Before we can solve a problem, we must first define it. Are declining pilot numbers the cause, the problem, or the symptom?
There are three problems that immediately focus on pilot population: attraction, certification, and retention. Two more that come into play with the future of flying, but only act tangentally on immediate population change are public perception, and economy of scale. For fear of writing a novel, I'll skip those last two in this post.
Attracting new people to aviation is very important, and I'd like to thank all of the young eagles pilots, and every person who's given a ride to a friend, family, or acquaintance. For all the novels with flying, and movies from Waldo Pepper to Top Gun, there are pilots among us who started flying in part because they saw other people, real or imagined, doing it and imagined themselves flying, too. There are a lot of very sharp minds looking at this issue, and no silver bullets.
However, flying is not little league baseball or a college club, certain to lose its population every six years or so, and we should not focus our structure, resources, and attention solely on trying to attract new pilots into the sport while ignoring the masses of student and licensed pilots who are walking away. Last year was an exceptionally good year for new certificate issue. 37% of the student pilots who struggled through enough training to get their medical (and passed it) got a certificate, as opposed to 32% for the prior two years.
Look at the other side of those numbers - after we ignore the number of people who never approach the airport, discount the people who come for a demo ride but don't come back, disregard all the people who take a few lessons and walk away, and only look at the narrow number of students who go for their medical - 63% do not complete their rating. That's almost two out of three of those who have committed time and money for lessons and medical!
If 60% of students were dropping out of a high school, would you blame the kids? Would you say "Oh, there's not enough funding!" Would you point the finger at every single teacher there, without bothering to seperate 'time-builders' from caring teachers? Or would you conclude that something is very, very broken with the entire system? What if only 63% of people who got their permit passed their driver's license exam? Or if only 32% of people who sign up for ABATE classes ever drove a motorcycle? What if two out of three people who were in the instruction classes on the bunny hill never skied by themselves down any slopes, and never went skiing again? We have a 77% pass rate on the private checkride, 91% pass rate on sport, and 93% on recreational checkrides. Clearly, the problem lies in the system before the chekride!
Put another way, if we could still take all the same pre-medical losses and get only 80% of the people committed to flying to a license (sport, recreational, or private), we would double the current basic pilot population in a little over 5 years!
Now, look at pilot retention. In 2005, over twenty thousand people got a private certificate. How many of them are still flying? How many of the 27,000 pilots who got their private ticket in 2000 own their own airplanes, much less are still flying? Look around and ask yourself, how long have the pilots you know and see been flying? What happened to the rest of them?
Last year, 20,695 people became sport, recreational, or private pilots for the first time (this isn't counting people who transitioned from one rating to another). Yet, total pilot numbers dropped by 19,461 - we lost almost twice as many people as we gained! While some of those were good pilots who've gone west, that by no means accounts for the majority of our losses. What's happening here? Why are so many pilots walking away after their certificate?
In the last ten years, we have issued 601,451 original student pilot certificates. Even after 369,015 people walked away, 232,436 passed a private, recreational, or sport pilot checkride. Yet, for all those new people, our total population fell by 31,296. This means 263,732 people walked away, became medically unable, or died after their checkride in just ten years!
I do not believe attracting new people to flying is our primary population problem, not with those numbers. I applaud your efforts at finding solutions to getting people in the door. Do you have any suggestions on the other two sides of the population problem?