Following a driving vacation with the husband and kids last summer, Judy scheduled flying lessons. She has been aggressively going after her private pilot certificate. After one of her lessons, someone in the lounge asked her what caused her sudden desire to learn to fly. What Judy said reminded me of how very clearly new or non-pilots often see things that we who have accepted the status quo of aviation just plain miss.
Judy's response to the inquiry was vehement, a verbal blast fired as a question, "Have you driven on the interstates lately?" I thought about it and realized driving was something I tried to avoid. Maybe pilots have been spoiled by using general aviation airplanes for travel, because her comments on how bad it has become to drive any distance got my attention. She spoke about the horrific nature of travel by car for some time. As a southern cousin used to say, she talked "right stiddy." Edited, her message was: traffic is terribly congested, roads are in desperate need of repair, driver's skill levels are charitably referred to as "lousy," and very little consideration for fellow drivers is displayed on the roadways.
She reminded us that our state governor is known as "Governor Pothole" because he refused to fix the roads during his first two terms in office. Once he broke his promise not to run again, he started fixing the high-profile, highly traveled roads. Judy noted that in ten hours of driving she went through no fewer than ten construction zones, all of which reduced two or three lanes to one, most of which jammed up traffic. Her comments about major highways being allowed to become parking lots did not fit in a family magazine.
Once Judy got going, we just sat in awe and listened. Her insights were extremely perceptive. She said that having finished her solo cross countries and becoming somewhat accustomed to going somewhere in a little airplane, she now complained about an extra fifteen minutes enroute because of a headwind. She mused that, on the driving vacation, after fighting heavy traffic, construction, and moronic drivers, she wasn't even out of the state in the time it would have taken for the entire trip by air, even in the trainer she was flying. She pointed out to us that, on the vacation trip, when they got to the two-lane roads, after midnight, a significant number of those cars she was meeting, some twenty inches away, were being operated by folks who had been drinking. She'd read NTSB aviation accident reports on the internet and was aware that alcohol was simply not a significant problem in general aviation. So, she is learning to fly to try and reduce the chances of driving on vacation again.
Judy was not at all shy. She asked if Americans have become sheep because they regularly put up with the nightmare of ever larger trucks on crumbling highways. She had done her homework on safety statistics as well. She pointed out we kill nearly as many people in eighteen months in cars as we did in the ten years of the Vietnam War (58,000). She asked if I had made a driving trip exceeding 400 miles where I had not seen the remains of an auto accident. I admitted that I could not conveniently recall such a trip.
She stated that we kill about 1000 people in airplanes annually, fewer than the number that die from falling in showers. Yet, despite these facts, aviation has the reputation as a dangerous activity. While the aviation accident rate is greater than that of cars, Judy mentioned that participants in the FAA Wings program seem to have a lower accident rate than other pilots. She also commented that pilots have a far greater level of control over their personal safety than we do when driving cars, as drivers are all too often the victim of someone else's lapse.
One of the denizens of the lounge asserted that weather can delay flights. Another said that if the weather is going to be bad, his practice was to just enjoy an extra day wherever they happen to be. Made pretty good sense to me.
Our interlocutor asked why we in general aviation can't communicate the simple fact that travel by little airplane is incomparably better than on our crowded highways. That got me to thinking. For years I've gotten in an airplane and generally proceeded from one place to another with a minimum of fuss. I've waited on weather. I've inwardly cursed controllers for off-course vectors (it's going to be a very long time before I complain about that again). I've complained of headwinds. I've had mechanical delays (in airplanes and cars). Yet, I've virtually always gotten to my destination far faster by little airplane than by taking a car, with significantly less stress and never have I had a drunk swerve into me.
Our new student pilot was absolutely correct. Driving is not the way the commercials depict it, alone on some lonesome, perfectly smooth two-lane beside a manicured greensward. It's trying to attempt to hold a constant speed even briefly as you deal with traffic, dodge potholes, and wonder what that blue-haired sort in the Caddy is going to do next. Flying is what you do to get away from the crowds. You have the time to look at the sky and the scenery as you go along. Why aren't we pointing this out to the world?
We wouldn't have any sort of pilot shortage if people knew that the alternative to ten hours of hell on wheels is three or four hours of a reasonable work load, with a great view, while dealing with the needs of navigation and weather. It is certainly not the hypervigilance needed to keep from creaming a concrete divider in a construction zone or being rammed by a teenager in his juiced-up Ford Escort.
After a brief pause for breath, Judy really got rolling. She expressed her anger that no one had juxtaposed the frustration of travel by car with the pleasure of travel by general aviation airplane. Her perception and comments regarding driving more than a few hours and the huge opportunity being missed by those who should be selling general aviation hit me right between the eyes. Someone should make a truthful television commercial promoting general aviation.
Not surprisingly, she had some thoughts on the subject. The TV ad should start with a brief excerpt from one of those phony automobile commercials which depict a car on a deserted, two-lane road, rocketing along with a very happy driver. It would be captioned, "The Ideal." The next shot would be that same car, stuck in construction traffic, radiator boiling, horns honking, drivers making international gestures and the owner looking less than happy. The caption would, of course, be "The Real." The next section would be the camera backing away and panning to show the massive size of the traffic jam (should not be too difficult to locate) and then a four-place, single-engine airplane flying serenely over the mess. The commercial would closes by posing the question, "The countdown to January 1, 2001 is running, why be ground-bound in the new millennium?" (Yeah, we in aviation can count years correctly, too.)
OK, you folks that do advertising for general aviation airplanes, let's get with it. You have a wonderful product to sell to the public. Now you know how to go about it.
Then again, maybe we shouldn't tell the masses, they might just bring the misery of ground transportation to flight. No, that's not true. We pilots are a tiny minority in this country and our rights and privileges are constantly being challenged. The more of us there are, the more we will be able to make sure the laws are appropriate for the freedom of flight. We have to attract as many people to aviation as we can while making aviation attractive overall.
Judy is right, we have to describe how wonderful flight really is. I keep remembering the morning I was flying between layers as the sun came up. When the scarlet orb appeared ahead of us, changing the color of the world by the second, I looked at my friend in the right seat and asked, "Why do you fly?"
He looked around for a moment and then asked, "How in the world do you explain this view to someone at a cocktail party when she looks down her nose at you and comments on those nasty, noisy little airplanes?"
Well, now we have video imaging and IMAX movies. It is time to reach out to the public and show them what awaits above the ground.
One of the instructors asked Judy if she had gotten any information off the internet, specifically, from the GA Team 2000 web site. She said she had, but only after deciding to learn to fly. She was pleased that someone was trying to get the word out to the public, and was quite happy with the quality of the information on that web site. She hoped the group would keep pushing the word to the general public. She asked a question that none of us could answer: if the Team 2000 is looking for people to fly into the next century, why in the world can't they count? She expected a group which is pushing an activity that is somewhat cerebral to name itself after the first year of the next century, not the last year of this one. We all agreed with her, but figured they just liked big, round numbers.
Judy said she had used the GA web site to look up flight schools and the coupon the site provided so her first lesson was only $35. The coupon, she thought, was a great idea.
The comments Judy made about the welcome at some airports triggered further conversation in the lounge. Al had bought an airplane in which to learn to fly. He told us about the FBOs he had visited where he was simply ignored, despite explaining what he wanted to do and having the money to do it. He came close to buying a large sailboat and not bothering with flying because of the reception he had received at so many FBOs in the area. We in aviation are chasing away potential pilots and their business at every airport which has a crummy-looking FBO. Ironically, it seems that it is those with the slovenly appearance which complain the loudest about lack of student starts.
Most everyone in aviation knows that when there is uncertainty in selecting a shop on a strange airport to work on his or her airplane, the rule of thumb is to look at the shop floor. If it is not clean, stay away. The same thing goes for places to learn to fly. If the place is well-kept, the shop floor is clean, and the airplanes look sharp, the chances are fairly good that the organization does a good job of instructing.
I have heard numerous reasons why people learn to fly. Judy began because she likes to travel and had become fed up with the hassles of too many cars on a decaying highway system. Others do so because they dreamed of flight every since they were children, some because it is a challenge, for a few it is because a close friend or spouse insisted. Many who are interested are uncertain because of perceived risk, or cost, or they wonder if they will be allowed into the group, or are worried they won't be good enough in some way. Some time ago I was surprised to discover that some quit after the first lesson because they were not told they did ok and the instructor did not schedule a second lesson. They thought they had failed in some way and were not being invited back. Every reason I've heard, as well as every worry expressed, has been valid.
Advertising can be targeted toward the various reasons to fly. We, as pilots who talk with those who express interest, can address the uncertainties and worries on a one to one basis. We can be the ones who are friendly to the person who walks into an FBO looking somewhat lost. We can walk him or her over to a flight instructor and make the introduction with some enthusiasm, or answer questions if the instructor isn't available right then. We can avoid our natural tendency to tell horror stories, which, despite our intent, drives people off. We can make sure we have the phone number of the local flight school in our wallet so that when that person at the party says, "Oh, you're a pilot...I've always wanted to learn to fly..." we can give out the number or, better yet, walk him or her to the phone and schedule an introductory lesson.
You do have the phone number for the local flight school in your wallet, don't you? No? Well write it down and stick it in there behind your pilot certificateright now! The URL for that GA Team 2000 site, www.beapilot.com, would also be worth having readily availablewho knows if the money-saving certificate might not be just the inducement required.
Your little bit of help may be the one step needed for a person to actually go after a pilot certificate. On top of that, you may make a new friend. Ever notice how your closest friends are those who fly?
So, the next time a stranger walks into your pilot's lounge, make him or her welcome. We can use as many on the side of aviation as we can get. And, someone please, make that television commercial with the big traffic jam and the little airplane.