After attending aviation events around the country, pilots Brian Columbus and Jason Stewart saw a void. The industry didn’t seem to be attracting millennials.
So the two began brainstorming on what might draw millennials to industry gatherings with an eye toward getting them to become pilots.
“I’d have great music, I’d have great food, I’d have beer,” Columbus said. “We’d have this great party. So guess what, we made that great party.”
The result is an aviation convention-music festival fusion happening Wednesday through Saturday at the Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport and its neighbor, the Lone Star Convention & Expo Center.
The ModAero Aviation Festival will include a career fair and educational speakers, along with bands, high-speed drone racing, new airplane displays, camping and food trucks and more.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, active pilots dropped about 3 percent to 593,499 at the end of 2014 compared with 609,737 at the end of 2005.
A professional pilot shortage is the result of many factors, including a wave of pilots hitting retirement age, increased demand in markets outside the U.S. and poor wages for those entering the industry, said Jiri Marousek, senior vice president of marketing for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
And those interested in flying as a hobby might fear it’s too expensive. But Columbus, 41, and Stewart, 36, stressed flying clubs and shared ownership programs help curb costs.
“It’s not just a general aviation problem. It’s not just a commercial aviation problem,” Columbus said. “It is an industrywide problem.”
The pair has worked on the festival for about six months without pay, organizing it while maintaining their other jobs. Columbus publishes an aviation newspaper called Atlantic Flyer, and Stewart is co-founder of social media company ShareAviation. Both are enthusiastic pilots.
The event starts Wednesday with a career fair, during which students can speak with regional airlines, schools with aviation programs, the U.S. Air Force Academy and others. There is also a mentoring breakfast.
Some 50 speakers will appear from Wednesday through Saturday, including Kevin Lacey from the TV show “Airplane Repo” and aerobatic pilot Sean D. Tucker. Among the topics: buying an aircraft; starting a flying club; and insuring drones.
For FPV – first person view – drone races, cameras will be attached to drones, and operators will wear visual headsets to “see” as if they were flying from the cockpit. The craft will zip around an obstacle course in the convention center at roughly 70 mph.
“It’s an incredible blend of technology and aviation skills,” Stewart said.
The inaugural event is largely being supported by sponsors, such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, as well as exhibitors, ticket sales and volunteers, including speakers who aren’t being paid. “It will all go together pretty well,” said Garrett Yount, a 22-year-old who lives in New Waverly and plans to attend. “Looking at planes, listening to music.”
Yount didn’t need to be persuaded by the concerts. His father was a pilot at Southwest Airlines, and his mother and sister are flight attendants for that airline. Yount has his private pilot’s certificate and is working toward his commercial certificate. He wants to become an airline pilot.
“I’m more interested in the actual aviation part,” he said.
Marousek, with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, sees ModAero as a chance to reach those who aren’t already involved in aviation. This “disruptive event,” can show off the aviation lifestyle and its tight-knit community, he said. In addition to reaching younger generations, he said it’s important to broaden the industry’s appeal for women and minorities. According to the FAA, just 7 percent of active pilots were women at the end of 2014.
“This is not an old white guy kind of thing,” Marousek said. “Anyone can go and fly.”
Columbus and Stewart agree. Many of the event’s speakers are women or minorities. Female pilot organizations Women in Aviation and the Ninety-Nines will have booths. Likewise, Universal Elite Aerospace, which promotes a more diverse aviation industry by introducing the career to minority youth and girls who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it, will also be there.
Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport Director Scott Smith stressed that the field has jobs other than pilots, such as mechanics and air traffic controllers.
“We’ve known in our industry for a number of years that we have to put some effort into communicating with the younger generation.”