Aviation’s doomsday preppers

Roughly 20% of Americans think the world will end in their lifetime. That seems awfully pessimistic, but these doomsday preppers have nothing on pilots. Based on a number of recent conversations and comments from readers here at Air Facts, a solid majority believe general aviation will end in their lifetimes. Not get weaker — cease to exist.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

It’s a truly depressing message, and there is no shortage of villains in this story. Multiple pilots have recently told me that “ADS-B is the end of GA as we know it.” Others say it’s high avgas prices. Professional curmudgeons know the real answer, though — it’s the TSA’s fault! (I’m not sure how Congress, global warming and solar flares get off scot-free.) Crucially, the critics see these developments as not mere inconveniences to be endured, but the deathblow for personal flying.

Now I don’t have any special affection for the TSA, and I would welcome $2 avgas as much as the next guy, but aren’t we getting carried away just a bit? Is it still possible to disagree with something, without viewing it as a conspiracy that was personally designed to screw us over?

Chicken Little America

In this one sense, at least, pilots are no different from the population at large, which has a long history of remaining paranoid and depressed in the face of statistics to the contrary. Polls consistently show that Americans feel far less safe today, even though we probably live in the safest period of time in the history of humanity. Life still may be nasty, brutish and short, but an objective observer would have to admit that it’s a lot less of all three.

Why do we exaggerate the negatives?

At the risk of offending a huge chunk of our readers, and recognizing that I am a young whippersnapper by aviation standards, I suspect a lot of this hand-wringing is a generational thing. Baby Boomers, who came of age during the 1970s general aviation boom, may have assumed those glory days would continue forever. But the future (heck, even the present) is much less appealing than the one they expected. I hear a lot of wistfulness in the “end of aviation” rants.

This Chicken Little attitude also represents, on a certain level, a refusal to engage with reality. Again, the parallels with politics are instructive: it’s hard to admit that your opponent is a thoughtful person who is supported by millions of people; it’s much easier to believe you’re the last person on Earth with the right answers and the other guy is evil. The truth is usually messier than that.

In aviation, the lazy reflex is to blame the FAA or “the lawyers” or other faceless organizations. But while there are plenty of bad guys out there, the reasons for general aviation’s malaise are much deeper than just bureaucrats. Cultures change, demographics change, and priorities change. Bowling and drive-in movies are a lot less popular than they used to be too — should we pin it on the TSA?

The new reality

I’m not suggesting we lie or pretend there aren’t major headwinds for pilots and aircraft owners. But there’s a difference between admitting times have changed and seeming to revel in it. A good first step is to consider the statistics in addition to the anecdotes. These show that there are as many private pilots today as there were in 1965. Certainly the number is down steeply from the late 1970s (and the US population has grown since then), but it’s amazing how much better the statistics look if you exclude the bubble of 1970–1985. More recently, the trend in student pilot certificates is actually slightly positive over the past few years. Nobody would call these numbers booming, but they certainly don’t suggest a race to zero either.

The Cessna of the 21st century?

The reality is that private aviation will look different in 2020 than it did in 1980 — better for some and worse for others. It will probably feature more flying clubs and fewer Bonanza owners, more 50-something businessmen and fewer teenagers rebuilding Cubs. And much like the overall trend toward increased income inequality as a society, general aviation will probably see growth at the bottom and the top while the middle gets hollowed out. Cessna’s piston airplane sales may be terrible, but part of the reason is that those buyers are moving up or down to other options.

At the top end, transportation flying increasingly means turbine-powered airplanes. Owner-flown turboprops and light jets are flying significantly more than they were 20 years ago, even after the financial crash of 2008. As silly as it may sound, the TBM 700/850 may be today’s version of what the Cessna 210 was in 1978: a single engine personal transportation airplane. Higher up the food chain, jets flown by fractional and charter operators are even busier — NetJets began in 1986 as the piston airplane crash was beginning, and has only accelerated since then. Even helicopter activity is up (dramatically so), led by offshore oil exploration and emergency medical services.

For the non-turbine end of the market, recreational flying is increasingly experimental. If you believe the FAA’s annual statistical report (and while it has lots of holes in it, it’s all we have), active experimental airplanes are up 45% over 2001, driven by both Experimental Light Sport Aircraft and amateur built. It’s worth pointing out that some of these airplanes are outstanding machines — equivalent to many “traditional” GA airplanes of 40 years ago. That’s a great story that I don’t hear enough pilots telling.

Don’t discourage the next generation

If the realist gets busy adjusting the sails while the optimist and the pessimist argue about the situation, what should we adjust? The first step is to stop the doom and gloom. It’s like gossip: fun to engage in from time to time, but ultimately destructive. True, a sudden burst of growth is probably unlikely, but so is a total collapse.

Secondly, consider how this complaining sounds to a new person. Every year, around 50,000 people receive a piece of paper that says “student pilot certificate.” It’s one of the most exciting days of their lives, and they don’t want to hear about how cheap gas was in 1968. For these dreamers, the good old days are now!

Besides, the defeatist attitude does nothing to solve the problem. Better to focus on realistic improvements to the general aviation world as it is today, not the one we wish existed. The current efforts to eliminate the third class medical, reform Part 23 certification standards, encourage flying clubs, refurbish older airplanes, and find a replacement for 100LL seem like smart ones. While they may not offer quick fixes, at least they acknowledge reality, instead of trying to recapture the glory days that are never coming back.

Aviation is — and except for a brief period, always has been — a niche activity, not a mainstream one. Incremental steps with a reasonable chance of success are worth more than moonshot programs to recruit 5 million new aviation enthusiasts. The more we as pilots can rally around these causes, the easier it is to imagine a positive future for pilots. And as any sports psychologist would tell an athlete in a slump, the first step is to “visualize success.”

Preppers are exceedingly creative about how the world (or in this case, general aviation) might end. If we could redirect some of that creativity towards solving the very real problems we face, general aviation might make some progress.

Originally published at airfactsjournal.com on January 14, 2015.

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