Lessons Learned About GA, From Unlikely Sources

by Jim Hanson

It seems like it’s been years since we had any good news in the General Aviation industry. Oh, don’t get me wrong…innovation and new products come out all the time, but it seems that the “glory days” of constant innovation and the days when new aircraft produced numbered in the tens of thousands were a long time ago. Some date the “sea change” to the economic recession of 2008 – six years ago.

Others date it to the collapse of the “Dot.com” bubble in the go-go late ’90s, over 15 years ago. Still others date it to the rise of legal proceedings in the early ‘80s, leading some manufacturers to go out of business, and for industry-leader Cessna to suspend production of piston-powered aircraft. That was 28 years ago. The real geezers (myself included) point to the high point of the mid to late ’60s, when Cessna cranked out over 15,000 airplanes every year, including over 3,000 Cessna 150s. That is coming up on 50 years ago. That’s a long stretch of bad news, even for optimists like pilots.

It seems like there are culprits a-plenty. Some of the best known are the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with burdensome pilot regulations…the manufacturers with high prices…the legal system with outrageous and “innovative” tort claims…the FAA, again, with an old-fashioned manufacturer and parts approval process that stifles new ideas…government taxation on manufacturers and income, which increases the price of parts and planes, and reduces disposable income…the internet, which takes up time, stifles interaction, and substitutes artificial online adventures for actual adventure…“multi-tasking” (we used to be identified by our jobs or our hobbies – “I’m a pilot, or bowler, or golfer, or fisherman.” Now we do all of these activities in our leisure time. Even our aviation advocates are blamed – AOPA, EAA, Helicopter Association of America, Balloon Federation, Seaplane Pilots Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and the Soaring Society of America should have done MORE!

Let’s face it – if you WANT to find a reason not to fly, it’s easy! These reasons aren’t new…they’ve all been raised for 100 years.

I save all of my old aviation magazines, going back into the 1950s. It’s fun to go through them and track the introduction of new products and the complaints of pilots through the years. You’ll find that many of the reasons for not flying have remained the same (cost and regulation), some have increased over the years (legal challenges – ever-increasing certification costs for pilots and aircraft, increased demand upon our TIME). Some, like fuel costs and the cost of new aircraft, have EXPLODED over the period. It’s not just ONE thing that has caused the problems with General Aviation; it’s ALL of the things. It’s a “perfect storm” – a confluence of issues for us to deal with.

I started looking for some good news, and there IS some. New in-cockpit avionics abound and the prices are becoming more competitive. It seems that each magazine issue features a “must-have” gadget, and like the computer world, most become obsolete in 3 years. Some unlikely manufacturers stand out – Robinson is now the manufacturer of the largest number of new aircraft in North America – and their product is helicopters – not airplanes. Right here in Minnesota, Cirrus has supplanted Cessna as the manufacturer of the largest number of GA airplanes. More good news…the “alphabet” trade organizations have learned how to oppose outrageous FAA proposed regulations with a high success rate. Our aviation press (like this magazine) has helped galvanize the trade into action. The FAA – for its part – has “gotten the word.” The agency is actively looking at changing Part 23 certification standards, many of which date back to the 1930s, to reflect today’s realities in manufacturing, and to cut certification costs while increasing safety. Unfortunately, FAA officials have not gotten the word on obsolete regulations, like the third class medical. Here in Minnesota, the state legislature is proposing an “un-session” to review and revoke outdated laws. Wouldn’t it be great if the FAA (and every government agency, for that matter!) did the same on a regular basis?

When it comes to the total number of pilots, the total hasn’t changed that much, according to the FAA.gov website. Comparing the numbers from 2013 to a decade earlier, the total number of pilots is down only slightly – from 625,000 to 610,000. The biggest decrease was in Private Pilots, down from 241,000 to 188,000. Commercial certificates were down only slightly, from 124,000 to 116,000. Glider-only pilots stayed the same at 21,000, but the number of glider ratings (including those adding to their power rating) has doubled since 2003. ATP-rated pilots were up slightly from 144,000 to 146,000.

Surprisingly, student pilots increased from 87,000 to 120,000, erasing much of the loss of Private Pilots.

LSA-only certificates now number 4493. What has changed is that a smaller percentage of the population now consist of pilots, and the industry is trying to change that.

Some people argue that “The pilot population is aging…young people aren’t getting into aviation,” but FAA statistics do not support that. In both 2003 and 2012, the average age of all certificate holders was 44.7 years—no change! The average age for student pilots decreased from 34.0 to 31.5, commercial pilots from 45.6 to 44.8, private pilots increased from 46.5 to 48.3, and ATP pilots from 47.0 to 49.9. Contrary to the intent of the Sport Pilot Certificate to bring in younger pilots, Sport Pilots are older than all other certificate holders on average, going from 53.2 at the inception of the law to 54.7 today.

One of the surprising bright spots in the pilot picture is “sport aviation.” Homebuilt/Kit-built builders are now outpacing the aircraft factories in turning out General Aviation airplanes. Industry leader Van’s Aircraft has turned out over 8,000 completed aircraft kits, and those aircraft have proven to be very reliable, turning out a safety record that is the equal to “certified” aircraft, while providing fast, efficient transportation and fun flying at a reasonable cost.

Think about this… How much driving would we do if many of us had to build our cars from kits in order to own a vehicle at reasonable cost? Much of the real innovation in aviation comes not from government regulation, and not from government “think tanks” and special projects, but from private aircraft designers, kit manufacturers, and entrepreneurs. Think about it… You can equip your homebuilt with avionics that would make a jet pilot envious for a fraction of the cost. Even “mainstream” manufacturers like Garmin are now offering “uncertified” avionics for homebuilts and non-certified aircraft. Are these “uncertified” avionics less safe? The record doesn’t show that.

Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs) in “certified” versions (not certified by FAA, but by industry consensus), “experimental” versions (meeting the speed, passenger capacity, and weight limitations of LSAs, but with non-certified engines or construction), and “legacy LSAs” (older production aircraft and their clones that meet the LSA limitations) have made gradual inroads in aircraft sales.

When first introduced a few years ago, LSAs were expected to be the “great savior” of General Aviation – cutting the cost of learning to fly – introducing hundreds of thousands to affordable General Aviation, and providing “affordable aircraft.” Like so many other FAA and industry forecasts (think “Recreational Pilot Certificate” and “Very Light Jets” that were also predicted to fill the skies), reality trumped wishful thinking. An unrealistically low maximum gross weight designed to the European standard of 600 kg/1320 lbs meant that the aircraft often were under-designed for the flight training role in order to adhere to the artificial weight requirement, though some have been beefed up to address that shortcoming. The last-minute buzzkill by the FAA of not allowing the driver’s-license medical, if you had your last FAA medical denied, meant that thousands of certificated pilots can’t participate as LSA pilots.

LSAs have fallen into two categories – new Euro-designs, and “legacy” old designs that meet LSA standards, like the Cub/Champ/Luscombe/T-Craft/Ercoupe and their clones. Despite these artificial impediments, LSA aircraft continue to offer fun airplanes to old and new pilots alike.

Perhaps the BIGGEST surprise is to be found in the categories of aircraft and pilots who fly just for fun!

Holding their own are certified glider pilots. LSA pilots are on the increase. Antique-Classic membership is up. Balloon activity is no longer counted by the FAA, but according to industry accounts, after declining for several years, balloon activity is again “on the rise” (okay, that’s a bad pun). Legal ultralights are making a comeback; they declined when many owners converted their aircraft to LSAs, but true ultralights are on their way up (okay, another bad pun!). Skydiving has set all-time participation records for the last two years.

Why are these segments doing so well in comparison to the rest of General Aviation?

Possible answers:

• There is no pretense by non-commercial operators that these activities have any purpose other than fun. They are not being sold as transportation…they are just for fun! No apologies for having fun, just like sports cars, Harleys, snowmobiles, campers, NASCAR, cross-country skiing, biking, or any other fun transportation. Yes, there is an element of utility in many outdoor sports, but they are marketed as being fun!

• These simple aircraft are among the least regulated aircraft in the United States today. Most of these “fun fliers” shun large airports and congested airspace. As fun fliers, they just want to be left alone to pursue their activity. They operate instead “under the radar” from rural grass airfields, where they are unobtrusive, and are left to ply the skies in peace. Despite the lack of regulation, lack of medical certification, and the charge that these are “toy” aircraft, these pilots turn in a safety record equal to or better than pilots of normal-category aircraft.

• Almost all of the successful categories listed are “group activities.” You can’t launch a balloon by yourself, and you need a chase crew to retrieve it. Same for gliders…it takes someone to help rig, to get the glider out to takeoff position, a wing runner, and a tow pilot (unless you have self-launch capability). Skydivers need a jump pilot and other people to do relative work with. Antique/classics and legacy LSAs need someone to spin the prop. More participants equals more fun, and a sense of participation and “belonging.”

• Almost all of the successful activities are “club activities.” That means shared activities, and often shared ownership. Clubs are often organized as cooperatives, or coops – a great Midwestern tradition. Clubs are organized for the benefit of the members, and often provide services at cost. They offer the sometimes intangible value of pride of ownership (“this is MINE”– or “I have a part-ownership in an airplane”), as well as the sense of belonging to an organization, in addition to spreading the fixed cost of ownership among the members.

• Almost all of the successful activities offer social benefits. Glider pilots, for example, usually quit flying when the lift abates in late afternoon, then plans are made for an impromptu grilling or dinner. Glider pilots often get together during Midwest winters, when gliders are put away for the season, simply because they enjoy the shared company of each other. LSA and antique/classic pilots trade rides in their aircraft. Side Benefit: These “social activities” usually include spouses and family…a way for the entire family to become involved.

• Members have greater participation in these special activities than the norm in General Aviation.

• Almost all members of the successful activities tend to stay with the sport for longer periods of time. Members of antique/classics groups tend to become life-long members. Glider pilots have a much higher retention of pilots than power pilots. Balloon pilots tend to stay with the sport. A large and growing portion of LSA pilots tend to be previously rated pilots who want to extend their flying career, either for medical or “downsizing” reasons.

Again, does this longevity and activity in the sports class of aviation become the cause or effect? Do these participants stay in the sport because of the social benefits and activities NOT experienced in day-to-day powered aircraft flying? Evidence would seem to support this.

• Costs are lower for this class of aircraft. Avionics are a large part of the costs of GA aircraft – transponders, encoders, nav-com radios, autopilots, FAA-mandated ADS-B in and out.

Not so for gliders, skydivers, balloons, true ultralights, and vintage aircraft… Most of the time, a handheld radio and GPS will suffice. Fixed costs for these aircraft are relatively low as well.

Annual inspections on a glider are relatively cheap (no engine), as is the case for balloons and ultralights.

LSAs and vintage aircraft are usually built for easy field maintenance, and pilots often enjoy working on them. It is part of the experience.

Insurance is relatively cheap…most of these aircraft seat only the pilot or pilot, plus one passenger.

Hangar? Skydivers and balloons do not need hangars, and gliders and many LSAs are built to trailer home.

There are no medical certification costs for skydivers, balloons, gliders, true ultralights, or LSAs.

Fuel? Gliders only use fuel for the towplane, auto launch, or winch tow. Balloons use propane. Ultralights, LSAs, and vintage aircraft can usually use auto fuel, and very little of that. Skydivers usually have a full load climbing to altitude, which results in a cheap “launch” per person.

For flying on a budget—these aircraft are affordable. There seems to be a link between the growth of this segment of the industry and the decline of the rest of the industry.

What can the industry learn from the success of Sport Aviation?

1. Resist calls for more regulation in the name of “safety.” There is little correlation between more regulation and increased safety. Peer pressure, good aircraft design, and education have a much better effect.

2. Don’t apologize for selling aviation as pure fun. Those that want to gain utility will find a way to do so, but sell aviation for what it is – pure fun. It’s the fun of learning something new, the fun of being able to do something that few others can do, the fun of viewing the world from a perspective not viewed by many others, the fun of handling a machine well, the fun of the tactile feedback one gets from aircraft as it “talks” to the pilot, the fun of mastering a personal challenge, the fun of camaraderie with others, the fun of sharing your perspective with a passenger.

3. Don’t “oversell” the transportation aspect. Let the would-be-pilot know the real costs of aircraft ownership and learning to fly. Each pilot will find their “comfort level” for learning, utility, and financial ability.

Instead, ask the prospect to lower his expectations. The fun of a “Fire-Eater 400” goes away fast if the owner can’t afford it, and it poisons the well of potential pilots if the owner says he had to sell it “because GA is too expensive.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time fixed base operator in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Jim has “observed a lot, just by watching” over the years in the business. Hanson is just as glad to do business with a “fun flyer,” as he is with a corporate account (maybe more inclined, as Jim likes to have fun, too). Jim flies jets, turboprops, and corporate airplanes, but also flies seaplanes, helicopters, balloons, ultralights, LSAs, vintage aircraft and gliders. If you have a suggestion for Jim on how he can have more fun with airplanes, he can be reached at the airport at 507-373-0608 or via email at jimhanson@deskmedia.com

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