There's a tremendous amount of effort going into encouraging new pilot starts as GA looks down the barrel of a gun that points to a much different world for the industry if more people don't get, or act on, the flying bug.
Various theories have been advanced, and AOPA and EAA are addressing them separately and collaboratively. AOPA's pilot retention initiative says schools and the whole pilot culture need to do a better job of convincing those who actually get to the point of taking a lesson to keep going through certification. EAA's Eagle Flight program will provide a structure for members to give free introductory flights to those who may have been harboring the desire to fly for most of their lives and have finally reached the personal circumstances where they're willing to give it a shot. Then there's the joint operation to abolish the third class medical for what amounts to recreational flying in Cherokees and 172s.
All are laudable, quantifiable programs loaded with photo ops and progress report potential, which, honestly, are how the alphabets justify their existence. What's more, they might even work.
But wouldn't it be ironic and kind of tragic if the biggest boost to pilot starts in decades comes from a larcenous little con artist/maniac from Washington State who says he's planning to join the ranks of aviation professionals when he's out of jail? By now you've heard that Colton Harris-Moore, who taught himself enough to get at least three stolen aircraft airborne, has been sentenced to seven years on those and a string of other break-ins, thefts and other incidents that terrorized residents of the idyllic islands in north Puget Sound. In a letter (PDF) to the judge in his case, Harris-Moore describes his harrowing flight in howling IMC in a stolen 182 and the spiritual awakening that was a turning point in his life.
And I'm Santa Claus on supersonic sled. Unless you believe in the power of rehabilitation in the U.S. penal system, this Harris-Moore is going to continue to use his undeniable smarts and instincts to engineer even better stunts that will put more people in danger and cost plenty of money. But that's just my opinion.
What's fact is that he's signed a deal to have a movie made about what put him in jail, and if it's done well it could become the kind of cultural phenomenon that continues the Hollywood tradition of celebrating dangerous rebels who manage to survive their anti-social behavior. And yes, it has the makings of a great movie, which is, again, just my opinion.
So, how does this relate to enticing and retaining student pilots? A while back I read somewhere that the reason it's harder to attract people to aviation is that it's become too ordinary. With the emphasis on safety and predictability and swift justice for those who venture to the edge, kids just think it's boring. Enter, say, Justin Bieber or some other teen phenom in the role of an authority-challenging epitome of cool who jumps into airplanes without taking lessons and well, I'm sure you get the idea. I wonder how you get a screenwriting job for something like this.
On a day when families in New Jersey and Texas mourned the loss of a total of 10 people in horrible crashes that, by all accounts, happened to pilots committed to flight safety and following the rules, it's hard to contemplate that the kind of recklessness that Harris-Moore has exhibited could end up being the push that some people need to try flying.
One thing's certain, though. If Harris-Moore does manage to get his act together and become one of those new pilot starts, there are a few people I know who could teach him a thing or two and he might also even learn how to fly.