The Human Factor: Rekindling the Romance of Aviation

What to do about the lack of interest in aviation among the young.

Aviation

Aviation

The most important human factor in aviation is the pilot, and there has been considerable discussion in the aviation media about the decrease in the number of student pilots and the general lack of interest in aviation, especially among young people. Various factors have been discussed, including the increase in the cost of flying, the lack of new general aviation airplane designs and the added complexity of the airspace. While these may have some impact, I don’t think they address the real problem.

To me the cause runs much deeper — aviation has almost completely lost its aura of adventure. A lasting impression is often formed during a person’s first encounter with something new, and the first experience of the modern airline traveler is very different from what a person experienced when traveling by air 50 years ago. My own first encounter with aviation sealed my fate and left no doubt about what my future vocation would be. I had always had an interest in airplanes and loved to go up to the observation deck at the airport to watch my father’s airliner arrive at the end of a business trip. Finally at the age of 7 I had an opportunity to fly with my grandfather to Washington, D.C.

During the weeks leading up to the flight I counted off each day that stood between me and my first flight in an airplane. Finally the day arrived and we were walking across the ramp. The DC-6 stood before us, a magnificent example of man’s mastery of the air. The wind in which we would be flying tousled our hair and the clouds floated overhead, now lofty and distant but soon to be our intimate acquaintance. Only a few feet away the first officer probed the dark recesses of the wheel well with his flashlight, assuring that everything was as it should be. A giant red fire extinguisher standing by the engine was testimony to the danger of what we were about to undertake.

We ascended the metal staircase, my excitement growing with each step. As soon as we entered the doorway I was surrounded by the distinctive smell of leather. To my left the open cockpit door permitted a quick view of panels filled with controls, gauges and switches. Shortly after we sat down the door was closed. Deep within the bowels of the airplane I could hear pumps activating, pressurizing the hydraulic fluid and bringing fuel to the engines. Then one of the propellers began to rotate. Around and around it went, as if the engine were not sure it wanted to work that day. All the lights dimmed from the effort of turning the giant blades. Finally, with several coughs and a cloud of smoke it roared to life. This was repeated until all four engines were idling peacefully.

On takeoff there was no question of the power it took to lift such a beast into the air. As the pilot advanced the throttles, a deepening roar filled the cabin. Vibration built until it was impossible to talk or even hear your own voice. As it reached its peak, it developed a rhythm of its own, a steady beat that was almost hypnotic. Then gradually the earth began to fall away and the horizon receded as the neighborhoods surrounding the airport slid under the wing. Once we were safely in the air, the roar of the engines subsided and the urgency of the vibration’s beat relaxed to a slow, comforting ebb and flow.

Even after we leveled off at our cruising altitude, we were low enough that I could clearly see the cities, rivers and lakes as they passed beneath us. I never tired of watching the earth as we flew but was frustrated by the limited view available out the window. Then my grandfather took me to visit the cockpit. As I walked through the door I found the whole earth stretched out before me. It was like going from a small television set to a Cinerama movie screen. I was standing there taking it all in when the captain got out of his seat and motioned for me to sit in it. For a few minutes I knew what it was like to sit at the controls, the master of a complex machine as well as the fate of all the people on board. I was hooked!

Now consider the experience of a young boy or girl traveling by air today. Most of the observation decks are closed, a victim of budget cuts and fears of terrorists. In the modern terminal building it is difficult to get a good look at the airplanes. All that is visible is the nose and maybe a part of one wing. The passengers walk through an enclosed boarding ramp that is similar to a cattle chute. There is no way to get even a glimpse of the airplane as the chute guides us down to the door totally insulated from the distractions of what it takes to prepare such a machine for flight. There is no way for passengers to know what kind of airplane they have entrusted their lives to without reading the emergency exit card in the seatback in front of them.

The starting of the engines proceeds with no noticeable movement and hardly any noise, just a gradually increasing whine. As the airplane taxies out, elevator music wafts gently down from the speakers. The takeoff run is quick and the climb steep, so within minutes the airplane has reached an altitude from which few features on the surface of the earth are distinguishable. Not that it matters since few passengers on today’s large airliners are close enough to a window to see out, and in any case, many passengers keep their window shades down so they can watch a movie. It is all very antiseptic, with no vibration, no noise and little turbulence. Of course, the cockpit door must remain locked to keep out crazy people, so there is no way that a young boy or girl can be given a chance to see what it is like to have the world spread out before them, or to witness the magic dance of the dials and gauges.

The flight is terminated in much the same manner. The observant passenger may be aware of a slight change in the distant whine of the jet engines. Those next to a window who bother to look out will notice that the earth is gradually getting closer. If they are really fortunate, our convoluted air traffic control system may actually give them a tour of the city they are traveling to. Most likely that would be only an annoyance. Soon they are back at the terminal exiting through another cattle chute, the airplane that carried them safely to their destination not even visible except for a small area around the door.

It is no wonder that the youth of today are not excited about flying. They are insulated from the reality of aviation, from the excitement and romance that once was synonymous with flying. Even for those who do show an interest, the growth of our cities and the attrition of our smaller airports make it much more difficult for someone to be able to hang around an airport. Except for a few special exceptions, the days when a kid could get a job washing airplanes and pumping gas for flying lessons like I did are gone. I know because, when I went looking for just such an opportunity over 45 years ago, I was told many times that those types of jobs just didn’t exist anymore. I was fortunate to be referred to Tony Rusyniak, the owner of Syracuse Flying School, who gave me a chance to get a start in aviation.

It may already be too late. Maybe the adventure and romance of aviation are gone forever — the world too changed to have room for kids who dream of flying airplanes. It’s up to us to prove that it’s not. If we really care about private aviation in this country, if we want to see it alive, vibrant and growing, we are going to have to take the responsibility ourselves to make sure that children, and the young at heart, have a chance to find out what flying is all about, and to ensure that any kid with a desire to fly has a chance to do so. This may mean visiting schools to talk to the students about flying. It may mean giving someone a ride in an airplane, or possibly even organizing a class on flying at a local school or YMCA. I know that used to happen because I took my first flight in a small airplane, a Piper Cub, through such a class. There are several programs available to help someone get started in this area, including the EAA Young Eagles program and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Project Pilot. Either organization will provide support and materials to help make an individual’s first experience with general aviation more memorable. Let’s work together to show people that aviation can still be the fun adventure that it used to be.