The last time I flew in a small, single-engine plane, my wife was the pilot. Cheryl rented a plane, took off from Midway, flew up the Chicago lakefront, gave me a great view of Wrigley Field and landed at the nice little airport across from the Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan, Wis., where we bought lunch and flew home.
"We used to call that the $100 hamburger," says John Rippinger, 65, an insurance and financial executive from Schaumburg who has spent nearly the last half-century piloting just about anything that flies. "Now it's the $500 hamburger or the $1,000 hamburger."
That expense of renting a plane and paying for gas is one of the reasons my wife hasn't piloted a plane since the early 1990s. She still has her pilot's license, but the births of our three sons, growing demands on the free time she had used to keep her flying skills at their best, and a couple of fatal crashes involving small planes near my hometown fed the fears of loved ones and dimmed her passion to fly. Society is right there with her.
The number of Americans earning private pilot licenses in 2010 fell 25 percent from 2009, dropping the estimated number of private pilots in our nation to below 200,000 for the first time since 1966, according to FAA statistics.
"It's not just one reason," says Jennifer Storm, a pilot and director of public relations for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has launched initiatives to rejuvenate the recreational pilot industry, whose membership is overwhelmingly male and most often qualifies for AARP discounts.
More rules and restrictions on flying came as a result of post-Sept. 11 concerns.
The attention given tragedies, including three fatal small plane crashes in the suburbs during the last two weeks of November, may amp up the general population's fear of flying, but the number of small plane crashes actually fell in 2010. Storm notes that pilots suffer only 1.3 fatalities for every 100,000 hours of flying.
"Do you stop driving your car because 30,000 or 40,000 people die every year in car accidents?" Rippinger adds.
The economy has cut into all sorts of hobbies and leisure time activities, but it can't be blamed entirely for the drop in aviation interest.
"It's always been expensive to fly, but if you want to do it, you'll always find a way to do it," says Rippinger, who can afford luxuries but makes sure flying is a priority in his budget. "I want to do that more than I want to play golf or more than I want to own a boat."
Making his living as a mechanic and technician working on airplanes, 43-year-old Butch Bejna of Addison not only finds time and money to fly for fun, he also is one of 42,000 volunteer pilots in the Experimental Aircraft Association's Young Eagles program, which gives free airplane rides to anyone aged 8 through 17 in an attempt to spark an interest in aviation.
Of the 1,700 kids he's taken into the skies in the last 15 years, he says he knows of 10 who went on to become pilots, and figures others in the group now fly or work in the aviation industry. But as a teen who caught the flying bug from his pilot father, Bejna talks about how the world has changed.
A half-century ago, most Americans had never flown. People still remembered the thrilling heroics of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Many pilots learned how to fly in the military, and anyone who could break the bounds of gravity was deemed cool and someone to admire, says Bejna, who earned his pilot's license as a teenager.
"There's no more romance in aviation," Bejna says today.
Teens have a whole world of entertainment options that didn't exist when Bejna was an adolescent, including the chance to log lots of hours piloting F-16 fighter jets in video games.
When he gets one of those kids in his cockpit, "They are really good with the instruments because of the video games," Bejna says. But they can be a bit jaded by the views that used to wow first-time fliers.
"One kid I took up said, 'This looks just like Google Earth,'" Bejna says.
But Storm says that AOPA pilots of small planes know that flying hasn't lost its cachet.
"There is a difference between sitting in 26-A and sitting in the right seat with the controls in front of you," she says.
Private pilots aren't just fun seekers either, she adds, noting the thousands of charity flights given to good causes every year by pilots in dozens of humanitarian flying organizations that belong to the nationwide Air Care Alliance.
"I think you're going to see a resurgence," Rippinger says of private pilots. "I mean, skinny ties are coming back, right?"
Flying is important, often necessary and an exercise of the freedom bestowed upon Americans, Rippinger says. But it also makes the fun times a little more fun.
"The hamburger tastes much better when you fly in," he notes.