Most of us who remain in love with flying in any reasonable form have to be feeling a bit helpless these days regarding the march of articles and reports (including a few studies) documenting declining enrollment in basic pilot training courses.  It goes way beyond that, however, because when you peruse the figures, you see that those in their twenties and early thirties are losing interest, whether because of the rising costs of earning a private pilot ticket, the cost of the proverbial hundred dollar hamburger (now more like 200-300 dollars), or because of the rising personal preoccupation with electronic communication.

No, this isn’t a rant about iPhone and iPads – I have them and depend on them as well.  This is a puzzle piece focusing on the question of why the second most enticing thing in the world to a young person – especially a young boy (after girls, that is) – isn’t still aviation.  

I’ll spare you the myriad personal remembrances of being unable as a kid to ignore any airplane flying past my house, but seriously, what the @%#^ is wrong with younger Americans that airplanes and flying don’t seem to turn them on?   Is this a natural progression due in part to the fact that aviation (certainly in the form of airliners) has become ubiquitous and somewhat transparent?  Or is it, as teased above, an indication that society is changing focus, and that wiring us together with increasing intensity (communication, voice, video, pictures…) is shifting the focus away from such personal physical pursuits as sports (playing, not watching) and flying?

Whatever the cause, personal aviation at the single engine level in my view is in trouble, and with every percentage point decline in the utilization of our still amazing network of smaller airfields across the nation, the day draws closer that some developer can grab hold of an otherwise unprofitable airpatch and start building anything but runways and hangars.  And, as we all know, once you lose an airfield, it is truly gone forever.  Just witness the criminal debacle of Mayor Daly raping Miegs Field in Chicago more than a decade ago.  One of the most efficient fields in the country gone literally overnight. It would take far more than an act of (what we laughingly refer to as) Congress to wrest Meigs back from the joggers and dog walkers who now occasionally stroll across the ravaged airpatch.

The American institution of the small, municipal airfield is an endangered species, especially if private flying becomes primarily the fading sport of old pilots.  Looking down the road, I see as much myopia obscuring the challenges to private flying (closing airfields, rising fuel costs and availability, threat of privatized air traffic control) as I see utter national stupidity in our continuous abandonment of meaningful space exploration.  Certainly none of us can make the argument convincingly that national security interests demand a healthy cadre of private pilots ready to be drafted into military service.   First, the future war that an amateurish White House will probably spark will be nuclear, with no time for conventional warfare.  Second, we in the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marines don’t need a pool of licensed pilots because we have a finely-tuned machine for turning 170 pounds of dumb into professional pilots in only 12 months.

So, if not for national defense, can we mount an argument about intelligent aeronautical feedstock for the airlines?  Well, yes and no.  Certainly, one of our biggest deficiencies in the airline business worldwide is now pilots trained to fly computers and not airplanes.  The Asiana accident in San Francisco several years back absolutely proves that point.  But when the military model is consulted (or the university model pioneered by Embry-Riddle and others), we know how to turn out well-trained young pilots in the civilian world who understand that pushing a throttle up is a prerequisite for maintaining airspeed and not hitting seawalls (among other unyielding objects).  So, it becomes more a matter of dedication to safety and airline willingness to spend money (especially regionals) than a genuine worry that we can’t supply new pilots without a country full of grass roots training starts.

Frankly, what’s missing is desire, enthusiasm, wonder, and the determination of a kid or young person to eventually be in solo control of an air machine.  That belly fire is diminishing if not dying, and in addition to learning to come back together as a real nation with a universal willingness to compromise for the common good, we as pilots and aviation lovers need to deep-think the question of how to turn the enthusiasm drain around.  Otherwise we, and our beloved little airports, will unquestionably slide toward extinction.