By Rod Machado
Lucky me. Lucky, because at a recent aviation event, I met and chatted with Sally Melvill, wife of Mike Melvill (SpaceShipOne). She’s a delightful and insightful lady who earned her chops teaching kindergarten. She knows how the wheels and cogs turn in a youngster’s brain. When I asked why it seems so challenging to get today’s young folks interested in flying airplanes, she offered the following explanation: “If I have a box of games with my name on it, I can win on my own without ever having to go outside. I don't need to socialize or interact with others to win.”
Now that’s an explanation that actually explains. Let me explain.
Today’s millennial generation was weaned on TV and electronic games. For instance, a friend recently purchased a TV tennis game for a system called a Wii (pronounced “wee”). Now his young son spends hours swatting a simulated ball with an electronic tennis racquet. Play tennis with another human being? Experience competition? Apparently these benefits are no longer seen as beneficial. My friend should get his money back, but I’m not sure he kept the “Wii-ceet.”
Sadly, some of today’s youngsters (no, not all, just some, perhaps many) find little incentive to leave the house when using gaming software such as Game of Thrones and Grand Theft Auto (neither of which involve transporting restroom equipment in stolen cars). Let’s remember that it’s in the best interest of game manufacturers to let players win at some level—perhaps a throne or two—regardless of their skill level. As a result, electronic games easily offer young people the rewards they once earned by interacting and competing in the real world.
When I ran this idea by my fellow aviators, Jonathan Bishop replied: “I recently heard of a young person at our flying club who was disinterested in flying the real thing because, through flight simulators, he was able to fly a DC-3, a 747 or a jet fighter. Sadly, he is missing out on an entire world of fun and challenge…” Well said, Jonathan.
The movement toward the substitute experience of simulations is certainly encouraged by how we raise children today. We no longer allow young folks to do as many physically interactive and competitive things, such as dodgeball (sending a big soft ball toward a kid seems dangerous), musical chairs (involves pushing, shoving and some kicking—similar to an airline’s “open boarding” policy), tetherball (a kid could accidentally get choked by the rope) or crack the whip (apparently some parents think this actually involves whipping kids).
We have trended toward becoming a risk-averse culture, which explains why some parents are reluctant to support their youngsters’ desires to fly an airplane. Maybe I’m half a bubble off plumb here but it seems as if kids of my generation rarely experienced this attitude. I don’t ever recall leaving home for a flight lesson and having my grandmother yell out, “Baby Rodney, it’s not safe, donta go, donta go. I cook you pasta. I cook you pizza, justa stay home and donta get in dat elevator box of death.” Perhaps I never heard this because we are Portuguese, not Italian.” Either way, today’s parents seem much less likely to encourage their children to take flying lessons.
Finally, there’s always the pachyderm in the parlor that deserves mentioning. The cost of flight training is an obvious barrier for many people, especially the young. Of course, acquiring funds for flight training has always been a challenge for most people, young and old. That’s why youngsters in the past would work to earn money for lessons. That’s much more difficult to do nowadays, especially given the minimum wage requirements of many states. Then again, I’m not so sure that the idea of “working to earn money” for flying lessons is even in the mental wheelhouse of many youngsters today (not all youngsters, of course).
What’s the takeaway from reading this piece? Hopefully, it’s a better understanding about why younger people don’t seem as proactive in pursuit of flight training today. How should we respond? Think about it this way. When you cook spaghetti, you know it’s done when you throw a strand against the refrigerator door and it sticks (this technique doesn’t work for meatloaf). Perhaps the best we can do is to offer youngsters the chance to fly and hope something sticks. I have no doubt that a few (I hope more than a few) will find the real thing more satisfying than the simulated experience offered by electronic gaming.