Davin Eldridge – Contributing Writer
North Carolina has the honor of being the birthplace of modern aviation. Of all the states, it was the “first in flight,” and after more than a century, there has long been a sense that the sky is the limit in the American aviation industry. But that’s changed in recent decades, as the field of general aviation has seen a slow decline in interest by young people.
The numbers aren’t promising, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In 1980, a total of 357,479 private pilot’s licenses were actively issued throughout the United States. In 2016, that number had fallen to just 162,313—a 55 percent drop in just under four decades.
But the buck doesn’t stop with just pilots, either. General aviation operations at FAA and contracted air traffic control towers has also seen a decline of roughly 30 percent—from an even 40,000 in 1990, to 27,544 in 2016.
A drop in the total number of aviation schools nationwide, along with dropout rates of approximately 80 percent at remaining schools, means many more challenges exist in the industry.
Aviation professionals in Macon County are doing what they can to address the problem. This past weekend, area chapters of the Experimental Aircraft Association, along with local pilots and crew members, organized the Ruby Fly-In event. It was the second one of its kind to be held at the county airport.
“Basically, we want to promote aviation and the airport,” said Franklin EAA Vice President Andy Plouse. “There will likely be a shortage of pilots and mechanics. We’re doing what we can with [the Fly-In] to combat that. The airport brings a lot to this county, in terms of jobs and the economy.”
According to EAA member Rob Bruner, the airport brings in more than $12 million annually to the county’s economy, and more than a hundred jobs.
“It’s a very important part of the local economy,” he said.
Many in the industry maintain that general aviation is the bedrock of local industry, and by extension, the national economy. In short, the national-international economy pulls a great deal from general aviation—where private piloting begins at the local level—and so the loss in general aviation’s talent is now impacting America’s economic potency.The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the U.S. airline industry contributes more than $1.3 trillion to the national economy, or 5.2 percent of the country’s GDP.
“The starting pay for pilots isn’t a whole lot,” said Plouse. “Pilots make pretty decent money. It’s not just a rich man’s sport, but it does take investment.”
He said that the recent national push to reinvest into STEM education—or science, education, technology and math—may prove to be successful in bringing America back into the fold of global economic competition.
“We want to make a big push for that to become STEAM—A for aviation—instead of just STEM,” he said. “Aviation plays a big part in those jobs. It’s essential. Pilots in general have dropped off in the last decades.”
Plouse added that an estimated shortage of some 117,000 pilots will befall North America by the year 2025, as pilots are getting older.
The average age of private pilots has declined, according to the FAA. In 1993, that age was approximately 42.7 years, but in 2016, it was 48.4 years. More than half the U.S. population of private pilots is now 50 or older. The mandatory retirement age for pilots is 65.
“It’s just us old farts now,” Plouse concluded. “And mechanics now too, and aeronautical engineers. We want to make sure America stays on top, in terms of general aviation. Macon County—North Carolina as a whole—has played a big part in that.”
By Monday, the county’s EAA was ecstatic about its recent efforts to promote the industry its members love so much.
Saturday’s Ruby Fly-In was seen as a “tremendous success” by Bruner, as around 700 people turned out for the event. It featured several types of aircraft, including commercial helicopters and two World War II era “war birds.” Admission to the event was free to the public, and it offered free flights to children, with adults flying for a fee.
“It was so successful that even though we had the same amount of hamburgers and hotdogs as last year, when we had leftovers, we had to run out and get more for this year,” said Bruner.
What EAA members like Bruner are mainly happy about is the amount of young people it attracted—which was the group’s main objective.
The EAA gave a total of seven flights to area youth, before inclement weather kept their planes grounded for the remainder of the day. The biggest victory was in the number of children that came out to the event. The group managed to sign up a total 15 local youngsters to its Young Eagles program, which mentors children ages 8-17 years-old. That made for a total of 21 children who expressed what EAA members considered a “deep enough” interest in air flight.
“If we could just inspire one young person to seriously consider flight as a possible future for them, then we consider that alone at least as a start,” he said. “It was a constant flow of people. Everything went wonderfully. It was simply astounding.”
Bruner added that the event seemed to spark an interest in some adults as well. Due to the success of the Fly-In, EAA members are now planning on making it an annual event, instead of bi-annual. They are also now working on researching the history of Macon County aviation, which Bruner said played a “huge part” in the state’s history of flight.
“Flight is very important,” he said. “It’s a good thing for our community, and we all have a better standard of living because of it. The airport is our friend. You can gauge the prosperity of a community by its airport. It’s as American as apple pie. It encourages us to look up, and dream. What’s more American than that?”