The latest post from Airscape Magazine landed on my computer screen this morning. Always a welcome respite from the flood of Monday morning email, this one was a loving tribute to a Lockheed Constellation operated on the Australian air show circuit by the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society.
What caught my attention, though, was the last section of the article. David writes about a 1966 replica of the Bleriot XI that Clyde Cessna used to teach himself to fly in 1911, and how fitting it is to see that airplane in the same hangar with other pioneering aircraft.
It’s amazing to see the simple airframe sharing space with a Comanche, Spitfire, Fokker F-27, C-47/Dakota, Canberra and F-111C. There’s a Gypsy Moth and John Johanson’s globe-circling RV-4 back there as well.
The Super Constellation I started with sits at an important juncture in all this remarkable progress. The L-049 that preceded it was one of the first post-war airliners, and helped set the template for global air travel as we know it today.
So, one way or another, all of these aircraft broke seemingly impossible boundaries of their times.
It makes me wonder whether their admirers and pilots ever worried about the future of aviation, as we’re forced to today.
He’s asking the right question — prompted in no small part, I’m sure, by the gnawing feeling many of us share about the staid state of our beloved industry. It reminds me of what happened to the grass in my back yard while I was in Hawaii last week: without care, the sun took a heavy toll on it and the blades stopped growing. When it came time to mow, there was nothing to cut. And what already existed was an ugly shade of brown.
I doubt the admirers and pilots of Clyde Cessna’s day ever worried about the future of aviation, primarily because access to and the size of the industry were growing exponentially. When the art and science of an industry is advancing at such a tremendous pace, why would anyone worry about the future? The grass is growing so fast you can see it moving with your bare eyes.
After nearly a quarter century in this business, I’ve observed many times on these pages how reduced access and exponentially increasing cost comes largely from the creaking burden of regulation. And that regulation is borne of a society which is no longer willing to accept risk. Were 21st century risk acceptance the norm in Clyde day, he’d never have gotten off the ground. He wouldn’t have even been allowed on the airfield. Too risky.
Sure, you can hop on an airliner and get around in a flying bus quite safely today. But the price we pay goes far beyond dollars and is best measured by Langston Hughes’s ubiquitous poem about deferred dreams. Human history is like that. You can see it over and over again. With great risk comes great reward.
And without it? Well, take a look at your local GA airport, or any meaningful GA activity statistics over the past few decades. Active pilots? Down. GA aircraft production? Down. Airport operations? Down. Flight schools? Down. Interest in aviation from kids? Down. Prices for new aircraft, insurance, maintenance, parts? Up. Way, way up.
Since airplanes and cars are often compared, I should note that the automobile industry is a very rare exception; you get a lot of car technology for comparatively little money, and state of the art is always advancing. But that only works when an industry scales up to commodity size. That size gives it the political power and monetary resources to keep the regulation at bay. Drones are already there, produced on large automated assembly lines by the thousands and threatening to overwhelm the regulatory apparatus the same way CB radios did in the 1970s.
But human-occupied aircraft? No. Sadly, these days if you want to find young people at a GA airport, head for the museum. That’s where they’ll be — mainly because they’ve been bussed there for a field trip.
The only large scale GA activity on this planet is in the U.S. due to the comparatively lower levels (I can’t believe I just wrote that) of regulation. And even here, the only notable growth is in the Experimental-Homebuilt category because that’s the singular place where you can still find more freedom and less regulation. The one spot in the yard where the grass is still growing, a small, sunny patch where the dream has not yet been deferred.