Do Pilots Still Fly for Fun?

By Robert Mark on December 15th, 2008

JetWhine_RC Aerobat A good question, posed by Matt Thomas in his comment about New Book Holds Hope for Aviation’s Future. “Do they risk finding other things to do that are perhaps more fun?” he asked on the next line, referring to pilots in general and not the subject of the book, which is the further misadventures of the Kansas City Dawn Patrol, a decades old group that lives for fun flying.

What ignited Matt’s questions was FAA demographic data for 2007 that said the average student pilot was 34 years old, the average private pilot was 48, and the average recreational and sport pilot is 52.

JetWhine_Flight Simulator“I’m guessing by their ages,” Matt wrote, “that a large segment of the pilot population is not on a career path to the airlines, so they might just be flying for the sheer joy of it, which is great.”

He went on to wonder if PC flight simulators and RC models were siphoning participants from full-scale flying, “and I’m not even mentioning all the non-aviation things that clamor for our attention.”

The short answers to to both questions is yes!

JetWhine_FlyingFamily Like the population of baby boomers, pilots at all levels of experience has been getting older. The stereotypical teenage student pilot still exists, but this age group has always been a minority. Most often they are the offspring of active flyers and grew up with airplanes, or gliders, or helicopters, or ultralights.

The average student pilot comes from a non-flying family, and they satisfy their aerial urges when their discretionary income allows. In other words, after college and before starting a family. Others have to wait until the kids are older, or out of the house.

What the FAA data doesn’t track is activity. How many pilots learn to fly at 34, stop flying while raising the family, and start again at 48, when the kids are older, or at 52, when the kids are out of the house, and the pilots can reclaim some of the discretionary income? I’ll bet the percentage is high.

FAA data also support Matt’s observation that the plurality of pilots fly for fun. In the annual dissection of GA flight hours, the “personal” category is the biggest number. Personal flying accounts for all the hours that don’t fall into other categories, like business travel.

It is great that most pilots fly for fun, and in general aviation that’s been the case since the end of World War II.  And this is why the pilot population is shrinking, because flying for fun depends on discretionary dollars, and each year more pilots quit because they can’t afford it or, to a lesser degree (I’m guessing), find it not worth the investment.

Based on research done about a decade ago for some stories, rare is the simulator or model pilot who progresses to full-scale flying. Many hardcore participants spend more on their virtual and scale flying machines, and they have no interest in “getting real” because it is boring. And, compared to flying virtual combat or a scale acro machine that will hover, it is.

There is no definitive answer to the question whether pilots risk finding things to do that are more fun. Anecdotal data suggests that the risk is real.

Only the truly hardcore pilots live by airplanes alone, and they will sacrifice much to keep flying. Most people have several discretionary interests, and when time and/or money are tight, they invest in those interests that give the most satisfying economical return. —Scott Spangler

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13 Responses to “Do Pilots Still Fly for Fun?”

  1. chris prosser Says:

    I’m a student pilot, flying for fun. I’m 35. I’ve had a number of expensive hobbies to break me in (tig welding/metal sculpture/kinetic sculpture/motorcycling), but getting the numbers to work is still difficult. My dream is to have a plane with a few ppl, but there is a big gap between a Champ with a starter ($35K), and something like a used Flight Design ($90k). I’m sport pilot, so hopefully the used market will fatten up in the next 5 years or so.

    Something I’ve always wondered about is outreach. The lark that got me off my butt was that a local flying club had a booth at a home expo. I ended up winning an introductory flight, and I was hooked. But aside from that, I’ve never seen anything outside of an airport.


  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Good question Chris. Our company does outreach for airports and I can tell you it is a tough sell, usually because airport managers have a tough time correlating their outreach efforts to any meaningful results, which is what their bosses are looking for.

    There are a few places trying hard though. One that comes to mind is Page Field outside Ft. Myers FL.

    They spend a ton of money every year to throw a party for the community to thank them for their support. They ask noting in return, at least nothing I’m aware of.

    But those kind of places can be tough to find.

    Where are you flying from these days?

  3. Adam Says:

    actually, i just started (in 2006) returning to my roots in bush flying.. after an 8 year hiatus from the world of hands on 135… and float flying is fun… and i’d do more of it.. so now.. amazingly, i’m looking for a job in Montreal – luckily there aren’t too many bilingual pilots .. so i have a wee edge (says Philippe of

  4. Bernie Fisher Says:

    I have just come across your blog, and enjoyed reading it. You pose an interesting question Scott, and could I be permitted to share with you that I have been flying for over 43 years now, professionally since 1978 after 12 years with the Royal Australian Navy as an airframes/engines maintenance engineer. I enjoyed every hour, every year being involved with aviation in its various forms flying multi- engine aeroplanes and helicopters, jet, turbines and piston, instruments, for government departments, oil industry companies, search and rescue and so on. I enjoyed the operational aspect but more the people I have met in many countries. In retirement now I reflect on my most fortunate life doing something I thoroughly enjoyed and being paid to do it! Sure there were some hardships but they are in any profession. I have returned to more serene flight and now instruct glider flying and about to commence instructing on LSA within our gliding club in north east Australia. But the excitement I held for aviation does not seem to exist as it did when I was young. For example we had some young Air Force cadets for their first glider flight using a winch as the launch medium. They were all thrilled with the flight and when I asked them what they thought of their first gliding experience nearly all said that it was the launch, not the actual fling a glider!! We have a lot of difficulty engaging the younger generation to a complete course. I seem to have lost touch with what I need to do to entice youthful newcomers to the flight field. The recreational sport flying is booming here and you are right, the pilots and owners are late middle aged and have generally come to experience their lifes dream of achieving their pilots licence for flying fun. I have five children but not one is interested at all in aviation! To them it is all so ‘ho-hum’.

  5. Scott Says:

    Bernie, I don’t think the younger generation has not gotten interested in aviation because you, I, or any other pilot has lost the touch needed to entice others into the sky. As we have, aviation has matured. It is no longer the steely eyed adventure that caused many of us to look skyward. To most youngsters, aviation is a speedy, if uncomfortable and hassle-filled way to travel. Adventure is kayaking the amazon or backcountry unicycling, activities outside the everyday norm that don’t require a lifetime to master. But that doesn’t mean we should give up trying. I compare the effort to teaching, which I did for a number of years. Most of my students humored me, but I’d get one or two a year that were really interested in journalism, and it made the rest of it worthwhile.

    Thanks for reading JetWhine!


  6. Matt Thomas Says:

    Hi Rob!
    Thanks for mentioning me.
    I’m always curious about overall trends in aviation demographics. For example, why are there 7,000,000 millionaires in the USA, but only 600,000 active pilots?
    Of course, you certainly don’t need to be a millionaire to afford a pilot’s license. I’m just illustrating that there are plenty of people that have enough money to fly, but they choose not to.
    I wonder why.
    I fly. I love it. I take a lot of people flying that have never been in a Cessna 172 before, and they end up loving it too. But if everyone loves it, what’s holding people back?

  7. Ron Amundson Says:

    I wonder though… individual pilots may not have lost the touch to entice others, the the current mindset of FBO’s may well have made it a ton harder.

    Back when I started flying in 83, nearly every pilot lounge I went to had folks just hanging out, pretty much irrespective of the day. In some ways, at least in the midwest, the FBO/pilot lounge was not unlike the small town barber shop. A new student could walk in, and hear the stories of WWII vets, to corp pilots, to businessmen, to other students. It was a community. Somewhere along the line, that community went vacant… everything today is so sterile and corporate. The old days of the codger with a stogie have long since passed (probably a good thing on the stogie part), but the loss of community is part of the problem.

    The other part is affordability, in 1983, I could work a full day at minimum wage and get close to an hour of ac time. Granted, those weren’t state of the art a/c, nor were the FBO’s, many still having well worn WWII surplus furniture. Today, everything it seems caters to the millionaire, and the FBO’s greatest overhead is interest followed by insurance. The end result, ac utilization is way down, rates are way up, and the potential market is much more limited than it was back when.

  8. Alex Berry Says:

    I thought I would learn to fly in the U.S, in Kissimmee, nr. Orlando. Prior to arriving at the airfield I had hardly considered a PPL. At the time, the attraction was that it’s new ground for me and a challenge.

    After my solo on 11th Sept 2001, everyone was grounded with time on their hands. The collective spirit of aviators is just great, from all walks of life, the community has a lot in common and that connectedness is great.

    So for me, nearly 8yrs ago, I started flying for fun. As a result (so far) I’ve had a wonderful journey and met my wife in the process. Flying for fun was always the aim; it’s just so satisfying to go somewhere and do something that so many people cannot. Of course, in the US 600,000 pilots, in the UK though, we have circa. 40,000 equivalent and a decreasing population to protect.

    I think that the one of problems GA has is that pilots lose the sense of purpose in their flying, failing to find the key reasons.

    Most of the pilots I’ve met are fantastic people, some days, I would be happy to be just at the aerodrome around people who have stories, experience and wisdom galore to share.

    A lot of people do not realise that there’s a lot more to flying – than flying.

    Regards, Alex Berry

  9. kevin Says:

    There are a number of other activities but for the adventurous spirit I see no reason why aviation can’t be one of them.

    It’s up to us to introduce people to aviation and in my opinion there are two great ways to do it. The light sport community and soaring.

    These are two types of flying that are economical and loads of fun.

    I’ve spent my time in military and airliner cockpits and nothing gives me the feeling of freedom of flying a light general aviation aircraft.

    If we want to keep the adventure of flying alive then we as a group need to stand up and preach its virtues.

    Become A Marine Pilot

  10. Airport Lounge Says:

    The lead singer of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, who works as a pilot for the UK charter airline Astraeus in his spare time must be flying for fun. You can’t tell me that guy needs the money !

  11. New2flight Says:

    I’ve just begun researching what it takes to be able to fly.

    Let me tell you, there doesn’t seem to be any single source I’ve found to help me understand whether I should be considering a GA III certificate or Light Sport. The cost of the latter being 1/2 of the former & about 1/2 of the time makes me lean toward the cheaper shorter version.

    Hopefully with more Light sport product penetration flying will become popular again. Don’t think it can happen ’til the actual vehicles become cheaper to purchase.

    You can now purchase used Cessna for a fraction of the cost an automobile, but they are old, not too user friendly nor comfortable and don’t usually have the latest nav. equipment. But they are still a fraction of the cost of new CTSL or other light sports

    It’s hard to believe that the cost to manufacture these LS aircraft would be significantly different than a Yugo, if scaled up sufficiently, but they’re priced now like Ferrari’s.

    Renting or sharing seems to be the only sensible approach, even for millionaires, who are frugal.

  12. Alex Berry Says:

    Renting and sharing is not only sensible but it can be a lot of fun if you’re in the right group. It also lessons the burden of ownership (and I speak from experience) and helps pilots to share their experiences. In the early days of flying, it is great.

    A lot of aircraft are quite affordable but watch out for ongoing maintenance costs which can seriously stack up – another benefit to group fly/share etc.

    In my view, stay positive about it, the experience is great and if you’ve already had your test flights and are already smitten then invest the time researching what makes most sense for you and whilst you are probably expecting everything to be in one place and easily accessible, it sounds like you have just realised – it isn’t :)

    I’ll never forget my first solo, my first loop and roll and will never forget … blah, blah, blah ;)

  13. Alex Berry Says:

    You might find this of some interest and perhaps good research fodder –

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