The Future is Already Here

Posted by in Aviation, Blogging in Formation, Economy/Finance

Ask a dozen American pilots what the future holds for general aviation and I’d bet ten of them will opine that from where they stand, it doesn’t look good.

Can you blame them? Active pilots, hours flown, aircraft sales, and literally every other statistic the industry tracks has been trending downward for a long time. Between the inexorable rise in regulation and the flagging fortunes of our collective economy, there’s little reason to expect it will get better any time soon. I mean, who even has money to fly anymore?

The number of new private pilots has been dropping for years.

The number of new private pilots has been dropping for years.

Yes, the future looks bleak. And it is — especially if you’re viewing it through the prism of the late 70′s/early 80′s heyday. On the other hand, I’ve come to look at that period as an aberration. Much like last decade’s housing bubble, it was a unique and frankly unsustainable set of circumstances which were driven by demographic and economic factors we’re unlikely to see again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bubbles are destructive, whereas stability is a positive factor for just about any industry.

For many years, trying to figure out what GA would look like in the decades to come was an exercise in futility. It was predicted that the General Aviation Revitalization Act would fix the industry’s woes. It didn’t. Manufacturers resumed producing aircraft, but in limited numbers, and even then it was mostly the old designs at ever higher price points.

The recreational pilot certificate, we were told, would bring pilots back into the fold. It didn’t. I’m not sure I even know anyone who knows anyone who ever had one of those certificates.

More recently, the Light Sport rules were going to revolutionize aviation and swell the ranks of active pilots. It didn’t. What it did do was give us an admittedly wide variety of aircraft designs which are heavily — and arbitrarily — limited in their speed, size, and capability.

Year after year of looking through a glass darkly, trying to divine the future can be discouraging. But that doesn’t mean GA is doomed to extinction. It’s simply changing, and to see where the road leads, we must follow the apocryphal advice given to Woodward and Bernstein 40 years ago: follow the money.

As nice as it would be if the various FAA and industry initiatives could fix our problems, they cannot save aviation by themselves because GA responds not to missives from government or industry groups, but rather to the same factors that drive the economy as a whole.

On the certificated side, that means new airframes will continue to be prohibitively expensive due to liability expense, low volumes, and certification costs. Used aircraft, by contrast, will present a comparatively good value. This is already starting to create a sizable industry for rebuilding and retrofitting older airframes. The most extreme example of this is the warbird world, where folks have gone so far as to dig through three hundred feet of ice to recover an aircraft and then spend years and millions of dollars getting it back into airworthy status.

I’m not suggesting that’s in the cards for your average four-place GA aircraft, but it’s worth remembering that our airplanes are infinitely reparable. The only reason a damaged or worn-out airplane isn’t rebuilt is because — wait for it! — it’s not economically worthwhile. But it will be in the future as this cottage industry grows and begins to offer a substantial challenge to the ever-rising cost of factory-new airplanes.

At the last AOPA Summit in Palm Springs, Cessna — arguably the leader in GA manufacturing — didn’t even make an appearance, yet there were plenty of modified and refurbished aircraft on display. From winglets on an SR22 to turbine powerplants on a cabin-class C-340, it was eye-opening to see how vendors have responded to market forces. This is the future.

The O&N Cessna 340 turbine conversion

The O&N Cessna 340 turbine conversion

Well, half of it, anyway.

The other half lies not in certificated aircraft, but with Experimental-Amateur Built airplanes. Again, it’s all about the economics. You get much better value for your money without any of the limitations (assuming non-commercial operation) of the LSAs. This is already happening. Look at the RV series: more than 8,300 are flying, and another 10-15,000 are probably under construction at this very moment.

If the trend continues, the Van’s line alone will be producing more flying aircraft each year than all the other GA manufacturers combined. Think about that: general aviation, saved by an army of Davids.

The kits are getting faster and easier to build, there’s a large resale market, and the range of modifications and upgrades is too long to list. You can get a 200 mph fully aerobatic cross-country cruiser for $35,000. Already built, no less. Agile handling, sporty looking, yet extremely conventional in construction and material. So conventional, in fact, that it’s really a misnomer to refer to them as “experimental” at all.

The RV series may be what most people think of when they hear “home-built”, but there are designs out there from dozens of designers ranging from powered parachutes to composite turboprops and jets.

The Epic LT.  It's a composite, 6-seat, 300 knot turboprop.  Oh, and it's a homebuilt aircraft!

The Epic LT. It’s a composite, 6-seat, 300 knot turboprop. Oh, and it’s a homebuilt aircraft!

I should note that there is a wildcard in this scenario: the FAA. My crystal ball presupposes that the FAA won’t drop in on this party and regulate the Experimental-Amateur Built category out of existence. With a stroke of their proverbial pen, the FAA could change the rules and crush the one area of general aviation which is truly thriving. But barring that, it seems clear to me the future is Experimental and rebuilt/refurbished certificated aircraft.

Of course, aircraft are not much use unless there are people around to fly them, and that brings us to the next part of the equation: the pilot population. The bad news is that I just don’t see it reaching the level of the early 80′s. For one thing, the vast multitude of military-trained World War II, Korea, and Vietnam-era pilots which once populated the nation’s GA airports are mostly gone. For another, flying is never going to be inexpensive. And perhaps most significantly, our society as a whole has become far less tolerant of risk than it was 40 years ago.

You know, general aviation’s safety record may not improve despite new technology and additional training requirements. I for one value the freedom we have to fly when and where we want and think it’s far more important than incremental improvements in safety which require sacrificing that freedom. If we’re to continue being the land of the free and the home of the brave, there will be a price to pay. The beauty of our system is that we get to choose what risk level we’re comfortable with rather than having a faceless government agency do it for us. The day safety becomes the most important thing is the day we all stop flying permanently, because it’ll always be safer to stay on the ground than take a risk by venturing into the wild blue.

In that vein, it might be more appropriate — especially in light of today’s 4th of July holiday — to call the Experimental category the “Freedom” category. It represents the finest of American innovation and independence. If I had one hope for GA, even above keeping airports open and fighting off user fees, it would be that the Experimental category would remain unfettered by the government. In my opinion, everything flows from that. In fact, go back far enough in time and you’ll see that the entire aviation industry started as an experiment. The closer we remain to that ethos, the more vitality we’ll preserve for the future.

A hundred years ago, everything was experimental -- and aviation was a vibrant and growing industry.  Coincidence?

A hundred years ago, everything was experimental — and aviation was a vibrant and growing industry. Coincidence?

Another challenge for growth of the pilot population is competition. Can’t afford to fly a real aircraft? There are plenty of advanced RC models and high-fidelity computer simulators to help scratch that itch at relatively minimal cost. Even full-size aircraft may largely be operated by remote in the future as functions like cropdusting, police surveillance, fire fighting, cargo transport, and military flights are converted to UAVs operated by ground-based pilots. On the other hand, I can also see this creating a thirst for “real” flying among these system operators, so it might not be a bad thing for general aviation.

At the end of the day though, the fortunes of pilots and the aircraft they fly are inexorably linked. Should the E-AB market segment keep supplying us with low cost, high performance aircraft, I’m confident the pilots will be there to fly them. But if we allow the Feds to stamp out homebuilders or limit the versatility of their creations, sooner or later there just won’t be much worth saving.

This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.