A flight in AOPA’s Cessna Grand Caravan at the start of International Learn to Fly Day May 21 left a lasting impression on Maryland Delegate Kathy Afzali.
“It was amazing,” Afzali said after the flight, in which AOPA President Craig Fuller flew the delegate and other local elected officials over Maryland and into West Virginia. “And I didn’t want to come down. I wanted to spend the day. I wanted to go to Florida or Tahiti or something. It was very enjoyable. I could get very used to flying like that.” She was familiar with general aviation and the economic value of the local airport, but the flight over her hometown and district gave her a special perspective on what GA has to offer.
Clear, blue skies made for a welcoming introduction to GA at the bustling Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland for the second annual International Learn to Fly Day event. More than 350 people from the community flocked to the airport, and volunteer pilots from AOPA, EAA Chapter 524, Frederick Flight Center, and Cirrus Aircraft gave free flights to 140 passengers throughout the course of the day. Fuller highlighted the association’s work on Capitol Hill and efforts to grow the pilot population in a pilot town hall meeting sponsored by Cirrus.
Some 360 companies use the Frederick airport over the course of a year, Fuller noted in the town hall presentation; and that’s a major reason that officials came out to the event. But the airport is even more than an economic engine, as he explained to Afzali before the flight. “It also represents people who just plain love flying,” he said.
The variety of GA aircraft on the ramp—including a hot air balloon basket, a glider, a Pitts biplane, Cirrus SR22s, AOPA’s Cessna Caravan and sweepstakes Cessna 182, a floatplane, a turbine helicopter, and more—proved the point. Operations at the airport ranged from gyroplanes to the Goodyear blimp.
Jerald Kerr of Columbia, Md., and his wife brought a Girl Scout troop to the airport for free flights. While EAA Chapter 524 offered Young Eagles flights to the children, he got a flight in Cirrus’ SR22 G3 Turbo. It wasn’t his first flight in a GA aircraft, he said, “but it was the best flight.” The Cirrus pilot flew over mountains to the west, giving him a view of farmland and other terrain below.
That aerial view impressed Frederick County Commissioner David Gray, who accompanied Afzali for the flight in the Caravan. Airport Support Network volunteer Jon Harden pointed out local landmarks: a nearby quarry, highways, and Sugarloaf Mountain to the south.
“It was terrific, terrific, we had a good time and realized our view of the county and the city is not complete until you’ve seen it from the air,” Gray said.
Later in the morning, Frederick Mayor Randy McClement joined airport manager Kevin Daugherty on the field to watch the Goodyear blimp take off, with a ground crew of about 20 making sure it left the ground smoothly. “I’m a big fan of the airport,” McClement said. “ … It’s a great economic driver for the city.”
Lawmakers who understand the value of GA have been strong supporters of the industry, Fuller said in his pilot town hall presentation. He explained that support from Congress was critical to the withdrawal of an Obama administration proposal that would have imposed $9.6 billion in user fees. AOPA’s GA Serves America campaign focused on getting the word out about GA’s contributions to the country. “It was a campaign that brought the Congress to us,” he said.
Fuller spoke about several challenges that currently face GA, including the decline in the pilot population. Events like International Learn to Fly Day help raise awareness of GA and inspire people to become pilots, but about 80 percent of those who start flight training do not earn a certificate. AOPA’s flight training student retention initiative is working to help more student pilots succeed. The association commissioned an independent research study and has identified about 20 factors that affect a student pilot’s success, he said.
“We think we have a much better understanding of factors that lead to successful completion,” he said. AOPA is continuing with research this year and will announce further results at AOPA Aviation Summit. Cirrus Vice President of Marketing Todd Simmons said his company is involved in AOPA’s initiative and is also working to grow aviation.
For potential pilots, the journey often begins with a flight in a GA airplane. Frederick Alderman Shelley Aloi said she came out to the airport because she has “a secret desire” to learn to fly. She went on her first flight in a GA airplane at the age of 14, and the pilot held up a pen and performed a 0-G maneuver. “That pen floated right in front of me,” she said. While the weightless sensation can spook some new flyers, it fascinated Aloi. She said she’s interested in learning to fly, but just doesn’t have the time—at least not right now. She still has ties to GA and welcomed the familiarization flight in the Caravan.
The landing, a smooth touchdown capping a smooth flight, was Gray’s favorite part: “This was like feathers coming down.”