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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Joel Pierce, manager of Sweet Aviation at Smith Field Airport, says about 60 students enroll in the company’s flight school every year.

Fewer pilots navigating the friendly skies

Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Mechanic Rob McKee works on a Cirrus aircraft at Sweet Aviation at Smith Field Airport. Production of single-engine planes plunged, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
Pilot Bill Griffin, front, works with flight instructor Lorin Caney on a flight simulator.

Bob Rynes of Spencerville obtained his pilot’s license in September, after spending about $10,000 in flight hours and related training.

The 47-year-old said reaching Federal Aviation Administration standards may scare off some prospective fliers – and the costs certainly don’t help, either.

“I know everybody doesn’t have that to spend,” said Rynes, a labor union representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 700.

“Once you get going, it’s not as expensive as you might think,” he said. “You can rent a plane for an hour for $80 to $135. I took my wife over to Indy for her birthday. But, yeah, the upfront costs could stop some from flying.”

The number of private and recreational pilots in the country has declined from about 827,000 in 1980 to 617,000, according to the Frederick, Md.-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

During about the same period, production of single-engine planes plunged from 14,000 a year to fewer than 700, based on data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association in Washington.

Several factors are cited for the decline.

•Some say the decreases have been accelerated by increasingly strict federal regulations.

•The recession resulted in people – aspiring pilots included – watching their wallets, so training and eventual operational costs, such as fuel, may be an issue.

•Another issue is baby boomers retiring from the skies.

The Aviation Association of Indiana pegs the industry’s economic impact in the state at more than $14 billion annually, providing nearly 70,000 jobs and $4.1 billion in payroll.

Private and recreational pilots play a big role in those numbers, said Nick King, manager of Warsaw Municipal Airport.

But the retirements of pilots “could create a huge deficit over the next five to 10 years at the regional level,” King said.

Larger commercial carriers likely will turn to pilots at smaller regional airstrips to fill the vacancies.

Those pilots often instruct private and recreational fliers.

King, a commercial pilot, is leading a new effort at the Aviation Association to attract college students. Rising fuel costs that hamper recreational fliers are an immediate concern.

“Instead of it costing $50 to $60 to fill up a plane, it costs $100 to $120,” King said. “That can be really prohibitive.”

Joel Pierce is manager of Sweet Aviation, a flight school, aircraft rental and maintenance company at Smith Field Airport. He said enrollment during the past few years has remained steady with about 60 students yearly seeking their wings.

“We haven’t noticed a drop-off,” he said. “Everything has been going well. In fact, I’d say since taking over about three years ago, our class levels have increased.”

Local entrepreneur Chuck Surack acquired Smith Field Air Service and renamed it Sweet Aviation in 2011.

Federal lawmakers this month addressed concerns about the prolonged health of private and recreational flying.

Austin Heffernan, who runs an aircraft maintenance and repair company in Hagerstown, Md., was one of several small-business owners asked to testify during a congressional hearing on the state of the general aviation industry.

In addition to maintenance companies such as Heffernan’s, which employs 14 people, the industry includes thousands of flight training schools, parts manufacturers and air cargo companies, the vast majority of which are small operations, according to data collected by the Small Business Administration.

Those companies depend on pilots to buy their products and services, and the decline in pilots has become a serious problem.

“We see many more pilots leaving general aviation than we see new pilots getting started,” Heffernan told the House Small Business Committee, later adding that those pilots “are the main market for many of the on-airport small businesses that make up the general aviation industry.”

Heffernan and other employers pinned some of the decline on federal regulators, who they say have built a complex maze of red tape and bureaucratic hurdles that deter pilots from obtaining and renewing their licenses.

“One of the biggest problems facing us is the pilot population, and putting more requirements in front of people that stop them from flying is a real problem,” said John Uczekaj, chief executive of Aspen Avionics, a small aviation electronics company in Albuquerque, N.M.

He told the House committee that among the most onerous hurdles for pilots are the Federal Aviation Administration’s medical certification requirements.

The rules say private and recreational pilots younger than 40 must pass a comprehensive medical exam every five years. Once they hit 40, the renewals are good for only two years.

The requirement is “a definite detractor to business,” Heffernan told the committee. He and several lawmakers noted that the closest individuals come to a medical exam when obtaining a driver’s license is usually a vision test. Most boat operators do not need any medical certification.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a pilot, called the rules an arbitrary intrusion into the lives of private pilots.

Collins recently sponsored legislation that would allow many noncommercial pilots to use their driver’s licenses in lieu of medical exams, as long as they fly small planes, carry fewer than six passengers and stay below certain speed and altitude limits.

A similar proposal was submitted directly to the FAA two years ago by aviation groups, but the agency has not issued a response.

FAA officials did not reply to requests for comment, but agency administrator Michael Huerta last month apologized in a letter to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association for failing to take action yet on the proposal.

He did not set a date to address the matter but emphasized the importance of ensuring “that such an unprecedented change will not result in any adverse impact that could lead to degradation in safety.”

pwyche@jg.net

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

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