Why We Fly, Why We Don’t

Connie White

I spent a day out in Alabama recently at a storefront flight-training center being operated by Continental Motors as part of an experiment to change up the flight-training game, to find ways to provide training that people can work into their everyday routines more easily. The center makes extensive use of simulators and flight-training devices along with a standardized curriculum in order to help students make the most of their time. Its location not at the airport but close to town at an upscale outdoor mall makes it accessible and fun to visit. To actually go flying, students will venture to an airport. It's a great idea. Read more about it here.

One of the hoped-for results of the experiment is that the school will get walk-up customers, people who see through the store windows the cool, full-motion flight sims in action and want to know what’s going on. Maybe some of those people will decide to take the plunge. Who knows, maybe they’ve been thinking about flying for some time but never made it out to the airport. Seeing aviation happening right before their eyes might be all that it takes to awaken that long dormant dream.

That’s exactly how I started rock climbing when I was in my 20s. I was on my way to play a little tennis at the courts at UCLA but stopped by a store across the street to buy a couple of cans of new balls when I spotted a poster for a rock-climbing school at Yosemite. I asked the guy behind the counter about it — he happened to be a rock climber as well as a tennis player — and he gave me a flier on the school, and in three days’ time I found myself 500 feet off the ground on the sheer granite side of a dome overlooking Tuolumne Meadows. Sometimes crazy dreams just need a little jump-start. I can’t wait to see how Continental’s walk-up business goes.

The whole subject of who learns to fly and why they do it got me thinking. Apart from those pilots who do it to eventually get a job, why do people learn to fly?

There are a couple schools of thought on this.

First, some focus on the benefits that you get from flying an airplane. Those of us who fly know that the benefits are very real, but we know this only because we fly. For me a flight from my home in Austin, Texas, to, say, Mobile, Alabama, is easy. On the airlines, it’s a bad experience, and I’m trying to be nice. I know that because I’ve done it both ways. Flying myself wins hands down. It’s more fun, less hassle, more convenient (fly to where you’re going, not where the airlines are going) and infinitely more rewarding. Yes, it’s more expensive, a lot more expensive, than going via American or Delta, but it’s worth the expense, we remind ourselves.

Is this kind of costs/benefits analysis really instructive? Do people do something big because it makes sense? Do we get married, have kids or travel to exotic destinations because the math worked, because we ran an intensive analysis of the pluses and minuses and came to the conclusion that the best course of action was to do A, B or C?

Of course we don’t make decisions that way. We make decisions, especially big ones, because the expected outcomes speak to us in a certain way about how we see ourselves and how we want our lives to be.

Understanding this is the key to keeping private aviation alive. That’s how we capture new pilots. We take people who are already pilots in their heart of hearts and we give them the opportunity to connect with that image, find strategies, as Continental is doing, to help make that dream practical, and create ways to take that image of them flying, lying dormant in people’s hearts, and make it real.

I just don’t believe for a second that there aren’t pilots walking around among us everywhere we go just waiting for the opportunity to make the dream come true. Our job is to help them realize that flying is within their reach and then find ways to connect the dreamer and the dream.


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