Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Flying with the Spirit of 76

Today, let’s travel back to 1976 and pretend that the optimism of that year came to be ... or the aviation part of it, anyway.

The least earth-bound country in the world is celebrating its 200th birthday. Beechcraft has a standing inside-back-cover advertisement in National Geographic. Flying magazine has a Bede Jet on its cover – a futuristic bubble-canopied personal jet that promises aerial mobility for the upwardly-mobile masses that’s little more trouble than towing a pop-up camper. And Gordon Baxter is writing for Flying, making personal flight seem not only accessible, but hugely rewarding.

There are other aircraft manufacturers that aren’t pushing the glam of a Beech Baron or Bond jet.

Cessna and Piper will send you up in one of their entry-level airplanes for the cost of lunch and a sales pitch. There are Bellancas, Mooneys, and Rockwell Internationals. Grumman makes inexpensive little pop-top fixed-gear airplanes that are just perfect for an alfresco Saturday trip up to the lake.

Fast-forward through three-decades-point-five of recessionless, class action lawsuitless, world-strifeless years.

Even the little guys survived, and the big guys are bigger yet.

Grumman Tigers are as cute as VW bugs, and almost as popular as 16th birthday presents for the daughters of the moderately-well-to-do. A cubicle dweller with a disciplined savings regimen can hope to get into a Bonanza by the time he’s 50 or so. A senior executive might swing part ownership in a Learjet with a few stock options that swing the right way. And a fully-liquid captain-of-industry can get into a supersonic six-seater that will manage Chicago to Tokyo in a day, maybe with a brief stopover in Honolulu.

In the alternative today that yesterday (sort of) promised, there are no K Street advocacy groups forever locked in battle with lawmakers, no community action groups formed by people who moved into houses off runway ends seeking to put an end to the noise and danger of airplanes after one day waking up and noticing an airport in their backyards, and no congressfolk who can’t distinguish between the fuel-air-bomb threat capability of a Cessna 172 versus that of a Boeing 767.

It’s Friday afternoon in 2010, the Aviation-friendly Alternative, and you’re headed off for the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where you’ll take advantage of the same winds Orville and Wilbur relied on to gently set your Beech Plebeian down on a sand-swept runway and tie-down just yards from Earl’s Taxi, which is an actual taxi with Earl sitting in it. Earl will be ready to take you to your bungalow in Avon, bypassing the massive stilt-mansions of Rodanthe and Waves because they don’t exist, since everybody who got rich during the tech boom bought little airplanes instead of giant vacation houses on a sand bar that Mother Nature has a habit of purging of most man-made structures every few decades.

It’s going to be a great little getaway, but not without hitches.

First, there’s the chucklehead at the local airport who cuts across the taxiway to get ahead of you in the takeoff queue. Maybe he’ll get busted for it or maybe not. Lots of little planes out on Friday afternoon, and they all seem to show up for departure around six. Never enough enforcement to catch everything.

Part of the trouble is the ground control people who are operating remotely from New Delhi. They seem to tell everybody in every airplane that everything’s working perfectly no matter what you just nearly collided with, as if they’re not even paying attention to what’s going on at the airport. It almost seems like they’re in an apartment in some low rent part of the city with no visual oversight whatsoever, reading from a script while a baby cries in the background and ultralights go tumbling in wake turbulence somewhere far, far away.

You should be safer once aloft considering the strict altitude assignments, but there are more than a few scofflaws. It turns out you can buy a product that will freeze your transponder position reports. They’re advertised in box ads on the back pages of Leisure Pilot.

But some of these clowns just bust altitude without any electronic countermeasures at all.

“Did you see the look on that guy’s face?” some hot-shot Duke driver is saying somewhere, after cutting off some slow schmuck in a Sienna Sportster over Spokane. (Toyota makes small airplanes in 2010, the Aviation-friendly Alternative. The engineers found that they were halfway to making airplanes by taking the back seat out of a Camry, adding wings, and just letting pilots compensate gronky throttle linkages with flaps).

Things go pretty smoothly en route to the barrier islands, but it doesn’t hurt to look-out for those rusty weekend pilots and the brash college students trying to make time to the beach. Just last weekend some kid in a Hyundai Ascent practically hit you head-on. He was so close you could see him on his phone, texting or making the next hilarious YouTube video ... hard to tell with the 350-knot closing speed.

Some extra vigilance landing in Manteo needed, too. People get all dreamy when they get close to a beach. They rear-end other cars on the ground while looking for those impossible-to-find Wings swimwear shops, and last summer some teenage girl decided to abort her landing without a word to anyone and nearly collided with an Apple iPlane in the pattern (whose pilot was flying, texting, shooting a YouTube video, and surfing the web all the same device while accidently dropping five-hundred feet from his assigned altitude thanks to spotty AT&T 3G coverage).

The teen, it was later learned, had with her girlfriends decided on impulse to abort her landing in Manteo to go buzz some surfers up the beach. There ought to be a law about how many teenagers can be flown by a teen pilot at the same time ...

OK. So it’s just as well that the promise of an airplane in every garage hasn’t worked out by 2010 the Aviation-unfriendly Reality, and it’s just as well, judging by what goes on in everyday ground-bound vehicle traffic, that we're not shooting for that reality.

Personal flying will probably always be the domain of Darwin’s fittest, but there’s more and more promise that once our world economic wretching clears up personal flight will be more accessible than in years, with several brand new buy-this-instead-of-a-Carrera-Turbo planes out on offer, some buy-this-instead-of-a-Bugatti-Veyron-with-metallic-paint Very Light Jets, and of course, the classic do-you-really-wanna-buy-a-used-Jaguar-instead-of-one-of-these used Cessnas, Pipers, etc.

The intersection of money and new light aircraft is only part of the equation, of course. Airports and governments still need to change their tune about general aviation traffic, and general aviation still needs to bring operational safety up closer to airline standards and further from guy-on-a-jet-ski-at-the-reservoir mentality. Check our Accident & Incident section on a regular basis and you’ll find way too many GA crashes caused by low fuel, continued VFR into IMC, and other poor decision-making – in other words, the same dumb crashes that have been giving general aviation a black eye since forever.

If you’d like to learn more about existing and future personal aircraft, please stop by and browse the aircraft model specs that are pinned to the top of our aircraft manufacturer-specific forum sections for Beechcraft, Cessna, Cirrus Design, Mooney, Piper (and Robinson, because some people can actually fly those confounded whirly things).

Some time back we also put up discussion sections for the above brands. To date, nobody uses ‘em. How they each got a few hundred messages in them is anybody’s guess, though the Beechcraft section is booming simply because some folks are using it to notify one another of when other Beechcraft discussion forums are down ... 'zackly why we created these sections. In case we're missing opportunities here, we'd like to invite even more folks in, if for no other reason than to see if we get even more posts about other discussion forums ... or some actual aircraft model discussion. Please follow the instructions under Free Guest Registration to get access to these and other public sections of AVSIG.

We’d like to see you at our place to help push the coming years of aviation back toward 1976. Thanks to very tight forum registration controls we believe we will be able to keep the Bee Gees out.


Today's AVSIG International Aerodrome & Farm Props to James "Buster" Douglas, who shocked the world 20 years ago.

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