7 good things about general aviation

Pilots are famous for being passionate about flying, but they’re also famous for being pessimistic about flying. Plenty of pilots like to grumble about the state of aviation these days, decrying high fuel prices, expensive airplanes and an intrusive FAA. If only we could go back to “the good old days,” they say. We’re not completely innocent here at Air Facts, either–just read our Special Report from a few months ago. Judging by some of the comments, general aviation is in a death spiral.

For an outsider or a new student pilot, this negativity can be very discouraging. Why invest lots of time and money into a hobby or profession that seems so hopelessly weak? If the people who are already pilots think it’s so bad, why would anyone new want to join in? Indeed, we do ourselves no favors when we emphasize the negatives and ignore the positives.

What positives, you say? How can there be any good news in a world of $7 avgas and $700,000 piston singles?

Call me hopelessly naive if you want, but I think there is still a lot to be thankful for as pilots. With that in mind, I’d like to offer seven good things about general aviation right now:

Air Traffic Control
Air Traffic Control free for GA pilots – something to appreciate.

1. Start with the obvious, but under-appreciated, fact that the US is still by far the best place in the world to fly (sorry international readers). Both the infrastructure and the culture provide a strong foundation for aviation in general and private pilots in particular. Just unfold a sectional and look at how many airports there are in the US–and they’re not all in major cities either. Then consider the great service we get from Flight Service and Air Traffic Control (heck, even most FBOs) without paying user fees. There is probably no other place on Earth where you can take off with an iPad and a credit card and fly across the country–no flight plans, no government approval, and no radio required. That’s real freedom, and it’s to be appreciated.

2. The Light Sport Aircraft market is robust. Sure, LSAs aren’t $50,000 like some had hoped, but this is still a vibrant niche, with entrepreneurial companies competing fiercely with each other to design higher performing and less expensive aircraft. Pipistrel thinks it can build a sub-$100,000 training airplane. That may sound expensive, but against a $300,000+ Skyhawk, it’s radical innovation. And Pipistrel is hardly the only company with big ideas. In fact, the most common complaint is that nobody can keep track of all the new companies in the market. True, it’s somewhat chaotic, and it’s unlikely that all of these companies can survive–but when’s the last time you heard pilots complain about too much competition?

Cessna JT-A
Cessna’s Jet-A sipping 182 isn’t revolutionary, but it’s an encouraging sign.

3. In a related area, aviation companies are finally working on new engine designs. For decades, avionics have advanced rapidly, but engines have been stuck in the 1940s. This while gas prices have rocketed into the 21st century. That’s finally starting to change, as diesel and electric powerplants are getting a serious look. Cessna introduced the Skylane JT-A this year, their first diesel airplane that has a real chance of being delivered. This could be huge for international customers, and increasingly attractive for US customers too as avgas gets more expensive and eventually fades away. On the lower end, lots of companies are experimenting with electric airplanes, either as hybrids or completely gas-free. Electric motors won’t replace Cirrus SR22s anytime soon, but in the next decade they very well might enter the training and recreational flying market. This innovation, combined with new diesel technologies, has the potential to lower costs and is a good sign for pilots.

4. Oshkosh, aviation’s grand fly-in/family reunion/trade show, is as strong as it’s been in a decade. While so much of aviation has been shrinking, EAA’s big show every summer remains a spectacular event. It’s not perfect (what big event is?), but it represents aviation at its messy best: homebuilts, antiques, seaplanes, military jets, warbirds, production airplanes, business jets and just about every other kind of flying machine sit side-by-side at KOSH. The entire aviation world comes together here to celebrate and show off what’s new. Oshkosh is also invitational, welcoming non-pilots and dreamers by the thousands to taste aviation and join the family. Anyone who’s down on aviation needs to spend a few days in Wisconsin this summer and feel the energy that’s still there.

5. Airplanes are built to last. This is a problem in some pilots’ eyes, as they argue that we simply built too many airplanes in the 1970s. But while this may be a problem for new airplane salesmen, it has left us with a glut of affordable airplanes that provide good utility. Sure, a 1977 Cessna 182 may sound old, but with some smart upgrades it can be a fantastic airplane for under $75,000. And while a 1977 car may be worthless, a 1977 airplane–if maintained properly–can fly on for many more years. Maybe the FAA deserves some credit for demanding airplanes be well-built; maybe the manufacturers just believed in the product and built them the right way. Whatever the cause, there is a healthy market in used airplanes that allows many pilots to own quality airplanes that would otherwise be unaffordable.

iPad Mini
The iPad is making flying less expensive, at least by a little.

6. The iPad is making flying less expensive, at least a little. One of the reasons Apple’s wildly popular tablet has been such a hit is that it lowers the cost of flying–replacing expensive paper chart subscriptions and even more expensive aviation GPSs and XM Weather receivers. The savings can amount to more than $2000/year in chart and subscription fees, which is enough for about 30 hours of gas in a 172 or Cherokee. And these savings aren’t due to an inferior product; if anything, the iPad is a step up. The fierce competition between app developers ensures that quality and features will only increase in the year ahead. In a world where so many things are getting more expensive, it’s nice to have one product that delivers more features for less money.

7. Pilots still help other pilots. One of general aviation’s defining characteristics is its spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood. Go to any fly-in or airshow, from a local pancake breakfast to Oshkosh, and you’ll feel it right away. People who would otherwise have nothing in common and never be friends can instantly connect when aviation is involved. I’ve been bailed out by this spirit more than once, from a loaner car at a remote airport to a mechanic’s free help on a Sunday night. These people helped simply because, as the airport manager said after I returned his car, “That’s what pilots do–we help each other.” Try getting that kind of service at a gas station or from a stranger on the street.

For sure, everything is not rosy–general aviation faces a number of serious problems as 2013 dawns. But let’s not get carried away. As the list above shows, there is still a lot to be thankful for (and I probably missed a lot). For me, the good far outweighs the bad.

The next time a student pilot or non-pilot asks you about flying, tell them about the unforgettable sunsets you’ve seen from the cockpit or the efficient day trip you did in a small airplane that would have been impossible on the airlines. Tell them how learning to fly changed your life, and how a pilot’s license never expires. Leave the laundry list of complaints for another day.

So here’s a new year’s resolution for you: let’s share the passion, not the pessimism.

What’s on your list? What do you think is right with aviation right now? Add a comment below.

29 Comments

  • “Start with the obvious, but under-appreciated, fact that the US is still by far the best place in the world to fly”

    Thanks for a good, positive article. I have flown hundreds of hours in both Canada and the U.S. I love flying in your country, and you are right to be proud of it, but I think “by far the best” is a pretty-big exaggeration — I believe Canada is close to neck-and-neck with you, and in the end, the winner will depend on what you value most.

    Both countries are fairly GA-friendly (with the occasional annoying exception), and in both, GA can be a practical way to travel, so the following points are, in a sense, just window dressing.

    Some US advantages:

    – more airports (10x as many, for about 10x as many people)
    – slightly cheaper avgas and repairs
    – better radar coverage
    – no FAA user fee (in Canada, we pay Nav Canada about $70/year flat fee for a private single)
    – free ADS-B weather in the cockpit
    – no test flight required for IFR GPS installation
    – many more airports have 24-hour TAFs
    – free approach plates online (though Canada is getting better)

    Some Canadian advantages:

    – very little restricted airspace silliness (I keep my plane in an airport in the capital about 3km from the Prime Minister’s residence — try that in the US)
    – almost no TFRs
    – no annual property tax on airplanes in *any* province
    – less-crowded airspace, and lots of Class G
    – don’t need an IA signature to return a plane from annual
    – better, more-detailed flight service briefings (not just “VFR not recommended”)
    – graphical area forecasts (I can read a US FA, but it’s like pulling teeth when you’re used to a Canadian GFA)
    – *much* better floatplane infrastructure (more docks, fuel, etc.)
    – practical, low-level NDB-based airways to get under icing
    – less anti-GA NIMBY-ism (through it still exists)

    Toss-ups:

    – uncontrolled IFR (class G) airspace is common in Canada (more freedom, but less safe?)
    – BFRs aren’t required in Canada (more freedom, but less safe?)
    – Canadians are required to get a separate night rating, after acquiring their PPLs (less freedom, but more safe?)
    – Canadians private pilots are required to refly their IFR checkrides every 2 years (less freedom, but more safe?)

    • Great comments, David. I probably should have said “North America” instead of just the US–your point is valid.

      I have flown a bit in Canada, and while I don’t like the user fees, your controllers do seem to be exceedingly nice. The folks around Toronto are polite, patient and professional. Don’t get me wrong, New York Center does an amazing job, but there’s not quite the same tone in their voice…

      • Great article. As a Canadian one of the things I look forward to doing when I get my licence is fly to the US! KLKP is just an hour or so away.

        I just wish it were easier for Canadians to take advantage of the US used airplane market! But I guess regulatory changes would be needed for that.

    • Thanks for this! I’m a Canadian living in the US (married an American) and it’s been 30 years since I flew in Canada but I was hoping it was still much the same. I live in the Philadelphia area so it’s always a challenge to plan flights around restricted airspace (TFRs, ADIZ, etc.). When I lived in Vancouver the biggest challenge was planning to avoid mountain peaks and staying at an altitude high enough to receive a VOR signal (no GPS back then).

  • Great article John!

    My top 3:

    1) The unfrettered ability to design or build an aircraft for education and recreation.
    2) Aside from TFRs, the right to be able to go anywhere at anytime in our flying machines, with essentially no fees and no red tape.
    3) The sheer variety of flying conveyences available cheap or expensive. I have often said that if I could no longer afford my RV-8, I would go get an ultralight. If you want to fly, there’s a way!

    Brent

  • I agree that GA is still great. A PA-28 or 172 cost me about $50 an hour to rent 30 years ago. I can rent those same airplanes today for around $115 an hour. That is a bargain! Sure the airplans are older but often they have new engines, newer interiors/paint and have better avionics.
    More pilots need to stop and smell the roses. Don’t miss out on the fun by always needing something that is bigger and faster. It is a miracle that we have the means and freedom to fly at all. As I have gotten older, I think about that more and more.

  • Although partially expressed in the article and comments, I believe the general aviation airports are outstanding. Not just as convenient places to land almost anywhere in the country, but as gathering places for pilots and airplane builders to meet and share.

    Another bright spot is the home built sector. It has has shown more excitement and progress in the last 20 years than the certificated side. I believe this is due to lower costs and less barriers to innovation.

  • No doubt about it, we have the best GA flying conditions, bar none. No matter how expensive it has become, it is a lot cheaper than flying in Europe, where I started flying. One sad consequence of the cost per hour is the decreasing ability to maintain proficiency, which is not the same as maintaining currency. The eventual unavailability of 100LL will present yet another challenge; whilst the automobile engines have leapfrogged aviation engines, not much hope seems to be coming from the two big players. Where are the Wright brothers when we need them?

  • I started flying again two years ago as private pilot after 28 years of absense. I started flying in Florida. Now in Southern CA. I still believe we are so blessed to havee the freedom to fly. I have no problem with TFRs , new Airspace Classes, new regs, etc. I did get instrument rated in 2012. I flew with my wife from Honolulu to Hanai and tourred five islands. I am enjoying the freedom of flight. I agree we need to focus on positive stories to excite general aviation market. We are blessed with gps, high tech, AOPA, FAA services, and so much to be thankful for. I look forward to fly another 20 years God willing.

  • John,

    You are very optimistic and probably very young and haven’t experience what flying what really like years ago, with real freedom.

    And there’s lots of place in the world that are comparable, without all the BS that the US has.

    Unfortunately, we are on the way down, and if we don’t turn around the issues, GA could easily be worse that Europe or worse countries. And, it’s not close to where it was.

    I hate to paint a pessimistic picture, but that’s reality. Enjoy while we can.

    • Larryo, there’s no doubt we have major problems in aviation (as I mentioned in the article). For me, the lack of interest in young people is a terrible long term sign. There are others.

      But having said that, I think we need to stop our pity party. There’s still a lot to like about flying. Case in point–I flew from Cincinnati, Ohio to Oshkosh last summer. I was never above 2000 ft., I went right up the Chicago shoreline and had a fantastic trip. Yet I never talked to ATC for a minute and never filed a flight plan. I landed where I wanted, when I wanted (and there were tons of options). All this with a $499 iPad in my lap that had more information than we used to have on $25,000 systems. That’s freedom. Maybe it’s not quite like it was in the good old days, but it isn’t too bad either.

      Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the boom years of the 60s and 70s in GA were not the norm–they were a bubble that burst. Just because we’ll never deliver 19,000 piston airplanes again doesn’t mean aviation is finished.

      • I agree, John. One thing that impressed me was how quickly the Hudson River VFR corridor reopened after 9/11 — that was a sign that, while things aren’t perfect (yes, I’ve read the novel-length NOTAMs and flown in the DC SFRA), G.A. wasn’t completely forgotten or unappreciated.

  • John,

    I’m glad you wrote this article. It still amazes me that I can climb into an aircraft and go where I want, when I want. In the Seattle area, where I live, that typically means being able to fly around mountain ranges, islands, bodies of water, quiet farms and suburbs, and bustling cities, all within a 10-20min flight from my home airport. And I can do all this without paying landing fees, Flight Service fees or file a flight plan.

    Being 30, and compared to the “average age” of GA pilots, I might be considered one of those young people we all talk about. I love to talk flying and think flying and bug my wife/friends/family about flying.

  • What is the new Cessna Supplimental Inspection Document (SID) going to do for Cessna Owners and general aviation.

  • I’ve been flying only a bit over 4 years now. I’ve used GPS for canoeing and hiking, and like the iPad and GPS even more. Finding my way to and from local areas is easy, and lets me keep my eyes out looking at the sky and scenery, instead of looking for landmarks and flight timer. Thanks, Apple!

    I find flight following to be a blessing. ATC helps keep me form meeting other pilots in the air, so I can meet them on the ground. That’s important for me. Thanks, ATC!

  • John Zimmerman used the term North America in one of his responses. Does he know that Mexico is included in North America? If so does he think GA flying is great in Mexico.

    • Man, I can’t catch a break here…. Perhaps I should have been more specific: the lower 48 plus Canada. But wait, the Bahamas are pretty nice. And Alaska isn’t bad. But New York isn’t great…

      I still say the US is the best, with Canada a close second.

  • No sweat, John. I’m sure that, given enough time, one could think of something good about Mexico – or New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit,St. Louis, or any other large city. Like, flying away from them because it’s faster than driving away from them. ;=))

  • Flying for fun is the BEST. Kudos to our air traffic controllers who keep our skies safe so we can continue on safely for that $100 hamburger. Nothing is more fun than flying down to Block Island for the day, or flying out to a place with a great airport restaurant to have lunch.

    Fly safe 🙂

  • Great uplifting article. It is easy to forget sometimes how great we have it in aviation. Yes, there are problems and sometimes the horizon looks pretty gloomy but as you pointed out in your article we also have a lot to be thankful for.

  • As a newcomer to general aviation (private and instrument rated since 2010), I am completely amazed at what private flying has to offer in the USA and Canada, and often wished I had started flying sooner. There are a lot of great things going on in aviation, today. Since I was not around in the “good old days”, I don’t know the difference, and it does not matter anyway, because time moves forwards only. If there are fewer planes flying then that means less congestion in the sky for those of us that remain. Flying will always have appeal. If the goal is to grow general aviation, it is imperative to focus on positive things. The future is bright for those with the right attitude!

    • Great point, Michel. New pilots coming in don’t know that the old days were so good. Let’s not dampen their enthusiasm with unrealistic comparisons.

  • Actually, compared to the good old days it’s really a lot better overall. I have a hangar to keep my plane in; we didn’t used to have many of those. I don’t get lost (well, unsure of position); I have GPS. And there’s not too much worry of hitting an airliner; we have class B, transponders and radar (and soon ADS-B). The only real sore point compared to the good ole days is the TSA; sorry, but I can’t take the TFRs and border crossing hassles as anything but bad.

  • I really enjoyed this article. I am just getting into aviation and I think that education is key to getting more young people involved. It was nice to read that there are so many hopeful people out there. I am one of them myself. Blue skies 🙂

  • I bought a Pipistrel Virus SW this year. It is not a sport-pilot version, but an experimental. I cruise at 150 kts, burn about 4 gallons of fuel per hour and spent about $130,000 on the aircraft. A lot of money but less than half of what a Cessna or Piper would have cost for the same performance. Its a great aircraft.

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