AOPA (Sort of) Admits It and General Aviation Need Help

October, 2014

In the October, 2014 issue of AOPA Pilot, we are struck by the pessimism the magazine takes about general aviation (GA). As the world’s largest non-airline civilian pilot and airplane organization, its attitude towards its members’ passion is surprising.

First, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President and CEO Mark Baker pens an article in which he admits that the price of new airplanes – even the Light Sport Aircraft that were to bring flying back to the average pilot – is too high for most to afford. Instead, he and AOPA are now pushing flying clubs as the answer to the rapid drop in the pilot population and number of hours flown by GA aircraft. A few pages later, Editor in Chief Thomas Haines repeats everything Baker has said. For a flier, this is not good news.

From the excitement and promise of 2004’s Sport Pilot/LSA fantasies (owning a new airplane and getting back into flying), AOPA has been reduced to extolling the virtues of buying a used Cessna 150 or 152 as a club and being able to fly it around the patch “for as little as $65 an hour.” Travel? Not so much. The $30,000 new LSA in 2004 turned out to be the $150,000 LSA, with the smallest new factory-produced singles starting at about $300,000. A private pilot’s license now will cost upwards of $10,000. While the Sport Pilot’s license can be had for as little as $5,000, once again, what airplanes are there for the sport pilot to fly? Aeronca Champs are now $35,000 and up, parts are scarce, and 50-year-old, 75-mile-an-hour fabric-covered taildraggers are not on most peoples’ shopping lists. As of 2011 (the last year figures are available), there were 210 Recreational Pilots (under the utterly failed Recreational Pilot Certificate instituted in 1990); 4,350 Sport Pilots; 195,650 Private Pilots; 123,900 Commercial Pilots; and 142,650 Airline Transport Pilots. Total pilots numbered 618,660, down from 827.100 in 1980, a drop of 26% in 31 years. That the major manufacturers were law-suited out of making single-engine piston airplanes in the mid-1980s didn’t help, either.

It’s true that some changes in economic conditions are causal. The Vietnam War GI Bill provided millions of veterans with the money for education, and tens of thousands became professional pilots. Manufacturing costs were modest into the 1970s, with a new, basic model Cessna 150 airplane costing $6,995 in 1966. Used small aircraft like an Aeronca 7AC Champ, Piper J-3 Cub, of Cessna 120 could be had in frayed-if-flyable condition for as little as $800 - $1,000. My 1946 Cessna 120 cost me $3,000 in 1976. And flight instruction could be had for as little as $2/hour (trust me; I was in the right seat).

To make matters worse, the FAA has stubbornly refused to move aviation medicine out of the 1940s. Anyone wishing to fly as pilot in command of any aircraft above the LSA level (no more than 1,320 pounds at gross weight) must have a 3rd class medical certificate or better. This archaic regulation has kept hundreds of thousands out of aviation and made other, older pilots sit on the sidelines. Under the same mind-set, no one would be able to pilot a private boat or recreational vehicle without a government medical certificate. “Hello, hello! Anyone home, McFly?” There is legislation now pending that would eliminate the third class medical certificate requirement to fly a typical 4-seat airplane but so far the FAA has dug-in its heels and is moving only slowly and grudgingly. Even the U.S. Navy, hardly a slacker when it comes to flying, now gives most aircrew a complete flight physical just once every four years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, what AOPA is now backing-into is the public admission of what we have all known for years. The flying magazines now feature almost exclusively only too expensive to buy airplanes. Articles and ads on avionics seem to have been pulled from Star Trek movies: intensely capable and complicated boxes priced at more than many people’s cars. Features of that flying holiday to the Bahamas or Aspen or Orlando in your own plane bring most often to readers pangs of disappointment and envy as such trips are as inaccessible to them as a lunar landing.

What seems to be increasingly unavoidable is an (as yet unspoken) merging of existing pilot and aircraft organizations. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) competes directly with AOPA, although EAA also caters to builders and owners of their own aircraft – “Experimental” aircraft as the FAA sees it. As of 2012, AOPA claimed 384,915 members; EAA had 175,00; for a total of just 559,915. That’s just eleven percent the membership of the NRA, an organization that is growing and whose members are far more passionate than are those of these flying groups.

Since the 1970s, General Aviation has been in a process of continual and accelerating change, which fits right into 21st century life. Within the next few years we will see whether GA will continue as a meaningful endeavor or just a niche activity for the rich like Formula 1 racing.

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