Recreational flying hobby in decline
- Published Wednesday, April 26, 2007, in the New York Times
Up, Up and ... Never Mind
By Matthew L. Wald
Smoketown, Pa. -- Matthew W. Phelps was a natural candidate for flying
lessons. A computer system administrator, he liked anything
technical. He had a brother who had a plane and wrote about aviation
for a magazine. And from the moment he got behind the controls, at a
small airport north of Boston, he enjoyed himself.
"I liked it a lot," he said. "It was fun, it was exhilarating."
But Mr. Phelps, 42, embodies all the promise and crisis of general
aviation. He gave up after 15 hours of lessons, probably about a
quarter of the way to earning his license.
"At that point, I'd met my future wife and we were starting to save
for the wedding, and then to buy a house, and then there was something
else to save money for," he said. That was in 1993. "I'm still sort
of dreaming that it might get done, I just put it on hold," he said.
Once, nearly every boy had the idea that he would slip the surly bonds
of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings, as John
Gillespie Magee Jr., a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, wrote in 1941.
Plenty of people still go to school hoping for a job at the airlines
flying the big jets, but experts fear that the hobbyist, who flies as
an alternative to golf or boating, or perhaps to take the family 100
miles to a beach or maybe just an obscure restaurant, is disappearing.
The number of student pilots is down by about a third since 1990, from
129,000 to 88,000. The number of private pilots is down from 299,000
to 236,000, according to statistics kept by the Federal Aviation
Administration. And they are aging.
Some longtime private pilots fear that an industry is withering, and a
bit of Americana is slipping away, along with a bit of freedom and
joy. And it is happening in part because of lack of interest; Walter
Mitty doesn't want to fly anymore.
The industry has recently launched a major campaign to lure people
like Mr. Phelps back, and to recruit new students. But something has
"It's not a Gen X kind of thing," said Paul Quinn, 62, with a smile,
as he fueled up his 1942-vintage Army Air Corps trainer at the tiny
airport in Smoketown, Pa. Sitting at the picnic tables overlooking
the single runway, a variety of students, pilots and sightseers had
gathered in the warm sun. Most, like Mr. Quinn, had gray hair. "Most
of the people who are out here are in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s," he
Ironically, an increasingly technological society is turning its back
on a high-technology pastime.
One problem is fear, in an era when people describe their cars by the
number of airbags, not the number of horses. In small planes, the
statistics show that fatal accidents per 100,000 hours of flight fell
by one-quarter in the decade ending in 2004, but some people in
aviation fear that tolerance for risk is falling even faster.
Another is the shift of income and family decision-making to women.
Industry leaders try hard not to sound like a former president of
Harvard and attribute anything to innate skill, but women simply do
not take up flying as frequently as men do.
"There's been a big sociological and psychological change in the
families of today, in where the discretionary dollars go," said Phil
Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. When
the husband told the stay-at-home mom of the 1950s that he was going
to spend a Saturday afternoon taking flying lessons, she acquiesced,
he said. Today, he said, in a two-income family, she is more likely
to say: "You are not. That's your day to take Johnny to the soccer
game, and what the heck are you doing spending our hard-earned money
on flying lessons?"
Mr. Boyer's association is trying hard to make flying more appealing
to women, including offering training in how to read aviation maps,
talk on the radio and provide other help in the plane, and maybe
transitioning them to earning a license themselves. But 95 percent of
the students are still male, he said.
At the airport in Smoketown, Matt Kauffman, the chief flight
instructor at Aero-Tech Services, the only flight school here, said
that the training system had not adapted itself to women. "Women
learn differently from men," Mr. Kauffman said. "If two men go up,
they will scream and shout, and a transfer of knowledge occurs, and
we'd get back on the ground and go have a beer, and life is good," he
said. "If you yell at a woman, she'd start crying, and she'd never
come back." He would like to hire a female flight instructor but
can't find one, he said.
Time and money drive others away. The prospect of taking months to
earn a pilot's license is less appealing now. It is also expensive,
$5,000 to $7,000. Renting even a tiny two-seat plane runs $75 an
hour, and an instructor, $40 an hour or so. Fuel costs money, too,
but its recent price increase is not a major consideration, because
small planes burn only six to seven gallons an hour.
David Ehrenstein got his pilot's license in graduate school in the
early 1990s, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I'm
a little bit of a closet technie nerd," he said. He liked flying
because "there's a bunch of technology involved," and that using it
"to do this great cool thing was exciting." But he had to give it up
when he moved to Washington about three years later.
"My impression is that when people grow up and have kids, they no
longer have time to fly," said Mr. Ehrenstein, now 40. "When I quit,
the major demographic of pilots was retired white guys."
Even people with money find flying a guilty pleasure. Ron Janis, a
lawyer in New York who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, wants
his license so he can fly to a house he and his wife bought in
Provincetown, Mass. And he loves to fly. But, he said: "I certainly
work longer hours than when I started. And I do get in trouble with
my firm for taking this time off" to fly.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did not help, nor did the crash deaths
of prominent private pilots like Cory Lidle or John F. Kennedy Jr.
Nor did the bumbling flight of two men from Smoketown into the
District of Columbia in May 2005, in a two-seat Cessna, that paralyzed
the federal government.
"We'll be paying for that for years," said Mr. Kauffman, the flight
instructor. (The men were not his students and it was not his plane,
he quickly pointed out.) Mr. Kauffman said his business has held
constant, mostly because his only competitor went out of business last
Indeed, airports like this one show signs of stagnation. At any
general aviation airport, the cars in the parking lot are usually new
but the planes on the field have vintages more like the taxis in
Havana. They are all well maintained, some private pilots say, but
carburetors are still in common use.
Vern Raburn, the president and chief executive of Eclipse Aviation,
which is seeking to sell a new generation of tiny jets for general
aviation use, observed in a speech that the Beechcraft Bonanza is now
60 years old. "I challenge you to find another industry in the world
today that celebrates building 60-year-old products," he said.
But Mr. Raburn's product costs over $1.5 million, and thus is not
likely to revitalize the lower end of the spectrum.
Some industry executives say the reason is that America is no longer a
do-it-yourself, take-charge society, and that includes
fly-it-yourself. Mr. Boyer's group, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots
Association, tried putting ads on the cable TV channels that run
do-it-yourself home improvement and electronics programs. The
campaign did not work very well, he said. Now his organization has a
new marketing campaign, Project Pilot, with a smoothly produced video
narrated by Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles, who flew the Atlantic
solo in 1927 and electrified the world of aviation.
"It gives me a rush every time I go up," he says on the DVD. But he
adds: "Just as my grandfather's flight created a huge interest in
flying, we need to create that same groundswell today. We need a new
generation of general aviation pilots, because without more pilots,
even A.O.P.A. can't keep general aviation strong, and that will
ultimately have a big effect on every pilot."
BUT some veterans fear the magic is gone for good. Men who returned
from World War II having seen the Mustangs, Corsairs or Thunderbolts
might have wanted to fly their own propeller planes. In the wars in
the Middle East, the A-10 Warthog has not inspired the same ambitions.
The F.A.A. last year introduced a new kind of license, sport pilot, to
try to lower the barriers to entry and draw more people in. The
license limits the pilot to very small planes, and, at first, daytime
flying, and staying within 50 miles. It also requires fewer hours,
and costs about half as much to get.
Many flight instructors say the license is so limited that there is no
reason to bother. Hal Shevers, who owns a flight school near
Cincinnati, is pushing his students to get the license. With it, he
said, "I can take my mom and dad or wife and kids up on a nice
afternoon or sunny Sunday, and show them the sights."
"I can show them a sunset, a sunrise."
But to work, some people in the industry say, it will require a major
manufacturer to build a new class of plane, one that can be sold for
less than $100,000, and insured for less, so it will be less expensive
To be able to offer cut-rate prices for the new sport license,
Mr. Kauffman went looking for a small, simple, inexpensive airplane.
He ended up with an Aeronca Champion, which was built in 1946. So
far, nobody is building a new plane to match the F.A.A.'s program.
Correction: May 10, 2007
An article on April 26 about efforts to encourage people to learn to
fly referred incorrectly to a new category of airplanes, light sport
aircraft. They are indeed being built.
It also referred incorrectly to sport pilot licenses. There are no
distance restrictions on them.