Taking Wing: The Need to Introduce New Pilots to Aviation

Why it's in current pilots' best interest to spark fresh enthusiasm for GA.

Taking Wing
A lifetime love of flying can start with a single spark brought on by introducing a young person to flying.Getty Images

Her name was Maddie, she was 11 years old, and she had never been in a small plane before. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, smaller and shyer than her giggling friends, Maddie had surprised me by shooting her hand skyward when I asked who wanted to sit up front. “OK, but just so you know, you might have to fly the plane for a bit,” I cautioned with a wink. Maddie nodded and smiled; apparently she’d been hoping for just such an opportunity. I signed the girls’ release forms, handed them to a Women in Aviation volunteer, and turned my attention to getting the young ladies settled in the snug cabin of my 1953 Piper Pacer. They were my sixth planeload of Young Eagles on this sunny late-September Saturday morning; all were attending Girls in Aviation Day in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some waited as long as three hours to ride.

Maddie’s friends whispered and twittered from the backseat, but Maddie watched with rapt intent as I started the engine, taxied out, and took off over the Mississippi River. After leveling out, I gave her a short tutorial and turned over the controls. As she tentatively turned the yoke and banked northward, I stole a sideways glance and watched about a dozen different emotions play across her face. She was fascinated, enchanted — and unmistakably in love. She had “the spark.”

Maddie’s reaction took me back 24 years to the faded back seat of an old Cessna 182. Within the first few seconds of my very first flight, I was overcome with such pure joy that I knew, at 10 years old, that flying was everything I wanted in life. Most pilots remember their own spark well, which is why so many are moved to volunteer their time, money and airplanes to fly Young Eagles. Since 1992, nearly 2 million kids have been flown — three times the number of active pilots in the United States. I, like many of my younger friends, am a product of the Young Eagles program.

Young Eagles
A young girl gets some flying experience through the Young Eagles program.Young Eagles

And yet, as a former Boy Scout, I can tell you that a spark is important and miraculous, but it is never enough to build an enduring flame. I have no doubt that there are many who have experienced a rapturous first flight but, for various reasons, never took it further — and the pilot population continues its steady decline. The causes and possible solutions have been pretty well debated to death. You will even find those who claim that the decline is irreversible; that today’s idle youth, meekly placated by electronic ennui, are simply not interested in flying, and their thirst for adventure has been quenched by blinking smartphones and buzzing social media networks.

Nonsense. That’s simply the newest version of a very old rant: Every generation thinks the one that follows is going all to hell. I’ve seen Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen iPhoners every bit as enthralled by their first magical leaps of flight as I was in 1991 or you were in 1961. As a confirmed computer nerd since childhood and a frequent social media user today, I know that the joyless charms of the virtual world are no match at all for the rich experience of airborne adventure. Rather, technology makes a weak placebo when adventure is lacking — or seemingly out of reach. It’s not that today’s youth don’t want to fly. It’s that they think, not entirely without reason, that flying is a rich man’s game.

Young Eagles
A boy gets a thrill from taking the controls during a free airplane ride with Young Eagles.Young Eagles

Various aviation organizations, led by EAA and AOPA, have proposed and implemented a whole bevy of programs to lower costs and increase access to GA. Their ideas are good, but I doubt whether they are enough to reverse the decline. In my opinion, real change will require the kind of power in numbers that only a crowdsourced solution can provide. The future of general aviation lies in the hands of each and every individual aviator in this country.

Consider the following: If every current pilot recruited his or her replacement before hanging up their wings, the decline would immediately stop. If every flier recruited two replacements, our numbers would explode beyond even those seen in the heyday of the 1970s. In this light, reviving general aviation is a surprisingly simple proposition — for now. The rub is that any reversal, if it’s going to happen, is going to have to happen very soon to take advantage of present numbers. I hate to say it, but a lot of you are already in your twilight years aloft. It’s time for a new generation of aviators, and we need help from the old generation of aviators to make it happen.

My proposal is starkly simple and intensely personal. In the next two years, find your replacement. Once you’ve done so, find another. More easily said than done? Perhaps. You can start by consciously increasing the number of nonpilots that you take flying. Volunteering for Young Eagles is a good start; however, I would also suggest that you target family members, friends and coworkers in their 30s and 40s, as they are more likely to have the resources to begin flight training. When you recognize the spark, follow up. Continue to take them flying. Get their significant other involved.

Young Eagles
Young Eagles flights are conducted both informally by individuals and through group rallies organized by EAA chapters.Young Eagles

Introduce them to your circle of pilot friends and include them in the seemingly mundane tasks of aircraft ownership. If they decide to start training, become their guardian angel and do everything you can to support them — even financially, if necessary. If you own an airplane that is suitable for flight training, you might offer its use for the price of gas and oil. If you already own an advanced aircraft, consider buying an inexpensive primary trainer and forming a two-, three- or four-way partnership around it. You could pass along aircraft ownership skills to your junior partners while spreading the fixed costs. You might even find flying such a basic airplane to be unexpectedly fun.

Why go to so much trouble? For pilots my age, the reason is obvious: Recreational flying is best enjoyed as a social activity, and nobody likes a deserted airport. A world with fewer pilots, fewer active airplanes and fewer fly-ins, poker runs and $100 hamburger destinations is not one that will encourage me or my friends to fly more. For those of you of a certain age, however — those with a rich lifetime of flying already behind you — I can only tug at your heart strings. If general aviation has given you so much, won’t you do your part to ensure it lives on?

As for me, I’m pretty sure I’ve found my first replacement. No, not Maddie. She clearly loved our 20-minute flight and afterward told her mom that she wants to become a pilot, but it’s too early to know whether that will happen or if her ride will fade to a fondly remembered footnote from her childhood. The same goes for the other 29 girls I flew that day, or the impressive 233 other Young Eagles flown during the Stars of the North WAI chapter’s blockbuster event. But a few days after the Young Eagles marathon, I called up my new friend Eddie and invited him to come fly the Pacer for the second time. I met Eddie through my cousin and had recently taken him and his fiancé flying. She was initially fearful, and he was a bit tense, but they both ended up loving it; the spark was palpable.

Sam Weigel
The author and his friend Eddie Zaret brave the cold for a winter flight.Sam Weigel

For Eddie’s second flight, I took him down to Stanton Airfield’s wide, grass runways for some classic taildragger appreciation complete with real Coca-Cola in glass bottles from the ancient vending machine and a little hangar-flying with the locals. On our way back, he made his first swerving tailwheel takeoff. We’ve since flown a third time, and Eddie is planning to start flight lessons this spring. I’m convinced there are a lot of guys and gals like Eddie out there. It’s up to each and every one of us, young and old, to find them, nurture them, and bring them into our circle. If we can do that, the golden age of general aviation is yet to come.

About the Young Eagles: The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) launched the Young Eagles program in 1992 with the goal of giving 1 million free airplane rides to children ages 8 to 17, a number it has long since surpassed. Young Eagles flights are conducted both informally by individuals and through group rallies organized by EAA chapters. For more information, visit youngeagles.org.