Old Folks, Airports, and the Next Generation

Source: 2019 Q2 Beartracks, Pat Fagan
There’s hope after all.
There has been a lot of handwringing amongst us old dog aviators and aviation organizations about the graying of the pilot population. I have long believed the same thing.
The EAA chapter population I belonged to kept getting older and despite all the ideas floated for how to bring in younger members nothing ever seemed to help. That chapter is now disbanded.
I haven’t attended the chapter near me here in Arizona but my neighbor is a member and he says it’s mainly an old folk’s social club. EAA has spent years promoting Young Eagles but there doesn’t appear to be any consensus that it is actually increasing the pilot population among the younger generation.
I did, however, recently witness a glimmer of hope. I participated in a work party sponsored by the Recreational Aircraft Foundation, RAF, to rehabilitate an old mining strip in California’s Panamint Valley. When I lived in California I participated in many trail maintenance projects on the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. At all of those work parties I was always, often by far, the youngest participant. At the Panamint gathering I noticed, while we were all breaking for lunch, that I was by far the oldest worker present. It was so unusual and wonderful to see that I had to mention it to those present and commend them on their presence.
There were a dozen or so participants whose ages ran the gamut. One father had his two young children with him, his son working a rake beside the rest of us. Another father had a youngster at home and his wife was due with a second anytime. A young woman invited a nonflying friend of hers to come out and “help build a runway” and she accepted! All of this was even more incredible when you consider only three of us actually flew in. The existing runway was deemed too short for non-backcountry type aircraft due to a wash out mid field so flying in was discouraged. Yet these workers drove for several hours to get to this remote site with the hope and expectation that they would someday be able to fly in themselves.
So what’s behind this? I believe it is the same thing that has kept me in aviation all these years and that is the fun of flying into the backcountry and camping under the wing of an airplane. Flying from one paved runway to another is fun, but what do you do when you get there. You are right back at an airport and after doing it enough they all seem the same. But in the backcountry you get to enjoy the journey there, you may get the satisfaction of nailing a challenging approach, and once the plane is tied down the trip really gets started. Hiking, biking, fishing, climbing, exploring or just sitting around the campfire are all possibilities without the hassle of renting a car.
Young adults and young parents have been packing up the family and heading outdoors to camp since the beginning of the automotive revolution. I believe the RAF has the right idea in promoting the airplane as a recreational vehicle. The cost of aviation is still a hindrance to admission but perhaps if you show people what worlds open up for them with an aircraft maybe they will progress from tent, to pop-up trailer, to camper, to airplane instead of making the next jump to motorhome. Who knows?

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