The Power Of One

I gave a talk about a month ago at a Pilot Proficiency program and, just to satisfy my own curiosity, I asked all the pilots in the audience that were 50 years old and older to raise their hands. The hands of at least one-third of the crowd went up. Then I asked for the hands of all the pilots that were age 20 and younger. After a slight hesitation, a single hand went up. One.

My research is unscientific, but I just don’t see as many kids hanging around the airport anymore. Where are the kids that would ride their bikes to the airport and trade airplane washing for flying lessons? Have airports scared them off with their high fences, and security cameras? Or is flying simply losing a battle with the shopping mall, MTV, and even the Internet.

Have flying lessons just become too expensive for a kid to dream of becoming a pilot? Again, my research is unscientific but when I started flying it cost $20 per hour for an airplane and an instructor. I paid for my early flights with the $1.65 per hour I earned after school at a department store. That was a ratio of 12.1 work hours for every flight hour. Today, dual flight costs close to $65 per hour, but kids make at least $5.15 per hour. That is a ratio of 12.6 work hours for each flight hour — the cost of learning to fly relative to what youth can earn has stayed virtually the same for 25 years!

I don’t think its a matter of money (have you seen the price of CDs and DVDs?), I think it is a lack of inspiration. When I was in the 5th grade, I remember my father and I ‘hiking’ to the local airport. I remember that it was very cold that day, but I also remember seeing small airplanes up close, for the first time. As it turned out, we were standing in the same hangar office in which I would get my Private Pilot Certificate seven years later. The following year, when I was in the 6th grade, I remember another trip to the airport — this time for an airplane ride. A man from our church was a pilot and part owner of a low-wing airplane … I don’t know what type. He took a group of kids (all boys) up in his airplane for rides that Saturday. We went in groups of three and, when it was my group’s turn, I got to sit in the front. This flight departed from another hangar … the same hangar where, eight years later, I would pass the checkride for my Instrument Rating.

I bet the story of how you were first introduced to flying is very similar to mine. It probably involved someone who cared about aviation taking the time to show you that care. I believe that, in the face of diminishing Student Pilot starts, it is time for those of us who are involved with aviation to take a leading role. You and I know that there is nothing more fascinating and inspirational than flight. There is no single event that can inspire a kid more than a single flight in an airplane.

So I challenge you to use the gift that you have. Before this summer is out, I ask you to do one thing to help introduce aviation to a young person.

Have you given any airplane rides lately? How about getting a Boy Scout and/or Girl Scout group to join you for a preflight inspection. Have you, as a pilot-guest-speaker, spoken to your son or daughter’s class this year? (I had the great pleasure of participating in ‘Read-me’ day at a local elementary school this year and read The Glorious Flight by Alice and Martin Provensen.) Have you at least given the Internet address of iPilot to a kid who seems glued to the computer? Sometime this summer you should go out of your way to introduce aviation to someone who otherwise would never have the chance to see what a great thing we have.

If you can rise to this challenge, then write me back and let me know the difference you have made. Of course, the true difference you make might not be seen or realized for years, but we all must start somewhere — it was 1967 when my father and I hiked to the airport. Richard Bach wrote that as pilots we have our debts to pay. We pay our debt when we pass on the fascination, the inspiration, and the passion of flight.

Have a meaningful summer!