Aviation, Social Mobility, and the American Dream

American Dream
Though the recent recession's scars remain, aviation has served as a healing force.Alamy

One of the things I love about living and cruising aboard Windbird is the way it drastically simplifies and slows the frenetic pace of modern life.

Where most of my flights are of a few hours’ duration, passages under sail are measured in days and weeks. Three hours on watch, three hours off, ad infinitum — punctuated by meals, occasional tweaks to sail trim, rare encounters with other vessels and the welcome scream of the trolling reel when dinner takes the lure. During night watches in particular there’s a lot of time to read, and to think. On a recent five-day passage from South Carolina to the Bahamas’ Abaco Cays, I devoured the book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. It was one of those reads that I couldn’t stop thinking about, long after I finished it.

Hillbilly Elegy is about the blight of the Rust Belt and Appalachia in the wake of the Great Recession, and the distinctive characteristics of local Scots-Irish culture that make solutions so elusive. A great deal of ink has been spilled by outside observers of this group in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, in which disaffected Rust Belters played a decisive role, but as a native, Vance’s sympathetic insights are particularly incisive. Growing up dirt poor in a broken, drug-addled, sometimes violent “hillbilly” family, Vance’s childhood was traumatic by most standards, but it was sadly typical of his community. Luckily, he had a few positive influences in his life that saved him from the fate of many of his peers, and after a stint in the Marine Corps straightened him out, he graduated from Ohio State University and then Yale Law School, eventually becoming a successful lawyer and venture capitalist.

Something about Vance’s story resonated with me. Our upbringings weren’t exactly alike; I grew up below the poverty line but never realized it, and never worried about my next meal or the roof over my head. I had the inestimable advantage of a loving, intact nuclear family that valued and invested in education. My hometown suffered few of the economic or societal woes that afflicted Vance’s community. But the basic story is one that I, like millions of Americans, strongly identify with: rising above humble origins through hard work, education and familial support and, with a little luck, joining the middle class and building the comfortable life your parents never knew. This social mobility has always been one of America’s defining characteristics, to the point that we call it “the American dream.” In the prosperous postwar era it became the “American birthright,” and for a long time one of our core cultural assumptions was that any American with a decent work ethic could achieve it.

Today, the American dream is no longer taken for granted; for many, it has become a distant mirage from another time. Automation, foreign competition and offshore outsourcing have made good-paying blue-collar jobs increasingly scarce, largely replaced by low-paying jobs in the service sector. This has greatly increased the importance of a college education, but between poor-quality high schools in low-income areas and the rising cost of secondary education, college is frequently out of reach to those who need it most; even those who attend can find themselves entering an anemic workforce with crippling student loan debt. The vaunted middle class has shrunk, and the gap between rich and poor has increased; we are now one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. For the first time, polls are finding that the majority of the white working class expects to be worse off than their parents. Where hope dies, societal ills proliferate, as illustrated by the present opioid crisis in the Rust Belt. Even much of our present political instability can be attributed to this decreased social mobility, as frustrated voters look for solutions beyond the mainstream.

I don’t have any good answers for all this — I’m not sure any exist — but I do know of one conspicuous exception to the trend, an industry that is still notable for its contribution to the American dream. I am talking, of course, about aviation. In nearly two decades in the business, I’ve often been struck by how thoroughly every stratum of American society is represented in the nation’s cockpits, cabins, maintenance hangars, management offices and aeronautical-engineer cubicles.

I suspect this mix of backgrounds, particularly among pilots, is due to the industry’s longstanding tradition of recruiting heavily from the military. The U.S. military has always been an egalitarian institution, but the technical services particularly so. The Air Force and Navy’s insistence that its pilots be officers created a pipeline that took ordinary young men (and later, women) from every walk of life and gave them an education, technical training, leadership experience and a tight professional network, all of which allowed them to command good upper-middle-class salaries when they returned to civilian life.

Today, the American dream is no longer taken for granted; for many, it has become a distant mirage from another time.

Civilian pilots don’t have the advantage of this pipeline, and there are some major barriers that must be navigated, particularly for those without substantial financial resources and those who lack friends or family in the industry. The most daunting obstacle is no doubt monetary, for it takes an ever-larger chunk of change to earn one’s ratings (and a four-year degree, if headed for the major airlines). Those who do not come from families of means must be willing to go into heavy debt with private lenders whose terms are considerably less generous than typical of federal student loans. Fortunately, entry-level pay is improving with the pilot shortage, making the heavy investment more palatable. Over the long run, it usually pays off many times over.

New entrants to the field must also bridge less obvious but still very real cultural barriers, as well as a major knowledge gap. One of the more fascinating parts of Hillbilly Elegy concerned Vance’s initial entry into the completely alien-to-him world of the Ivy League. His challenges were not financial, thanks to Yale’s generous financial aid; they were cultural. Nothing in his background or upbringing prepared him to exist in a world with completely different language, values, etiquette and ways of doing business. He had to relearn how to speak, how to dress, even how to eat — and he basically had to rebuild his support network from scratch, because nobody he knew in his old life could teach him these things. Little wonder that so few of his hometown peers made it to college, much less attended a school like Yale. Most had no idea where to start.

Aviation, I hasten to note, is not the Ivy League. Culturally, it has more in common with the lower to middle classes than the upper crust of society; I’ve flown with plenty of captains making $300,000 a year who have never owned a suit that didn’t have yellow stripes on it. But aviation is nevertheless a tightknit, insular world with its own peculiar language, history, traditions, values and etiquette that a newcomer must learn to navigate to succeed. Those who come from aviation families have an innate leg up in the form of a ready-made support network. Others are fortunate to find a good mentor early on. Most everyone else picks it up along the way, some quicker than others; a few are perpetually clueless. Good gouge is out there; those who make the effort to inform themselves will make better career choices. Even more important, those who make the effort to build relationships throughout the industry will find their path smoothed considerably.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of networking to an aviation career; it’s never too early to start.

This is why organizations like Women in Aviation International (WAI), the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) and the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA) exist, and why they’re so important: They provide a support network to new entrants to aviation, particularly those from underrepresented groups who are less likely to already have a support network that can provide knowledge and contacts. All three organizations’ membership rolls are open to pilots of any gender, race or sexual orientation who support their goals, and a great many straight white males have been hired at their career fairs. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program has done wonderful work exposing underprivileged children to the possibilities of aviation, as have the Tuskegee Airmen and many individual flying clubs and charitable organizations.

In today’s America, aviation has an important role as a continuing fulfillment of the American dream, a path to a better life for those who might otherwise never know it. In my opinion, it ought to be promoted as such, with marketing tailored to those who need to hear the message. Anything that brings in new and diverse entrants, increasing flight-training activity, will only serve to strengthen general aviation for all its users.