In aviation, as elsewhere in life, hope can be a four-letter word. I hope we’ve got enough fuel to make our destination (as opposed to picking one of the many good alternates gliding past below); I hope this downturn reverses course soon (instead of innovating during the downturn to put yourself in better shape once it is over); I hope that more people start flying soon (as opposed to ... as opposed to doing what, exactly?)
On face value, it sounds like an easy question: How do you get more people into aviation? Young people, not so young people, heck, anybody who wants to? It’s no secret that the shape of our future depends on how many of us pursue this activity we love so well.
As I see it, there are three major facets to this: getting people passionate about flying; making flying affordable enough that people who are already passionate about it can actually do it; and lastly making it an activity in which one can make a living if one so desires.
I readily admit there’s not much we in GA can do about the last one. While we can and should encourage good paying CFI jobs, it's likely beyond anyone’s control determine the supply and demand of air travel and the air transport pilots responsible for making that happen safely.
The first two factors, however, getting people passionate about flying and making it affordable, are within our reach, though if we are honest with ourselves, we’ve done a poor job of the former, advertising the joy that flying brings us to those who haven’t discovered that yet, and a wretched job of the latter, getting costs down to where real people can afford to fly.
I’m hopeful that this could be changing, however. This is real hope, not wishful thinking in disguise.
I can express the reason for the hope in two words: “flying clubs.”
With flying clubs there's cause for hope, because a good flying club works. That is, it gives a pilot everything that he or she needs and it does so very cost effectively. People who belong to a good flying club actually go flying, sometimes a lot. That’s because, at the risk of repeating myself, they are getting what they need: quality instruction, decent airplanes that are available and affordable, easy scheduling and a sense of community.
I know because I belonged to a flying club, Three Wing, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for many years, and it was some of the most enjoyable flying I’ve ever done. I flew on business, with my family, with friends and sometimes just for the heck of it, in nice, well maintained and modern-enough airplanes, everything from 182s to Trinidads. I only left Three Wing because Bridgeport was a schlep for me and I got a chance to try out shared ownership at nearby White Plains. But I still think back fondly to Three Wing.
It isn’t the only great flying club in America, but there aren’t that many. Why not? Here’s the kicker: there’s no reason there aren’t a lot more. Believe me, if the economics of a flying club work in bubble-era Greater New York City metropolitan area, then they will work anywhere. You need organization, passion and a customer base. With those bases covered, there’s no reason a good club can’t fly.
AOPA is getting on board in a big way with this idea. As part of its Center to Advance the Pilot Community, AOPA held a webinar the other night in which it got 600 attendees. During the webinar AOPA conducted a poll of the pilots who were “there” and found out, according to Adam Smith, head of the Center, that “There was definitely a great hunger for information,” and that AOPA “had an immediate rush of signups to the AOPA flying clubs Facebook group, that have pushed us over the 1,500 member mark. This is a great place for people to continue the dialogue, ask questions,” and more.
One flying club, the North Texas Flying Club, went from start up to 200 members in 3 years. This is the way it could be not just in North Texas, but in many places around the country. Give the people what they want and what they need, and you’ll succeed.
As it envisions it, AOPA’s role is an important one, serving as small business coach, helping clubs through the complicated and sometimes baffling maze of FAA, legal an tax issues associated with the endeavor. None of it, mind you, is rocket science. With help, competent people can put all the building blocks in place to create a place where pilots can find good airplanes at fair prices along with the guidance and company of other pilots.
The effect on all of light GA could be profound, and we applaud AOPA and all the pilots looking to start or expand their clubs. It’s the kind of change that is long overdue and that, if successful, could have positive implications for all of light GA.