While EAA continues to lead the charge to attract young people to aviation with its powerful Young Eagles program, I propose that we open a second front on the war against the declining pilot population: baby boomers.
Ultimately people now in their teens and 20s will be the future of general aviation, but that is a long-term solution. Many years, even decades, will likely pass between a teenager learning to fly and the point where that person has the resources and time to become a complete participant in aviation. Think of all of the people you know who learned to fly when they were young, or at least took some lessons, but then had to postpone active flying for years. It is the norm that family and work force people to shelf their aviation activities.
But there is a readymade group of people who have lived beyond the complications of youth, and that is the baby boomers, the largest generation in the history of the nation. The oldest boomer turned 65 this year, but the youngest are still in their 40s.
To call boomers the future of general aviation is using the term “future” differently. I don’t know what you think of when somebody says future, but it is probably further out than 20 or 30 years. But two or three decades is a long and useful period and that is what boomers can do for general aviation.
Replacing an 80-something-year-old pilot or aviation enthusiast with a teenager is great, but it is difficult. Replacing that same pilot who has timed out with a person in his or her 50s or 60s gives our favorite activity a person at the stage in life where they are ready with the time and money to become involved immediately.
Selling aviation to boomers isn’t hard. I was born in 1949 and just about every guy close to my age who I tell I’m a pilot says he has always wanted to learn to fly, too. I don’t mean to be sexist here, but women just don’t say the same thing. I’ll leave it to you to come up with your own reasons for that, because I have given up trying to understand why that is so, but it is. The general aviation industry and affinity groups have tried everything they could think of over the decades to change the low percentage of women who fly with only modest success at best.
I think the reason boomer guys are so interested in aviation is that most of us were handed down the specific gene from our dads and uncles and their friends. Being “air-minded” as they once said was almost a universal trait of the World War II generation and those guys passed on at least a foundation of interest to their kids. Even if dads from the previous generation couldn’t learn to fly, many, probably even most, took their kids to the airport, went to air shows and built models, and we all watched Sky King. Remember when every airline terminal had an observation deck? And it was crowded.
Another reason to redouble our efforts to attract boomers to aviation is that we now have something to sell with the sport pilot and light-sport airplane. Sport pilot gives a person a quicker route to a certificate with less cost and complication. And the driver’s license medical requirement for sport pilots removes a potential complication for older people learning to fly.
But there are at least two other broad categories that I think can attract boomers to aviation: more capable traveling airplanes, and restoration and preservation of antiques and classics.
The revolution in avionics has made piston airplanes much more useful as traveling machines. Even 40-year-old airplanes can have the latest in navigation and satellite weather installed. A piston airplane built during the boom years of the 1970s can be updated with avionics capability that nearly matches that of new production airplanes. Advanced avionics can’t move thunderstorms out of your way or raise visibility above approach minimums, but they can make travel in a light airplane safe and convenient, and in many cases you can easily match or exceed the door-to-door time of the airlines.
As for the antiques and classics, there is something biological in us that makes them attractive. Just as most of us lock into some period of music as our favorite, the same happens with airplanes. Airplanes that were old when I first saw them as a boy are still fascinating. At Oshkosh or other big air shows I look at the new airplanes and accessories, but I always gravitate toward the classics and antiques. Boomers care as much about old airplanes as they do about old cars or guitars.
Call it a bucket list, or maybe the generation that plans to never grow old, but boomers are our future, at least for the next 20 or 30 years. The Silver Eagles? The Gray Eagles? Heck, even the Bald Eagles. Baby boomers are ready to learn how to fly. Does anybody have the AARP’s phone number?