Fair but depressing report on aviation

Matthew Wald has long covered the aviation-disaster beat (among other topics) for the New York Times. Through his stories he has struck me as being very, very conscious of all the things that can go wrong in the air. A healthy appreciation of the risks of flight is actually a desirable trait in pilots, but I had assumed that when he thought about pilots, especially amateur pilots, he would be in the "why would anyone take such a risk?" camp.

His story today in the New York Times is actually quite fair and calm sounding, which makes its conclusion the more sobering.

He is writing about why the number of people who aspire to earn pilot certificates keeps going down.

I am biased: I have enjoyed few things the way I have enjoyed flying small airplanes back and forth across the United States over the last ten years. I've come to realize that this is a "you get it or you don't" subject. Some people are immediately and deeply fascinated by this activity, and most others just aren't. To me, nearly every part of what flying involves is intriguing: The change-of-realms that comes when the plane first lifts off from the runway. The way the landscape unrolls before you, like an incredibly vivid Google Earth. The surprising logic with which cities, rivers, bays, mountains all fit together. The things you see that you'd never otherwise be aware of (how much of East Coast America is forest, how many quarries there are near big cities). The 3D-ness of the sky, including the final geometry of seeing an airport in the distance and going through the prescribed approach procedures toward a landing.

Bad weather is, well. bad, and in 1500 hours of flying I was frequently scared, twice badly. But the picture below is a kind of litmus test for finding the activity engrossing or not. My wife, sitting in the right seat, took this shot as we were approaching the aircraft-carrier style airport in Sedona, Arizona for landing. The runway is a whiteish area on top of a mesa just above the middle point of the photo, straight up from my hand. It's like an aircraft carrier in that the mesa falls off sharply all around the runway. To get there we swoop in among the brilliant red outcroppings. There is the sense, again, of 3D movement through scenery that you get from scuba diving movies -- or childhood dreams of flying through a neighborhood. I look at this picture and think: I miss flying! Others might look and think, why take such a risk?

Wald's story lists the factors that are shrinking the pilot population. Everything about it is expensive. (When I first became interested in the new SR20 airplane 10 years ago, its price was around $160,000. The newest-model Cirrus airplanes, the best selling in the business, are much fancier and more capable, but they cost two to three times as much.) It takes time. Especially since the 9/11 attacks, it like other kinds of flying has been burdened with new "safety" measures, many of them pointless (like this and this). For whatever reason, flying has always interested fewer women than men. From the 1920s through now, the proportion of women among American pilots has been just under 10% -- a number that presumably would have changed in 80 years, as the enrollments in law or medical schools have certainly done, if barriers and discrimination had been the main things keeping women out. (Two wonderful flight instructors I've had were women in their 20s.)

As airline travel has become buslike and routine, aviation has also lost the glamour and even intellectual appeal it had in the (pre-America First) day of Lindbergh and St. Exupery. The only high-end writing I can think of in recent years that captures the elegance of the activity is the novel Aloft, by Chang-Rae Lee. Inside the Sky, by my friend and longtime colleague William Langewiesche, expresses some of the same spirit in nonfiction.

So maybe this trend can't be changed. That's too bad. Sometime, give it a try.