By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; D01
OSHKOSH, Wis. -- Jack Gilbert flew up here Sunday from Louisiana, parked his homemade plane with hundreds of others on a grass patch not far from the runway, and set up his tent for the week. Gilbert, 57, a building contractor, was in heaven: sleeping in a tent next to his plane, with thousands of other aviation buffs and their assorted aircraft at one of the world's biggest air shows.
Like many others here, Gilbert is worried that he might one day witness the death of such shows. Most of the others around him are his age. Fewer young people are discovering the romance of flying. Whether it's the high cost or the substantial training time, the number of student pilots has fallen by more than half in 25 years.
Gilbert was disappointed when his two grown sons passed on the opportunity to become pilots -- even when he offered to teach them.
"I think it's the video games," Gilbert said as he adjusted his aviator sunglasses and worked on his tent. "The younger ones want instant gratification. Learning to fly is work. You have to work at it."
Thousands of pilots and more than 7,000 planes are descending this week on Wittman Regional Airport for the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture Oshkosh 2006 show. Organizers say that so many planes are taking off and landing here that Wittman becomes the busiest airport in the world during the show. More than 700,000 people are expected to attend -- a sea of pilots, their tents and their biplanes, vintage aircraft, experimental propeller planes and "spam cans," as factory-made aircraft are called.
The attendance figures and the enthusiasm of participants shroud a worry that cuts across trade groups and business associations: The number of pilots in the United States has fallen 25 percent in the past 25 years. The number of student pilots has plummeted 56 percent over the same period -- from about 200,000 to 87,200 in 2005. Only about 40 percent of today's student pilots will get their licenses.
Industry observers say that overall aviation, including commercial air carriers, could be harmed if more people don't learn to fly. If the aviation sector grows as expected, some predict, there will be a shortage of skilled pilots in the next decade or two.
Trade associations and manufacturers are so concerned that they have created programs to recruit new pilots. The Experimental Aircraft Association sponsors a program that encourages its 170,000 members to take youngsters up for free flights, to give them a taste of flying. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is pushing its 400,000 members to find potential fliers as part of a program it launched last month.
There are many reasons, mostly financial, for the decline in the number of pilots. It costs a lot to learn to fly ($200 to $250 a lesson in the Washington area, including instructor, plane rental and fuel). The practical applications of earning a license can be limited because it is often easier and cheaper to jump on a commercial jet than fly in a Cessna or Piper. A new Cessna 172, a plane that just marked 50 years of production, costs about $250,000. Insurance can cost thousands of dollars a year.
Earning a license requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, most of it with an instructor. Pilots also must go through ground school to learn the basics of flight.
Although there isn't much trade groups can do to reduce the cost of learning to fly -- aviation fuel costs about $4 a gallon and instructors charge about $40 an hour -- manufacturers are looking to build less expensive and more efficient and reliable planes to attract new pilots.
The Cessna Aircraft Co. unveiled a small airplane at the show on Monday that executives say could be aimed at beginners and cost less than $100,000. The plane is designated a "light sport" aircraft, the fastest-growing segment in general aviation, according to Cessna. It has a wingspan of 30 feet, seats two and has a cabin width of 48 inches.
Some companies sell kits so pilots can build their planes. Such kits can cost less than $10,000. And there is a large market for used planes, which are far cheaper than new ones.
Some enthusiasts say that because of improvements in safety, thrill-seekers may no longer be attracted to flying. The FAA reported that in general aviation, there were 1.37 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours last year, down from 1.69 in 1980.
Jerry Sprayberry, 62, a telecommunications executive from Dallas, sat under the wing of his single-engine Cessna, drinking beer and shooting the breeze with three buddies. They traded stories about "white-knuckle flights" and "near-death experiences." (A couple from Washington state died on Sunday when their plane crashed short of the runway here.)
Sprayberry said he didn't have any such experiences. One of his friends crashed his propeller plane into a tree years ago; another said he flipped his plane in strong winds.
Sprayberry got into flying when he was a kid and loved to ride his bicycle to the airport and watch planes take off and land. Hoping to get a new breed of pilots into flying, he participates in a program in which he takes teenagers on flights in his plane to stoke their interest. So far, most haven't seemed all that interested, he said.
"Today's youth don't want to do anything that is so regimented" as learning to fly, Sprayberry said. "When I was young, aviation had some adventure to it. We didn't get to do a lot of things with adventure. Today, there are lots of things that have adventure."
Dennis Clardy, 58, who flew in from Arkansas, said he was building a plane for his grandchildren. But he conceded that it might be a pointless endeavor.
"They view the airplanes as transportation, just like a car," Clardy said. "I would be happy to take off and fly around for half and hour. They don't want to do that . . . I might be lucky and have one grandchild who wants to learn."
Winston Slater, 58, brought his wife and 21-year-old son to Oshkosh for the week and got a prime parking spot across from one of the runways so he could sit in a beach chair and just watch planes take off and land.
While watching three planes take off at the same time in an aerobatic maneuver, he said he worries about the future. Looking up and down the rows of planes, he said: "I don't see a lot of new blood."