Monday, April 28, 2008

Where Have all the Pilots Gone?

Learning to fly is a great way to get a new perspective on the world around you. It's also an opportunity to challenge yourself, to focus, to escape your daily grind, visit places you'd otherwise not see, and to make new friends. If you want to be one of a select few, becoming a pilot will put you in a pretty special group: One of 600,000 or so out of a total U.S. population of about 300,000,000. Yet the U.S. pilot population is shrinking and AOPA wants to know why. That's why they are asking pilots to contribute their ideas through this on-line survey. It doesn't take long to complete the survey and offer your suggestions. I got on my soapbox and here are some of the topics I brought up.

Pick an area in aviation and you'll find needless complexity: Aircraft procedures, maintenance, air space, visibility/cloud clearances, regulations on currency, VFR charts. Busy, successful professionals who have the money to learn to fly are put off by the endless stream of details. We certificated pilots take for granted all the messed-up stuff we have to use because we've used it for so long: We've been indoctrinated and we've lost perspective. An overhaul of the regulations and products used by student pilots wouldn't hurt.

Take a look at 14 CFR parts 61 and 91, for example. Three different definitions of "night?" Give us a break. A multitude of cloud clearance and visibility requirements? Most airspace above 10,000 feet has consistent cloud clearance and visibility requirements (5 miles, 1000' above and below, and 1 mile laterally). So for all airspace below 10,000 feet, why not just make the rule 3 miles, 1000 above, 500 below, and 2000 feet horizontal clearance from clouds. Let the requirements for class B remain at 3 miles visibility and clear of clouds. You've just removed a bunch of special cases that most pilots don't remember anyway. If some pilots and operators want to fly VFR in class G in crummy conditions, let them get special training and a rating or logbook endorsement that would cover the reduced VFR visibility and cloud clearance requirements. Right now it seems like pilots need a degree in law to understand the regulations and I'd like to see AOPA lobby for simpler and easier-to-understand regulations.

Here's some more heresy for you: VFR charts and the Airport/Facility Directory are a mess. The AF/D relies on presenting information in a positional format that the user has to memorize. Sure there's a legend at the front, but it contains another level of indirection that requires a bunch of page turning. VFR charts use basically two colors and various types of shading to depict all possible airspace. And if you don't think pilots are confused, just sit in on one of the many flight reviews I give and you'll have more than enough evidence. Sure I complain, but here's just one constructive suggestion. For MOAs, Prohibited, Restricted, and Alert areas, NACO could just put the altitude depictions and the frequency of the controlling agency right next to the airspace depiction. That way, pilots won't have to remember an identifying number, unfold their sectional in flight, and look it up on another part of the chart. Who cares about the hours of operation for an area when you can just talk to the controlling agency and ask them if the area is hot?

The FAA's NOTAM system (notices to airmen) is a mess, as anyone who has waded through an on-line briefing can attest. I understand that an overhaul of this system is in progress and let's hope the end result is an improvement.

The official weather information available to pilots is an obscure system of abbreviations and contractions that owes its existence to the historic limitations of teletypes and mainframe computers. If you need any more evidence, consider how winds aloft are encoded. It's a credit to systems like DUAT, DUATS, and others that they offer plain-language versions of area forecasts, terminal forecasts, and surface observations.

Virtually all of the questions and answers for the various FAA knowledge test are available in advance of the test and you can purchase test preparation software to help you practices for a good score. The FAA, in their attempt to create discriminator-type questions, actually has created some stellar trick questions - the very thing they tell flight instructor candidates to not do when they create tests of their own! The instrument knowledge test has a bunch of question on the automatic direction finder, NDBs, and calculating relative bearing and distance from a station based on degrees of bearing change while NDBs are being phased out faster than you can say "peak oil." For crying out loud, I don't even have access to a plane with a functioning automatic direction finder. And where are the questions on GPS, WAAS, RNAV approach minima, RAIM, or FDE?

Add up all this and the knowledge tests are a game, pure and simple. I tell my students to buy some software, practice over and over, and they'll get a score in the 90% range. The real preparation is in getting them ready for the oral portion of the practical test, where hopefully they will be able to demonstrate their level of knowledge.

Some things the FAA has done well include the publication of the Instrument Procedures Handbook and the recent updates to the Instrument Flying Handbook. These are two excellent examples of what the good folks at the FAA are capable of. And the ability to access instrument procedures on-line was a huge step forward.

It's well known that FAA inspectors have an impressive 70 to 90% first time fail rate for initial flight instructor candidates. I've recommended many CFI candidates and all of them were well prepared. Most of the candidates who passed on their first try were either airline pilots, retired military, or both. So here's a news flash: The initial CFI check ride can often be more of a hazing ritual than a practical test. There's a tremendous emphasis on rote learning and a hodge-podge of learning theory when the stated goal of instruction is to teach pilots to the correlative level of knowledge. Again, the FAA's out-of-touch culture seems to be to blame and recommending instructors are afraid to call them on it, for obvious reasons. I'm all for setting the bar high for would-be flight instructors, but initial flight instructor candidates should pass or fail based on the merits of their knowledge and performance. If we don't have a steady influx of new flight instructors, make no mistake about it, GA will die.

I could go on, but I won't. Instead, I encourage you to visit AOPA's website, get on your soapbox, and let them know what you think will stop the shrinking GA pilot population.


Colin Summers said...

I will go take the survey. I never would have passwed the cloud clearance question on the oral. My examiner lead me through it. For a long time I had the sheet up on my blog, with all my scribbling out, his suggestions, more scribbles and the final correct answers.

I have never thought about cloud clearances again. I would make it even simpler and just say a thousand feet all around in all airspace day and night. I believe that in Class B if you are skimming that close to clouds it's time for an instrument rating anyway.

What you are really complaining about is government. It is very easy to put a law (or regulation) on the books and nearly impossible to take it off.

And you are complaining about standards (it's nice that we have so many), because a lot of the aviation debris is connected to the beginnings of the flying technology. I cannot read a TAF easily. I can puzzle it out, and I know that I should sit down this weekend and go over the codes again (BR, Baby Rain, right), but it is from a time that they were transmitted in Morse code. They never are now, so why not have some (still terse) plain English instead?

It's the one GOOD thing about there being only 600,000 pilots. You would think that we could make a change without upsetting too many voters.

Paul said...

Thanks for the post. I've already responded to the survey, but didn't take the FAA rules into account. I'm fairly recent SEL and then got a glider rating. Since I fly for fun and enjoyment, not to get somewhere, I find I spend more time flying gliders. Less cost, less noise, less hassles with air space.

However, here in Colorado I think it is a different experience than California or East of the Appalachians, much more uncontrolled air space.

Anonymous said...

I have sent 3 students for CFI initial in the last 8 weeks. Each has failed the first time and then gone back and passed the next. I think there is a fear of the CFI practical (I know I'm afraid of it as a recommending instructor) that causes many "adult" pilots to be unwilling to try to earn the ticket. It appears to me that AOPA is trying to attract wealthy adult pilots...they seem to respond better to mature adult instructors...we sure don't have enough of those!!

Great post!!!!

K said...

Bravo! As a student pilot, I think that you're right on target, as is Colin. It's crazy that the FAA test has me calculating weights and balances by fudging graphs when I could easily do the math on any calculator, and that the weather is carefully abbreviated, when it can't cost any more to just spell it out.

I'm kind of a detail-oriented person, though, so I have to admit that the million and one tiny rules (and three different meanings of 'night') didn't throw me. I just had the notion that flying was too impossibly expensive for me to afford, until a coworker took me up in his aged Archer and showed me that I didn't have to spend a quarter-million to get a plane...

eric said...

Part of the problem is that the much-lauded Light Sport revolution won't happen, at least not the way the industry stands right now. My employer has three 162 Skycatchers on order, and none of them will ever be used by someone holding or working towards a Light Sport certificate. The insurance is just too prohibitive - ours requires renters to have a medical, and I'd put money on it that most flight schools are dealing with the same kind of restrictions.

It leaves the Light Sport side of things to existing Private pilots who want to 'downgrade', and for the wealthy few non-pilots who buy their own aircraft and learn in it. It's the Cirrus Model with a MTOW of under 1,322 lb!

Nobody likes flying a 172 if they've ever flown anything else. Light sport aircraft or other two- and four- place designs are a blast to fly, with great visibility and enjoyable handling. Yet the majority of GA aircraft flying today are 172s and 182s, with many students learning in Cessnas and never leaving the high-wing world of John and Martha. We need affordable training in simple, fun aircraft to revitalize the private side of the industry, and I'm not sure that will happen.

Ron said...

Bring back the tailwheels. That'll put the fun back into flying, pronto!

It's cheaper, too. You can get three Citabrias for the price of one new LSA. I'd bet the Citabria would rent for less, too.

Get rid of the glass panel. In fact, get rid of the panel entirely. Go back to basics. Get some quality instructors back in the right seat. Introduce aerobatics.

Do those things and the difference will be palpable and immediate.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of this post, but I have to say that I find the raw METAR/TAF much easier to read and interpret than the plain English version. I can scan column-wise and the things I need to know (like visibility) stand out much more clearly than they do in the plain English version.

I have only had one initial CFI candidate fail, and he did it on his own without any hazing from the examiner. I tend to overprepare them, because I teach to the job, not to the rating. But that is my philosophy in all cases.

Shdwcaster said...

I'm currently a new student pilot (four lessons, and about five hours in), and honestly, I think that the expense, and a lack of new blood are the leading causes of the decline.

I wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid because my dad started taking me to the airport before I could walk. Because of the costs involved, it took me quite a while to get started, and if this weren't one of my most cherished dreams, the expense still probably would have driven me away.

One of the biggest needs, I think, is to promote flying scholarships among high-school and junior-high kids. Get them flying, help them pay for those flight lessons, and not only will they get some genuine accomplishments, they'll find some new open doors to future careers if they so desire.

Yes, the complexity and regs are overboard. When I bought my starter kit from the flight school, I got about twenty pounds of dead trees in book format. To me it's worth it, but I think for a lot of people, that worth is hard to see. I'm amazed, though, at the friends and coworkers who start coming out of the woodwork when they hear that I'm taking lessons. I've heard a lot of variations on the theme of "I always wanted to do that, but I never have." I really hope that for at least a couple of those folks, I'll be able to find a way to help convince them to go from "I wish I could" to "I can!"

Anonymous said...

As a wannabe, I can say that the number one obstacle to getting a pilot's license for me is the cost. I treated myself to an intro flight years ago, and there are very few things that I've done that gave me anywhere near the joy, but I can't drop the money. In the Bay Area, it can cost around $10k, and that's assuming you don't take 60 hours. And while I have the money in the bank right now, it's earmarked for a down payment on a house. Point is, there are a hundred things I need to spend $10k on besides a PPL.

And if I get a PPL? I get to fly around in a C172. I'd love it, but realistically speaking it's a personal hobby, and hard to justify to my wife why we can't remodel the bathrooms before I get an expensive hobby.

I'm not a pilot, so I don't know what parts of the process could be trimmed to simplify and economize the process. I just wish I could do it without depriving my family.

Walter said...

Have taken the survey, and you bring up good points on the complicated issue that aviation has become in terms of airspace rules and regulation. At the same time, these are rulings which are an evolution of safety enhancements that has created some level of government over regulation and redundancy.

Bringing back to where have the pilots gone? I don't think that the rules and regulations have made them disappear. I think its cost. Imagine trying to own a brand new aircraft. The costs of these are the same cost of a house. Both which has gone beyond the inflation numbers for average American salaries. The weakened dollar exacerbates this problem with LSA aircraft. What initially went for 80-90k now are in the 110-130k range. There has been too much regulation requirements for certificated aircraft that the process has driven up the cost of creating and certifying aircraft and its technology. The experimental route has been the round about solution to a cost effective aircraft, but even that is frought with high barriers to entry, which is time.

Aerosup said...

love the way you right.. now I am thinking if I am a pilot.. maybe I can enjoy the view.. hehe..

love your writings..
keep up the good work..

Alger said...

It's all about cost, I got my pliots' licence in 1966. As of now I have about 160 hours! Why? well my wife and I started a family and that was the end of sport flying for me. My last piolt in command time was in 1970. It's just gotten to expensive as a hobby. Look at any small airport, I bet it's trafic is down from say 20 years ago. Also with 20 years as a general avation mechanic, I never made enough to sustain my hobby.

Austin Blanco said...

I agree that the regs are overly complicated and unnecessary. I commute to work in a cessna and it took me about 300 hours until everything came second nature. Now when compared to other "hobbies" like a musical instrument, woodworking etc if you add the cost and the time required to operate confidently it's unrealistic for the average person. What's the difference in the equation? The government has it's hands all over aviation, whereas the other hobbies I described are unregulated. (Of course playing the wrong note on a guitar won't end your life...but c'mon some of the regs are just plain dumb.)

On the other hand I wonder if anyone has ever done a correlation between sailing and flying? Both require learning about the environment as well as procedures and equipment. Both have a relatively high cost-barrier to entry. Don't know what the ratios are but one could make the argument that aviation is itself complicated therefore the entry should be difficult, and that the "average guy" simply isn't willing to invest in the rigors because as a society we've all become lazier. I tend to think it's a mix of both issues. One way or another we'd better figure it out as a community or we'll go the way of GA in the EU!