The Spirit of 1903

Before they flew the powered aircraft, the Wrights researched and practiced using unpowered gliders of their own design.

While waiting for a (delayed, of course) flight at LAX recently, I passed the time perusing a new tablet-based aviation magazine called “Airscape”. If there was ever a perfect subject for a multimedia publication on the iPad, it’s got to be flying.

Airscape’s first issue was chock-a-block with gorgeous photos and engaging articles (including one by a Sam Weigel, a writer whose blog I’ve followed and commented on for years; incidentally, Sam’s stuff recently started appearing in Flying magazine). The Airscape feature which most interested me, however, was excerpted from Wilbur and Orville Wright’s account of the days leading up to their historic first flight in 1903. We all know the story, of course, but it’s different when you’re getting it from the horse’s mouth. It’s the little things that grabbed me, like their unwavering practicality, the way they always referred to their aircraft as a “machine”, or the perfunctory writing style which impeccably complemented the sepia-toned, Instagram-esque photos of their experiments.

So there I perched, stuffed into that miserable little chair amidst a stifling, overcrowded, and purely unromantic environment which can only describe in terms of Dante’s Inferno. And I realized that if the Wrights were around today, they wouldn’t recognize this brand of “aviation” at all. In fact, they’d probably hate what it’s become: a grind, a pain, something to simply be endured. Likewise, the joy and wonder of flying’s early years would be completely foreign to a typical 21st century American. “Enjoy flying? You’ve got to be kidding…”

If I had just one wish for aviation, it’d be to put the spirit of 1903 back into it — that sense of excitement and accessibility. We need the industry to be healthier, more vibrant, prosperous, and the key to doing that is getting more people involved. A lot more! The question of why there aren’t more people involved right now is one that gets asked frequently. The blame has been foisted on medical certification hassles, high dropout rates among student pilots, poor service from CFIs, the proliferation of cheap, high-fidelity simulators, the foreboding security surrounding airports, and dozens of other reasons.

My experience leads me to believe that the root cause is financial. It’s also what pilots have told me when I’ve asked them why they left GA or never went after the dream even though they obviously had interest. It’s all about the cost. Make flying cheaper and it will grow. Look at places where flying is pricier – Europe, Asia, just about anywhere else in the world, come to think of it – and you’ll find a smaller aviation community. Even here in the U.S., as the expense of taking flight has risen, the pilot population has fallen in both real numbers and, more dramatically, as a percentage of the overall populace. It’s all about money.

Even among those who realize it’s about dollars and cents, they often focus on how to make flying more affordable. That’s the wrong question. We need to think about what’s making it so bloody expensive. This isn’t limited to aviation, by the way. What’s making healthcare, business, and life in general more costly? It’s the legal perils, insurance expense and limitations, and regulatory compliance. Take a look at the exponential growth in the size of the Federal Register and you’ll see the root of our problem:

The researchers, economists John Dawson of Appalachian State University and John Seater of North Carolina State, constructed an index of federal regulations by tracking the growth in the number of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations since 1949. The number of pages, they note, has increased six-fold from 19,335 in 1949 to 134,261 in 2005.

As of 2011, the number of pages had risen to 169,301.

There’s an inverse relationship between regulation and the economy’s ability to innovate, grow, and prosper. General aviation didn’t cease manufacturing in the 80’s because people suddenly lost interest in flying. It was the legal burden that killed it, and only relief in the form of the General Aviation Revitalization Act allowed production to restart. On the flip side, check out the homebuilt industry today. A relatively lower level of regulation has led to phenomenal growth.

Over-regulation is an anchor we’re all dragging and unless something changes it will eventually sink our collective boat. I could fill page after page with examples from my own life.

  • You can’t even go to the airport without violating one law or another. At SNA, I once received a speeding ticket from a sheriff’s deputy for going 7 mph in a 5 mph zone. Even other deputies couldn’t believe it.
  • The EPA came after me and my family for Superfund clean-up costs on a landfill near Pomona because a company my father was once a part-owner of deposited muddy water (runoff from washing their trucks) – completely legally, mind you – more than 40 years ago. I never had any ownership in the company whatsoever.
  • A good friend had her classic aircraft impounded during a restoration at Chino Airport because the airplane had original instrumentation installed and the dials contained minute levels of radium. Read the whole story on AVweb, it’s quite ridiculous.
  • Every day I deal with TSA “security theater” nonsense. Need I go into the details on this?

If I was king for a day, I’d tackle the problem with three actions:

  1. Rewrite the FAA’s mission statement to, first and foremost, emphasize the promotion and growth of aviation.
  2. Institute major product liability reform.
  3. Roll back Title 14 rules on non-commercial GA so that it operates with the freedom of the Experimental-Amateur-Built category.

I’ll freely admit this would have a somewhat detrimental effect on general aviation safety, but it would be well worth the trade off if we could avoid regressing to a time that the Wright brothers would also recognize: a time when men looked skyward at the birds and wished they could soar, but knew it would never be possible.


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

23 comments

  1. Ron,
    You are spot on. As you know, the cost of flying is a huge focus for me as well, but you have expressed the root of the problem in a refreshingly intelligent and commonsense way.

    The burden we carry in this industry has gotten exponentially worse over the years, particularly since 9/11. It’s sad that here we are over 12 years later and we are still suffering from its effects. As a country we have willingly traded our freedom for safety and security (I would argue that we are no more safe or secure, but that’s just me).

    Our culture has definitely changed; things that we could do as a nation before, such as going to the moon, are impossible now.

    When I read about how you seized the example of when the Wrights flew, I couldn’t agree more and I too wish we had that can-do spirit of discovery and wonder back today.

    I also agree that the experimental world has done a good job of keeping that flame alive. I see more and more people joining this segment and this growth and energy has improved its safety and made it more viable. We must do everything possible to hold on to this last bastion of the spirit of the Wrights.

    Great post Ron!

    1. If the natural economic forces at work are allowed to play out, I have no doubt the E-AB world will grow larger and more successful, while the rest of the industry will continue to suffer. The question then becomes, will the FAA, DOT, and political elements of our government recognize the beneficial effects of freedom and expand that to the rest of GA, or crush the Experimental world’s success under the guise of “safety”?

  2. Brent this is an amazing post! Bring back 1903 where there was amazing adventure and freedoms! I love it and sometimes think I was born to late in life.

    You know, in reading this post I realized the difference between commercial airlines and general aviation. The government deregulated the airlines which killed many of our legacy carriers…. thinking it would increase competition and create growth. But look what’s happening because of it… just the opposite. And they are over-regulating general aviation which is killing the growth, and destroying the ability for pilots to fly, which in turn is a problem for the the airlines. Systems… everything impacts everything. But it is fascinating how the inverse can harm both sides of an industry by doing the opposite. There must be a balance for sure.

    Out of the three ways you would fix this problem… pick your first priority. Which would do the most good? We’ll talk. Who knows… when I go back to school, I will need more than one mission! Start thinking how, send me the data, we’ll build a case. They say it’s all about safety.. let’s figure out how to, and keep it safe.

    Excellent read!!!

    1. If I had to choose just one to start with, I’d say rewriting the FAA’s mission statement would be the most important. With “growth and promotion of aviation” as the paramount consideration, a reduction in regulaton would almost certainly be a byproduct of the change because they’d be looking at flying from the same viewpoint that we are. When your mantra is solely about “safety”, the crushing burden of regulatory demands is not on your radar, because “if it saves just one life, it’s worth it” (even if it kills the whole industry).

      Deregulation is another topic I want to write about. Was the airline industry really “de-regulated”? Or did the Feds simply stop enforcing specific routes and fares? I’d bet you’re subject to thousands of pages of regulations every time you fly.

      Thanks for the kind words about the article. I look forward to reading your take on it!

      1. This is a fascinating topic. Aviation is over-regulating in the interest of safety in General Aviation… but in the airlines they are missing the big picture. Do you think this is the power of a bully able to pick on the little kids, when he cannot stand up to those with more power than him? This will be fun to address! Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

        1. I wouldn’t say the FAA is being a “bully”. It’s not their intention to snuff out aviation. But they are part of a massive regulatory machine which executes, institutes, and interprets rules, not to mention penalizes those who do not comply. That’s what they do. It’s their focus. Even when they know is counterproductive, they do it anyway. Rock the boat and you’re out of a job.

          But what if their focus was redirected? Instead of enforcing rules and demanding ever higher levels of safety (which decreases GA activity), suppose their Prime Directive was to promote and grow aviation?

          1. Yes…they are not the bully… more of an analogy. But it might be hard pressed to get them to shift a focus of safety to growth. But they could shift to growth safely. Definitely something to think about. You are so close to this… email me specifics that could be changed. We’ll make it happen.

  3. Ron,
    Excellent installment to kickoff this week’s “Blogging in Formation” series!

    It’s a sad day when American regulation strangles American innovation. And, sadly, California is often on the “leading edge” of overburdensome regulation.

    Thanks for the post, Ron. This is definitely one point that needs to be taken up as a banner for ALL aviators to fight on the footsteps of Congress!

    And don’t forget all of our fellow Formation Bloggers, all this week:

    Sept 1: House of Rapp – Ron Rapp
    Sept 2: iFLYblog – Brent Owens http://iflyblog.com
    Sept 3: Adventures of Cap’n Aux – Eric Auxier http://capnaux.blogspot.com
    Sept 4: Flight to Success – Karlene Petitt http://karlenepetitt.blogspot.com
    Sept 5: Smart Flight Training – Andrew Hartley http://smartflighttraining.com
    Sept 6: Airplanista – Dan Pimentel http://www.av8rdan.com

    Cheers!

    Eric

    1. PS—Ron, I can’t help but mention that the theme of regulation killing the freedom of flying is a central one in my novel, “The Last Bush Pilots.”

      Here’s an excerpt from Airways Magazine’s review, out now in the October edition:

      “It’s the end of the frontier era as regulation arrives in the form of over-enthusiastic FAA inspector Frederick Bruner. He’s eager to slap violations on all these free-spirited frontier cowboys, and any black mark on DC’s (my main protagonist) record will effectively cripple his major airline dreams. Can DC survive his “cheechacko” (rookie) Alaskan summer unscathed?

      In the end, FAA Inspector Bruner makes a key decision affecting the fate SEAS (Southeast Alaska Seaplanes) airline: shut them down for violating the rigid, ill-conceived regulations made by bureaucrats 3,000 miles away in Washington, or exploit the grey areas in the name of freedom?

      Ultimately, we all have a similar choice: accept crippling regulation, or fight to change it?

      May we all band together to right this wrongful trend!

      Eric

      1. Indeed. And I think you’ve already been proven to be a leader in that fight, literally putting your money where your mouth is! I’m looking forward to reading your novel.

        Re: California, we are definitely on the leading edge of regulatory strangulation. My hope is that this state hits rock bottom and starts the long climb out of our collective hole sooner rather than later.

  4. Out of the three people I gave rides to when I was renting the J-3 at SNA, two were seriously led to consider taking up flying. For Steve he already had his private certificate. He gave up flying though years ago after moving from Texas not wanting to deal with the SoCal airspace. After that ride he got a headset, iPad with Foreflight, and picked a flight school at CNO to do recurrent training with and was dreaming of buying a plane and retiring near a little airport but the finances caused him to decide he couldn’t afford it. For my other friend he just could not justify a second hobby in addition to sailing. For these two men, if it was more affordable I think they would have pursued the dream. Is the other half of the lesson that we need to take advantage of more opportunities to take people flying low and slow with the door open?

    1. Yes! We definitely need more of that. The J-3 has the greatest cost/benefit value I’ve ever seen in an airplane. How can such a tiny, underpowered antique potato-chip of an airplane be so much fun??

      Thanks for the additional data points on your friends. To take it a step further: with avgas at $7+, if you were to have been looking to start training in 2013, would you have even been able to do it? I know I wouldn’t.

  5. One can only echo the comments of earlier readers/bloggers: This is an outstanding, incisive summary of our beloved nations retreat from global leadership and innovation! Bureaucratic over-regulation must be reigned in!

  6. Definitely worth reading, and thinking about Ron. Thank you. As an “older” (age wise) pilot, I had to give up flying, because of costs. And regulations. And airport closings. Need I continue. Your first priority of changing the F.A.A. mission statement is extremely appropriate. Now, how do we get the government to actually do something constructive, as opposed to standard “destructive” thinking? An old army buddy of mine told me there was a trick he used to do things: “If ain’t distinctly forbidden, it’s allowed, and expected to be done.” The government has a way around that now, “if it isn’t forbidden, it should be, therefore there must be a law against it. If not, we’ll write one.”

    1. I think you stated the problem even better than I did with those last couple of sentences, Doyle! In answer to your question, I believe we — the aviation community — have to reach consensus, band together strongly, and speak loudly and clearly to those in Washington. Get our representatives on our side, have them work on our behalf for this change.

      Isn’t it ironic that the GA caucus in Congress is huge, yet general aviation still groans under the weight of all this regulation? If we could get EAA, AOPA, GAMA, NBAA, and all the other alphabet groups, along with their lobbyists, members, etc. to strongly send the same message to D.C., perhaps we might be able to effect this kind of change.

  7. I disagree with your thesis. Cost is an issue mostly for the enthusiast crowd or, using an acronym, the REME (romantic, elitist, macho, enthusiast) folks. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but a small and declining percentage of Americans care about that stuff. The only thing they might care about regarding general aviation is a way to transport themselves somewhere. For that they will pay a premium. Forget about making it cheaper. It isn’t going to happen. In any case, an $800,000 Cirrus is a better value for them than a $200,000 LSA, which is useless for practical travel. Sure, I soloed in a J-3 also, in 1965, but it’s pretty useless and utility is what the general public might care about. My main point, given all this, is that deregulating GA is the absolute wrong thing to do. It would adversely affect safety and the poor safety record is what keeps the general public away from GA. To fix the safety issue, we need to reform flight training. Training needs to be risk management-based and we need to emulate the airlines (without the regulation) on how safety is approached as a culture. If GA is to survive, it’s time to ditch the Lindbergh era, “white scarf” and all the REME philosophy that goes with it. As for changing the FAA mission, you’re living in a delusional world. As a former FAA executive, I saw the results of that. Congress came down on us like a ton of bricks. Their message was, “forget promotion, your job is safety. Period.” I believe they were correct. Everyone reading this may have a REME mentality, but for every one of you there are 600 Americans who think otherwise. Robert Wright

  8. We in Australia are suffering the same problems. Ramp checks, alcohol breath tests, expensive and unnecessary medical investigations and increasingly extensive flight reviews. It becomes all too hard and lets go sailing instead.The argument is always safety. After almost 50 years of aviation the restrictions are so costly that I can only afford to fly by owning a 60 knot X-air. I have the hypothesis that safety has not actually improved in terms of fatalities per hour despite a crippling regulation environment. In fact by destroying individual responsibility it may be getting worse.
    We need a rigerous examination of the trends in General Aviation safety not just assertions and assumptions.
    I believe the AOPA when they suggested that lack of currency (flying hours not dollars) is the major safety issue for older pilots and perhaps for others as well.

  9. We fly out of a private uncontrolled field {0Q3} Sonoma Valley that is mostly vintage aircraft and the pilots are retired military/commercial. We love it because we want to be afar away from the FAA as possible. The one factor that seems to be at the top of why people dont want to get into aviation is fear of the FAA.

    1. I understand and appreciate their apprehension about the FAA. We invest ungodly portions of our time, money, and effort to obtain and maintain the ability to fly, and the FAA can easily obliterate that capability in a nanosecond. Who wouldn’t fear them? Perhaps an airline pilot who has the weight of a major corporation and a massive union behind them. But for the rest of us, it’s David vs. Goliath.

  10. I think the talk about the FAA is over rated. Up to the recent Pilot Bill of Rights the FAA and the NTSB has run us over. Well that is not so easy today because of the change. The ability to challenge the FAA is huge no longer can you be steam rolled. The threat of a court fight is a strong detrent to over reach by FAA.

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