Can Grassroots Flying Solve The Pilot Shortage?

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The looming pilot shortage has been discussed ad nauseum. It’s here. Some airlines have cancelled flights for lack of qualified pilots. Airlines are offering programs to enable young people to go from zero hours to the right seat. Many solutions have been proposed including salary increases, lowering the number of hours required and so on, but to get pilots into cockpits for the long term, young people must become interested in learning to fly. There are many barriers to this that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Enabling grassroots aviation and flying ultralights should be part of the solution.

Several weeks ago, I was at fly-in located in southern Indiana about 20 miles outside of Evansville. I try to go as often as I can and support the folks who sponsor the fly-in. It’s not only fun and I can socialize with great people, but these pilots are keeping grassroots flying alive and providing a path to young people to become interested in flying. It’s a diverse mix of young, old, GA, retired, commercial and former military pilots. What unites us is the love of open-air flying. In other words, ultralights.

Listening to many of the older pilots at the fly-in, you learn that most started flying ultralights at small grass strips. It was a typical story. A couple of guys became interested in hang gliders then progressed to attaching engines on the gliders. A farmer allocated some of his land to a strip and a bunch of guys got together to fly on weekends. They flew together, built and repaired airplanes together, had cookouts and generally built camaraderie. It was fun and inexpensive. Very inexpensive. Other people would see the ultralights flying and stop by the field. They would be welcome and new pilots were created. Usually a couple of people would emerge as the “instructors” and teach others to fly safely.

Some of the pilots who learned to fly ultralights went on to get their private pilot certificates, a few joined the military and some went on to careers as pilots with the major carriers. This pipeline to an aviation career doesn’t exist any longer. It was a good funnel. It started with lots of young people who were attracted to flying. There was always a local grassroots airport where they could to grow into flying with good training and mentorship. Many became CFIs and built time. Some went into the military and some went on to become commercial airline pilots. To get future airline pilots, there needs to be a wide funnel at the outset. Young people need to be attracted to and interested in flying. Flying needs to be accessible and inexpensive.

In several Facebook groups, I asked how people got started in aviation. The result was the same. A majority of the pilots started flying at local airports. However, the dialog invariably migrated to describe how the FAA shut down ultralight and grassroots flying when they implemented the light sport regulations.

Many people said they stopped flying and most said training stopped. Most pilots pointed to the FAA’s light sport regulations. They lamented the fact that the FAA inadvertently squashed ultralight flying and prevented training in “fat ultralights.” Yes, the FAA granted two years to convert fat ultralights to E-LSAs, but restricted training to LSA aircraft. The result was an almost complete shutdown of ultralight training and grassroots flying. It also didn’t help that due to 9/11, most public airports were fenced in and are now more like fortresses or prisons. Not very inviting to be sure. Public airports are not friendly.

There were common themes in the discussion. First, flying is social. It satisfied the need for people to interact around a common passion. Second, there were mentors. Pilots who freely shared their knowledge and helped others build skills. Third, flying ultralights satisfied the need for independence. Flying a single-place ultralight is an independent activity.

There are two actions the FAA can take that will enable grassroots flying. First, allow pilots to get two-place ultralights certified. Second, enable instructors to teach in certified two-place ultralights. The EAA and Popular Rotorcraft Association are working with the FAA to try and change the regulations. There are hundreds of ultralights that could be refurbished and made into flyable airplanes if there were just a way.

Experimental Exhibition certification is a way to refurbish these aircraft, but it’s overkill. With some minor tweaks of existing E-LSA regs, the FAA could provide a better path to certification. For example, perhaps the FAA could authorize people to get repairman certificates for aircraft of this type and be able to certify these aircraft.

Now for a little more of the fly-in story and the perception some young people have about flying. One of the pilots and his wife who attends the fly-in and happens to be the pyrotechnic who puts on the fireworks show met a nice young woman at a restaurant. She asked why they were in town and they responded that they were attending the fly-in. She responded with "I love fireworks and airplanes."

Knowing they couldn’t miss this opportunity, they invited her and her friends out to the field for the fireworks show and a flight if she wanted one. She came out for the fireworks show and I spent a fair amount of time explaining the sport, how she could learn, could get a pilot certificate and continue to fly. During the conversation, I learned that she didn’t know she could fly. She thought that the government selected pilots. She thought it was prohibitively expensive. I corrected these misconceptions and she was amazed.

She was extremely excited to learn that she could actually learn to fly an airplane. She was hooked and will most likely start flying lessons. The next day she came out to the field for a flight and loved it.

At the fly-in and in the Facebook groups, I found there are many retired guys that would love to get their ultralights flying again. They have the time and the passion and would love a low-cost way to share their passion with young people. We desperately need a path to make that happen.