There's been a lot of talk lately among the GA community about how to attract more people to flying, especially the next generation. But most efforts seem focused on getting new pilots directly into Cirruses, or 172s, or at least an LSA. All the other options out there that get folks into the air a lot more cheaply -- ultralights, gliders, balloons, etc. -- don't seem to enter into the equation. I talked with some other pilots about this recently and the answer I got, in essence, was that those kind of aircraft just aren't manly enough to appeal. They're like offering a moped to somebody who wants a Harley.
Yet the other day, a pilot friend sent me this video of a skydiving operation in Dubai. These guys seem to be having some serious fun (some of it in ways the FAA probably would not allow) and amid all the high-powered, high-adrenaline play, I spotted a few powered parachutes, a trike, and a hot-air balloon. Isn't this what fun flying is about ... taking off from a beach, hanging out with friends, just being free to be up in the air and go places and explore? Is the pool of people that would appeal to, really too small to bother with? Maybe this kind of flying just needs better PR -- it's not a moped, it's an all-terrain vehicle, a Jeep, a dirt bike, an adventure machine.
It could be that these are two completely different pursuits -- sport flying and GA flying -- so the groups that support GA just don't see it as a good investment to encourage people to fly for fun. But it seems to me that if the fun fliers grow in number, they would provide a great target audience for the GA message. If you've already made the big leap from non-flyer to pilot-in-command, you might be a better prospect for moving into a Cirrus or a Cessna down the line. Even if these pilots never do move up, they're still building the constituency for flight, adding more people who understand that the freedom of the air is a freedom we need to keep. And the pool of people who could find enough money and time to fly ultralights has to be way bigger than the pool of prospective Cirrus pilots.
So, it seems to me that part of the GA strategy should be to build a stronger sport flying community, with stronger connections to the rest of GA. For starters, I'd guess that a fair number of students who are curious about flying but drop out of traditional training programs long before earning their private certificate, would be lots happier learning to fly a trike for fun, if only someone had suggested that to them. Instead of trying to figure out how to retain those students in the traditional programs, maybe flight schools should try to offer more options at the outset, and find new ways to sell those students what they really want -- an awesome experience of flight.