So asks the NYTimes:
Once, nearly every boy had the idea that he would slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings, as John Gillespie Magee Jr., a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, wrote in 1941. Plenty of people still go to school hoping for a job at the airlines flying the big jets, but experts fear that the hobbyist, who flies as an alternative to golf or boating, or perhaps to take the family 100 miles to a beach or maybe just an obscure restaurant, is disappearing.
The number of student pilots is down by about a third since 1990, from 129,000 to 88,000. The number of private pilots is down from 299,000 to 236,000, according to statistics kept by the Federal Aviation Administration. And they are aging.
Some longtime private pilots fear that an industry is withering, and a bit of Americana is slipping away, along with a bit of freedom and joy. And it is happening in part because of lack of interest; Walter Mitty doesn’t want to fly anymore.
They go on to discuss various perceived reasons, chief amongst them time, cost, and a lower tolerance of risk on the part of the newest generations. To some degree, all are probably at least partially valid. It is expensive, and it does take time. But have you ever played a round of golf at a municipal course on a weekend? Eight hours on average. Cost? Depending on the course, easily approaching the $100 that I spent to have a chopped hamburger steak in Portsmouth last week. Risk? Possibly, I suppose. The Times brings up Corey Lidle and JFK, Jr. They ignore the fact that celebrities have been dying in airplanes for decades on end, though.
I spent some time thinking about other possible explanations. One idea that I pondered had to do with the romance having gone out of flying. When I was a kid, my heroes were named Rickenbacker, von Richtofen, Yeager, Glenn, Armstrong, and many others. These days, however, we see things differently. Airline pilots are no longer considered to be The High and Mighty; they are the glorified bus drivers that come on the intercom to tell you that you're going to be late and miss your connection. Fighter pilots are no longer The Knights of the Sky; if they're anything at all to the masses, they are either pawns, mercenaries, or a useless, anachronistic expense. Is this the reason more young people aren't passionate about aviation? I don't know. They do still come to airshows by the hundreds of thousands every year, after all.
I don't know what the problem is, but we as a group can and must be doing things to combat this negative trend. For example, if I fly tomorrow, where will I go? Chances are that I will fly out somewhere to meet with a group of other RV pilots. This insular clique-like behavior may be the problem. Perhaps we should be reaching out to non-flyers in a more meaningful manner. EAA has the Young Eagle program, AOPA has the Mentor program, but are these programs enough? I don't know. They seem to be trying to solve the problem one person at a time. Would it make sense to try reaching more people?
I gave a little talk to my daughter's class a few years ago, and the kids were fascinated by the whole thing. Could I expand that by offering a free "How to be a Pilot" seminar at my local community college/library/high school? I'd be thrilled to do it, but the task of researching subject matter and putting together a nice multi-media presentation is daunting. I wonder if AOPA could (or has, for that matter) put together a package that could be used by willing volunteer presenters in communities around the country, introducing the breadth and depth of General Aviation and stressing that getting a pilot's license is a very attainable goal. That would be cool!
UPDATE: It's not just flying that has this problem. Consider this, quoted from a blog called "The View Through The Windshield":
The old car culture is also undergoing gigantic changes. Many car clubs are suffering. I belong to two clubs - both are experiencing declines in membership. But that's not the big problem - it's the volunteer pool. It's drying up.
My experience is that people start buying old cars when they reach their mid-40s. That's when most guys start getting what the government calls 'disposable income' and what we call 'pissing-around money'. I bought my first collector car when I was 44. I quickly joined two car clubs - both run by people in their mid-to-late 50s and populated by 40-somethings like me. The club's 'elders' encouraged us to get active. We did and, by age 50 or so, we were running the club. The problem is that no one ever came along to replace us. There are few forty-somethings in these car club, despite aggressive recruitment efforts by club members. Those who do join aren't very active and have no interest in volunteering to help run a club. "No spare time," they plead.
Sounds very similar to me. Our productivity gains as a society have clearly come at a cost.