Saturday, January 17, 2009

Containing Aviation, and Setting it Free

More on keeping all things flying-related within neat chain link boundaries.

Often times, pilots and enthusiasts regard the airport as a safe haven. It is where we can simply be airplane people, where our aviation affliction is accepted and not questioned. In a lot of ways, we are what contains aviation to airports. Confronted with negative portrayals of aviation in the media, we choose to retreat to our safe haven to lament what the world has become, instead of working to improve the public perception.

I'm not about to say that the flying community is doing nothing, I'm just saying that we're not doing enough, or at least that the methods we're using aren't successful enough.

Yet, instead of radically overhauling aviation youth outreach efforts, we sit back and wonder why we don't see young people at the airport anymore. I am continually reminded of one of my instructor's youth experiences: "When I learned how to ride bicycle I fast became a kid on a mission, pedaling as fast as I could to get to the little airport and do some serious “hangar flying” in either a Champ or Cub," he wrote.

Despite my early interest in flying, I was never one of those kids who biked to the airport. Why? Partially due to a four-lane highway, but also due to my mother telling me I wouldn't be wanted there. She didn't want me pestering employees or causing security alerts, despite the fact that the world of grassroots aviation is a sight different from her perceptions.

Young people are discouraged by an unknowing public, and those of us "in the know" are not doing enough to reverse the idea of the airport as a hostile, forbidding place. It's time to take a cue from the church--missionaries seek to spread their faith to others, and they are not afraid to take it to the streets. The notion of aviation as a religion of sorts is not new, and it continues to be applicable. Like the missionaries who brave untamed jungles, unwelcoming local populations, and other difficult environments, aviation proponents need to do more on the local level.

It's time to get your hands dirty. Go to local schools, elementary through high school, and throw a college or university in there if you can. Flying is fun education, and it's a real application of what students are being taught in their classes. Start with a hands-on educational visit. Bring some basic props to show younger kids how airplanes fly, and leave the more scientific stuff for those who are older or still curious. Invite the kids to a field trip to the local airport--this is what EAA chapters are for! Tour the FBO, let them sit in airplanes, see the tower, feed them, and send them home with information on Young Eagles.

While I love the idea of the Young Eagles program, it has its limitations. First, most of the recruiting efforts target organizations like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. While that's an excellent approach, it dramatically reduces the number of potential Young Eagles and future enthusiasts. This is not something that can be done instantly. It takes cultivation. Plant the seed of curiosity and build upon it. Don't throw kids into an airplane, buzz around the patch, land, and send them off with a certificate. Take more time, and for God's sake, don't put kids in the backseat. That's not flying, that's riding, and the average child will see it as no different than riding in the family minivan (and that's not flattering at all).

In short:

~Kids fly up front, never ride in the back (at least for Cherokee- and
172-types--Cubs and Champs are a bit different)
~Kids get to fly the airplane
~The kids get to learn a bit about what they have done--walk them through the
preflight, and have them help get ready to fly

That's all it really takes. Pay attention to them. They are not cargo, they are the future, and if we want personal flying to have a place in the future, we'd better pay attention.

For you ride-givers and ground support:

~Pay attention, and add a personal touch--show them the airplane and some key instruments, try to show them recognizable landmarks
~Talk to them about flying
~Invite them back to fly again, or offer to show them the hangar or other airport facilities
~For older flyers, offer encouragement in the financial sector. Make sure they know that scholarships are available to help them out and make flying attainable. As a chapter, set up scholarships for local youth and promote them vigorously.
~Host regular open houses for the community, and promote the event community-wide--don't just stick to established groups like scouts.
~Let your passion show--as part of an establishment that seeks to keep aviation bottled up, take a step in the right direction and let people know of your passion. Offer to take them flying and show them!

I have to close with this picture of Maria. It's perhaps my most favorite picture to date. It is simply a picture of a kid having fun in an airplane, and I often wonder if her brief experience planted a successful seed, or if it will just be remembered as something that was neat, but so far away from reality that it will never be seen as something within her reach.

As Dick Hill was quoted as saying to Steve Krog once, regarding the fun of flying, "You weren’t burnt out from flying, you were just flying all the wrong stuff. If you don’t intend to fly for a career, then go fly the stuff you enjoy flying and then fly for the pleasure of it." You don't have to fly airliners or big jets to have fun!

There is no greater gift than the realization of dream. We, as pilots and aviation enthusiasts, have the power to help kids realize those dreams of flying.

This is supposed to be fun! Share it!


1 comment:

  1. As you know I have been deeply rooted in aviation since the late 70s -- yeah yeah old git!

    Myself as a pilot and an aviation photographer I even I find many airfields and personnel inhospitable and often downright rude.

    Post 9/11 people are now behind security fences even at MAPs, and the laziest answer I hear all the time is "9/11" when enquiring about access or information. It is a lazy "get out" because it is not an answer.

    You yourself witnessed something similar at OSH last month with me - not quite the same, but dismissive all the same.

    I can only imagine what it's like for a noobie to aviation - must be hell :(