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Guest Blog on Things in the Sky: “Aviation Nerds: Why we Stink”

July 11, 2009

About a month ago, my fellow aviation nerd and friend Dan Webb of Things in the Sky asked if I would be interested in writing a guest post on his popular and informative airline/aviation blog. Realizing the opportunity, I submitted the following post for his readers:

My name is Martin Rottler, and I am soon becoming an endangered… one of those people with an unbridled passion for aviation, airlines and flying. It’s a sad fact of the way aviation and airlines are perceived today, especially amongst this country’s future generations: high school students. This is so much so, that an annual career interest inventory survey of high school students lists interest in aviation and flight careers at a nearly all-time low. According to the FAA’s industry forecasts, the number of certificated pilots in the US is expected to drop over the next few years. Why is this the case? What happened to the glamour, the fun, and the wonder of flight?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the world of aviation and flying. It’s been a fun and slightly strange obsession—7th birthday party at the now-demolished Stapleton International Airport in Denver (including a full tour for the entire cadre of 5, 6 and 7 year olds of a Continental Airlines 737…those were the days!), first time flying a small airplane on the day after my 11th birthday, deciding to attend an Aerospace camp at the University of North Dakota not once, but twice, and soloing a Cessna 172 on the morning of my 16th birthday even before I picked up my driver’s license from the DMV.

I’m lucky—I was hooked on aviation and flying early thanks to the aforementioned intro flight as an 11 year old. A quote from my mom on that momentous day, caught on video perfectly sums up the significance of that fall morning: “Well…we’re either creating a monster…or burying one.” From that day on, the monster idea of one day earning my pilot’s license was all but cemented in my mind. Five years later, I soloed. A year and a half after that, my dream of being a Private Pilot came true. Two years after that, on a bitterly cold North Dakota day, I earned my Commercial Pilot certificate with instrument and multi-engine ratings at the University of North Dakota. The next year I would put those privileges to work as an intern for a major aircraft manufacturer.

I am an example of an introduction to aviation gone right. I’m sure many of you reading this blog today have similar stories and experiences. Think for a moment, however, about just how you got into the hobby or career. Was it the result of an educational program, or your own persistence and perseverance? Did it require supportive parents and colleagues, or were you mentored on your way through other means?

For the most part, we as aviation nerds, suck at bringing new people into our own ranks. We do strange things (mileage runs? flight simulators? aerobatics?); speak our own language; and spend most of our time talking amongst ourselves. Outside forces contribute to this downtrend in aviation nerd-dom. Degradation of airline service and pilot/crew pay has made young people realize that the once-glamorous job of airline pilot is history. The recent Colgan crash only highlighted the challenges regional airline pilots face. Increased (and in my opinion, often unneeded) security makes the travel experience tedious. Gone are the days when a parent could take their child to the airport to ride the trains and look at airplanes up-close at the gate (no joke—this was a fixture of elementary school for me here in Denver). Business aviation is under fire from the major media and the non-flying public who are ignorant to its benefits and just how far “biz av” reaches in the aviation spectrum. Aviation fuel costs have skyrocketed, making flight training more and more expensive, and as a result, inaccessible for many. A four year degree at a major aviation university will now set a student and their families back six figures, even at schools with reasonable tuition.

The obstacles facing potential aviation geeks today are many. What are those of us with aviation geek badges-of-honor doing to facilitate these virgin nerds into the world of aviation? I see one (unwritten) responsibility of my pilot’s license is to serve as an ambassador of aviation and flying to the public. During the aforementioned internship, I had the opportunity to provide 30 introductory flights to people from the community in which I worked. These were awesome opportunities to not only introduce the airplane in which I was lucky enough to fly, but to also plant the seeds of aerodynamics, airlines, and the licensing process in my passengers. I received several follow-up letters and e-mails from these passengers expressing a future interest in flying, especially amongst the younger passengers I had on board. I can attribute one flight to my own aviation monster creation, and it was my goal that I reciprocate the same experience for others. Here’s the only problem—aside from the EAA Young Eagles program, there are no widely established opportunities to provide an introduction to aviation. United Airlines used to open up their simulators in Denver to the community two days a year. After 9/11, this open house was cancelled. We need to be doing a better job as pilots, airlines, hobbyists and industry professionals at reaching out to our respective communities. Through formal and informal educational experiences, we can do a better job at enabling young people to experience the awesome world of aviation and flying. This can only be done with the efforts of the entire community. Invite someone to go flying with you; show them Microsoft Flight Simulator; drag them along spotting; make them experience a mileage run to Europe in one weekend. Sure—some people just aren’t interested in some of the crazy things we do. You’d be surprised at how many out there are.

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