For several years large dark clouds have swept across the skies of light aviation in France. Last year less than 30 small piston airplanes were delivered here, compared with annual rates of 400 to 500 at the start of the 1970s.
Membership in the French Aeronautical Association (FFA), which includes 540 flying clubs across the country, has also declined, dropping by more than 3 percent over the last five years.
At the same time, average private flying time has fallen below the symbolic bar of 15 hours per year. In 2004, the 44,937 private pilot members of the FFA (representing the vast majority of French private fliers) logged a total of 643,845 hours–14.3 hours per pilot per year and 7 percent less than in 2000.
The primary victims of this decline in light aviation activity are French light aircraft manufacturers. The most seriously hit is Apex Aircraft, maker of the Robin family of aircraft, the mainstay of French flying clubs for more than 30 years.
Some 4,500 of the wood and canvas single-engine Robins still fly worldwide, but its annual production rate has fallen to just a few units per year. The company has now placed all its hopes on its flagship powered by a Thielert diesel injection motor.
The other French manufacturer, Socata–a subsidiary of the EADS group–has given up serial production of its TB piston singles. It now produces them only to order. Last year, the company sold 19 aircraft, mainly to foreign flying schools, and it delivered five units.
Like Apex, Socata suffered from competition with Austria’s Diamond Aircraft and to a lesser degree with Cirrus Design of the U.S.
The condition of aviation in France is so poor that the government has established a parliamentary taskforce to propose measures to stimulate activity. Its report, published at the end of last year, revealed the array of regulatory constraints that complicate and inflate the cost of pleasure flying in France.
In addition to the lowering of the average number of flight hours, light aviation is finding it harder to attract young people. Pilots younger than 21 now represent no more than 10 percent of the total pilot population, a number insufficient to support a revival. The average age of French private pilots continues to rise.
For many, flying has become an unaffordable pastime. Next year the French civil aviation authority (DGAC) will introduce new license fees that will add to the cost burden. The fact that France has almost 1,700 unemployed airline pilots is discouraging young people from pursuing a professional flying career and has taken a toll on the flying clubs.
Light aviation’s malaise caused a great deal of discord at last March’s FFA elections. The team in place at the association for the past 12 years was reproached for its failure to act in the face of the crisis. For the first time in decades, the electoral campaign was very animated. In the end, however, the incumbents were re-elected, but the opposition won 40 percent of the votes.
The troubles facing French light aviation today are also caused by the way it is managed. Like most leisure activities in France, it is administered on a communal, but not a profit-making basis.
French flying clubs consist of enthusiasts. They cannot make a profit and are run by volunteers elected by the members. The managers are not professionals. They are unpaid and have to fulfill the roles alongside their day jobs.
The size of the clubs varies from a few dozen to several hundred. The smallest operate a fleet of just three or four aircraft. The larger ones have fleets that can include a mix of around 30 single- and multi-engine types.
Most employ professional instructors and some administrative staff. In effect, the clubs are like small or medium-sized companies with a volunteer boss, surrounded by a small circle of other volunteers.
While the managers cannot draw a salary, their responsibilities have grown. Now more than ever they must tend to financial problems at the club, troubles with employees, infringements by pilot members and accidents. They also have to deal with ever more complicated regulations, the threat of airfield closures and financial burdens.
The system that has supported the development of light aviation since the 1930s has now reached its limits. Flying club presidents are demanding operational support from the FFA, something to which the president of the federation has committed. Both know that flying clubs are essential to the success of light aviation in France. Its revival depends on them.