What’s it like to fly? Fewer people want to find out

There’s a really neat film we saw at Oshkosh, Wis., a few years ago that perfectly captured a fading romance in this country.

Barnstorming documented what happened when a group of pilots landed their planes in a field in Indiana, and the relationship that developed from the experience.

It was a lovely film billed as an “American” story. And it was, once.

Sadly, especially for those of us who always wanted to see what it’s like to fly, fewer people want to know what it’s like to fly.

It’s a curious situation, particularly if you look at what the number one non-fiction book is right now on the New York Times best-seller list.

The dream of flight is dying before our eyes and the Associated Press does a great job of documenting its demise today.

Small towns — and more than a few big ones — are turning their airports over to housing developers because few people fly anymore.

Many small towns have had airfields almost since the early barnstorming days and expanded them after World War II when military pilots returned home, ready to resume work but eager to keep flying. The number of pilots with private certificates peaked at 357,000 in 1980.

Since then, though, that number has nose-dived to 188,000, and hundreds of local airfields have been closing.

Interest has waned as planes became much more costly. New small planes that cost about $13,000 in the late 1960s now go for $250,000 or more, and owners also must pay more for specialized aviation fuel, liability insurance, maintenance and hangar space.

So few planes touched down at the airport in nearby Hartley, Iowa, that the small community tore up its runway in 2010 and leased it to a farmer who now grows corn on the 80 acres.

“Nobody was buying airplanes, so when the runway and hangers needed work, they decided to do away with it,” said Howard Orchard, the town’s unofficial historian.

Likewise, officials in the 6,000 person city of Hillsboro, Illinois, also found a more profitable use for their rarely used airfield. They sold it to a company mining coal.

“It was a hard pill to swallow for me to tell these guys we had to do away with it,” said Bill Baran, the mayor at the time, who broke the bad news to local flyers. Dozens of pilots had once used the field, but only two planes were still based there when officials agreed to sell it in 2008.

With our paranoia, most airports are locked tight behind fences as part of the “security show,” hardly an inviting place even if kids still wanted to hang out at an airport looking for a free ride (they don’t).

But the barrier to entry is considerable. It costs a lot to learn to fly; it costs more to keep flying and younger people have other ways to lose money.

General aviation groups, like the Experimental Aircraft Association, have tried for years to shovel sand against the tide. The EAA, for example, has flown almost 2 million young people on free flights to try to encourage them to pursue aviation. Its volunteer pilots are generally members of a graying generation.

Efforts in Congress have focused on reducing medical requirements for pilots — a movement that has been stuck for more than a decade.

A program to lower the cost of airplanes (a so-called “light sport” category) that was initially intended to make airplanes available for less than $100,000 has failed, at least as a price point.

But the overriding problem seems much more significant: Generations have grown up without looking up and dreaming.

Barnstorming has disappeared as an American experience. At the present rate, flying will too.

Audio: Bradley Hanson, administrator of Onawa, Iowa, tells NPR’s Here and Now about the decision.

  • Jim in RF

    I started ground school 15-ish years ago but quit when I realized the eventual costs of the hobby. Probably could have afforded it if I really wanted, but it would have been a strain.

  • Paul

    It is a shame. 25D has a few new buildings, but only 2-3 hangars are regularly active; one of them being a parachute operation. SGS is slow even on VFR days. It is crazy.

    Airports in the metro seem to be keeping together for the most part, I wonder how the number of flights in/out are trending?

    • Actually, I find KSGS to be an amazingly busy place, especially for a small airfield. I think one of the thing that spooks people there is the crosswind that pops up at this time of the year.

      On the other hand, a guy stopped at the hangar the other day looking for a hangar to rent. He’s moving up from Tucson for the season. He hasn’t been able to find anything.

      KSGS is thick with hangars but they’re full of planes that aren’t flying. I’ve never seen the person that has a plane, I presume, in the hangar next to where my plane is.

      There are some planes sitting out on the grass that haven’t budged since I moved out there in 2008. A terrible way to treat an airplane.

      • Paul

        That is good to hear, then. I haven’t been flying out of SGS for long, but the days I do, it seems particularly slow compared to 21D. VFR days there will have 4-5 aircraft in the pattern at times.

  • John

    I’d love to fly, and after a ride in an experimental plane, started doing legwork to figure out how to make it happen.

    Eventually, I added up the barrier to entry costs, and decided it would be better to pay for a couple years of college for my kids than to move toward that as my primary hobby. I can buy a lot of bicycles and roast a lot of coffee (my two main non-work hobbies) just for the cost of parts to build a plane. We’re not even going to talk about insurance and flight training.

  • MrE85

    I guess I never caught the aviation bug, either. I do find flying in smaller aircraft interesting, and if I ever get a chance to catch a ride, I will. I’m flying to Bismarck tomorrow in a small commercial jet. I think flying with Bob in his beautiful little plane would be a lot more fun.

  • Brian

    I have a lot of great memories flying to Oshkosh and camping there with my Uncle and I’m getting to the point in life where I could almost afford a flying habit.

    Unfortunately, I married someone that is afraid to fly (worth it, just to be clear). I think she’d probably “let” me if really wanted to get into flying, but I would have a hard time justifying (to myself) a hobby that she wouldn’t be able to share with me.

    • Brian

      Partially for that reason, I really enjoy all of your aviation related posts Bob (here and elsewhere). I am living vicariously through you.

  • Paul Weimer

    My late friend Scott dreamed of learning to fly–but never had the chance to learn

  • Kate

    My grandpa was a pilot for Northwest Airlines and owned a small plane that he would fly around the farm fields of St. Michael (Minnesota). When my dad was young, grandpa used to sneak him out of school in the middle of the day and take him up in that plane. I think some of the wonder and adventure of flight is lost on the younger generation as travel (at least commercial travel) is seen as more of a nusiance than an opportunity.

  • I would love to learn how to fly, but alas, it is too expensive for me.

    I loved the flight I got in old WW2 L-Birds and “Miss Mitchell.”

  • Erika

    (FYI: “Hanger” should be hangar). I started flying in 1989 and made it to the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner. I’m so thankful for the experience, but aviation has changed extraordinarily. It has been regulated to death because common sense has been removed from the formula. Every regulation requires a fee and the irony is that “deregulation” in 1978 began the destruction of the fundamental value of what aviation brings to small communities – where our future pilots live. I love capitalism, but in sectors like aviation, it needs a socialist boost if we want our skies to remain safe and available to everyone…

  • Tyler

    You seem to define “flying” as operating a fixed-wing, enclosed aircraft (forgive me, I’m not up on the lingo). I’ve got a coworker who flies a powered wing, and the guy he bought the parachute from says business is gangbusters. Is it possible people are flying ultralights and variants due to the lower cost of entry, as opposed to more traditional aircraft?

    • Yeah, it looks like a lot of fun, but do you know one of the reasons it’s gangbusters? Because of the oppressive FAA medical policies (described a little in the AP article) that is forcing people to give up their medical certificates to fly under light sport rules.

      In fact, recently, I’ve been considering powered parachutes for that reason. They seem to be a blast. It’s on my list of things to check out at Oshkosh this year.

      You still need a pilot certificate to fly ultra lights and powered parachutes, too, and the numbers on that front aren’t lying.

      The rules for flying light sport are interesting. You don’t need a medical certificate but you’re not allowed to fly even light sport IF you’ve been denied a medical renewal by the FAA. So what a lot of people are doing is simply not risking being denied a medical, letting it lapse, and then flying under light sport rules.

      This is particularly true if a person has developed some health problems that would get the person denied by the FAA.

      It’s rather insane. In its ongoing mission to remove all risk from life, the FAA has done a lot to kill off general aviation.

      Ironically, one of the sneaky tactics airport enthusiasts use to keep them open is to convince unsuspecting local government leaders to accept FAA grants. Once you do that, you’re committed to paying them back when you want to close the airport down.