Features  / 03.13 /

Problem solver

Believing in what seems impossible


adam smith

Late last year AOPA introduced the Center to Advance the Pilot Community, or CAPComm, to help the problem of a shrinking pilot population. This group has taken over all of AOPA’s initiatives that deal with flight training. Adam Smith, formerly of Experimental Aircraft Association, was tapped to run the new group. We sat down with Smith to learn about CAPComm and how he plans to improve flight training, as well as grow other segments of the industry. —Ed.

What is CAPComm?

It gathers together all AOPA’s efforts to reverse the decline in the pilot population. We’ve lost 200,000 pilots over the past 30 years and the downward trend simply must be stopped. CAPComm is not a short-term marketing program. It’s a serious structural change at AOPA, designed to tackle a serious problem.

What sort of major programs will CAPComm be working on?

We have three primary initiatives in the first year—flight training, flying clubs, and what I’m calling pilot activation. We will continue the work of the flight training initiative to get after the poor completion rate. We plan to grow the community of flying clubs, and are going to get pilots more active in their flying.

How serious is the issue of flight training completions?

Four out of five flight students don’t make it. That’s an unacceptable number. If we can decrease the dropout rate by just 10 percent, that would add 3,700 new pilots per year to our ranks. Shannon Yeager has recently been brought on board to lead this effort. In addition to being an avid pilot, he has experience as a scuba and skydiving instructor. Aviation can learn a lot from how other industries bring people through a training and certification process. We have a lot of catching up to do, especially with customer service.

What has AOPA done so far that you think has helped in this area, and what’s on the horizon?

We were thrilled to receive 2,500 nominations for the first set of Flight Training Excellence Awards. It made clear that for all the problems we see, there are some terrific flight schools and instructors out there. The turnaround will be built on these good people. Later in the year we intend to put tools in place that will start guiding customers to superior experiences, probably through a user rating system similar to Yelp and others.

What part do flying clubs play in this?

Our research tells us that clubs bring a compelling mix of affordability and social community. Sharing the cost of aircraft ownership through a club makes a lot of financial sense. And every piece of research we’ve ever done tells us that where there is community in aviation there is stickiness. People in flying clubs stick around.

What are your goals around flying clubs and how do you plan to accomplish them?

We plan to move flying clubs from being almost a subculture, right into the mainstream of aviation. The concept should be on par with owning or renting. A key action is to create a nationwide network of clubs. This will not just support the 650 clubs that already exist today, but will help stimulate many new ones. Our goal is to reach 1,000 clubs in five years. Having a network will bring up some interesting new possibilities. What if being a member of your local flying club made it possible to fly at lots of other clubs around the country?

What is pilot activation?

Success is not only about bringing new people into aviation, but also how well we keep them. We think there are as many as 500,000 lapsed pilots in the United States. They’ve gone to all the trouble to get a certificate but then stop flying. So we need to work on the retention rate of aviation, that’s the basic goal of our pilot activation initiative.

adam smithHow do you plan to accomplish this?

As with our other big initiatives we’ll start with research. Why do people leave and what makes them stay? We’re intrigued by programs such as the Virginia Aviation Ambassador Program [participants get a nice leather jacket for visiting every public-use airport in the state, attending an event, a safety seminar, and visiting museums] and Aviation Adventures’ Rusty Pilot program. These tell me there are ways to get people active again.

What do you see as the easiest and the most difficult of these initiatives?

Nothing we’re doing is easy, but the feedback for flying clubs has been overwhelmingly positive. We have a tailwind there. I feel more challenged by flight training. Some people aren’t on board, and there is so much variation in the industry—from the individual instructor with no airplane to the big flight training academies.

What happens if we don’t succeed?

We become like Britain, where I was born and learned to fly. Britain used to be one of the world’s great aviation nations, but so much of the infrastructure has now collapsed. The aviation community has almost no voice in government, either. Part of the Center’s work will be to help the AOPA advocacy team do its job.

What’s the one aspect that runs across all these initiatives which must happen for you to be successful?

Positivity is the key. We have to believe this is possible. To be truthful, I didn’t know if this was doable when I started. But one evening I sat in my office with a pocket calculator and the data. The rate of decline is about 5,400 people per year, which is less than 1 percent. In other words, just a 1-percent improvement in performance will see aviation growing again.

Why does positivity matter?

It’s almost like you’re not considered a true pilot unless you’ve become miserable and grumpy about aviation, which is a dangerous trend. No turnaround ever happened without a positive spirit, people thinking optimistically about the future. AOPA can’t do this alone; we need a lot of people to be flying in formation with us. Personally, I’m excited that we haven’t lost the essence of flying. In a world that’s increasingly virtual, we have this incredible real-life thing. It’s still cool, it’s still life-changing, and airplanes are still like magical time machines.

adam smith

Photography by Chris Rose

  • Who: Adam Smith
  • Total time: 800 hours
  • Aircraft: 1946 Piper Cub
  • Extra: Smith also owns a 1955 Cessna 180 in which he got his instrument rating. He says his aviation dream is to fly his commute to work.

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