We were chewing the fat after a nice hour or so in the air when the subject of an FAA safety seminar came up and the best way to get to it.
Ol' Jim owns both a Champ* and a 172, and he was mulling over which plane to take down there - and whether to actually fly to it or not.
The Champ is, well, a champ and just a joy to fly. Nothing beats it (well, until my plane is finished, anyway).
The 172 is loaded (Jim instructs instrument ratings in it) and he could go IFR if needed.
"The Champ would be my vote," I said, "but it's not the best of the three for cross country flights."
Both would be less dependable than driving.
We both paused for a second.
Our minds went back in time to when the Champ was new - 1946 - when it would have been a godsend for anyone trying to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and trouble free as possible. There were no Interstates. State and County roads that linked towns in a web were all there was, and most were two lanes.
Here in Alabama, chances were good that a portion of one's trip would be on a gravel road.
Looking historically at the bulge of licenses, one can definately take into account the demographic hump of the Baby Boomers, but the huge decline in new licenses doesn't match up.
Cost is usually fingered as the cause, but I don't really buy that. Most of the GA fleet was built about the time of the bulge, and flying has always been expensive. The EAA wasn't founded because production airplanes were dirt cheap and everyone could afford them, after all. A new plane cost about as much as an average home, and a used one about as much as a new car (just like today!).
Nope, we reckoned that when the Interstate grid was fleshed out it simply became more effective to load up the family in the car and go. It's often quicker and almost always easier - nobody worries about weight and balance in sedan, after all. And the weather rarely gets too bad to drive; when it does there are lots of options on how to wait it out.
If one was born in 1945, the Interstate system grew up with one. The resident memory and habits passed down didn't fully allow for them; even when the option of driving was more effective than flying the words of their elders held fast.
I was born in 1965; I can't remember a time when there wasn't one to make automobile travel as fast and reliable as it is today.
Really long distance travel is by commercial air - a sanitized mode where every effort is made to keep the sensation of flight away from the passenger to where one is sitting in a waiting room in much the same manner as in a doctor's office. It's cheap, too - I remember when the informal dress code for boarding an airplane matched the expense of the ticket. Today people dress better when they're going to cut their front lawns than on an airplane.
Back to the Champ. The time saved by cruising at 55 mph in a straight line versus 45 mph in a serpentine manner was worth the loss of weighty baggage back in the 1940's and '50's. It was a viable cross country option for a 150 mile trip. As GA airplanes got bigger and faster in the '60's and early '70's it was still break even or better. By the 1980's there was no competition - the Interstate had won, and with it a lot of the relevance of personal flying for travel.
Uncle Bob no longer smirked about how he had gone to such-and-such in just an hour in his Cessna 140 while others creeped along under him. He started driving, too, when he really needed to be somewhere, and his plane became a recreation first and foremost. Worse, he started flying less and less, and with it stopped taking his nieces, nephews, and the kid who cuts his grass on flights, spreading the joy and fact that yes, if Uncle Bob could be a pilot anybody could. Heck, he can't even change his own oil!
But it's not all doom and gloom for General Aviation, and the death of her is greatly exaggerated.
Traffic compounded by the inevitable rebuilding of the Interstates are slowing things down (at least around here), and the security nutrolls along with shrinking services are making anything but the longest flights on commercial airlines cost ineffective. When one has to add an hour (or more) on both ends of a two hour flight they're at the break even point with driving some of the time (anybody waited longer for a bag to hit the claim area than the duration of the flight?).
The cost of aviation has remained constant, so it's in reach of those who really want to fly, just as it always has been.
What we're going to see is more purely recreational flying with a healthy mix of "transportation" flights thrown in.
The pool of pilots as a percentage of the population is going to shrink - make no mistake of it. The pilots are going to be more like the guys and gals in the 1930's than in the 1970's by their habits, but in greater relative numbers. And yes, just like back then a heckuvalot of "fat cat" hyper expensive flying is going to happen as well.
* I almost bought that Champ when it came on the market; if I hadn't committed to building my own airplane at the time....