In Search Of Airborne Connection
It's been clear for a long time that the pilot population is in decline, but the reasons why and the ways to change the trajectory seem to be somewhat less clear. Plenty of theories and proposals have been floated, and various advocacy groups have taken aim at the issue, but so far nothing seems to have had a huge impact. The latest focus seems to be on connection and community-building. It's not just about making it easier or cheaper or more efficient to learn to fly, this theory goes -- if we want to attract new pilots and keep them active, they need opportunities to interact with other aviators and have fun.
A few years ago, Radek Wyrzykowski came knocking on the door of our AVweb trailer at Oshkosh, to tell us about a new idea he had to launch something called the IMC Club. Based at a little airport outside Boston -- not the usual hub for GA activity -- his idea was simply to get pilots together to share their experiences with instrument flight. A few years later, the IMC Club has almost 50 active chapters, and more in the works. The Club's success certainly adds evidence to the argument that there's a need for community and connection among pilots.
AOPA launched a new initiative last year, the Center to Advance the Pilot Community, to encourage the development of flying clubs and keep pilots active and engaged. They've put a Flying Club Finder online to help pilots find a group nearby, and they've been highlighting and promoting clubs at their website and in their members' magazine. It's not yet clear how much impact this might have had, but AOPA says there's a growing "buzz" of support for flying-club growth.
SocialFlight is working a different angle, using a free mobile app to try to get pilots out to events and help them connect online. The app lists over 3,000 aviation events on an interactive map, and also has social features to help pilots make plans together. Within a few months of launch, more than 10,000 users had signed up, SocialFlight says. The product aims to "inspire us to fly more because it gives us that mission, that reason to get out there and make new friends, learn new things and remind ourselves why we fly," the company says.
EAA of course has been working on this whole community concept for years. Not only does their big show at Oshkosh attract more pilots than any other event in the world, but their chapters around the country provide a forum for members to get together and share their knowledge every month. If there's a downside to EAA's efforts, it's that the chapters tend to focus on the homebuilding aspect, which is great for the builders, but leaves out a lot of other pilots. Over the last few years, EAA has been working to become more all-inclusive -- it's challenging though, to widen the tent without alienating the core membership.
Will all of these efforts help to reverse the trends and grow the pilot community? It's too soon to tell for sure, but my own sense is that they can't hurt, and might help a little. But personally, I think the most likely turning point that will change the trajectory for the future will be when increasingly automated systems make it easier and safer to fly. I know that's an arrow to the heart of aviators who prize their hard-won skills and enjoyed every step of that journey. But a decade or two (or maybe three or four) down the road, when little airplanes are as easy to operate as cars and hopefully safer, today's community-building efforts should provide a healthy and robust root system to support all that new growth.