A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek. 

April 2013   

Can We Promote General Aviation? 

There’s been much written and a lot of talk about how we’re going to save general aviation.  Arguably we’re over regulated and over charged for goods and services related to aircraft operation.  The number of pilots being licensed each year continues to fall.  The number of hours flown annually by private pilots is lower than at anytime in the recent past. 

       Signs point to even fewer people entering aviation in the years ahead despite efforts on many fronts to attract business to flying schools.   Several good ideas have been put forward to promote our sector, yet somehow we’re falling short of reaching the people we need to come out and explore what aviation has to offer.  Most of our efforts are written in aviation publications and on the aviation sites on the internet.  But those are the wrong venues for us to be preaching.  Let me explain. 

       If we want to attract new people to flying, we have to think more outside the box.  We need to get the word to prospective pilots who don’t even know yet that one day they’ll be flying too.  If they’re reading aviation magazines, we already have them on our side.  We’re preaching to the choir boys.  Everyone reading them is already aware of and agrees with what we publish.  So let’s start submitting the good stories and the advertising about flying to a larger audience.   A good opportunity could be the many small-town newspapers in this country.  Most would be happy to print stories about happenings at their local airport. Why confine this news to the flying club newsletters?  Pilots already know about it.  If you use your airplane to get to a ski resort or go on a flying/camping trip, then somehow the skiers and campers, not just pilots, should know about it.  Many women are pilots but there aren’t many manufacturers of aviation products advertising in women’s magazines.  The company that makes Tide laundry detergent realized a long time ago that women make up a large part of stock car racing fans, and they capitalized by sponsoring a NASCAR “Tide car”.  If it works for Tide laundry soap, then it might be worthwhile for an airplane manufacturer to reach out to more women.    

        Some flying clubs hold monthly fly-ins and fly-outs.  Members get together for day trips including a lunch or breakfast.  If your club has similar activities, does it advertise in the local media?  Does anyone invite local media reporters along?  How about local politicians? Inviting non-pilots, whoever they are, can help spread the interest in flying.  Professional sports teams know this.  Back in my broadcasting career, they always provided free game tickets to on-air staff from every radio and television station in the city.  It ensured their team was always the “talk of the town”.  Inviting non-pilots, whoever they are, can’t be a bad idea to help spread the word about flying.  

       We’re facing serious security issues these days in aviation.  But I suggest that the general public needs to feel more welcome to join the chosen few pilots who have relatively easy access to airports.  It’s unreasonable to think that the gates and fences shouldn’t be there at all, and that everyone should be free to come and go as they please.  But most airports are like fortresses.  Ten-foot high chain-link fences, some topped with razor wire, surround most fields.  Signs are posted threatening federal penalties for trespassing, and security gates are monitored by guards patrolling in pick-up trucks.  No one is allowed to approach an airport without feeling intimidated.  If we can’t change the general appearance and operation of an airport, perhaps there could be more scheduled events open to the public.  And it doesn’t necessarily mean a full-blown air show would be needed.  One simple way to get the public in and make them welcome would be to invite everyone, not just pilots, to a fly-in breakfast.  I can’t count the breakfast notifications I see in this publication, but I wonder how many clubs insert ads in their local newspapers, inviting everyone in town.  A show line of airplanes could be organized with owners and other pilots available to discuss the planes with non-pilot visitors.  Local flight schools could set up and offer fam-flighs.  Politicians may take an opportunity to come out, meet some people and pledge support for further airport activities.  The local newspapers would be there with their cameras.  Throw in some hot dog sales for good measure. 

Car shows attract people by the thousands.  Could static airplane displays do the same?

              I was attending a vintage car and hot rod show recently.  Close to three hundred specialty and modified vehicles were proudly displayed by their owners.  It was free to the public, and attendance was estimated at over three thousand “fans”.  There was no racing, no stunts performed, in fact, no engines were running.  It was strictly a static display.  Every car show draws this kind of crowd.  Airplanes could too.

                Most of the folks who come out to car shows are not mechanics, builders, or owners.  Many are women interested in something a little different.  They come from all walks of life. They bring curiosity. They’re not even car enthusiasts, at least not when they enter the gates.  Maybe they are when they leave.  And that’s what it’s all about.  Everyone who looks at airplanes isn’t a pilot.  But if he never has the chance to look, feel and get close to airplanes, he’ll never be a pilot.  Let’s give those people an opportunity to open up their minds to flying.  If we don’t, it’s a certainty our numbers will continue to drop.     

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