By Chris Findley, CFI
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days
–Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days” (1984)
Glory Days and Gladwell
Most of us, if we are honest, have a certain amount of wistfulness when we consider the “glory days” of General Aviation. Whether we are considering the 1930’s and 40’s boom in commercial aviation, the incredible pilots and aircraft that came of age in World War II, or the surge in production and training of the 1970’s, there is always a sense that these “glory days” have passed us by.
Gone are the days of Cessna rentals for $13 a day as Time magazine reported in March of 1971. Gone are the days of AvGas hovering around the $.90 to $1.00 mark as they did the year I started flying (1986). But moreover, gone are the days of 1979 when there were over 200,000 student pilots bouncing around the skies of the U.S. In 2007 there were a mere 84,339 licensed student pilots. This represents a drop of 58%. Anyone who cares about the future of general aviation understands the implications of these numbers and what the impact of diminishing ranks of pilots has on the industry.
Are these numbers the result of economic pressures and increased rental fees and fuel costs? Perhaps, but if that were the only issue, then we should see a peak of training in the mid to late 80’s when our economy was very strong. Instead there is a decline during that time. During the recession of the late 70’s there is a general upward trend in student pilots and in the total number of pilots. Common sense dictates that, of course the economic climate has an effect on flying, particularly for recreation. But there seems to be something larger, something more going on in the flight training world.
Recently I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point . I could not stop thinking about how Gladwell’s observations might help the flight training industry. His premise is that trends and epidemics (trends that catch and spread like wildfire) do so as a result of several factors. Therefore if you want to start a trend, or encourage the start of a trend, there are several things that one can do to influence that process.
In The Tipping Point, Gladwell observes that most trend epidemics are influenced by a relatively small number of people who get the ball rolling. He also observes that the message being conveyed has to be memorable, and that the context of the people receiving the message had to be considered.
The Power of the Few
One of the great misconceptions about any movement is that it takes a large number of people to initiate it. This goes for trends in clothing, sports, and religion, remember Jesus began with only twelve. Most clothing trends begin among a small group of people that have a certain influence. Many restaurants grow by word of mouth, most movies owe a lot to not only quality (or in spite of it) but to word of mouth. The key is to get the message one wants to convey to those most likely to have the influence to spread it.
One of the best moves has been the AOPA’s “General Aviation Serves America” campaign which holds up the likes of Morgan Freeman and Harrison Ford as spokesmen for General Aviation. Unfortunately the messages do not seem to be widely disbursed and mainly aimed at protecting legalities of flying. These are important points to be sure, but why not involve these well-known actors in promoting the joy and adventure of flying to the general public in a campaign to increase the number of student pilot starts? Let them share their love of flying in a commercial or informercial that can be purchased by a local airport or Flight School for use in a local television market? Even my eight-year-old recognizes Indiana Jones when he sees him!
Having a few, well-known, established, credible faces speaking of the joy of flying would spark interest and conversation. It’s the power of a few.
If aviation is going to “tip” we need to define the trend we would like to see. For many of us a great goal would be growth in the number of students who start and complete their training for their license. Additionally (and related), we must improve the perception of General Aviation in the eyes of the public. These are lofty goals, but ones that deserve our utmost effort. One fuels the other: improve public perception; you’ll see an increase in the number of new pilot starts. Increase the new pilot starts, and you will increase the public perception because these new pilots will be veritable Aviation evangelists.
In the world of general aviation flight training I’m not sure we’ve ever really considered these things. Most flight schools operate on the “drop in” method of attracting new prospective pilots. They simply unlock the door in the morning and hope someone that is thinking about flying will wander in.
We’ve neglected a simple principle that we all inherently know: The love for flying is caught before the skills of flying can be taught.
So first, we have to consider our message. Then we have to consider the best way to help that desire into reality. It can start with the power of a few that are motivated to spread the word and be creative and proactive in how they do it.
More “Tipping Point” applications later…