Response To Article On Recruiting & Retaining Pilots

Dear Dave:

I read with interest your magazine. I have followed both parts of Jim Hanson’s articles on flight training. Some of what he has said I tend to agree with and some I disagree with. He feels that money is not an issue. My research shows otherwise. Being a behavioral scientist, I tend to look at situations, trends, etc., a little different from others. The problem with the pilot population decreasing and the very slow input of new private pilots is the “high cost of flying.” And anyone who denies this is not facing reality. For most young people, spending $10,000 to learn to fly a plane (without a value reason to do so) is not seen as a good way to spend their money (which most don’t have to begin with).

The dropout rate of people already in flight training is a totally different story and while the latest research” suggests that the dropout problem is related to poor teaching and poor flight training programs, this is again, not totally true. My research shows (and I do it scientifically, not anecdotally) that the number of young people taking flight training for a career is increasing. The cost of learning to fly has a “value reason” for them; it is education for a vocation. But people learning to fly just to poke holes in the sky are becoming an endangered species. Yes, the haphazard or diffident manner of teaching flying that many student pilots encounter is certainly non-productive. But time and costs as it continues on can become frustrating to the “I want it now” generation and with the end not in sight, many do drop out to pursue other activities where it does not take as long or cost so much to do. (Buying a used motorcycle and taking a weekend cycle course, comes to mind.)

So if a young (or old) person does not have a “value reason” to learn to fly, such as wanting to cover a sales territory quicker than by car, or in a less frustrating manner than the airlines, then the cost, inconvenience and time it takes to get a pilot certificate may not be worth it. I learned to fly in 1975 because I had to travel for my job and GA was the easiest way to get around (and I was 38 years old when I started).

A century ago all countries began aviation on the same footing. Some countries such as the U.S. and Canada allowed general aviation to develop naturally and inexpensively. Other countries, such as China and those in Europe, allowed only the airlines and military aviation to grow. China is now just beginning to see the value in GA. In the U.S., the cost of flying is becoming too expensive for most Americans to justify. Plus the complexity of flying safely and legally is more than most people will put up with. If I could not fly IFR on the East Coast or southern California, I would have second thoughts flying there, VFR only. (Flying) IFR, you do what you are told; VFR, you are on your own to stay clear of where you shouldn’t go.

I was subjected to a seven-month long FAA investigation for supposedly violating some airspace, which cost me a lot of time and money to defend myself. The investigation was terminated without action as there was no proof that I did anything wrong. This is the legal environment in which more and more pilots are finding themselves, and to many, flying is not worth the hassle.

The Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) movement was supposed to be the answer to reducing flying costs, but with LSAs running well over $100,000, it is no longer a viable solution.

So when people say money is not the single biggest problem with flying, I believe they are out of touch with reality.

Jim Hanson thinks that “good old-fashioned salesmanship” will bring in new flight students. I disagree. He cites the fact that over one million kids have taken EAA flights. But how many have gone on to become private pilots as their final goal? Virtually none. The cost today to become a pilot in terms of money and time exceeds what most people are willing to pay. And people who are already pilots (and even own planes) are flying less because of the financial cost and what it takes to remain legally proficient.

I believe that unless private flying as a hobby or just for the fun of it becomes cheaper and less complex, these kinds of pilots will quietly die off. I fly all over the U.S. all the time and talk to aviation businesses, pilots, student pilots, and young and old people who have considered becoming a pilot. And the reality is, GA is becoming too expensive and too time-consuming and complex for most Americans. In 36 years of flying, almost 7,000 hours, and having owned eight planes, I have seen the ups and downs of GA many times over. In the direction GA is going legally and financially, I do not see much hope unless major changes take place.

Dr. Bob Worthington
President, U.S. Pilots Association
Author of The Left Seat Column
FLY-LOW magazine
Las Cruses, NM

Dear Bob:

You say you disagree, but then make my point that it is the lack of perceived value that causes people to drop out. These people obviously thought there was some value to learn to fly – as a career…to enhance their other activities…for the educational experience…or just for the unique perspective and the thrill of being able to fly. Why did they drop out? It goes back to my point…at one point, they were willing to spend the money.  Today, they don’t feel they are getting their money’s worth. None of us can make that decision for those pilots, but we CAN help them to realize value in being able to fly by welcoming them into the pilot fraternity as I mentioned, giving them suggestions on USING their airplanes (Midwest Flyer Magazine is dedicated to helping pilots fly to interesting destinations) and emphasizing the social side of flying—making airports into places that people WANT to be at. That’s just good old-fashioned salesmanship—selling your product, just as any other business sells their product.

Bob, you are correct in that many people are not interested in taking a year to obtain the license. I addressed that issue as well… I lease aircraft to MN Aviation. They specialize in full-time, accelerated training, usually for advanced ratings. The private pilot rating is styled as a 21-day course – mainly to accommodate weather delays. Each student is assigned an instructor and an aircraft; the student’s time is respected. This is an example of the type of changes I believe are necessary in the industry.

You bring up the fact that over one million kids have taken EAA Young Eagle flights, but that few have actually started flying. I wonder if you only read Part I in the series discussing who is willing to spend the money. In Part II, I asked the same question. Again, we seem to agree with the point mentioned…you do not disagree.

All of us would like to have cheap flying, but the dream has been only that – a dream – since the days of the barnstormer. Champs, Cubs, Ercoupes, Luscombes – all of the aircraft that meet LSA standards today – cost the better part of a year’s wages when they were introduced. Just for fun, I looked at the average annual income for the decade of the 1940s – about $2,000 on the average for the decade, according to I also looked up the price of a new Cub – $2195, according to Aircraft Bluebook and Price Digest. That means that the iconic basic airplane – the Piper J-3 Cub – cost as much as the average annual salary in 1947. Aviation was expensive, even back then!

Do you think that volume will bring the price down? Consider that over 19,000 Cubs were produced. Was even this level of pricing sustainable? Apparently not…Taylorcraft, Ercoupe, and Aeronca ceased production, and Piper came out with new (and more expensive) models to use up the remaining Cub parts.

Today, the average wage is $40,924 (2009 was the last year available). Can we get an airplane for one year’s salary? Yes, with qualifications. You can buy a factory-built two-seater priced in the $50,000 range, but it will have sailcloth covering. That in itself is not bad; it’s far cheaper to recover with sailcloth envelopes, than it is with conventional fabric. Unlike the 1940s’ vintage Cub, it will have an electrical system, tri-gear, and even a radio and electronics. It will have a better useful load, better range, and go faster. The aircraft are available, but people aren’t buying them. So much for the “There aren’t any aircraft that provide affordable flying” argument.

You could also BUILD an airplane – or buy a pre-built experimental aircraft – for well under the average annual salary. They can be fast or slow, according to your needs, and also offer the amenities the Cub-class aircraft lacked. THOSE aircraft are not setting the world on fire with sales, either.

Of course, those same aircraft that were produced in the thousands – all the way from pre-war to the 1980s – are available for that same $40,000-plus figure. These aircraft are just as good as when they left the factory. Ask any airplane salesman – he would be GLAD to set you up in one – but they aren’t selling well, either.

The point is, there ARE aircraft available for that same figure as a national average salary. Coincidentally, that same figure is about the same as a new Buick Enclave, and THOSE are selling. To wish for a new airplane at a figure below the average annual salary is just that – wishful thinking. Even if the Chinese produced them by the thousands and they were sold at

Wal-mart, it isn’t going to happen.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time FBO at Albert Lea, Minnesota. He has worked for or owned FBOs for most of the 49 years he has been flying. Along the way, he has acquired an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, five jet type ratings, and glider, lighter-than-air, and single and multi-engine seaplane ratings.  Hanson doesn’t claim to have all of the answers…he says, “But I HAVE made all of the mistakes!” If you would like to comment on the article, Jim Hanson can be reached at his airport office: 507-373-0608, or

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This entry was posted in Columns, Columns, February/March 2013, Guest Editorial, Letters and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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