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Returning to the Sky

By Dan Grunloh, Editor, Light Plane World

Dan Grunloh

It sure is great to be back flying again after several months stuck on the ground. I agree completely with a quotation long attributed to a 15th century artist and inventor who predicted that once we have experienced flight, we’ll always want to return to the sky. Leonardo da Vinci might be right about everyone wanting to return there, but unfortunately they don’t all follow through. The subject of pilot retention is of interest from jet fighter aircraft to hang gliders and ultralights in between. It takes money, effort, and infrastructure to produce pilots. Each one that doesn’t keep returning to the sky diminishes the result. Unfortunately, some newly minted FAA private pilots won’t be flying anymore after only 5 years. While family and health reasons can be a factor, the biggest is probably cost. Were it not for fractional ownership, lease-back arrangements, and flying clubs, many more wouldn’t be flying. The upper end of the sport pilot continuum could be similar. Some folks, however, seem to have drifted away from flying for no other reason that they failed to “find their bliss.” I’m reminded of another quote I believe (but can’t confirm) is attributed to Amelia Earhart. “Why would you not fly when you were born at a time when you can fly?” That is the question for all those who aren’t currently returning to the sky, especially if you once flew ultralights.
During the peak of ultralight flying activity, it was estimated there were 25,000 ultralight pilots in the United States. There were more ultralights here than in the rest of the world combined. Today that number is reduced to perhaps only a few thousand or more active pilots, even though many of the same models of excellent ultralights are still available today at equivalent prices, considering inflation. The planes fly just as well, and the sky is the same. Some were slightly overweight or a little fast, but they were generally acceptable then as they are still now. The only thing that has changed is our expectations.

The FAA estimate of active certificated pilots for 2009 is 594,285 in our U.S. population of over 309 million. Counting every man, woman, and child, about one out of every 520 Americans is a certificated pilot. Next, consider the number of ultralight and sport pilots. Even if there are as many as 6000, our ranks include barely one in 50,000 citizens. It’s no surprise the needs of the ultralight community have so little priority. The numbers show how important each and every one of you is to keeping alive the idea of low-cost personal flight. Every time you fly, you demonstrate a freedom that ultralight enthusiasts from other nations wish they could copy. It’s your patriotic duty to keep flying!

My all-time favorite aviation quote speaks directly to the question of returning to the sky. I don’t know if it has ever been formally published nor do I know if the author even remembers it, but we may soon find out. It was about 1996 when a weight-shift trike instructor was responding online to a newcomer who wanted to fly but complained the trikes cost too much. Instructor John Olson said you must do whatever it takes to get into the air. “Sell your first born if necessary.” Then he said, “Don’t waste your time standing on the ground looking up wishing you were flying. We will all spend eternity under it soon enough.” I would hope that aviation writers from Leonardo to Amelia would agree with that sentiment.

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