A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

February 2009

Pilot Numbers, and Leaving Flying to the Birds

If you check the latest Transport Canada numbers, you’ll be humbled by the reality of our situation as pilots in this country.  In our own little world, and I do mean little, we’re sometimes caught up in the misguided belief that we carry a lot of weight, political clout and meaningful presence in the community.  But the reality is pilots,  roughly 61,500 of us, make up less than one quarter of one percent of the Canadian population.  Zero point one eight percent (0.18%) actually, and that includes all commercial, private, recreational, ultralight, balloon, glider and gyrocopter pilots.  Commercial pilots number .06%, the remaining hold private licenses.  It should come as no surprise that we find ourselves regulated to death, overcharged for fuel, parking, landing, hangars, insurance, medicals, licenses, certifications, navigation and facility fees.  Politicians and bureaucrats can afford to ignore our complaints and suggestions.  When one citizen out of four hundred requests something from his government, there’s not a chance in hell that he will be taken seriously. 

We fight back with letters to aviation publications and by talking it up at flying club meetings.  But non-pilots and government people don’t read or talk about flying, so are rarely aware of our complaints.  We join forces through COPA and similar organizations to increase our lobby.  Through associations, we do enjoy some inroads and progress, however, the bottom line is our membership base does not carry a really big stick. 

The narcissists among us would point to the respect that pilots enjoy from the general public.  They compare aerobatic pilots with professional hockey or football players, and boast  airshow crowds numbering in the tens of thousands each year would indicate support for aviation.  The truth is, spectators watch, then go away.  They have no idea of the rules and costs in aviation.  They don’t want to know, simply because it’s way too complicated.  Like income tax laws.  At the same time, there is an element out there, the left wing individuals and groups, who not only don’t support aviation, but they’re intent on getting more out of the rich airplane owners.    To them, hockey players and pilots are a source the government is ignoring at tax time.

New regulations are constantly piled on all the existing hoops we jump through.  The same regulatory climate could never apply to motor vehicles.  There are far too many motorists in the country to risk that kind of enforcement.  It boils down to a question of numbers, and which groups can be most easily controlled.

Some pilots turn to radio controlled model flying.  They live vicariously through the hand-held transmitter commanding their planes through aerobatic displays, the likes of which cannot be achieved in the real aircraft.  And even if these fellows have never even left the solid ground themselves, their particular flying skills are every bit as sharp, if not sharper than most who must be inside their planes to fly. 

So far, there’s not much governing of RC models, other than where they can and can’t be flown.  Common sense and some local noise rules at the municipal level are about all there is.  Obviously, it’s a different kind of flying and is not for everyone.  But it’s flying, and still relatively easy and open anyone. 

If flying is still your passion, and for some reason a Cessna or an RC model won’t fit the bill, how about this.  A remote controlled pigeon.  There’s a robot engineering technology research centre at a university in China that is experimenting with micro electrodes placed in the brains of pigeons.  These implants stimulate areas of the brain, depending on signals sent from a computer, and cause the bird to fly left, right, up or down at the whim of the “pilot”.  Similar experiments have been underway since 2005 on mice, and it’s all been quite successful.  The success is presumably measured by the degree of control the researcher is able to exert over the subject animal.  The reports don’t detail the susceptibility of the pigeon to crash if the person at the controls fails to enter the correct inputs.

The technology is very advanced, but work continues on improvements so it can be put into practical use.  The Chinese scientists didn’t specify what that practical use might be.  Should it ever become prominent in North America, you can be sure every animal rights group would be on top of it, along with Transport Canada and the FAA. Nav Canada would likely find a way to charge a fee too.  There’s nothing particularly endearing about pigeons in my mind, but still, I somehow doubt we’ll see anything like controlling them with a remote anytime in the near future.  Don’t believe this research is about controlling flight.  There are bigger goals involved here.  More on that later. 

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