For all my career as an airline pilot (Braniff International, 1975-May 12, 1982, 4:34 PM; and Alaska Airlines, 1985 2005) I’ve heard the breathless rumor that a pilot shortage was just around the corner–and it never was.
Today, for various reasons (some of them complex, and some of them due to the gross misunderstanding of those we jokingly refer to as a Congress), we do in fact have a genuine shortage of professional pilots available to safely train for and crew the cockpits of airliners large and small in North America (and for the most part, the world). But what may startle you is to hear that we also have a shortage of private pilots, and while it would be grossly misleading to say that private flying is becoming an endangered industry, the statistics show an annual decrease in the number of people beginning training to become private pilots, which means a clearly declining level of interest.
Certainly for people like me who have been in love with flying for a lifetime (no aircraft ever flew past me unnoticed even as a kid), this is almost incomprehensible. Why wouldn’t you want to spend a Saturday afternoon hanging around your local airfield pumping gas into single engine airplanes and hoping for a ride, dreaming of the day you could be a pilot? But whether because of the increased costs of becoming a private pilot (many thousands of dollars), or because of the influence of electronics and communications shifting attention away from stick and rudder experiences, something of inestimable value is being threatened in the United States in particular: The individual freedom to fly!
Order Your Copy Of Nance’s Hit New Aviation Thriller, LOCKOUT, Today!
We are unique on planet Earth. We still have small airports nationwide, but they are increasingly under attack from those who would transform that sleepy private airfield just outside of town into a housing development or otherwise. We still have the world standard of simple and clear regulations balancing the sheer freedom of guiding an air machine with the public safety. And we still have a basic infrastructure of hardy people willing to provide services (gas, maintenance, flight training) to pilots and wannabe pilots who run usually marginal businesses called FBO’s (fixed base operations).
And, yes, we do have a mission problem. When you have no specific reason to earn your license and buy a plane and fly, we tend to have newly minted pilots fall into the doldrums of the hundred dollar hamburger club: renting airplanes on weekends to fly to another nearby airport to have a hamburger. Even using private flying for business is becoming more difficult. Frankly, the very pace of business these days requires a level of air transportation reliability that few can manage in smaller aircraft, so the business case for buying your own bird has also become strained.
And why does any of this matter?
For more reasons than just the preservation of what some consider an exotic freedom. Our network of airports contribute greatly to the economies of thousands of smaller communities, and our cadre of private pilots provide the raw stock for the airline pilots (and even military pilots) of tomorrow, men and women whose basic knowledge of aviation, aerodynamics and flying desperately need to include a visceral, seat-of-your-pants comfort with small airplanes. The December 12, 2013, crash of an Asiana Boeing 777 in San Francisco was a classic case of what can happen when people with little or no stick-and-rudder skills are taught to operate sophisticated air machines by the numbers, rather than through a broad knowledge of aerodynamics. There were no pilots aboard that flight, only well trained systems operators. When they needed to be pilots to save their aircraft, the skill and experience wasn’t there, because their home countries didn’t have the freedom and the opportunities to become basic pilots.
Hopefully that won’t also be the eventual epitaph of the American airman.