To Fly or Not to Fly?

Photo: Shea Roggio/NYT

The New York Times yesterday on the dwindling numbers of aviation hobbyists:

The number of student pilots is down by about a third since 1990, from 129,000 to 88,000. The number of private pilots is down from 299,000 to 236,000, according to statistics kept by the Federal Aviation Administration. And they are aging. Some longtime private pilots fear that an industry is withering and a bit of Americana is slipping away, along with a bit of freedom and joy. And it is happening in part because of lack of interest; Walter Mitty doesn't want to fly anymore.

The story explores a number of reasons for the decline—a more risk-averse society, female breadwinners causing men to have less disposable income (must admit I'm a little baffled by that one), a lack of modern, inexpensive hobbyist planes (the beautifully named Beechcraft Bonanza, still a go-to for most weekend pilots, has been around for 60 years), and a general lack of do-it-yourself spirit among younger Americans (can't say that's a problem for me).

But as an unabashed tech nerd who grew up living and breathing airplanes, I've naturally always wanted to do some flying of my own. Having the funds to do so, however, has yet to become a reality. The FAA's sport-license program—essentially, a way to get a watered-down license at a lower flight-hour and cost commitment to fly the smallest planes—piqued my interest last year, but I've read conflicting information on whether a sport license is worth it or not.

Basically, I want to hear from any hobbyist pilots out there: Should I get my license? How and when did you get yours, and what has been the payoff? Let me know in the comments below. I feel like it's probably something that's going to have to happen eventually, reduced private-pilot numbers or not. Maybe if we get enough people chiming in, I can convince the PopSci brass to foot the bill. You guys would read a day-by-day account of someone getting their pilot's license, right? Here's hoping...—John Mahoney