The Future of General Aviation is You, so Get Cracking!

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!


  1. Good idea, and I have’s a hard sell for many people, who with family and other commitments have a hard time carving out the time, and sometimes the money..but as or late…

    Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Fred Tilton, who at his age sits squarely in the middle of the most likely age range to die at the controls, is now telling every pilot, and prospective pilot that starting with BMI of 40, he wants special sleep studies done with them. Sleep studies cost many thousands of $$$.

    And in a little bit, he wants BMI’s over 30 tested..and then…

    But not one incident related to sleep apnea…at least that I’m aware of. He may be confused with narcolepsy..I dunno.
    Sleep issues = fatigue. Out late at the game the night before = fatigue.

    GA is self assessing readiness for flight, just fine, Dr. Tilton.

    But that’s going to chase tens of thousands of pilots out of the air the day he gets away with it.

    It may be too late to talk about saving GA, if Dr. Tilton is intent on gutting it. He has no statistical model to support his actions that doing such would make GA safer.

  2. This is a good idea however, in today’s America it will be extremely hard to find people who want to spen something around $40,000 to land a job that only pays $30,000 a year. I was training to be a pilot but had to put it off because it is just too expensive. Now I am just going to school and maybe one day will be able to afford pilot training again.

    • Flying does not have to be about an aviation career. I’ve been flying for more then 30 years because I love to fly. We raised a large family and had be be creative with partnerships, flying clubs and finally building my own. There are ways to make flying affordable.

      • Max Trescott

        December 3, 2013 at 7:27 pm

        Bingo. Same story here. Aviation wasn’t my career for the 25 years I worked at HP. I averaged about 30 hours of flying a year for most of those years. And it was great fun! And it didn’t break the bank. Of course I prioritized it over other things that I might have spent money on. Still do!

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 6:48 pm

      Jim, no question, for people considering a professional pilot career, the entry level pay for that first job is often quite low. But if they stick with it, the pay usually rises. I fly with lots of people who started flying years before, but for various reasons were unable to complete a pilot certificate then. Just keep it your sights as a goal and you will make it happen someday. You’ll have great fun, even if you don’t end up in aviation as a career.

  3. Very well written, Max. You mention it is important to “select a place to fly with your friend that’s a fun destination, perhaps with an airport museum or a restaurant on the field.” The following link has a list of “friendly airports” with airport museums and restaurants to get your readers started in what we/AOPA considers the Central Southwest Region (NM, TX, LA, OK, AR, KS, MO, NE and IA):

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 6:50 pm

      Yasmina, Thanks for posting this! I agree, going to a fun place makes it even more likely that you’ll get a friend or acquaintance hooked on flying. BTW, I was happy to see that my favorite fuel stop, Valentine, NE is on your list!

  4. Jeff makes an interesting point. However, I doubt the Dr. Tilton is doing this to gut GA. I think he sees a problem — sleep apnea — which disqualifies anyone from holding a medical and wants to identify those people.

    How that identification all shakes out and who it affects specifically I’ll bet is not even on his radar.

    • Though Dr. Tilton’s intentions are “good”, implementing these regulations will do exactly that – “gut General Aviation”.

      Those of us who are advancing in years, or fat, or poor (or all of the above) are switching to the “Light Sport” world; where an ordinary driver license will suffice as a “medical” (although the logic of this escapes me). It takes but a swipe of the regulatory pencil to nix the driver license requirement, and implement the same medical requirements for ALL pilots.

      Now turn that pencil around, erase FAR part 103, and we will then be 100% safe from anything falling out of the sky due to medical issues.

      • “100% safe from anything falling out of the sky due to medical issues”

        Not a chance! The FAA medical of ANY class does not guarantee anything.

  5. Have you checked the AOPA facebook page? Almost without exception, the comments are about the expense of flying. As an aviation fanatic, i would love nothing more than to get a pilots license and fly myself around. I have about 10 hours at the controls of a C172 thanks to a wealthy CFI friend I had years ago. I loved it, and he said I was a natural. But since I work an average blue collar job for a living, and am far from being wealthy, this is likely the only flight time I will ever get.

    First is the cost of getting a license and enough ratings to be useful. OK, I’ve been told there is student financial aid for that. Assuming I want to take on years of monthly payments added to my other monthly payments, I can get a license. That seems to be the easiest part. Once I get my license, what am I going to do with it? I can’t afford to buy a plane, even an old decrepit one. I can’t afford to rent a plane. I cant afford to fuel the plane. So I’d have to put up with the expense and trouble of maintaining a license I can’t afford to use. Not worth it.

    I can go to college more cheaply than I can get a pilot license. I can buy, drive and maintain a very nice car or several very nice cars more cheaply than I can buy and use an airplane. I can also rent cars more cheaply than an airplane. I can fly on an airline anywhere in the world far more cheaply than I can fly there myself.

    So really the only people who are legitimate candidates for flight school are those people who are wealthy and unconcerned with the expense. As soon as I win the lottery, I’ll sign up for flight school.

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:02 pm

      Steve, I agree that money is often a barrier, but it doesn’t have to be. I surveyed a few hundred people who’d taken lessons at a local flight school to try to identify the differences between those who dropped out and those who completed their flight training. “Money” and “Time” were listed as the #1 and #2 biggest issues for both people who dropped out and for those who completed training. Statistically, you couldn’t predict who would complete training by looking at those issues, because both groups were highly likely to cite both issues as obstacle to their flight training. The difference between the groups was that some of the people with these issues found a way to get around them and still get a pilot certificate. No question, learning to fly is not inexpensive. But creativity and motivation are powerful forces for overcoming obstacles!

  6. I hear you, S Engelman. I would say beyond the wealthy, there are a few others that sacrifice greatly to get in the air, even jettisoning “normal” living quarters, etc. just to scrape up enough to fly. There just isn’t anything that compares with flying.

    But, try visiting/joining an EAA chapter and getting to know some local folks who do fly. There are cheaper ways to go about it but you will not find these opportunities without the contacts. Flying clubs or joint ownerships are often the cheapest way to fly and custom built aircraft are cheaper than factory built planes. Often one of the co-owners may be a CFI and work a deal with you, a little bit here and a little bit there. Some these guys will do it for the love of it if you are in the right place at the right time. My dad learned to fly 15 mins at a time by pumping gas and doing errands. Don’t give up.

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      A Richie, that’s the spirit! Learning to fly is worth it and often involves sacrifices. But what in life that’s really worthwhile doesn’t?

  7. Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but this article rang a faint bell, AOPA, and sure enough, you wrote with much enthusiasm about how you hired the very same, now former, VP, Adam Smith, to “lead AOPA Center to Advance the Pilot Community” a year or so ago.

    Disingenuous much, AOPA? aka, shutting the stable door when the horses have long gone…

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:07 pm

      Rob, I’m not an AOPA employee and I didn’t write about Adam and CAPCom a year ago. My point in this article was that we cannot sit back and expect AOPA, EAA and others to solve this for us. Pilots like us need to take action to find potential new pilots and get them in the air.

  8. From personal experience, I have found General Aviation to be unsustainable for me.

    I started flying back in 1969 when I was a “white hat” in the Navy, earning a svelte $94 every two weeks because it was affordable. I bought my first airplane (an Aeronca Champ) when I re-enlisted (with a $1,400 bonus for six years) because it was affordable. After my checkride, I continued my training using the Vietnam Era GI Bill because it was affordable. Later, in my Naval career, I purchased a Cessna 120 and flew it for 23 years, because I could afford it.

    In 2005, I sold the 120 and relocated to another State. A year later, I bought a Cessna 150A because I could afford it.

    I had the airplane for four years and flew it very little because I couldn’t afford to KEEP IT. Annual Inspection costs went through the roof. The last Annual on the 120 in 2005 was $600. The first Annual on the 150 was (GASP) $9,200. The second Annual (with ZERO gripes to correct) was (Double-GASP) $2,100 – and this from the same people who corrected “everything” at the previous Annual. The third (and final) Annual was done by another shop with only one airworthiness requirement, and a couple of other “small” items to work off. The bill on that one – $4,900 (which was later whittled down to a little over Four Grand).

    Between these Annuals, I flew the airplane around 10 to 15 hours. At close to $6.00 a gallon for 100LL at six gallons an hour, the cost of fuel to fly the little 150 was a little bit more than what I used to rent the ENTIRE AIRPLANE at the local FBO for TWO HOURS – WET!!!

    If this wasn’t a “sign” for me to quit flying General Aviation, then I will never know.

  9. The old joke: “The FAA is not happy until you are not happy” seems more than just a joke. I am a student pilot but between shutdowns, surprise searches, cost of getting a license and the general feeling that the FAA doesn’t like and doesn’t want private pilots makes it difficult to justify the sacrifice it takes to get my license. Just one mans opinion.

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:15 pm

      Steven, for most people, it’s always taken some amount of sacrifice to get a pilot certificate. The hurdles that need to be jumped over vary by individual and have changed over time. I don’t think the FAA views increasing the number of private pilots as their primary mission and I’m okay with that–they have other fish to fry. Which is why pilots need to help support student pilots in completing their certificates. Are you finding the support you need from your flight instructor and other local pilots?

  10. I started to fly gliders at The age Of 17. But when I started my family, The money and The time was not there. My priorieties was (could/should not) be flying. 23 years later i achieved my PPL. Now i have The time, but i struggle to afford it. I rent a Piper28-140 for $230 pr. Tacho hour. I Denmark, were i live and fly, GA flying is hastly declining because of repetedly increase om fuelprices and fees from civil aviation authoryties. Some has taken to ultralight.

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      Lars, that’s the spirit! The two student pilots I most recently trained have similar stories. One soloed 30 years ago before his wife asked him to stop. Imagine how thrilled he was at age 68 to hear her suggest he get back into it. He’s having a blast! The other is a mother who 22 years earlier didn’t make the cut to be trained as a professional pilot at Aer Lingus. She’s now a mother in her 40s and will be soloing very soon. Flying isn’t always the top priority and life gets in the way. But lots of people who nurture the dream find ways to make it happen sometime.

  11. Percival W Herman

    November 20, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    I started flying 30 years ago and flew professionally for twenty years. After a hiatus lasting several years, I bought an old airplane on a whim and got re-qualified. Aside from my surprise at the comparative unavailability of rental aircraft and instructors was the tremendous increase in cost. Unquestionably, cost has always been a core and restrictive with aviation but it certainly seems more prohibitive now than when I was earning my certificates back in the ’80’s. In fact, were I not already certificated, I would have let the matter drop and utilized my resources on a more accessible interest. I doubt that this reaction is atypical when confronted by the expense and other considerations earning a license and exercising its privileges involve.

    Also of note, however, is that there seems to be a general lack of interest in flying anymore. There is no novelty to it and, apparently, no perceived adventure or accomplishment in flying. I got on a commercial flight earlier this year (my first in years to go pick up my airplane) and many passengers, young and old, closed the blind at their window almost immediately so that they could view the depiction on whatever screened device they were involved with. Flying has become routine and mundane and, seemingly, cannot compete with something which can capture attention at low cost and no discipline. In fact, since I purchased my plane, no one among my family and my friends, including several nieces and nephews, have shown even the slightest interest in even seeing the airplane, let alone going for a ride with the exception of my wife (she’d have me hauling her to a distant somewhere every week) and my 83 year old neighbor.

    Where there’s a will, those few who really want it will find a way to get into it and those with the disposable means have and will continue to do so. I’m a pessimist (I prefer realist), however and I suspect the fleet and its pilots will become increasingly geriatric and continue dwindle to a minimum, whatever that may be.

    • AOPA & EAA should spend their money trying to do away with third class medicals. Pilots are getting tired of it especially special issuance pilots. By the time they get their medical it’s time to start over. If your AME says you’re okay to fly why do you need FAA approval? The AOPA past president stated they took a survey and pilots want third class medicals. What was he smoking? Doing away with third class would save millions for pilots and the government.

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:25 pm

      Percival, I’m optimist, but I agree that the current fleet will continue to age and dwindle. But that’s not necessarily bad. The change and the growth is happening in experimental aircraft and to some extent in Light Sport Aircraft. Got to say these airplanes are more fun to fly than a 30+ year old GA plane that us older pilots think of when we thing of General Aviation. I think there’s lots of upside potential for GA…but it will be different and that’s fine.

  12. You’re hitting on some good points with the idea of finding someone who is excited about flying and making it easy for them to take the initial steps. No one will care about something if we don’t show them how much we care about something.

    That said, you’re really simplifying the main problem waaaay too much when you write, “select someone who not only has an interest in flying, but who also has the means to afford flying lessons.”

    I would be very, very, very excited to see a follow up article from you with research explaining what percentage of the United State’s population has the means to “afford flying lessons” and whom those people are demographically.

    Then, we can figure out how to attract them.

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:33 pm

      Angel, I’m convinced the best way to reach them is for individual pilots to look among their friends and acquaintances to find them. When I looked at survey data for other non-aviation organizations I’ve belonged to, word-of-mouth was the number one way new members found an organization. I think the same applies to flying. Pilots are in the best position of finding other potential new pilots. Besides, I don’t think AOPA, EAA or any other organization has the spare funding to do a major advertising blitz to find potential new pilots. Even if they did, many of those student pilots wouldn’t succeed for lack of the personal nurturing and mentoring that keeps a student pilot in the game as they encounter the many hurdles to becoming a pilot.

  13. I started flying at 30 and bought my first Cessna 172 (1959 model) a couple of hours after my first solo. I had the interest (including an Aerospace Engineering degree) and the “means to afford flying lessons”. I am now 50 and on my third plane, a 1957 Cessna 182. I love flying and I love my plane. My wife and I earn 2 1/2 times more income than we did 20 years ago. Today, with 2 teenagers, I would not have the “means to afford flying lessons”.

    Gas at $5-$6 per gallon. Annual inspections averaging $2,500 (with very few problems, thankfully). Are you kidding me? 20 years ago gas was like $1.50 per gallon and my Cessna 172 annual would be around $500. I recently attended a Town Hall with AOPA’s new president. Nice guy. But when I looked around the room at 100 other pilots, I think I was the youngest guy there (except for some grandkids who came along to look at the museum we met in). Of all the initiatives that our AOPA President discussed, not one really applied to helping increase the pilot population in the next decade. Not one. One question was asked about why aviation fuel costs so much. AOPA’s answer, “because pilots are willing to pay for it”. AOPA’s solution, “buy more gas to increase the demand to bring down the cost”. I kid you not! I have an MBA from Wash U in St. Louis and am pretty sure this doesn’t agree with what my economics professor taught me.

    I do agree with others who have left similar messages. It is not affordable. If you look at demographics, my family is in the top 2% of wages earners in this country. I still fly on average 75 hours per year. I spend on average $12,000 per year to do this. Find others able and willing to do this? Yeah, right. I am a dying breed. Let’s face it. This is a rich man’s game. The question is, how rich do you really have to be?

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      Chris, I agree, owning an airplane is not affordable for most people who might want to learn to fly. But with 600,000 pilots in the country and perhaps 200,000 airplanes, it’s clear that lots of people enjoy being pilots without owning an airplane. I rented airplanes for more than 20 years before buying one with two partners and I loved every one of those hours I spent in a rental plane. I think our challenge is to bring people to flying, expose them to it, and introduce them to a flight instructor of flight school. It’s the new student pilot’s challenge to figure out whether to buy or rent. I agree that most people can’t afford how to fly. But let’s find the ones who can and get them started now!

  14. As a new (106 hours) sport pilot, I’d like to remind everyone here that the sales jobs should be that flying is fun and that there are options, like light sport and gliding that are less expensive. I don’t fly for business or to replace airline travel, just for the fun. I am not rich, so I do have to make some concessions to my other interests. I do not own a plane and the ones I rent are $85-120/hr, wet. I don’t have to worry about a medical. I don’t fly as much as I would like (40-50 hrs/yr) and with insurance and a few hours of training each year, I spend about $6500 a year. I am flying and I am grateful for every second in the air even though my relatively low hours per year means I spend a large percentage of my time practicing maneuvers. It’s still flying! I understand some of you who have been flying forever can no longer fly the way you used to. Worse though, you may be passing your version of what flying has to be and scaring someone who thinks that that have to get a PPL and fly in a 30 year old Cessna is the only game in town. I would caution folks to make sure that you are not (unconsciously for sure) imposing your version of what aviation is on to a newbie. Remind then that there are many paths and they can all be rewarding in their own right.

    • Max Trescott

      December 3, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      Joseph, Well stated! What got you into flying? And how do we find more people like you?

      • I think the best way to find them, is to ask! Advertise! I have never seen an advertisement for a flight school or flight instructor outside of an aviation magazine or outside of an airport. I have also never seen a shirt that says, “I’m a flight instructor! Ask me how you can learn to fly!”. Flight schools seem to take the view that if people really want to fly, they will seek them out, but thats not how a business should operate. Flight training IS a business, and they need to get out there and advertise their service, outside of aviation circles. That is one of the reasons why flying looks so much like an elite club. Flying seems like one of those dreams to many people that are unattainable, so they never attempt to even find out if they can.

        Myself, for example. I have loved aviation all my life (I’m just 29), but I thought it was totally unaccessiable to me until I went out and did the research for myself and took that intro flight. If someone had told me, “Hey, you can! Its not as difficult to get into as you think! Pilots are regular people too!”, I would have started sooner. Yes, I’ve had to make many sacrifices, as I am training to be a career flight instructor (and hopefully charter pilot too). I am a college student,full-time employed, and live in a little RV I own and rent a cheap space for 200$ a month. It allows me the extra money to take at least 1 sometimes 2 lessons/week. For me, its worth it, as flying(and teaching) is something I totally want to do as a career and can’t imagine doing something else. Point is, if you have the passion you CAN find a way, if you are willing to make the sacrifices for it.

        Also, to those who can’t afford flight lessons, ask the school if you might be able to work something out. I landed a job at a FBO/Flight school just by asking, “Hey, you guys have anybody that cleans your planes on a regular basis”? You can sometimes trade your labor for flight time. Doesn’t hurt to ask and if nothing else the school will know you are serious and might mention your name if something come up (or if they start looking for a lineperson!)

        Anyway, good article. I’ve heard you in a few interviews on various aviation podcasts, keep up the good work!

  15. Revise or elemenate FAR 61.113 coupled that with a decrease in fuel costs and promote these changes – flying and likely student pilots starts will increase over night.

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