Flying Economics 101

Why fresh thinking is needed to avoid aviation's next crisis

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My dad was the one who led me to combine my dual interests in flying and writing—and as a talented pilot and storyteller, he taught me a great deal about both, particularly when I was a teenager working as a lineboy at Teterboro Airport and writing part time for a few local community newspapers.

In my last online column I made a passing mention about him being a “long-time” professional helicopter pilot. That doesn’t quite describe it. He has been flying helicopters for a living for more than 50 years, starting out in the Army in 1960 in a Hiller H-23D and never looking back. Now 74, he still flies full time, the last 22 years as a medevac pilot in the New York metro area.

But it wasn't always easy.

After leaving the Army in 1965 he served as a civilian helicopter flight instructor at Fort Wolters, Texas, and then took a job with New York Airways—the world’s first helicopter airline, with its famous (or perhaps infamous) rooftop heliport atop the Pan Am building—flying Boeing Vertols and Sikorsky S-61s. Later he flew Westlands for Pan Am and served as a contract pilot for a number of corporate flight departments.

My dad paid for all of my flying lessons, straight through to my earning my instrument rating at 18, for which I am grateful beyond words. Otherwise I couldn't have learned to fly at such a young age.

He also gave me a piece of advice that ended up shaping the direction of my life.

When I was looking at colleges and leaning toward applying to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., he told me I should instead consider going to school for something completely outside of aviation. That way, when the ups and downs of the aviation business hit their inevitable low points, I would have a vocation to fall back on.

I can remember standing on the unemployment line with him in the early 1980s when, in the midst of a recession, there were no helicopter flying jobs to be had in the New York area. To make ends meet he spent two years as a real estate agent, staying current flying in the Army Reserves but with no clear idea of when the economy would rebound. (Sounds familiar, I know.)

My dad's advice led me to enroll at the University of Maryland's journalism school, where I worked on the school newspaper while completing an editorial internship at AOPA Pilot magazine, in Frederick, Md. After graduating I took a job at Aviation International News, a business aviation trade magazine, where I worked for 15 years.

I’ve often thought about how different my life would be if I’d gone to Embry-Riddle after all, and perhaps landed a job at a regional airline and made it to the left seat with a major—like a lot of pilots my age have done. There’s no point second-guessing, of course. You make your choices—or sometimes you don’t have a choice—and you learn to make the best of it. Had I taken another path, I might be an airline captain—or, just as easily, an out-of-work pilot. Or an out-of-work writer.

My dad still loves flying 50 years later and, thanks to his excellent health, sharp mind and tens of thousands of hours of experience, he can do it at least as well as the next guy. Me, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have found a path that led me to the editorial staff of Flying.

Still, I’m becoming increasingly concerned about aviation’s future—and the fact that for many it is now too expensive to learn to fly, and less attractive to try when the payoff for professionals usually means having to make do with such a meager starting wage.

For the non-pros, the rising cost of flying and a still-sluggish economy often means pulling the airplane out of the hangar less frequently. The introduction of LSAs was a good start toward making flying more affordable, but it doesn't ease the cost burden on pilots who want to fly larger aircraft farther afield and in worse weather. And while prices for used airplanes have come down, the cost of operating and maintaining them has not.

As the older pilots out there stop flying and fewer young people start, the general aviation industry will face a new crisis. Many with a dream to fly may never have the chance, small airports around the country will suffer and, ultimately, the decline could also hamper the airlines ability to find qualified pilots.

None of these concerns are new, of course—but with the state of the economy still so tenuous, never before has the threat—or the need for remedies—been more pressing.