Say what you mean and mean what you say!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

VP Joe Biden's absurd comments about LaGuardia Airport

As a working airline pilot who has flown out of LGA (LaGuardia) extensively I feel a need to comment on Biden's remarks calling LaGaurdia airport a third world facility compared to China's shiney new international airport. LGA was built when planes went 150mph and needed a 3,000 foot runway. Being on the edge of Flushing bay it has no place to expand. In fact when the runways were extended to accommodate faster planes (jets) they had to be built over the water (a good part of the runways is actually an over water bridge structure). There is simply no place left to expand to. The field only has 2 runways to accommodate more traffic than JKF (where I still fly out of). Even if you ironed LGA flat and designed a new airport from scratch, there is no place to put bigger facilities or more runways as the airport was never intended to deal with the kind of traffic is sees. 

At nearby JFK they have built 2 brand new terminals with a third under construction and put in a billion dollar air train.  It should also be noted that LGA is a domestic airport that does not handle widebody aircraft so it is unfair to compare it to a major international airport. You might as well compare Hong Kong or Tokyo to Chicago Midway or Jacksonville, Florida.

Another issue is that an airport has to operate while new structures are built. There is an old joke in aviation that an airport is a construction sight with a runway. Temporary terminals have to be constructed while the permanent ones are built. There was actually a televised documentary of the construction of Jetblue's temporary terminal (which was used for a few years while the new T-5 was built). This takes hundreds of millions of dollars and airlines that are willing to commit to the new facilities. Since Jetblue is in the middle of building a new international terminal (T-6) at JFK they can't do it. American, United and Delta are already paying through that nose to be at LGA so they can't do it. So who is going to pay for it. Should be around half a billion.

New York (and many major American cities) have airports that have grown since their original pre-WW2 construction and they have had to make due. A few cities like Denver actually bit the bullet and built brand new facilities but it is expensive and not to be done lightly. Some new airports have been built only to be underutilized (ex: Panama City FL). Some had room for great expansion (ex: Orlando FL MCO) but many are built in cities or by waters edge greatly complicating expansion.

Additionally China (and in fact most countries) have only a few major cities. America has dozens and many have kept up with modernization. Airports like Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, Denver, Boston and even Detroit have kept up (often against major difficulties). Cities like San Francisco (SFO) and Washington DC (DCA) have great terminals but lousy, even dangerous airport layouts. DCA has dangerous southern approaches and northern departures via the Potomac River (to avoid overflying prohibited area P-56 near the white house and the mall) and SFO's runways are too close together. Yet despite these dangers officialdom has chosen to just leave it alone rather than spend tons of money to fix it. As an aside, the DCA issue could be fixed with the stroke of a Presidential pen allowing flights over the mall. I have only scratched the surface here but Biden's comments are not simply fair. LGA is a hard pressed local airport for narrow bodied jets and commuter planes and comparing it to China's showpiece major international airports is like comparing the family station wagon to a yuppies BMW.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Sun Sets on a Beautiful Dinosaur

After decades of trailblazing service it looks as if the mighty the Boeing 747  could be nearing the end of the production line.  Boeing cut the 747's production target twice in six months and now only 36 will be produced over the next 24 months. Aviation buffs have know for some time time that some brand-new 747s go into storage as soon as they leave the plant. Only 5 have been sold this year and all of them to one customer, Korean Air.  This is not surprising as customers migrate toward more modern and efficient two engine designs (with less seats to fill).

Four engines were the norm when jet engine technology was not so advanced but today's jet engines are amazingly efficient, reliable and capable so you only need two of them.  A 747 can seat from 380 to 560 people, depending on how an airline wants it set up. A full one is a moneymaker but an under sold flight of a 747 can cost an airline all of its profits from the full ones.  The 747 is simply too big for most markets where there are not enough passengers to justify the jumbo jets.

The 747 once stood alone s a true trail blazer.  It had more seats than any other jet and a 6,000 mile range. The plane was longer than the distance the Wright Brothers traveled on their first flight.
The distinctive bulbous upper deck was a lounge was so distinctive that the plane eventually epitomized the modern age of international jet travel.  It was even the centerpiece of countless movies and was, or is, a true icon of pop culture.   It made International travel affordable to the masses and changed the tourist industry forever.  The type is used as Air Force One as the space shuttle carrier.  It is arguably the world's most recognizable aircraft.  Boeing sold a total of 1,418 747s before a major 2011 redesign as the 747-800.  Despite this, passenger airlines have ordered 31 of the latest version, the 747-8.  This order is a minuscule compared to the 979 orders for Boeing's smaller and more fuel efficient 787 Dreamliner.

As technology and customer demands change, the need for a massive 4 engine jet seems to be waning.  Passengers love frequency and the smaller more fuel efficient planes offer that.  They also offer lower maintenance and operational costs per seat mile while providing the same long range, safety  and reliablity.  The 747's place in history and in the hearts of aviaphiles is secure and we will be seeing the for decades to come but it's days of production may be seeing the sun drifting down toward the horizon.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Airline Hiring of Military Pilots

It has long been established that the airlines like to hire former military pilots. For a long time former military pilots made up the vast bulk of commercial airline pilots.  The reason for this extend back to the end of the second world war. During World War II (1939-1945) the United States trained over 250,000 pilots. The government went to great lengths to insure that these candidates were intelligent, educated and in excellent physical condition.  Essentially uncle Sam had fully screened all of these potential future airline pilots. These men then received the best flight training in the world and followed that training with considerable real world experience often in the worst possible conditions.

Following World War II there was an economic boom in the United States and the demand for airline pilots rose. When the existing airline pilots were supplemented by the supply of freshly minted aviators military aviators (who were released in mass by Uncle Sam), a fertile recruiting ground for the airlines resulted. Some of these young men never wanted to see an airplane again and a large number of them went back into non-aviation civilian life; one even went on to become president of United States.  But the others found that the military had given them a vocation and an entire generation of airline pilots was born.

For pilots without military backgrounds the competition was extremely stiff. Many of these pilots spent entire careers toiling in commercial aviation's backwaters for low wages in flying schools, small commuter airlines or freight haulers.  Breaking out of that lower rung of aviation could prove itself to be most difficult.  As Jets started to enter the airlines the demand on pilots became even more stringent. Even the experienced World War II veteran pilots were finding these sleek new planes hard to keep up with.  The air force, navy & marines were ahead of the airlines in jet training so jet qualified military aviators became an even more sought after commodity by the major airlines.  This made it even harder on pilots without a military flying background. As late as the 1970s over 80% of airline pilots were former military pilots.  This trend would continue until well after the Vietnam war which had provided another large cadre of young military veteran aviators.

However, in the mid 1970s there was the beginning of a slow change in the situation.  The increased capability and cost of military aircraft combined with the end of America's involvement in the Vietnam conflict meant that the military would need to do more with less airframes and shrinking training budgets.  This meant less pilots.  This was followed by slowing economic times and the fact that the military had become a better place to make a career.  Many pilots elected to stay in the service until retirement but because of the reduced demand for new airline pilots about 80% of new hires were still coming from the military.  That was a situation which would not last.

The situation really changed in 1978 when the airlines were deregulated throwing the already fluid situation into further turmoil.  Between labor strife and a flailing economy the airlines began to drastically cut wages and benefits.  Now even more young military officers found the Armed Forces a better place to stay.  About this time the ratio of civilian only pilots versus military trained pilots was about 70-30.  This was on the eve of an upcoming wave of retirements from World War II veteran pilots.  Pilots trained by the military between 1941 and 1945 were having to retire between the late 70s and mid 80s.

This created a situation where for the first time since the second world war there were simply not enough military trained pilots to meet the needs of the civilian operators (by this time the proliferation of corporate aviation was adding to the drain on the pool of available pilots).  To help prevent a future exodus of military pilots the Armed Forces began increasing the commitment to undergo pilot training. The commitment had been six years after completing training but was eventually extended to nine years after training.  This put a military officer halfway towards his retirement (and a life time 50% pension) by the time he had finished his commitment to the military. This went a long way toward closing the door on young military pilots for the civilian market.

The military also learned another little trick. The airlines only hire pilots who are proficient and currently flying. The average military pilot only flies between five and seven years before he is given a desk job.  This means that at the end of their nine year commitment they were not current and had usually not flown a plane for at least two years.  This made them far less appealing to the airlines.  Some military pilots actually had to go fly for commuter airlines for a year or two to get recurrent before they were hired by major airlines.

Something else was occurring about this time. Most of the commuter and regional airlines had transition to turbine powered aircraft (mostly turboprops but in some cases jets). By the late 1997 regional jets were starting to become popular.  Advances in regional airline and civilian flight school training programs (to include the use of level D simulators) created an ever increasing pool of civilian pilots who were well trained in jets and fluent in airline operations.

The military was once again getting more capable and even more expensive aircraft but less of them.  This in turn resulted and even fewer pilots being trained. Combined with the increasing number of highly qualified civilian pilots the hiring situation eventually began to reverse itself.  More military pilots were staying in the service for at least 20 years or more civilian pilots were building large amounts of jet time.  It was getting more common to see a 43 year old retired lieutenant colonel in a major airline new hire class than a 28 year-old junior officer.

Today over 60% of pilots hired by major airlines have civilian only experience.  Most of the military officers joining the airlines are either retired or active reservists.  The advancement of unmanned aerial vehicles, the over decade long commitment for military pilot training, improvements in military pay and benefits as airline pay and benefits decline all conspire to help to hold down the number of military pilots available to the airlines. The discussion has already begun about whether to give UAV time some sort of credit on an airline application (at the moment that answer is no, but that may eventually change).  The vast number of experienced jet pilots from the regional airlines have greatly diminished the need for pilots with a military background.

Now that the military trains fewer pilots than it has since the Second World War, there is mathematically no way the military could supply enough pilots for the airlines predicted needs.  The last of the Vietnam era pilots will have to retire by 2015 and there has been no mass military pilot training since 1973.  There is a huge forecast for airline pilots In the next 10 years and there will be an even greater percentage of civilian only pilots in those ranks.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Flight to Nowhere

The 'flight to nowhere' is the name often given to the main mission flown by the USS Hornet's air group during the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942.  It is arguably the second most controversial part of the battle (second only to Admiral Nagumo's rearming decisions, but that is a story in itself).  In an already tight battle, the failure of the Hornet dive bombers to find and attack the Japanese force of aircraft carriers known as Kido Butai (KdB) weakened the American attack by fully one third of its striking power.  The results would disasterous on both the macro and micro levels. 

A quick backstory: The Battle of Midway was the major naval engagement of World War Two in the Pacific theater of operation.  The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) brought their 4 operational fleet carriers, 250 planes and a slew of support forces to take Midway atoll.  The idea was to lure out the American navy's aircraft carriers for a decisive battle.  Due to outstanding intelligence work by the US Navy the American side was able to prepare an ambush with its three Yorktown class fleet carriers.  By battle's end the American navy had sunk 4 Japanese fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser, destroyed over 230 enemy planes and inflicted 3,057 casualties on the Japanese navy.  This was done at the loss of one American fleet carrier (Yorktown), the destroyer Hammann and 307 american lives.  By June 7th, The American navy had gone from a position of weakness to relative parity with the IJN.  So what happened to the Hornet's planes?

The US Navy had little practice using their aircraft carriers in concert with each other as a unified force (a forte of the IJN).  Each carrier sent its air groups off as the local commander deemed best.  Once American PBY Catalina search planes had located both Kido Butai (KdB) and the airborne Japanese strike force headed toward Midway, the U.S. aircraft carriers began launching their attack forces.  The carrier Yorktown had to delay its launch in order to recover 10 SBD scout planes that had been seearching to the north of the fleet but the carriers Enterprise and Hornet began launching immediately. 

Before angle decks were invented an aircraft carrier could either launch, recover or spot aircraft but they could not do more than one of these things at a time.  This meant deck planning the deck operations was an art form.  Only half of a carriers air group could be put on the deck at one time and the old TBD torpedo plane needed a full length deck run.  The Hornet Air Group had what looked like a good plan on paper.  They put 20 Wildcat fighters at the head of the line  as they had the shortest required take off run.  This also got the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) off teh deck and frovided air cover during this vulnerable time.  The first 10 Wildcats were the CAP and the next 10 were the escorts for the strike force.  This was followed by the bombing and scouting squadrons (VB-8 and VS-8).  Once this armada was airborne the TBD torpedo planes were brought up from below, spotted at the rear of the carrier, wings unfolded and launched.  

                                               USS Hornet CV-8

The first wave went off smoothly with all planes launched in about 9 minutes.  But the spotting and launching of the TBDs took longer than planned.  While this was going on the short ranged Wildcats fighters were burning up precious fuel orbiting the carrier.  It took 54 minutes to get the air group launched and the Commander Hornet Air Group (CHAG), Commander Stanhope Ring, had the entire squadron form up in what one pilot called 'parade formation' and head off together.  All in all 58 Hornet aircraft headed out to attack the Japanese.  There were 15 TBD torpedo planes at flying alone 2,500 feet.  Up at 20,000 feet there were 33 SBD dive bombers (16 SBDs of VS-8 with 500 pound bombs and 16 SBDs with 1,000 lb bombs of VB-8 plus Ring's SBD with a 500 pounder) and 10 F4F-4 Wildcat fighters of VF-8.

According to VS-8 commander LCdr. Walter Rodee, they headed off on a heading of 265 degrees (almost due west) even though the Japanese fleet had been reported south of that location.  This would later become one of the most hotly contested issues of the battle and still is in historical circles today.  About 30 minutes out LCdr John C. Waldron, commanding VT-8, was arguing with CHAG Ring that they needed to turn left about 30 degrees,  Ring disagreed and kept the Honet's planes on a westerly heading.  Waldron was convinced they would find nothing but open ocean and took his low flying torpedo squadron on a 235 degree heading.  This 30 degree left turn seperated him from the rest of the air group and stripped VT-8 of any fighter support.

                                   Commander Stanhope Cotton Ring

As Ring headed west into the open expanse of tractless ocean his fighters began to run low on fuel.  Eventually the pilots used hand signals to indicate their concerns but were waved back into formation.  In ones and twos, and without permission, they began to turn back for the carrier.  Due to the movements made by Hornet, she was not where they expected her to be and the fighters ended up flying south of her.  When the saw her Hornet well off to the north they thought her task force was the Japanese fleet and continued southeasterly.  Eventually the Wildcats began to run out of fuel and ditch at sea.  All 10 went in the water.  8 pilots were eventually recovered (1 was killed ditching and 1 was lost at sea).

                                                          LCdr. John C. Waldron, VT-8

About 0920 hours Ring heard Waldron and VT-8 on the radio.  Waldron had found KdB and attacked.  Here is where reports begin to vary.  Ring claimed that he turned south to find KdB fearing that it was nearing Midway (in fact Kbd had turned northeast when IJN spotter planes found the American fleet).  Ruff Johnson, commanding bombing 8 (VB-8) made a southward turn and Ring went after him to have form back up.  Ring was unable to catch him and even had trouble trying to rejoin VS-8.  By this time Ring's command had all but disintegrated.  Other pilots claim VS-8 turned back on its own and Ring flew off almost alone until he had to turn back.  He must have been near panic as he had flown an entire air group and a full third of the strike force's ordnance into empty ocean.

VT-8 was the only part of the air group to find KdB and they were massacred.  All 15 planes were shot down and 29 men were killed.  The sole survivor, Ens. George Gay, was the only one who got close enough to use his torpedo and it did not do any damage.  He spent 30 hours in the ocean before he was picked up by a PBY.

VB-8 was probably too far west to see the Japanese and due to low fuel they eventually turned for Midway.  They came a cross a patrolling PBY that gave them a good heading for Midway but they were critical on fuel.  One plane had engine trouble and ditched.  One 4 plane section let by Lt. Alfred Tucker did start receiving the 'Zed Baker' navigation signal from Hornet and those four planes turned back for Hornet.  They just barely made it.  The remaining SBDs made it to Midway but when they ditched theit bombs on the reef the local marines thought it was a Japanese second wave and opened fire.  Critically low on fuel the SBDs had to go around until the mistake was rectified.  3 planes were damaged but none critically.  Another plane ran out of gas and ditched in the lagoon.  Finally, the remaining planes of VB-8 landed safely at Midway.

While this was going on the planes from Yorktown and Enterprise had found KdB and attacked.  They had crippled 3 of Japan's 4 carriers and secured an American victory.  When Hornet's remaining planes (those of VS-8 and Ring) headed back east to the saw smoke to the south.  So weak was their navigation that they thought the rising columns of black smoke were from Midway (which had been bombed and was smoking).  It appears much more likely that it was smoke from the burning Japanese carriers.  When the air group returned to Hornet, RAdm Mitscher, the ships commander, was horrified.  He sent out 58 planes and only 21 returned, STILL CARRYING THEIR BOMBS!

Ring was the first man to land back on Hornet but he was so distraught that according to the book Shattered Sword (Tully and Parshall) he sequestered himself in his cabin despite naval regulations that required the commander to give a strike report to the captain upon arrival.  That left LCdr Walt Rodee with the unenviable task of reporting the boondoggle to Mitscher.  The Airplanes that had recovered to Midway would return that afternoon but at least 27 planes and 31 aircrew were lost for no gain (except that the attack of VT-8 did buy some time for the Americans as the Japanese could not conduct air operations while under attack. This is important in the larger scheme).

Why is this so important (beyond the obvious).  The IJN carrier Hiryu ecaped the initial attack unscathed.  Of course we are soothsaying at this point but had Hornet's dive bombers found KdB they would have had a chance to kill it.  It was two attacks by the planes of Hiryu that doomed Yorktown.  She was crippled and had to be abandoned.  Two days later as her crew tried to save her, she was torpedoed for a second time; this time by the Japanese submarine I-168.  She was sunk along with the destroyer Hammann which was beside her supporting the salvage operation.  As a sad note, many of the Hammann's crew were killed in the water when her depth charges went off as she sank.

Although Hornet's planes would take part in later actions (which were minor in comparison) they would contribute little to the battle.  After the battle, CDR Ring would receive a scathing (even if unintended) insult from his boss, the quiet and calculating Task Force commander RAdm Raymond Spruance.  When the after action reports were filed the one Ring submitted was vague in some regards and the map he drew did not jive entirely with certain facts.  Whether this was due to his mediocre navigational skills or outright deception I cannot say but Spruance told ADM Nimitz that where the after action reports from Enterprise and Hornet vary, consider Enterprise's to be accurate.

                                                        RAdm Marc 'Pete' Mitscher

Mitscher would acknowledge that the Hornet's performance was "subpar".  Both he and Ring were beached after the battle and would have to work their way back into the good graces of the navy brass.  Hornet herself, which had been made famous for launching the Doolittle raiders, would be sunk 5 month later at the battle of Santa Cruz.  VS-8 commander Walt Rodee would eventually rise to the rank of rear admiral as would Ring (who was promoted to Vice Admiral upon his retirement) but Ring never fully lived down the stigma of the the flight to nowhere. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Turbulence will not break up a plane in flight...will it?

Turbulence will not break up a plane in flight!  Well, that is pretty much true.  There was 1 recorded case of a BOAC 707 breaking up in turbuulence (+9,-4G) over Mt. Fuji Japan in 1960 but on one knows if broke up due to the turbulence or from an overspeed after a severe turbulence induced loss of control. Weather forcasting has come a long way in 53 years and no modern pilot has an excuse for getting near that kind of shearing force today. 

Basically, there are only 4 things that can destroy a modern plane in flight; a bomb/missile (terrorism), a catostrophic maintenance / mechanical failure, a midair collision or a bad pilot. 

The safety record of modern airliners is a partly testament to advances in security. This goes from intelligence agencies exposing plots to TSA finding guns. I know none of us have a love affair with TSA but they do catch some stuff we don't want on planes (they find about 2 guns a day nationwide). I am sure they miss plenty of stuff but it is better than nothing. There has also been a change in the way passengers act/react to threats. Try to hijack a plane today and you will likely get the crap beat out of you by the other passengers. Old school 'hijackers for ransom' were put out of business on 9/11 and no terrosist plots have been successful since then in the USA.

13% of accident are mechanical but there hasn't been a major fatal once since Alaska's in 2000. (the AA crash of an A-300 was deemed pilot error and even the Alaska crash was compounded by crew actions of running both electric trims together).

Improved ATC and traffic collision advances (TCAS 'Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and pilot training have greatly reduced the already miniscule threat from a mid air collision. 1986 was the last major fatal mid air in the USA.

Improved pilot training to include Windshear recovery, GRD PROX EGPWS terrain escape manuevers, unusual attitude recovery, wake turbulence seperation/recovery, flight in rarified air, turbulence avoidance and jet upset recovery, GPS/RNAV navigation (which has all but replaced the VOR systems in the airlines), glass cockpits with more info for pilots and gobs of other stuff. The last fatal crash in the USA was a Colgan Air commuter in 2009 due to pilot fatigue, poor training and icing conditions.

This is the case despite the skies becomeing even more jam-packed thanks to something called RVSM.

RVSM airspace (reduces the Required Vertical Seperation Minumum above 28,000 feet from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet) has opened up a lot of airspace and also increeased safety by tightening requirements for planes flying at FL280 and above (FL-flight level. It is the altitude adjusted to standard barometric pressure of 29.92). Airplanes use local altimeter settings in barometric pressure (which changes with the weather) to insure all pilots are at the correct height. If the outside pressure 29.80 inches of mercury then pilots dial that into a little window in their altimeters (called a Kolsman window). It is like synchronizing watches. Now all airplanes in the local area have identical altimeter read outs (especially important in instrument flying).

Above 18,000 feet planes go to fast to keep up with local settings so when you hit 18,000 feet you dial in 29.92 (standard) into the Kolsman window and everybody is synched up. When you have jets with 1200 mile per hour closure rates and only 1,000 feet vertically between them, you need everyone working form the same playbook. When I am at FL350 and another jet passes overhead going the other way at FL360 (which happens many times per trip), trust me, you want to be sure our altimeters are in synch. BTW, altimeters are allowed about 100 feet of slop at high altitude so we could be only 800 feet apart and still be in compliance. Cheery thought eh?! (show less)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

China's First Female Astronaut

As I write this China's first female astronaut is orbiting the planet. ( for more go to: ).  Now I respect the how sharp this woman must be to have risen to such a position in a country where brutal competition is the order of the day and I certainly do not mean to diminish China's space ambitions (you can just feel a big 'BUT' coming can't you?) but is this anything more than an effort to start chalking up political 'firsts'?

Russia put the first woman in space almost 50 years ago. Valentina Tereshkova  was the first woman in space in Vostock 6 on 16 June 1963 (becoming both the first woman and the first civilian to fly in space).  Her flight was considered more of a political publicity stunt by western observers (despite having groomed a group of American female astronauts to mirror the Mercury 7, none of whom ever flew in space; hey, it was the macho 60s) and NASA was not really interested in competing with Russia on seemingly minor political or public relations stunts.   As a result of NASA's unwavering comminttment to the moon landing, the Russians racked up a series of 'firsts' in space flight.  First to get man into psace (Gagarin in Vostock), first to get a man into orbit (Titov in Vostock: technically Gagarin did not complete a full orbit and)), first to launch a 2 man and then 3 man crew (Voshkod), first woman in space (Tereshkova), first space walk (Alexi Leonov) and the first space stations.  Meanwhile the Americans were taking a much more 'long term goal' oriented approach that made these advances in a logical progression (not based on concerns about being the first to perfom them).

While the Russians were racking up public relations victories with a series of 'firsts' the Americans were very methodically making important material advances and following up on them.  An example was the early space walks.  While Leonov basically bobbed around for 10 minutes before getting back in (which he alost was unable to do) American space walkers were learning to do real work on their extra vehicular activities (EVAs aka space walks).

After a while the Russians ran out of realtively easy and affordable 'firsts' and the Americans began to eclipse them in world headlines.  When Apollo 8 orbited the moon the Russians had nothing worthwhile to come back with.  They had ended their own lunar program when they realized the cost was prohibitive (and following the the loss of two of their N-1 moon rockets).  The USSR decided to concentrate on more affordable things like space stations.  When America landed men on the moon, the USA had won the space race.  The space race ended up being the kind of competition where the first guy off blocks sprints pass the grand stand grinning at the audience only to have the steady, well paced runner eventually eclipse him for the win.

NASA did finally put a woman awoman in space, the late Dr. Sally Ride, in 1983 (she passed away from cancer in July, 2012).  Dr. Ride had a PhD in Physics was was chosen out a group of 8,000 candidates, many of them also women.    Since then numerous women have flown into space and 4 have died in the effort (In the space shuttle Challenger, teacher Christa McAuliffe, and Judith Resnik died, January 1986. In February 2003, Lauren B. Clark and Kalpana Chawla were killed during re-entry of the shuttle Columbia).

Now China, only a mere 5 decades behind the west, is repeating the same story.  Orbit a few guys, toss up a girl for a few orbits; then we'll see a 2 or 3 man ship and a few space walks perhaps followed by a small space station (or they can just buy our share of the ISS in exchange for retiring someof our debt).  Eventually they may actually make it to the moon.  If they do, hurray for them.  When they get there, if they could visit the Apollo 11 landing site and be so kind as to put the American flag back up.  I think Neil and Buzz's rocket motor knocked it over when they 1969!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The slow decline of General Aviation in America.

Numbers do not lie and the harsh reality is that general aviation in the United States is on the decline.  There are many reasons for this ranging from high fuel prices to the stratospheric cost of new planes.  Many boogeymen have been identified but, in fact, there is not one lone culprit but a litany of sometimes seemingly unrelated ones.

Among the things that have an impact on new aircraft sales are interest rates, fuel prices, product liability costs, labor costs, the small scale of production, tax codes and the regulatory environment.  Oddly enough the sale of new general aviation aircraft is not as dependent on the overall health of the economy as one might think (as you will see later).

Another major issue is the cost and commitment of learning to fly.  All of these factors have an impact on the cost of obtaining a private pilot certificate and, when combined with an “instant gratification” oriented society, it becomes increasingly difficult to get new flying students through the door.  It is no small task to get someone to commit up to $10,000 and several months of their time to the endeavor.

In addition, the expensive light planes currently in production are in competition with substantially cheaper used planes.  The history of new light plane production holds some pretty cold math as noted in these data points.  Here is the history of modern light plane manufactoring at a glance:

In 1965 American aircraft companies sold 15,768 new private planes.  Despite a recession the number actually climbed to 17,811 new planes sold in 1978 (thus my earlier point that general aviation is not as directly linked to the overall economic picture as commercial aviation).  By 1980 the number had drifted down to 11,871 new aircraft sales and by 1981 it was only 9,457.  Then sales really started to plunge and by 1982 they had dropped by over half to only 4,266 new planes sold.  In 1986 Cessna Aircraft stopped making piston engine light planes.  By 1994 it only 928 new planes were sold in all the United States (this includes corporate aircraft).  There was a slight uptick and in 2009 when sales reached 1,587 but by 2010 sales were in decline again with only 1,334 new plane sales (a 16% drop).

In addition, most pilots attending flying schools today are working toward flying as a career.  There are less and less private pilot candidates as the cost and regulation continue to rise.  Increasing equipment requirements along with tighter security is both driving up costs and soaking much of the fun out of sport aviation.  Insurance is getting higher and many aircraft owners have elected to drop it.

Insurance has an impact on sales of new planes too.  In 1962 product liability was $52 per plane but by $1972 it had risen to $2,111 per unit.  Those were 1972 dollars.  That is $11,591 today.  Between that, low production volume (no economy of scale) high labor costs and a dwindling pool of potential buyers (pilots) the per-unit cost on a shiney new 2012 Cessna 172 tops $300,000.  Despite an impressive instrument suite and many enhancements it is still a Cessna-172.  This all colludes to hurt general aviation and helps us understand why only 19,893 new private pilot certificates were issues by the FAA in 2009 and that number dropped to 14,977 in 2010 (-25%). 

As the old guard of private pilots in their Luscombes and Piper Cubs begins to gentrify and as the rising cost forces more and more private pilots out of the arena we see a dwindling in our ranks.  Now the latest Cessna (The 162) is made in China.  Pilots are a largely patriotic bunch and the wisdom of this move (or lack thereof) will bear out in time.  General aviation is far from dead in America but unless we can invigorate a new generation of general aviation enthusiasts GA may be in a slow graveyard spiral toward the sunset.  Nowhere in this history of humankind have people known the kind of freedom allowed the private pilot.  The ability to jump in your own plane, point the nose where you like and just GO!  It will be a sad day and the end on one of the greatest eras in world history when the last private pilot heads west.