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The Last Pilot

By Ken Krebaum

(Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Chapter 168, its management, employees, or parent organization. In fact, we all think he is way out on a limb on this one.)

The last pilot has already been born. He will be a homebuilder and his last flight will be in an experimental amateur-built aircraft. How do I know? Well …

To provide context for the answer I will define “pilot” as a human, on board the aircraft, who, in FAA parlance, is the sole manipulator of aircraft controls for the purpose of flight. Those controlling aircraft from the ground are operators, not pilots.

There are three overwhelming trends that will lead to the elimination of the pilot function: technology, cost, and demographics.

Technology. Technology exists that allows a pilotless aircraft to takeoff, perform maneuvers necessary for flight, and land safely. These aircraft can be linked via satellite to mission managers (not pilots) who can alter flight plans, direct surveillance sensors, and (in the military) deploy weapons. The algorithms exist to manage airspace full of unmanned aerial vehicles flying different missions. It is part of what the military calls Battle Space Deconfliction.

There is no question that aviation is going pilotless. The question is when it will become completely pilotless. The military will be the earliest adopter. And with good reason. I can remember being at a Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration conference years ago where its guiding direction was expressed as “the battlefield is no place for humans.” Airlines will be next. These will quickly figure out that pilotless means no pilot’s unions, no strikes, no training, and no pensions. Close behind will be business aviation. Pilotless will be more cost effective.

In the recreational aviation world, there is a segment that has been pilotless for over sixty years. Radio-controlled model aircraft. This is a growing area in which costs, in constant dollars, have decreased tremendously due to the revolution in semiconductor electronics. There are now more active R/C flyers than active private pilots. In the 1950’s through the 1970’s, many would start out as R/C aircraft flyers and then transition to full-scale aircraft pilots. Soon, if not already, the transition will be in the other direction. The cost of operating full-scale aircraft is increasing to the point of unaffordability, and the only outlet for recreational aviation enthusiasts will be pilotless R/C aircraft.

Another technological substitute for piloting an aircraft is the flight simulator. Even at the low end, PC simulators offer tremendous graphics and realism. It’s a very powerful lure, especially for kids. In this virtual aviation world, a $40 copy of Microsoft FSX, along with hundreds of inexpensive available addons, offers a range of experiences one could never even hope to have in the real world. Does today’s kid dream of a weekend ride in a Cherokee 140, when every night he is flying an F-22 in combat? And when he’s bored with that flys an Extra 300, a 787, or maybe a space shuttle?

Cost. This is a growing impediment to those that wish to pilot aircraft. Personal and recreational aviation have traditionally been the launching point for many aviation careers. Increasing real costs are making this less and less possible.

In 2013 dollars, forty years ago a Cessna 172 sold new for $80K ($17.5K in 1973). Today a new 160 hp C172 sells for $275K. In 2013 dollars, forty years ago a Cessna 150 rented for $48 per hour ($10.50 in 1973). Today a 30 year-old C152 rents for $120. In the personal and recreational aviation world, for each constant inflation-adjusted dollar, we are getting only 30 to 40% of the aviation we were getting 40 years ago.

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Demographics. Flight was the defining achievement of the twentieth century. By the end of the century, however, flight had become commonplace, part of the infrastructure. For those born after about 1985, the millennial generation, aviation provides little excitement. It is not leading-edge technology. There are much more interesting things to do and careers to pursue. There is no aviation enthusiasm to hand down to succeeding generations. This is the most powerful force that will lead to the elimination of pilots. Eventually no one will be interested in flying a plane. The source of new pilots is drying up.

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The number of Private Pilots has been in decline for 33 years.

Approximately half of the current active private pilots are over 50 years old. In 30 years hardly any of these will be active. And they are not being replaced.

Military aviation used to hold a fascination for young people. From the 1930’s through the 1960’s aviation and aerospace were the most exciting leading-edge technologies. Aviation was a major factor in the Allied victory in WWII. Interest in this exists strongly in those that have a personal connection with World War II The connection is through fathers, uncles, and grandfathers that experienced WWII aviation first-hand. But almost all of those have passed and the connection is not there for the young.

Dutch Van Kirk was the navigator on the Enola Gay for the first atomic bomb mission. He is spending his later years giving talks on the history and necessity of that mission. He was introduced at one high school assembly as “a veteran of World War Eleven.” Yes, the connection is gone.

Airline aviation is no source of inspiration for the young. It has lost the grandeur and romanticism it had from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. Airline travel now serves largely as an irritant to the traveler, an escalating experiment by government and business to quantify how much mental and physical pain the traveling public can endure. Will the frog jump out of the heating water before being boiled to death?

Recreational aviation provides even less attraction for the young. To them it’s something your grandfather does. Definitely not cool. To make matters worse, airports have become unfriendly places. Young people with a potential interest are literally fenced out and locked out of many airports.

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Will this kid be able to get close to an airplane? Depends on how fast he can run.

Decades from now, even if the technological, cost, and demographic barriers to piloting an aircraft could be overcome, no sane person will have the interest and motivation to do so.

But wait. If sanity is the obstacle, this is where the homebuilder can come to the rescue. Homebuilding reminds me of the theme to an old PBS show, The Great American Dream Machine:

When I meet a guy with guts, that’s got a dream that’s kinda nuts,
I don’t care if his IQ is close to zero,
I just put out my right hand, and say I’m glad to meet a man,
We all can call a Great American Hero.

Except maybe for the IQ thing. We homebuilders are smart in a quirky, annoying sort of way. But not smart enough to know that no one can build an airplane in his garage. We simply do not have the capacity to realize it can’t be done. So we go out to the garage or hangar, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and just get it done. And some of our more pathological cases even do this more than once.

A homebuilder is willing to make fourteen trim tabs before producing an airworthy version. Put a rivet gauge on every one of the 12,234 he has set. Lose sleep over the decision of what primer to use. Build an airplane in a Manhattan apartment. Homebuilders are obsessive and compulsive enough to keep the thread of personal aviation alive.

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A homebuilder can sometimes spend too much time in the shop.

This is why a homebuilder will be the last pilot to persevere in the face of all obstacles, and, as Dick Cavin used to say, “commit aviation.” One last time.