Can Grassroots Flying Solve The Pilot Shortage?

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The looming pilot shortage has been discussed ad nauseum. It’s here. Some airlines have cancelled flights for lack of qualified pilots. Airlines are offering programs to enable young people to go from zero hours to the right seat. Many solutions have been proposed including salary increases, lowering the number of hours required and so on, but to get pilots into cockpits for the long term, young people must become interested in learning to fly. There are many barriers to this that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Enabling grassroots aviation and flying ultralights should be part of the solution.

Several weeks ago, I was at fly-in located in southern Indiana about 20 miles outside of Evansville. I try to go as often as I can and support the folks who sponsor the fly-in. It’s not only fun and I can socialize with great people, but these pilots are keeping grassroots flying alive and providing a path to young people to become interested in flying. It’s a diverse mix of young, old, GA, retired, commercial and former military pilots. What unites us is the love of open-air flying. In other words, ultralights.

Listening to many of the older pilots at the fly-in, you learn that most started flying ultralights at small grass strips. It was a typical story. A couple of guys became interested in hang gliders then progressed to attaching engines on the gliders. A farmer allocated some of his land to a strip and a bunch of guys got together to fly on weekends. They flew together, built and repaired airplanes together, had cookouts and generally built camaraderie. It was fun and inexpensive. Very inexpensive. Other people would see the ultralights flying and stop by the field. They would be welcome and new pilots were created. Usually a couple of people would emerge as the “instructors” and teach others to fly safely.

Some of the pilots who learned to fly ultralights went on to get their private pilot certificates, a few joined the military and some went on to careers as pilots with the major carriers. This pipeline to an aviation career doesn’t exist any longer. It was a good funnel. It started with lots of young people who were attracted to flying. There was always a local grassroots airport where they could to grow into flying with good training and mentorship. Many became CFIs and built time. Some went into the military and some went on to become commercial airline pilots. To get future airline pilots, there needs to be a wide funnel at the outset. Young people need to be attracted to and interested in flying. Flying needs to be accessible and inexpensive.

In several Facebook groups, I asked how people got started in aviation. The result was the same. A majority of the pilots started flying at local airports. However, the dialog invariably migrated to describe how the FAA shut down ultralight and grassroots flying when they implemented the light sport regulations.

Many people said they stopped flying and most said training stopped. Most pilots pointed to the FAA’s light sport regulations. They lamented the fact that the FAA inadvertently squashed ultralight flying and prevented training in “fat ultralights.” Yes, the FAA granted two years to convert fat ultralights to E-LSAs, but restricted training to LSA aircraft. The result was an almost complete shutdown of ultralight training and grassroots flying. It also didn’t help that due to 9/11, most public airports were fenced in and are now more like fortresses or prisons. Not very inviting to be sure. Public airports are not friendly.

There were common themes in the discussion. First, flying is social. It satisfied the need for people to interact around a common passion. Second, there were mentors. Pilots who freely shared their knowledge and helped others build skills. Third, flying ultralights satisfied the need for independence. Flying a single-place ultralight is an independent activity.

There are two actions the FAA can take that will enable grassroots flying. First, allow pilots to get two-place ultralights certified. Second, enable instructors to teach in certified two-place ultralights. The EAA and Popular Rotorcraft Association are working with the FAA to try and change the regulations. There are hundreds of ultralights that could be refurbished and made into flyable airplanes if there were just a way.

Experimental Exhibition certification is a way to refurbish these aircraft, but it’s overkill. With some minor tweaks of existing E-LSA regs, the FAA could provide a better path to certification. For example, perhaps the FAA could authorize people to get repairman certificates for aircraft of this type and be able to certify these aircraft.

Now for a little more of the fly-in story and the perception some young people have about flying. One of the pilots and his wife who attends the fly-in and happens to be the pyrotechnic who puts on the fireworks show met a nice young woman at a restaurant. She asked why they were in town and they responded that they were attending the fly-in. She responded with "I love fireworks and airplanes."

Knowing they couldn’t miss this opportunity, they invited her and her friends out to the field for the fireworks show and a flight if she wanted one. She came out for the fireworks show and I spent a fair amount of time explaining the sport, how she could learn, could get a pilot certificate and continue to fly. During the conversation, I learned that she didn’t know she could fly. She thought that the government selected pilots. She thought it was prohibitively expensive. I corrected these misconceptions and she was amazed.

She was extremely excited to learn that she could actually learn to fly an airplane. She was hooked and will most likely start flying lessons. The next day she came out to the field for a flight and loved it.

At the fly-in and in the Facebook groups, I found there are many retired guys that would love to get their ultralights flying again. They have the time and the passion and would love a low-cost way to share their passion with young people. We desperately need a path to make that happen.


Comments (9)

Liability and Insurance.

As long as the cost of everything aviation is decided by the lawyers, we have very little chance of aviation participation becoming popular.

The FAA goes through all the trouble to require certification of everything but, won't stand behind their regulations and requirements in the courts. The simple reversal of the out-of-control cost is the FAA involvement in law suites. It should be mandatory that the FAA be sued in every aviation related law suite filed.

Get the power of big brother in the court room. Let our tax dollars work for the defense. The FAA needs to step up and take responsibility for their rule making.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | January 3, 2019 9:25 PM    Report this comment

Finally someone acknowledging the damage done by all the worthless TSA "security" regulations. Your neighborhood airports where you can sit and watch planes take off and land are almost all gone. A little difficult to encourage youngsters to get involved in aviation when the federal government does all it can to discourage airplane watching. Add that to all the other hassles one has to deal with in flying and it is no wonder people just find something else to spend their time and money on.

Posted by: matthew wagner | January 3, 2019 10:38 PM    Report this comment

As far as the alleged pilot "shortage" is concerned the airlines that are cancelling flights due to lack of pilots is their own mismanagement, not a true shortage. Airlines may be offering training pathways from zero hours to right seat, but still require that candidate to pay for it, some shortage! The author does bring up some other valid points in getting young people involved in aviation.

Posted by: matthew wagner | January 3, 2019 10:47 PM    Report this comment

LSA was supposed to entice young people to fly by having shiny new airframes and fancy technology.
Now there is a suggestion that kids will be enticed with home-made powered box kites?
Maybe kids these days just don't see much glamor in being a scheduled airbus driver for Spirit Airlines?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 4, 2019 7:35 AM    Report this comment

No doubt there's more we can do, but GA is not doing a bad job of trying to promote aviation. In northern New England, as elsewhere I'm sure, there are numerous fly-ins, EAA Young Eagles flights, pancake breakfasts, chili cook-offs, open houses, et cetera, throughout the year, all designed to interest people, young and old, in becoming part of our community.
The reality is aviation is expensive. When I learned to fly, in 1990-91, post-solo I could rent an airplane and go around the (non-towered) patch three times for $15 to $18, depending on the runway in use, and retain my "muscle memory" while I saved up for the next hour of dual ($60) or a cross-country. The $15 to $18 was about four times the $4.25 minimum wage. Today those same three trips around the patch would likely cost you upward of $60 (in a well-equipped C172, as opposed to an old C150) -- nearly six times the $11 minimum wage hereabouts.
For high school and college students who are certain they want an an aviation career, it's doable. But if you're a tire- kicker, as I was, an ex-commercial fisherman looking to rekindle the open ocean without having to sleep on a boat, you might very well decide that flying was too rich for your blood.
I hate to offer a post that speaks to a problem without offering a solutions, but there you have it. Flying is expensive and at up to 1,500 hours required for an airline job, perhaps not a career your mother would steer you toward.
On the other hand, there's nothing like it in the world.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | January 4, 2019 10:04 AM    Report this comment

"LSA was supposed to entice young people to fly by having shiny new airframes and fancy technology."

Not at all, at least as the FAA conceived it. Go read the final Sport Pilot rule from the Federal Register. The FAA was intending most LSAs to be the same old "fat ultralight" aircraft--open tube-and-frame designs with no electrical system and modest (under 90kt or so) performance. LSA was intended to regulate those fat ultralights, and they figured LSAs would primarily be used to train new Part 103 pilots.

Of course, in the quest for "safety" the FAA over-regulated. Even though the requirements for LSAs were relaxed by comparison to normal Part 23 aircraft, they were still far greater than the market could bear for most of the aircraft they were intended to apply against. The FAA also naively assumed that even if they had generous performance limits, most LSAs would never approach them (ha!)

In reality, LSA became the way for pilots to fly "real" airplanes without a medical. Fancy electronics came along because they added minimal cost relative to the rest of the airframe, were lighter than analog gauges, and weren't required to be fully certified.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | January 5, 2019 5:24 AM    Report this comment

" LSA was intended to regulate those fat ultralights, and they figured LSAs would primarily be used to train new Part 103 pilots. "

No, we ALREADY had ultralights, and gliders, and para-gliders, and balloons, and all sorts of non-medical required flight. LSA was supposed to be a way to enhance technology and following an EU mandated 600Kg limit that excluded traditional old C150 trainers. Trouble was that "tech" comes with a cost and $150 -200K for a "fat ultralight" did nothing for getting people to fly.

LSA was failed from the start. All it did was make old people sell their really good 2 and 4 place planes to get around a silly reg.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 5, 2019 5:54 PM    Report this comment

Actually, experimental Amateur-Built is still here, just as it always was, and getting a medical is not difficult for a person who potentially has a pro pilot career ahead of herself. Part 103 Ultralights are still here also, and those rules allow us to do everything we used to do without a medical, as long as we don't endanger a passenger's life with our creativity. With Basic Med, we can mix and match all the rule sets, including the part 23 machines that still can be had for $10k from a motivated seller (no, i'm not talking about an advertised asking price).

The real change is is the loss of a like-minded well-raised population of folks who can work with their hands and simple physics. Regarding airport security, as long as we are raising kids that kill multiple people in video games each day, and allow themselves to be devastated by other kids with a mean pair of thumbs on social media, we are doomed. Let's start activly sharing real-life skills.

Posted by: Dean Brock | January 6, 2019 6:56 AM    Report this comment

My personal experience with the Ultralight crowd is much less rosy. Around my neck of the woods, It unfortunately was co-opted by a motley crew of mostly nut bars. They seem to revel in doing crazy things, lacked discipline and common sense and had frequent accidents. Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's when I was instructing full time I had 4 of my private pilot students try out the ultralight scene. All them scared themselves and were soon back flying certified airplanes.

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | January 6, 2019 1:54 PM    Report this comment

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