by Mark Baker
AOPA President and CEO
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2020 issue
Smooth air, cooler temperatures and the striking beauty of fall foliage make October one of my favorite months.
While I have been able to get some good flight hours in during the pandemic, I’m itching for even more of an escape, and I’m not the only one. In fact, many are turning their attention to newfound hobbies, and although certain sectors of our economy are struggling to stay afloat, others are surprisingly thriving. Much of that has to do with recent findings surrounding the virus.
As more information has become available, experts have concluded that transmission rates of COVID-19 are significantly lower outdoors—one small study even states the odds of catching the coronavirus are nearly 20 times higher inside than out. A prescription of fresh air and Vitamin D could help explain the surge we’ve seen in outdoor sports like golf, and such recreational activities as boating, biking, and camping, which have all spiked in popularity.
According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, 70 percent of boat dealers saw sales growth in May, the strongest numbers recorded since July 2018. National park reservations are booking up quickly, and recreational vehicle sales are at an all-time high, especially among first-time buyers. The thirst for outdoor activities can even be seen through Google searches for water-related products like paddleboards, life vests, kayaks, and wakeboards, which have increased 70 to 100 percent, according to a recent news article.
With all the talk of bustling marinas and campgrounds packed with first-timers, it’s clear that GA has an opportunity to attract our own new, adventurous audiences. After all, GA flying alone or with your family is one of the few activities where social distancing can truly be maintained. While statistics shows that GA is faring pretty well—activity is up 15 percent above seasonal norms and with an uptick in business aviation and private charters—we need to ensure that our pilot population stays robust. That starts with access.
The global aviation industry, as a whole, has taken a huge hit from the pandemic. The industry faced an immense global pilot shortage just eight months ago; another way to look at that was there was a tremendous demand for pilots. It was a great opportunity to earn a living by flying, and these pilots needed to start somewhere. Even now, as career prospects are more uncertain, all of us in the GA industry need to encourage more people to appreciate the passion and pursue the idea of becoming a pilot—for pleasure or for pay.
Here’s your chance to be a real ambassador for general aviation. To those who think it takes years of time and piles of money to fly, remind them that a sport pilot certificate only requires a minimum of 20 hours of flight time. While there are some limitations, you can fly some pretty awesome light sport aircraft—everything from a Piper Cub to the ultimate amphibious adventure machine, the Icon A5. Icon even makes a point to reach out to nonpilots and offers training for its aircraft. And a reliable airplane needn’t cost more than a quality car.
There are other ways to lower the cost of flying. Seeking out scholarships from industry organizations like Women in Aviation International, the Experimental Aircraft Association, the National Business Aviation Association, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and The Ninety-Nines is a great start. Here at AOPA, we offer numerous primary and advanced flight training scholarships. Last year alone, we awarded 123 scholarships totaling more than $1 million. Scholarships are a great way you can help others experience aviation, as the funds come from donations to the AOPA Foundation. Flying clubs are another way to save money on aircraft ownership by lowering the costs of maintaining, storing, and operating aircraft. Not to mention, flying clubs offer a built-in support group from all levels of experience—just one of the many perks.
Of course, flying all starts at the local airport. I know we still have a long way to go to make them more welcoming. I remember riding my bike to the airport as a kid, but today, gates, fences, high security, and badge access might deter those interested from stepping in and talking to the locals. Welcome into our community those who are on the outside looking in because we know that once you’re a part of the community, there’s no group more willing to lend a helping hand than GA pilots—I’ve witnessed numerous examples of this in my own life.
So, as we enter another season waiting for a vaccine to eradicate this COVID-19 mess, let’s be thankful for what we still have: the freedom to fly. Let’s remind our friends and acquaintances that, just like boating and camping, flying is an adventure that can quite literally show you the world. And in times like these, what more can we ask for?