Is Silence a Symptom of Aviation Atrophy?

By Scott Spangler on June 18th, 2012

With  no demands or duties, I retired to the deck on Father’s Day to reflect on my life’s journey, to appreciate the good times and bad that are its waypoints. A caressing breeze ebbed and flowed from the west like wind waves on the sky’s shoreline as I stared absently at an unseen stylus scribing a chalky white arc of vapor across a cloudless blueboard at 35,000 feet.

The songbirds uninterrupted medley almost drowned out the muted road noise, civilization’s inescapable tinnitus. It wasn’t until the Cessna 182, which resides on Omro’s eastern limit at Skydive Adventure, buzzed determinedly skyward that I realized that of all the places I’ve lived, this small town of 3,000 is infrequently below flying machines of all types.

Your perspective will assess this odd or not, but it seems incongruous because Omro is roughly 10 miles west of Oshkosh’s Wittman Regional Airport, home of the world’s busiest control tower, and during that one week of EAA AirVenture, the sky over Omro is, indeed, alive with airplanes. But over the intervening 51 weeks, it’s pretty quiet.

I wonder, is this silence a symptom of aviation atrophy, an industry contracting through lack of use, time, money, interest, or all of the above? Or is it a fluke of location?

I’m not sure what this means to aviation. Since I’ve been able to look up with understanding, airplanes and their sweet sounds have been a nearly uninterrupted soundtrack. This was true when I lived near airline hubs like Kansas City and San Francisco, but also in areas less populated. In the 1980s Mexico, Missouri, was home, GA craft were like robins in spring, and this was before Zenith Aircraft came to town.

Since I moved here, months before the new century started, rare is the week in which I hear and see more than a dozen airplanes. Fox Valley Tech’s trainers are common during the school year. An RJ screeches by maybe once a week. The EAA B-17 preps for its annual tour in spring, and on autumn weekends the Tri Motor leaf peeps. Maybe twice a year I’ll catch a Basler BT-67 on its maiden flight, and just before sunset on Elysian summer evenings a Challenger or Cub or open-cockpit Waco sometimes wanders over. I love helicopters, but I hate to see ThedaStar, because it means someone is seriously suffering.

In my youth, people flew for fun, and they did it often at my boyhood hangout, what is now the Schaumburg Airport. When I started my career and family in the 1980s, it seemed that justifiable business took precedence over fun. And now? When I hear a six-cylinder buzz I wait. Rarely does it continue uninterrupted. When it suddenly goes to idle the sentence of silence is punctuated by the rustling fabric snap of opening parachutes.

Or maybe the lack of quotidian aviation activities around Oshkosh is a condition specific to the Oshkosh area, nature’s way of balancing the aerial overload that wings this way every summer. But maybe not. Search your memories and compare what was with what is, and adjust for location. How would you measure the aviation activity where you’ve lived over your lifetime? –Scott

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29 Responses to “Is Silence a Symptom of Aviation Atrophy?”

  1. @williamAirways Says:

    I think you already know the answer to your inquiry.

  2. Scott Spangler Says:

    Perhaps. But when I visit my sister, who lives about 40 miles west of ORD, the amount of both airline and GA traffic overhead seems greater with time, not less. So I’m curious to learn the experiences of others who live near major hubs, where I’d expect more traffic, and those like me who live in the sticks in different parts of the country.

  3. Joseph Says:

    Where I grew up and learned to fly GA has been booted from the airport to a distant airfield. A 20 minute bus ride (yes, back then I could fly but didn’t have my parent’s permission to get my driver’s licence!) is now an hour’s drive. What was $30/hr is now $150/hr. Here’s just some reasons why flying is dying:
    – cost
    – inconvenience
    – length of time & effort to learn to fly vs today’s instant gratification culture
    – loss of the “romance/mystique of flight”
    – UAVs & robotics
    – computer games/new media
    – oh, and did I mention COST!

  4. Justin Says:

    It sounds pretty nice to me. I live on an approach to LGA so air traffic poses the opposite issue. There is no airline or billionaire who is reducing his use of the metro New York airspace. (Sadly.) I am not sure aviation has an atrophy problem so much as a revenue adjustment problem. The airlines are moving to where the money is, and smaller towns in the Midwest (where I am from) are going to be hurt enormously by this change. Not to mention small towns elsewhere.

    In the meantime, enjoy the beautiful sound of nature.

  5. Brain S. Says:

    I have been saying the same thing for the last 10 years. I would look up on any given Sat or Sun and see airplanes all day long. I see only one or two on the weekends. This is true when I go to the shore, I look up and no airplanes

  6. Rusty Says:

    @Justin, please re-read the article. He was not talking about commercial traffic, but the small GA planes flown for fun or family travel, which don’t spend much time around LGA…

  7. William M Says:

    General Aviation pilots are fewer and fewer nationally. Operations are down, especially for student and private pilot operations. Santa Monica Airport once boasted being the world’s busiest single runway at 370,000 operations in 1968. It is down to about 170,000 annually now.

    Many factors are involved but one of the biggest is the disappearance of the solid middle class, where folks had the discretionary income to learn to fly and then use their planes in business or fly their families on trips.

  8. Lowell Says:

    The main factor has to be cost. With Avgas up to 5-6-7 and even 8 dollars a gallon depending on location, few can afford to be drilling holes and keeping your skills up for the occasional $100 hamburger. Unless you have a business need where you can justify it, it’s becoming more and more out of reach.

    We’re going to find ourselves with a European-style aviation community dominated by ground launched gliders and everyone else in biz jets or airlines.

  9. @COFlyer Says:

    I guess that I’m fortunate to spend time in two very different locations that both have quite a bit of GA activity: near Denver, and north-central Minnesota. Lots of GA over the Denver metro area probably isn’t surprising, but northern MN? I bet I see or hear at least 6 GA aircraft every day during the decent weather, and to keep things interesting, we periodically have very low-level C-130 training flights right overhead!

  10. Michael Nielsen Says:

    During the 1970’s when I learned to fly there was much going on at our local airport….instruction, pleasure flights, sail planes, and hangar flying. Now none of that is evident on any weekend. The main reason is cost. New airplanes are unaffordable. The average general aviation airplane is over 30 years old and the costs of keeping it airworthy are great. General aviation is not dying…it’s already dead.

  11. N444SX Says:

    Scott, I am based at KOSH, but try to steer clear of Omro as it takes too much time to unwind the parachute cords from the prop hub! Seriously, I do get in the area often…look for my “Purple Haze” Sonex!

  12. Robert Booth Says:

    I know from my own experience that the vast majority of people on this planet are fascinated with the world of flight. Aviators have a remedy but the average person does not, which is why the public does not understand or support our passion.

    What we need to do is to get people up in the sky and show them what its all about. I don’t mean take them one at a time in a C152 or 172. Watch this video about a new type of airplane designed expressly for this purpose.

  13. David Says:

    My backyard deck is in Phoenix, Scott, with about 8 GA airports under or around the wedding cake. I’d say overhead activity, which used to be robust, is down to a trickle, even on weekends. My airport is Deer Valley, where up until 2 years ago had about 230-250 people on the small T-hangar wait list, taking about 3 to 4 years to get one. Now there are 23 waiting, and within 4 months they will all probably be getting their hangar.

    What hasn’t changed at all as far as I can tell is the large T-hangar wait list. It seems to stay the same every month.

  14. Boz Says:

    Politics closed our little airport that once was across the road from the shopping mail. They said we would crash our 140 into the mall and kill and maim thousands. So they put an office park and some tennis courts there. The mall folded as there were newer and bigger ones built. Druggies and homeless types moved in and took over. Now it is a ghetto and too scary and dangerous to use the tennis courts. Maybe they will use stimulus money some day to turn it back into an airport.

  15. Hunter Heath Says:

    We live about 2 miles from KEYE in Indianapolis, and have been here 16 years. The frequency of overflights at our house has decreased dramatically over those years. The cessation of flying after 9/11/01 never rebounded to prior levels, and with the ongoing financial crisis/recession, it’s even less. As far as I know, there is no longer a flight school at KEYE, and most planes on the ramp are Aero Commanders awaiting service at the repair station on the field. The same is true at KMQJ, on the east side of the city. I’ve worked in my hangar all day at that lovely airport and heard no more than one or two planes. I sometimes get an eery sense of a death spiral for our beloved world of flight.

  16. Scott Spangler Says:

    It is, as I feared, a sad state of affairs. It seems that hangar waiting lists might me another teltale symptom. And so might the sudden realization that I don’t remember the last time I read a news report about some group complaining about airport noise. Perhaps it is because I’m mourning the forthcoming auction of Galt Airport.

  17. Tony Wright Says:

    Scott: Amidst all the gloom of most of your reporters, I can say that KAUN (Auburn,CA) is doing just fine. It is about 8 miles from my house and there is a constant buzz of aircraft overhead. I own and fly two aircraft there,one on lease- back at the local FBO and it gets plenty of use. I know $5.00/gal. fuel is tough to handle, but so was @.50/gal in 1975 when I learned to fly and I was making a tenth what I make now.

  18. Bob Bailey Says:

    I love flying but I do not make any effort to tabulate the cost of my flying. How can any sane person justify flying a typical single engine airplane burning 10 to 12 gallons/hour @ $6.00 a gallon to fly to breakfast? OK I do this every weekend (when I can). But it’s getting harder and harder for me to ignore the cost. And Im not alone. Pass the Kool-Aid please!

  19. Tony Wright Says:

    Flying has NEVER been cheap. If you want a cheap hobby, take up frisbies. I bought my first plane in 1975 (a 1973 Cessna 182 for $23,000.00), about two times my annual income at that time. But you can buy a pretty good used airplane now for the price of a new car. Things haven’t changed much over the years. The ordinary guy NEVER could afford a new airplane. My present personal plane (a Stinson Reliant) burns 22-25 gals/hr. I look for friends who want to fly with me and can help with gas.

  20. John M. White Says:

    I find it depressing as I travel around our state to airports that used to buzz with activity, particularly on the weekends.

    I am glad I sold my aviation insurance agency back in 2004 because it for sure is no longer a growth business, and I really miss all of the small FBOs I used to insure.

    It seems to me it is going to be a long time before general aviation makes a comeback, if ever.

  21. Timm Bogenhagen Says:

    I fly one of the Challengers from Wilke’s you see. I am flying about half as many hours as I did 10 years ago. With less disposable time and money it has become the reality. When I do fly I find it more satisfying than ever before. The Challenger is about as inexpensive as it gets buring 3.5 gph of auto gas:)

  22. @williamAirways Says:

    Mr. Tony Wright,

    What is the demographics of those who are flying? Are they even Americans? There are airports where there are plenty of activity…training activity…for foreigners…who leave the country after they’re done. Your airport looks like a fun place to fly, with a restaurant, Civil Air Patrol, flight schools, and on top of all that, the gas there is CHEAP! That may be another reason why the hand of death have not touched your airport yet: CHEAP gas!

  23. David Says:

    Flying has NEVER been cheap. If you want a cheap hobby, take up frisbies.>

    Tough talk from no doubt a real tough guy. But astoundingly ignorant. If all pilots gave up and took up frisbies, you eventually would have to, too. Borrow a few brain cells from your gas supplying friends and think about it. Your comment works against a healthy, vibrant GA for the future, and serves no purpose other than for you to vent your benightedness.

  24. Joaeph Says:

    Interesting statistic: There has been a doubling of glide pilots in the past 10 years… oh, so that is why there is the “sound of silence”. ;)

    Here is a link to research that show that from 2001 to 2011 the number of glider pilots increased by around 2.5 times.

  25. Dave Schneider Says:

    We have a SLSA. Sold our Mooney and went to two seats, a better mission fit. We have flown 20 hours in the just last two months. Well over 100 hours per year. At just over 4gph and $4.00/gal it works out to about $16-20 per hour for fuel. The annual was $400. The hangar is $165/month. Insurance is $1700/year. We could go to a cheaper hangar but we have an electric door, a weather tight hangar, and year round access to pavement. We fly a couple of hundred miles for lunch and a looksee at some town we have not been to before. Or we fly to visit gradkids or other family. Yes it cost us $85K used but there will be residual value when we are done with it. It all comes down to choices. We do not have expensive cable TV, we drive our cars until they are well used, we have a modest home, we don’t eat out at Outback but have a few less expensive local restaurants, we even limit that. Every time we take off I say “I can’t believe we get to do this!”. But when we suggest flying to non pilots, they always say too expensive. Just like they say motorcycle riding is too expensive, or sailing, or traveling, or anything else rewarding. Then they go back inside their airconditioned habitat with the satellite dish and watch must see TV in the summer. People just seem to be more voyeristic now. They don’t really experience in the first person.

  26. Robert Mark Says:

    Easier to say “too expensive” sometimes Dave. You sure have this figured out though. I’m really impressed.

    Which SLSA did you buy? Are you flying it to AirVenture?


  27. Tim Perkins Says:

    I’ve been fortunate to live under KDFW’s flights to the Northeast all my life. Had a 30-power telescope as a kid and would follow the 707’s and DC8’s smokey contrails for what like forever.

    I share your feelings on the air ambulances. I live northeast of Dallas and we average seeing one every other day as they race overhead – either to pick up a poor victim or bring them in to a trauma unit in the big city. Always say a prayer for whomever is on board.

  28. Steve Austin Says:

    “Flying has NEVER been cheap. If you want a cheap hobby, take up frisbies” HMMMM…stupid comment in my opinion. When I learned to fly, I could rent a used 172 for $65 an hour a KBDU. Now I pay $129 for a used 172 at KAPA. Price doubled…paycheck has not. I could afford to fly much more at $65 an hour. Oh yeah, I learned to fly in 2000, not 1975!

  29. Craig Fry Says:

    10 years ago I could fly a newer 182 for $79/hr wet. I could also fly a full glass turbo 182 for $99/hr. Now I only fly a 172 for $139/hr and if I want to fly a 182 it is now $205/hr. My income has not even come close to keeping up with aviation’s increases. It is sad but we are all getting squeezed and soon only the wealthy will be able to afford the finer things in life. Just the way Al Gore and his friends like it.

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