ATIS "Tango" was advertising 43 degrees C when we landed Sunday afternoon. Although I’m "mathematically challenged" I think that works out to about 110 degrees F, which might explain the eerie quiet on the Lunken tower frequency. David Zombek had just flown an outstanding private pilot check ride in the 172. He’d worked long and hard to earn the certificate and was appropriately proud and excited; it sure called for a celebration, but the flight school — hell, the whole airport — was as deserted as it had been four hours earlier when we’d met.
The noticeable general aviation "malaise" in my part of the world puzzles and worries me: Blue Ash Airport is shutting down; some lady general running Wright-Patterson Air Force Base recently “vaporized” the base’s military aero club — the oldest in the country; Dayton’s Phillipsburg Airport is for sale — airplanes, buildings and all — for $550,000; and today, when I landed at or flew over fields at Moraine, New Lebanon (Dahio), Brookville, Versailles and Mad River, Ohio, they looked like ghost towns. The only chatter over 123.0 on this warm, sunny July afternoon was from the ^$(&#@^*% parachute droppers at Middletown and a few traffic pattern calls.
Why? What’s behind this downturn in student starts, number of certificates issued and airplanes sold and the increase in airports falling prey to bulldozers?
I just can’t accept the idea that it’s due to outrageous airplane, insurance and fuel costs. OK, $150 per hour to rent a Cessna 172 is obscene, but if you’re realistic about inflation it’s not all that out of whack. When I rented a Cessna 120 in the ’60s for $7 per hour (wet) I was making $100 a week and paying $100 a month for an apartment, and life was good — well, as long as there were boyfriends around to buy dinner. But even if the cost of flying has outpaced inflation, it’s like any discretionary activity — skiing, mountain climbing, racing sports cars and motorcycles, keeping horses or needlepointing hand-painted canvases — people who want to do it find ways to make it happen. "It’s too expensive" has always ranked slightly behind "There’s my family to raise" and "I just can’t find the time" in cocktail party talk about abandoned flying ventures.
Then, for a time, I thought maybe it had to do with the complexities of airspace and regulations — people’s anxiety about compliance and the consequences of violating the FARs. And, of course, there’s the challenge of mastering the array of glass cockpits, autopilots, GPS boxes and a never-ending stream of sophisticated electronic devices. But, heck no, that’s not it; my 12-year-old grandniece is an ace on Flight Simulator and gives me tips on navigating my iPad. Sure, the "rules of the road" are complex, but learnable; you can fly from one end of this country to the other without talking to a soul or you can talk to a controller all the way. And amazingly affordable and portable navigation aids and weather displays make flying infinitely safer and simpler than ever before.
Recently I talked about this to longtime AOPA President Phil Boyer (yeah, I’m dropping names), and he alluded to a generation of young people who are simply not all that interested in flying airplanes because they can get the same thrills with computer games and virtual "experiences." At first that sounded crazy, but when I chewed on it (a lot) it started to make sense. The more I thought about it — the impact of sophisticated apps and 24-hour "linked-in" technology on our culture and our values — it made more sense, and then, my friends, it began to scare the hell out of me.