them that it could take them more total hours to complete their training than a younger person may require. Yes, there are younger and older people who get a pilot certificate, but the sweet spot appears to be people who have already experienced some success in their careers and are ready for new challenges.
Not only will our industry benefit from your actions, but you’ll benefit too. Flying with someone is always more fun than flying alone. And helping others achieve their goals can be very satisfying. Best of all, six months or a year from now, you may have a newly licensed pilot friend to go on trips with and who might be a potential airplane partner. The future of GA is up to all of us. So let’s get cracking today on finding the pilots of tomorrow!