Planes and New Pilots

A long time ago when I was a little kid, every Sunday evening I watched a wonderful television program called Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. All of us watched programs that were varied and entertaining. I am sure this show created many future doctors, scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and yes, even some pilots and astronauts. Many of those “1960s kids” decided on their careers spawned by their imaginations after watching this wonderful show each week.

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We have a problem in aviation we really need to address. Over the time I attended fly-ins or hung around local FBOs, I discovered I was one of the younger people in attendance. Now, most of us are all old geezers. Specifically, the problem we have in aviation today is dwindling pilot starts and completions, along with the shrinking pilot population. For the aviation business, the importance goes back to the simple lessons of supply and demand as it affects pricing.

In 2003, the FAA reported the ranks of private pilots in the nation as slightly more than 241,000. Last year, the number was 188,001. Commercial pilots numbered 123,990 versus 116,400 for the same reports. The number of total pilots decreased approximately 19,500 pilots at all certificate levels. The bright spot in the FAA statistics is an increase in student pilot applications by more than 13,000.

With fewer pilots flying, the unit per hour cost of flying rises. If we have more pilots flying, the cost will decrease.

So, what to do… what to do…?

Somehow, we have to find a way to bring new blood into the industry. If we don’t, the industry will die on the vine. This is something we cannot afford. That brings us back to the question of what to do…?

We must get more youth in aviation. Many questions need to answers. For one, where should we target our efforts? Teenagers? Early 20-somethings? People in their 30s or 40s?

Here are some terrible truths we must face: teenagers and young people in their early 20s typically lack the financial wherewithal to pay for an aviation habit. Those making money in their 30s are too busy making their money, raising their children, and paying for their kid’s school activities.

People in their late 40s and early 50s may have the money to start in aviation, but the only thing they are typically interested in is personal flying rather than professional flying of some sort.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with flying for yourself. But here is another ugly truth regarding the growth of the general aviation industry: We need more flight instructors. This means pilots working through not only private pilot certification, but also completing an instrument rating as well as a commercial pilot license. No matter how you cut it, this is tough. And expensive. It is a very real detriment to industry growth.

So how do we get people interested in flying again? Why are they not as interested in flying as they were, say, 20, 30, or 40 years ago? What has happened that young Americans have drifted away from aviation?

I think, in a word, it is imagination.

It is not a question of our young people today having less imagination; today’s youth have focused their imaginations in other directions – unfortunately, away from aviation.

Our youth today do not see things in the same manner of the youth of past. This is neither bad nor good; it is just an observation and fact.

Here are other facts: 1) the cost of renting airplanes to learn how to fly is too high. 2) The regulations for private aviation are too many. 3) The certification process for private flying is overly cumbersome. 4) Some of us in aviation make it too hard for “outsiders” interested in flying to learn enough about the business to get a start in learning how to fly. 5) Some of those same individuals want to keep the mystique of flying secretive, perpetuating the idea that piloting airplanes is “too hard” for most. 5) There are too many other distractions for young people that are easier to do than flying.

We have to capture the imaginations of our youth. Somehow, our pilots of today must capture the imaginations of our school-aged children. We have to get them involved with flying, we have to make them aware of aviation, we have to get them excited about being… a pilot in command.

The key is hooking them as very young children. And this summer, one of those hooks came out in the form of Disney’s Planes.

So, I had to write about the movie and I must report – it is a great movie, even for adults (it has jokes only pilots get). I had the chance to see it with the 5-year-old grandson, Bubba, who was actually out on his first “movie date.” Bubba sat next to his girl, with her entire family sitting on the other side next to her. On Bubba’s left side, his dad and Nana accompanied him. (Before I can comment on Bubba’s date, I will have to wait a few years to ask if he remembers any of the particular details of the “mass date” with all his and her relatives.)

For the pilots, the movie was more than funny. It was technically correct and filmed in cartoon HD. When the airplanes moved through the air, their flight controls moved in the appropriate directions. The Disney cartoonists also made the laws of physics come to life with the movement of each airplane.

My true memories of the movie will always be stealing glances in Bubba’s direction while he was watching the movie. Every time I looked over, he was sitting on the edge of his seat completely mesmerized by the action on the big screen. I could tell he was learning; he is a very inquisitive kid and learns something from each of his experiences.

I think Bubba was a little more than hooked by the movie, as were many of the other children in the theater. My hope is that they will think about the movie for a long time and choose to work in aviation as they come of age.

I have not watched a cartoon in a very long time. I am really impressed with how much they have improved since I was Bubba’s age. I believe Hollywood soon will be able to do things previously thought impossible. The technological advancements of the last two or three decades, in both the entertainment and aviation fields, has been very amazing, indeed, if not related.

With the visual aspects of controlling scenery, combined with the new technology of sound, it is easy to understand how simulated flight can now seem so real.

There’s no question that if you have a little kid in your family, little brother, sister, cousin, son or daughter, you need to take them to see Planes.


©2013 J. Clark

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2 Responses to Planes and New Pilots

  1. Manuel Mejia says:

    The price for ground school, flight lessons, theory, and fuel has put the cost of learning to fly at $13,000. If I had that much money to expend, I would use it for college (teen-20-something), car/home/family (30 something), and perhaps retirement (40 something).

    Another issue that is a deterrent–any type of disability or juvenile offence. Accommodations can ease the former, a change in mentality (or a blizzard of pardons) is need for the latter (especially if you are a responsible 40 something).

    Aviation is not a good career option due to the current glut of pilots in the commercial field. When the last of the military jocks are gone, career options may improve.

    MMJR, FLA School teacher.

    • Joe Clark says:


      You are correct about the pricing of flight training today. It is an issue that has been a problem for aviation for a long time. There are many things driving the cost factor, including as you point out, fuel. Other costs are just as problematic. Maintenance, parts, electronics repairs, insurance, licensing fees, and more. In the end, those running flight schools are not becoming nearly as rich as some might believe. However, you are wrong about “the glut of pilots in the commercial field.”

      The world, including this nation, is on the verge of a pilot shortage the likes that has never been seen before. Yes, industry analysts have predicted shortages in the past and many sometimes believe they are “calling wolf” again and don’t think this shortage will happen. Well, the shortage has already begun. USA Today published an article about the looking shortage and from other sources, I believe we are soon approaching a time when the airplane is at the gate, fully loaded with fuel, passengers, and baggage, and the flight is going to be canceled for the lack of pilots to fly it to the passengers’ destination. To read the article from USA Today, follow this link:

      Just yesterday, one of my former students who is now a hiring official for an airline stopped by my office for a chat just because he was in town. We talked about the current situation in the airlines and he told me they were hiring like gangbusters and still coming up short. His airline is only one of many that are in the same boat.

      Your comment about the military pilots is not quite correct either. The makeup of flight crew in the airlines is currently more from civilian sources than the military. For further reference, check out this source:

      The military services have become smarter about their training and obligations. For a typical pilot in the Navy or Air Force, training from entry into the service to being a “full up round” at the end of the training pipeline comes at a cost of millions of dollars per pilot. Training requires anywhere from one-and-a-half to two full years and minimum commitment for each aviator is eight years of service beyond wings. Consequently, many of those pilots reach the ten-year point and decide to stay for an additional decade for the retirement benefits. Yes, many are still viable candidates for an airline career from their early 40s to the mandatory retirement age of 65, but quite a few are opting to move into other career fields at that time.

      When it comes to your note about “any type of disability or juvenile offence…,” I have to say there are ways around this. A pilot with a disability who can in fact function in the cockpit can apply for a SODA, or a statement of demonstrated ability from the FAA. With the SODA, the aviator can go on to fly. Regarding juvenile offenses, it depends on the type of offense, the number of incidents, and recent history. I know that many young people who desire flying careers in the military or the airlines are kept on the straight and narrow because they know any kind of a record may keep them from attaining their dreams.

      I like your comment about “If I had that much money…” – I have to agree with you. Many are using their money for college, family, and retirement. It all amounts to choices and the life you wish to experience. It comes down to each person and their desires and choices as to what they want to do with their lives. Personally, I have spent far too much money flying but that spent money put me into positions where I could later be paid for my flying services. As a flight instructor, I passed on as much as I could to my students; as a charter pilot, I moved billions of dollars of checks through the banking system; as a Navy attack pilot, I served as a part of our national defense; as a check airman, I have tested hundreds of new pilots and flight instructors. In short, my costly investment of flight training early in my youth was difficult, but it has made all the difference in the world.

      Thanks for stopping by, reading, and commenting,

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