Letter From Gayle Small & Response From Jim Hanson

Dear Dave:

These days, in GA conversations and publications, there are few topics that can encourage more heated discussions than that of recruiting and retaining pilots. I have just read Dr. Bob Worthington’s letter and Jim Hanson’s reply in the February/March 2013 issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine. It is obvious they both are strong supporting members of the GA community and that they feel compelled to contribute to finding answers to difficult questions.

Dr. Worthington has done research just as Mr. Hanson has. He quotes years, dollars, rules, etc. and adds some emotion, just as Mr. Hanson does. Somehow, in spite of doing all the research, they both arrive at some different conclusions. The single fact that they and others agree on is that pilot numbers are declining.

I was engaged in some hangar talk yesterday, and one pilot said he is looking for a partner so he can continue to fly his 172. He said his cost of flying just continues to go up. It is not only that the cost of 100LL is above $6.00 and going up, but all of the associated costs have steadily increased including maintenance, insurance, hangar rent, annuals, etc. Once a discussion like this is started, there seems to be a need for some pilots to point fingers at other entities and to blame the FAA, the insurance industry, petroleum companies, the FBO, government regulations, and on and on.

I have not done the research that Dr. Worthington and Mr. Hanson have, but I am willing to accept Mr. Hanson’s figures regarding the cost comparison of buying a basic airplane in the 1940s, compared to buying one today. On the other hand, I do agree with Dr. Worthington’s comment that the LSA movement did not reduce flying costs as most of us thought it might. What seems to be the greatest challenge to many younger, or newer pilots, are the costs of ownership.

In Jim Hanson’s previous article he promoted “good old-fashioned salesmanship” and that it might also be lacking. My experience has been that there are fewer experienced pilots wanting to talk about entry-level flying and more who want to concentrate on loftier goals and ambitions. We must all be willing to talk about the fun of basic flying if we want to get prospects through the front door of the local training center/FBO.

There is still considerable interest in aviation, which we continue to see with all of the EAA Young Eagles flights and with the attendance at local air shows. However, there are reasons (why) that interest does not translate into action and I am inclined to agree with Dr. Worthington that it is because of the “high cost of flying.” Renewed promotion of flying clubs and partnerships might be a starting point, but we still need general aviation advocates who are willing to advocate and resist increased costs wherever they discover them, whether they are hidden in new regulations, or caused by additional local, state and federal tax burdens.

Thank you for publishing a great magazine with relevant discussions.

Gayle Small
Sport Pilot Certificate Holder
AOPA Member
Watertown, South Dakota

(Response From: Writer Jim Hanson)


You cite “the high cost of flying” as the reason for the lack of pilot starts, yet do not address the fact that the dropout rate is 80%. Each of those people who started knew the cost of flying when they started, but accepted that cost and signed up anyway. Once again, the issue is not the COST, but the PERCEIVED VALUE. We’re simply not delivering on that value, and failing to tell our story on the benefits of GA. Midwest Flyer Magazine is dedicated to showing pilots how to enjoy their airplane, and the places it can take them.

Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) are not the answer. Avweb recently ran a discussion called “Failure to Launch” about the failure of LSAs to catch on. It has become the most commented-upon column ever to appear there. Many also decried “the high cost of learning to fly” and wishing for “an LSA that would sell for under $50,000.” That isn’t going to happen. The way the rules are written, an approved engine for a factory-built LSA costs a minimum of $22,000 just for the engine. You can build an experimental LSA with a different engine for far less. You can buy an LSA-compliant old airplane for even less, and those ARE selling!

One of the things that people attribute to the lack of pilot completions is “the high cost of gas.” This ignores the old axiom that “the cheapest thing you can put in an airplane is the gas.” The real cost of owning an airplane is the fixed costs. We seem to agree on that…spread those costs over multiple owners. Most GA airplanes today will run just fine on no-alcohol MOGAS, but despite the fact that it sells for $1 per gallon cheaper at our FBO than 100 octane, very few pilots use it. Most pilots still haven’t learned fuel conservation techniques, either; they continue to run at high power/low altitude, without leaning correctly. For the 50 years I’ve been flying, 100 octane has cost about twice the cost of mogas: $ .25 versus $ .50 per gallon in 1962 and $1.00 versus $2.00 in 1970. If we used that same ratio today, we would find that $3.75 mogas would translate to  $7.50 avgas — a figure not reached except in the highest-cost FBOs.

One thing that all those who believe that the cost of flying should be lowered have in common is failure to identify just HOW that can be made to happen. You say that “some pilots point fingers at other entities and blame the FAA, the insurance industry, petroleum companies, the FBO, government regulations…..” I’ve defended the industry, the insurance companies, and the petroleum companies. I’ve never blamed anyone OTHER than the government for killing the industry. Recall the tagline on several of my articles: “We got into this mess through the stroke of the regulatory pen, and we can use that same pen to deregulate and get us out.”  Examples:

· Most people would agree that government is far more pervasive today than it was at the height of general aviation. Dr. Worthington cites controlled airspace…others might cite additional FARs, and out-of-date pilot certification requirements, all of which I’ve identified.

· FAA’s last-minute addition of “no Sport Pilot privileges if you’ve been denied a medical” was not necessary, and detrimental to LSA flying. Repeal it.

· FAA’s insistence on ASTM-certified engines for LSAs increased the cost of those aircraft through the roof…only Lycoming, Continental, and Rotax meet the standard.

· FAA regulations on charter have killed that market, and along with it, the market for corporate aircraft that can be leased for charter. No charter, results in reduced exposure by more corporations to aviation, and fewer aircraft.

· FAA regulations prohibited air rides (since rescinded), reducing the exposure of people to flying light airplanes.

· FAA’s “one size fits all” approach to charter regulation—making charter operators adhere to the same regulations as major airlines—has weakened not only the charter industry, but the market for the airplanes that can be useful in the industry.  Have you ever wondered why the GA manufacturers no longer produce the Twin Cessnas, Piper Navajos, and all of the commuter aircraft that were once produced here?

· FAA certification costs have stifled certification of new aircraft and raised the price. Have you noticed that almost all new airplanes come from overseas? It’s easier to certify an airplane outside the U.S., than it is to certify it here (think Diamond, TBM, Pilatus). In a move that could be a trend, the FAA has indicated a willingness to adopt changes to aircraft certification rules.

Every one of us that has learned to fly — and continues to fly — has made the value calculation, and decided that flying is worth it. We agree on the fact that people have less disposable income today (in constant dollars), than they did in the heyday of GA…something I’ve emphasized before. We agree that the lack of after-tax disposable income affects our ability to fly, relative to the high point of GA. We also agree that we need to be advocates of General Aviation in promoting the industry (“Good old-fashioned salesmanship!”). Dr. Worthington and I also agree that MAJOR changes (read Federal Aviation Regulations) need to take place to turn this around. There is no “magic bullet” or small, incremental change that will accomplish this. Nothing less than a wholesale re-write of the FARs will make this happen.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time fixed base operator at Albert Lea, Minnesota. He has worked for or owned fixed base operations 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, but says, “But I have made all of the mistakes!” If you would like to comment on his comments, Jim Hanson can be reached at his airport office at 507-373-0608 or jimhanson@deskmedia.com.

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