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"Experts worry as interest in pilot training wanes"

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fewer younger people want to be pilots
Experts worry as number of trainees falls by more than a half
By Del Quentin Wilber
The Washington (DC) Post

OSHKOSH, Wis. - Jack Gilbert flew up here Sunday from Louisiana, parked his
homemade plane with hundreds of others on a grass patch not far from the
runway, and set up his tent for the week. Gilbert, 57, a building
contractor, was in heaven: sleeping in a tent next to his plane, with
thousands of other aviation buffs and their assorted aircraft at one of the
world's biggest air shows.

Like many others here, Gilbert is worried that he might one day witness the
death of such shows. Most of the others around him are his age. Fewer young
people are discovering the romance of flying. Whether it's the high cost or
the substantial training time, the number of student pilots has fallen by
more than half in 25 years.

Gilbert was disappointed when his two grown sons passed on the opportunity
to become pilots - even when he offered to teach them.

"I think it's the video games," Gilbert said as he adjusted his aviator
sunglasses and worked on his tent. "The younger ones want instant
gratification. Learning to fly is work. You have to work at it."

Thousands of pilots and more than 7,000 planes are descending this week on
Wittman Regional Airport for the Experimental Aircraft Association's
AirVenture Oshkosh 2006 show. Organizers say that so many planes are taking
off and landing here that Wittman becomes the busiest airport in the world
during the show. More than 700,000 people are expected to attend - a sea of
pilots, their tents and their biplanes, vintage aircraft, experimental
propeller planes and "spam cans," as factory-made aircraft are called.
The attendance figures and the enthusiasm of participants shroud a worry
that cuts across trade groups and business associations: The number of
pilots in the United States has fallen 25 percent in the past 25 years. The
number of student pilots has plummeted 56 percent over the same period -
from about 200,000 to 87,200 in 2005. Only about 40 percent of today's
student pilots will get their licenses.

Industry observers say that overall aviation, including commercial air
carriers, could be harmed if more people don't learn to fly. If the aviation
sector grows as expected, some predict, there will be a shortage of skilled
pilots in the next decade or two.

Trade associations and manufacturers are so concerned that they have created
programs to recruit new pilots. The Experimental Aircraft Association
sponsors a program that encourages its 170,000 members to take youngsters up
for free flights, to give them a taste of flying. The Aircraft Owners and
Pilots Association is pushing its 400,000 members to find potential fliers
as part of a program it launched last month.

High cost

There are many reasons, mostly financial, for the decline in the number of
pilots. It costs a lot to learn to fly ($200 to $250 a lesson in the
Washington area, including instructor, plane rental and fuel). The practical
applications of earning a license can be limited because it is often easier
and cheaper to jump on a commercial jet than fly in a Cessna or Piper. A new
Cessna 172, a plane that just marked 50 years of production, costs about
$250,000. Insurance can cost thousands of dollars a year.

Earning a license requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, most of it
with an instructor. Pilots also must go through ground school to learn the
basics of flight.

Although there isn't much trade groups can do to reduce the cost of learning
to fly - aviation fuel costs about $4 a gallon and instructors charge about
$40 an hour - manufacturers are looking to build less expensive and more
efficient and reliable planes to attract new pilots.

The Cessna Aircraft Co. unveiled a small airplane at the show on Monday that
executives say could be aimed at beginners and cost less than $100,000. The
plane is designated a "light sport" aircraft, the fastest-growing segment in
general aviation, according to Cessna. It has a wingspan of 30 feet, seats
two and has a cabin width of 48 inches.

Some companies sell kits so pilots can build their planes. Such kits can
cost less than $10,000. And there is a large market for used planes, which
are far cheaper than new ones.

Some enthusiasts say that because of improvements in safety, thrill-seekers
may no longer be attracted to flying. The FAA reported that in general
aviation, there were 1.37 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours last
year, down from 1.69 in 1980.

Jerry Sprayberry, 62, a telecommunications executive from Dallas, sat under
the wing of his single-engine Cessna, drinking beer and shooting the breeze
with three buddies. They traded stories about "white-knuckle flights" and
"near-death experiences." (A couple from Washington state died on Sunday
when their plane crashed short of the runway here.)

Sprayberry said he didn't have any such experiences. One of his friends
crashed his propeller plane into a tree years ago; another said he flipped
his plane in strong winds.

Sprayberry got into flying when he was a kid and loved to ride his bicycle
to the airport and watch planes take off and land. Hoping to get a new breed
of pilots into flying, he participates in a program in which he takes
teenagers on flights in his plane to stoke their interest. So far, most
haven't seemed all that interested, he said.


"Today's youth don't want to do anything that is so regimented" as learning
to fly, Sprayberry said. "When I was young, aviation had some adventure to
it. We didn't get to do a lot of things with adventure. Today, there are
lots of things that have adventure."

Dennis Clardy, 58, who flew in from Arkansas, said he was building a plane
for his grandchildren. But he conceded that it might be a pointless

"They view the airplanes as transportation, just like a car," Clardy said.
"I would be happy to take off and fly around for half an hour. They don't
want to do that . . . I might be lucky and have one grandchild who wants to

Winston Slater, 58, brought his wife and 21-year-old son to Oshkosh for the
week and got a prime parking spot across from one of the runways so he could
sit in a beach chair and just watch planes take off and land.

While watching three planes take off at the same time in an aerobatic
maneuver, he said he worries about the future. Looking up and down the rows
of planes, he said: "I don't see a lot of new blood."

Attached Photo:

In this photograph provided by Rock*Rho Publishing, aerobatic air show pilot
Ed "Hamster" Hamill flies in formation with fellow air show performer Dave
Martin, background, over Lake Winnebago during the EAA AirVenture in
Oshkosh, Wis.


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