A Dream Deferred

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.

The Bleriot XI is over a century old and a few examples still fly, even today.

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.

  12 comments for “A Dream Deferred

  1. Glen Towler
    August 6, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    I am sure that Bleriot XI comes to Oshkosh every year. I always make a point of talking to the owner he is a really nice guy who knows people in New Zealand who fly war birds in NZ. We have a great community going on here and long may it last.

    • August 6, 2018 at 3:22 pm

      Wow. I’m very impressed that someone would bring a hundred year old airplane to OSH every year. That’s serious dedication! Obviously, there’s no place better for a collector or aficionado to see it appreciated by those who know and admire the XI’s prominent place in aviation history, but I’d imagine it would be an easy victim of the crazy weather that sometimes rolls through Wisconsin. On the other hand, perhaps it’s not as fragile as one might expect. An airworthy plane of that vintage probably has precious little left on it which is truly original, just by way of the ongoing maintenance which replaces things little by little over time.

      Anyway, I agree about the quality of the New Zealand warbird community. It’s one of the aspects of the island I’m most keen to explore… when I finally make it there, of course. 🙂

      • Glen Towler
        August 6, 2018 at 3:30 pm

        It is a replica and he brings it in by truck but still way cool to see him every year. And I hope to see you in New Zealand one day Ron

  2. Rod MacDonald
    August 6, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    HI Ron, yes we who fly experimental air planes are one of the few groups who have avoided the regulatory nightmare that has descended upon our once great country. Thank goodness for the few who battled against increased regulation in GA aviation so we have the flying freedom that we do.
    Unfortunately, as i have discovered in my 45 years in the architecture and construction industry, most of the country’s industries were are not so fortunate and it would appear that our country has a majority of voters who don’t understand the values of hard work and the rewards of risk taking as the aviation pioneers of the industry have so successfully demonstrated. I am not optimistic at all for our country’s future.
    Go EAA!

    • August 7, 2018 at 3:57 pm

      There are certainly times when it’s very hard to be optimistic. That’s one of the many reasons I love the EAB community. If there’s a greater collection of creative, generous, “can-do” people, I’ve yet to discover it..

      One of the great frustrations is that the shining example set by the Experimental community have not been truly recognized. But I think that might slowly be starting to change. I never thought I’d live to see the day the FAA would allow equipment and avionics designed for EAB airplanes into certificated aircraft. And yet, here we are. A few years without planes falling out of the sky due to lack of paperwork, and perhaps we can take The Next Step.

  3. August 7, 2018 at 7:03 am

    The thing about grass is that’s it has evolved to brown off when times are tough, laying down seeds and roots to bounce back when conditions are right. So leave the lawn mower in the garage and cut straight to the hard-earned beer!
    Aviation, on the other hand, hasn’t been around quite as long. And the abundance of the good years (to thrash this metaphor just a little further) was usually picked off by crows before it hit the ground.
    I can feel the afterglow of Airventure from half-way round the world, but there’s no denying what the EAA has done, it’s done right. Being owned by members rather than shareholders, and being driven by excitement and innovation instead of profit and loss, has seen it defy the heart-breaking trends of wider general aviation.
    The EAA has another, important arrow in its quiver too – the little plate the FAA/CAA/CASA insists builders put on their instrument panels, warning passengers the aircraft may not be built to certificated standards. The first time I saw one it felt like an intrusion, until the builder/pilot added ‘Too right mate. It’s built better!’
    What that little plate preserves, even celebrates, is the acceptance of risk. And as you point out, risk is part of what makes flying worthwhile.
    You can take risks without getting hurt. (I can prove it: I’m still alive!) But you need to be free to take them without getting sued.
    Go EAA, indeed!

    • August 7, 2018 at 4:05 pm

      Yeah, sorry about the metaphor soup.

      That “passenger warning” plate always cracks me up. Your builder/pilot friend was right, often the quality far exceeds that of the average light GA single. I recall touring the Cessna Independence factory and seeing some atrocious riveting work. Even back then, I remember thinking that no respectable homebuilder would accept fasteners in that state. Sad that even in GA, too many people use “homebuilt” as a pejorative when a review of the facts would lead just about anyone to conclude it is a badge of honor, skill, and quality. Not to mention being more American than apple pie.

      The problem with the pax warning plate is that it exists at the pleasure of the FAA and could easily disappear after a high profile accident or just the right amount of political pressure from the proper angle. That’s why I can’t wait to see the industry grow. The larger it gets, the safer it will be from such a fate.

      • August 8, 2018 at 6:23 am

        Yes indeed. And I’d like to see the concept of the plate grow into a legally unassailable acknowledgment (and acceptance) of risk, used right across the scope of light aircraft operation. THAT might start to bring the cost of flying down. (I live in hope!)

        • August 8, 2018 at 1:46 pm

          At the very least, it should ameliorate much of the liability cost which is now passed along to the consumer. The other half of the battle is the small market size. I’m hopeful that allowing EAB equipment to be installed in certificated aircraft will help with that. Time will tell…

          • August 8, 2018 at 3:01 pm

            …The way glass came to small cockpits via Experimentals is a perfect example of that can work. Let’s hope.

  4. Mike Hougan
    August 8, 2018 at 10:13 pm

    “And that regulation is borne of a society which is no longer willing to accept risk.”
    That is just about the most succinct encapsulation of not only GA’s, but American society’s, biggest threat to their futures. I could further wax political, but I’ll leave it at that.
    Sad and disappointing that I don’t see a path out of it.

    • August 8, 2018 at 11:06 pm

      Yeah, it’s the thing I keep coming back to. The answer for every question which starts with “If we could put a man on the moon….”

      There’s probably a way out. But I suspect it would prove very expensive and painful.

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