I got into flying at a very early age. I'm not sure exactly how old I was when I abandoned my interest in trains for an obsession with airplanes, but there is a surviving third grade assignment wherein I declare my intention to be an airline pilot. My first plane ride took place at the age of 11, and I flew three more times before scheduling my first flight lesson at the age of 13. Throughout my early teens, I scrimped and saved money from odd jobs just to take one flight lesson at the end of each month. Later I worked as a line boy for the flight school, which was a dream job in that I got paid - in flight time! - for doing something I'd do anyways, namely hang out at the airport. I soloed on my 16th birthday and passed the Private Pilot checkride on my 17th.
My story isn't at all unique. Airliner cockpits across the nation are populated by thousands of former airport kids. Like me, they built models, read aviation magazines, bummed rides off local pilots, washed and fueled airplanes, and in many cases learned to fly before they could drive. All of us were bitten hard by the flying bug very early on, and it predestined us for a lifetime aloft.
I've since flown with and met many of these former airport kids. As it tuns out, nearly all of them are significantly older than me. Most were making a nuisance of themselves at the airports of the 1960s and 70s; I didn't start flying until 1994. I didn't know it at the time, but the airport kid was a dying breed. Among airline pilots of my generation, the vast majority started flying in college or later. The few I've met who began flying young had pilot parents. The trends behind this change have only accelerated since then, and I fear that airport kids are becoming few and far in between.
The primary factor is money. The cost of flying has been outstripping inflation for years. Regulatory changes, increased liability, fuel price spikes, and the greater complexity of even basic aircraft have all contributed to the spiraling costs. Perhaps the greatest cause is that there are simply fewer general aviation pilots flying now than at any time in the past 40 years. Pilots who learned to fly in the 60s can recall renting a Cub or Taylorcraft for mere dollars. As late as the mid 1980s a Cessna 150 could be had for $15 per hour. By the time I started in 1994 it was up to $38/hr. Now it's hard to find any rental airplanes for under $75/hr. This is putting aviation well out of the reach of kids, at least those without well-to-do parents willing to pay for their offspring to partake in an expensive and moderately dangerous hobby.
A second constraint is the decreased availability of training. The general aviation airports of the 60s and 70s were busier places than the airports of today. The decline of the pilot population has caused many of the businesses that served them to close down. This trend has been very noticeable the last few years as fuel and other costs have pushed general aviation activity way down. Here in the Twin Cities area, roughly half of our flight schools have shut down in the last five years. Many smaller airports, including the one I learned to fly at, have been left without any flight training options at all. The would-be airport kid of today might ride her bike to the airport only to find that there's nothing going on and nobody to talk to.
The third barrier is security. This is a recent development thanks to the events of seven years ago today. Although those attacks didn't involve general aviation, apparently some ne'er-do-well somewhere talked about the possibility at some point, and that was enough. Where airport kids could once wander around even busy general aviation airports almost at will, now even many sleepy uncontrolled fields confront them with security fences and controlled-access gates. Although it's debatable whether these would pose much of a deterrent to the truly nefarious, there's no question that they're quite effective at keeping the merely inquisitive at bay.
My aunt approached me at a family function last month to inform me that my 11 year old cousin has recently become obsessed with flying. He's building airplane models, reading every aviation book and magazine he can get his hands on, and flying heavy jets on Microsoft Flight Simulator. In other words, he's me 15 years ago. How much would it cost, my aunt asked me, to get him in the air? She was visibly crestfallen when I told her that dual instruction would cost at least $110 per hour. This isn't a poor family, but like many they don't have that kind of cash lying around on a regular basis.
I suggested that she get him involved in Civil Air Patrol or the Experimental Aircraft Association. Both offer great opportunities for hands-on aviation experience, and the CAP even offers low-cost flight training for teens. My cousin is fortunate that there's a CAP wing and EAA chapter near his house; they may be the only opportunity for him to follow his dreams of flight at a young age. Many kids aren't so fortunate.
I can hear some hard-nosed pragmatist somewhere grumbling "So what if kid's don't fly? If they really want to fly, they'll do it when they're older." Yes, perhaps. As you get older, life does tend to get in the way. I have passengers remark to me on a very regular basis, "You know, I always wanted to learn to fly...." These are people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I have not yet heard one single person express regret that they pursued their goal of learning to fly.
There's another, more practical reason to mourn the death of the airport kid. A great many former airport kids have gone on to become professional pilots because, well, they had the bug and couldn't imagine doing anything else with their lives. Most of the professional pilots my age, on the other hand, didn't start flying until they'd already decided to pursue an aviation career in college or later. Their reasons vary and I suspect the fun of flying was one unifying factor, but a large part of the draw was undoubtedly the lifestyle and compensation that an airline career offered at the time. With the profession now a mere shadow of its former self and training costs ever skyrocketing, I suspect fewer and fewer people will make that choice in the future. There may come a day when the airlines need former airport kids to fill their cockpits, only to find that there are none left.