The inside scoop on aging airplanes, new engines and pilot skills

Matt Thurber
Matt Thurber is a senior editor for Aviation International News.

This article is the latest in an occasional series where we talk to interesting pilots from across the aviation industry. Here we pose 12 questions to Matt Thurber, an experienced pilot, A&P and aviation journalist who knows aviation from the inside and outside. Matt began flying in 1975, spending time as a flight instructor, an active mechanic and a fish spotter. He previously worked for FLYING magazine, and now covers safety and technology for Aviation International News and Business Jet Traveler magazine. He’s known for his deep technical knowledge and a willingness to tell it like it is.

Your first media job was working for Richard Collins at FLYING. What is one thing you learned about flying from him? About magazines/writing?

Be factual, don’t repeat information that sounds cool or scandalous unless you’ve verified its accuracy. Of course, it took me many years to appreciate Richard’s approach, not only to writing but flying as well. He was way ahead of the rest of the industry in the concept of managing risk. Like many young pilots, I didn’t appreciate basic safety concepts until I got older.

What do you think has been the most notable technical advance in general aviation since you joined FLYING over 30 years ago?

Has it been that long??? Clearly avionics. Back then King’s KNS-80 was the cat’s pajamas: you could put a “phantom VOR” (waypoint) anywhere and navigate to it, with a readout of distance, time, and speed. What was interesting was how pilots were almost scared of the KNS-80, until you forced them to learn how it worked. That to me was the beginning of the modern avionics era, where pilots have to learn how to operate the avionics, whereas before a com or nav radio or ADF or DME worked the same no matter what type, and pilots just needed to learn about the airplane’s handling and systems to fly safely.

Now I’m trying to come up with a simple way to unite today’s wildly different avionics systems, such that a pilot could climb into a new aircraft with a never-before-seen avionics suite and quickly figure out a handful of basics that one must know to fly that aircraft safely. For example: radio tuning; direct-to; flight planning; modifying a flight plan; holding; entering an approach; flying a missed approach.

Rumor has it you have a famous flying ancestor. Can you tell us about that?

Rodgers-Cal_01
Cal Rodgers, a famous ancestor.

One of the first books that I read during lunch at FLYING was the fabulous biography of Calbraith Perry Rodgers, “CAL RODGERS AND THE VIN FIZ: The First Transcontinental Flight,” by Eileen F. Lebow. As I recall, Rodgers crashed so many times during his record-breaking flight across the US that when he finally arrived on the West Coast, only one tiny part of his Wright EX Flyer was original; the rest of the airplane had been repaired over and over again, and in part because he often took off without heeding wind direction, and frequently crashed on takeoff. Anyway, since my name is Matthew Calbraith, and there are Perrys and Rodgerses in my background, I traced the connection to my family, which includes the also-famous Matthew Calbraith Perry, who opened trade to Japan in the 1850s, and his older brother Oliver Hazard, who won the War of 1812 during the Battle of Lake Erie. Which must be why I love flying and sailing.

Do you think the most advanced powerplant in the popular 300-350 horsepower range will come from Continental or Lycoming or someone else? Will it be diesel?

Unfortunately, the general aviation market volume is so tiny that it’s hard to imagine a large enough market to attract the money it will take to certify a new engine. It’s been tried so many, many times, but general aviation seems to be shrinking, and Continental and Lycoming have a huge advantage, both in installed engines and the ability to develop new engines. However, one blessing in this industry is the extraordinary number of people who will give a new engine, airplane, helicopter, etc., a try. I say, keep trying. It helps drive innovation and, if anything, forces the entrenched manufacturers to step up their game.

As for the diesel question, there are advantages, but diesel engines are significantly more expensive than gasoline engines, which makes for a difficult marketing proposition in the US, the largest market for general aviation aircraft. If China’s leadership decides to allow general aviation to grow, however, this could mean a huge market for all of these products and consequent cost-reduction benefits worldwide.

Recently there was a report of corrosion in the center section of a Cessna 177. It was so bad that the part had to be replaced, at great cost. Are airplanes like this reaching the end of their practical life?

Not necessarily. In most cases like this, good maintenance practices and inspection procedures were neglected. It’s not hard to peer into difficult-to-see areas in an airframe. While most mechanics use just a flashlight and mirror, because that’s how they were taught, inexpensive video borescopes are available that can extend the eyeball’s reach into the dark depths of airframes where corrosion often lurks unseen. Borescopes aren’t just for looking inside engine cylinders. While the Cessna 177 situation is worrisome, older airplanes have many years left if we maintain them properly. But we also need to weed out the worn-out airframes by inspecting them carefully and not letting them slide.

Avgas truck
Will anything replace 100LL?

Airplane owners are going to be flying with engines that need 100LL for years to come. Will there be a practical replacement?

Again, this is a volume problem. How to attract sufficient investment in product development and infrastructure to an industry that burns a tiny amount of specialized petroleum products? There are encouraging efforts underway by the FAA and industry, but ultimately, I believe general aviation would be better off if engine makers could design electronic controls that would adapt the engine to the available fuel.

If autogas were the only fuel available, for example, the controls would automatically lower the power output on a high-compression engine and thus limit the performance capability. The pilot would see this on a cockpit display. This isn’t a technological challenge, only a cost challenge.

The old guys say we need better stick and rudder skills and the young guys say we need high-tech and the ability to use it. What do you think?

There is simply no substitute for understanding how an airplane flies and being able to apply that in a variety of situations, no matter how complex the airplane. Recent accidents in airline aircraft where the pilots’ sole reaction was to pull the stick all the way back, or the 777 low-altitude stall accident in San Francisco on a perfect CAVU day, indicate that there is a serious problem with pilot training. Part of this is because in many countries, there is zero general aviation infrastructure. My impression is that pilots in these countries don’t spend their spare time flying small airplanes for fun. If I were the chief of one of the airlines that experienced one of these exemplar accidents, I would require every pilot to spend a week with a good instructor in a simple single-engine airplane, learning how to fly slowly, how to unload the wing in a high angle-of-attack situation, and how to control the airplane and not let it control the pilot.

That is really what’s at the heart of this question: cockpit high-tech is just the pilot-machine interface, and pilots must always be in command. However, designers should not rely on more and more pilot training to overcome, um, “challenges” in their designs. Aircraft designers need to put more effort into pilot interfaces to ensure pilots can always revert to simply flying the aircraft when something goes wrong.

Tecnam has been coming on strong. Any thoughts on these airplanes?

It is so encouraging to see companies make bold moves in general aviation with new products offering excellent performance. Will there be a large market in the U.S. for Tecnam’s single- and twin-engine airplanes? Possibly, but it may depend on whether American pilots become familiar enough with the brand that they will consider something other than the traditional airframes. The Cirrus experience proves that pilots are willing to consider something new and different, and it attracted many new pilots to the industry, too. Tecnam could accomplish the same, but it will take a serious marketing and support effort, which is enormously expensive.

You have one flight left. What are you flying and where to?

A Piper Super Cub, taking my lovely wife for a vacation on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles. This would replicate our first airplane date on May 30, 1984, although that was in a Cessna 182. The Super Cub later became one of my all-time favorites, but that’s another story.

Who’s the most interesting aviation personality you’ve met in all your years of covering the industry?

Bax and Matt
Matt Thurber and Gordon Baxter, an aviation legend.

That’s a tough question. I’ve been blessed with the best job in the world and have met so many incredibly talented and helpful people. I will have to go with my writing hero, the late Bax Seat FLYING columnist Gordon Baxter. I treasure a photo of Gordon and me writing together in the FLYING Oshkosh daily newspaper trailer in 1985.

Gordon was one of those rare individuals who made you feel as though you were the most important person in the room while you were conversing. His writing skills were full of the passion that hooked me and many others into this amazing industry. Reading Gordon Baxter pulls that passion into intense focus; something is wrong with anyone reading a Baxter book who doesn’t alternately chortle, snort, wheeze, and snicker in uncontrollable laughter and then finally close the book with sincere admiration and appreciation. I sure do miss him.

Early in your flying career, you were a flight instructor at your father’s flight school. What do you think has changed most about flight training since then? Is it better or worse?

I wish I knew then what I know now, I would have been a much better instructor. Flight training may be a little better now versus then but there still are exceedingly crappy flight schools, and that will never change. What has changed is that today we have nothing like the enormous influx of new pilots in the late 1970s. People who want to fly for pleasure are fewer, and many of today’s new pilots are in it for professional careers or business flying.

In any case, for me, the big difference is how I would teach somebody today: safety and risk management from day one. And I do see encouraging indications that there are schools that teach this way, so it’s not all bad.

The other factor is flight school marketing and operation. With all the work done by AOPA, NAFI, SAFE and others, I thought that flight schools would get their act together and be more marketing- and business-savvy, but while there are great schools that are well run, there are still plenty of disorganized, unattractive, and sloppily run schools out there.

You’re an A&P and a pilot. As a mechanic, what do you wish all non-mechanic pilots understood?

It’s simple: pilots are optimists and mechanics are pessimists. That’s all you need to know. When a pilot looks at an airplane, he or she is planning to fly and doesn’t want to find anything wrong. When a mechanic looks at an airplane, he or she is trying to find out what is wrong with it. That’s why it’s important for a pilot-mechanic to put on the correct hat depending on the planned activity (flying or maintaining), because a mechanic who flies might not pay proper attention to maintenance if he is planning to fly afterwards, and a pilot who maintains might be thinking about maintenance issues instead of flying the airplane.

The other important point: you get what you pay for, but paying more doesn’t always get you more quality or safety. I understand that operating an aircraft is enormously expensive, and that there are always costly maintenance surprises lurking in the best-maintained aircraft. But neglecting necessary maintenance is never cost-effective. That said, you must communicate with your mechanics and not leave all the decisions up to them. You are the owner and responsible for airworthiness. And you have the ultimate stake in the outcome, so learn as much as possible about your aircraft, clearly communicate your expectations with your mechanic, and put some money away to pay for the inevitable surprises.

6 Comments

  • I agree with you on Gordon Baxter. That man could sure put you in the cockpit with his words. His book “How To Fly” back in the 80’s was mesmerizing for a young person longing to experience flight in single engine airplanes. I bet I read it 10 times and still refer to it today. My copy came from Sporty’s !

  • Bax was a classical Texas yarn-spinner who wrote and spoke as well about automobiles as he did airplanes. I remember with a smile his EAA tent forum talk, “Why Won’t She Fly with Me?” After a rambling tale of how aviation separated him from his first wife, and his second wife quit flying with him after their daughter was born, he gave the answer to the talk’s title: “It’s all about babies.” In the Q&A, several men stood to bemoan their wives’ and girlfriends’ antipathy to flying. Finally, a very attractive young woman stood, and explained that she had the opposite problem: a non-pilot husband who would not fly with her in her Piper Cherokee. “Bax, what can I do?” Bax smiled cagily, and said, “Ma’am, I have the answer for you.” Then, sweeping his arms wide, he said to the audience, “Boys, who wants her?” About 100 men stood up, and the lady blushed deep red! As important as his passion for aviation and his writing skill, as best I could tell Bax was a genuine mensch.

    • I don’t think Bax would have known what a mensch is, but I think he would like the word. When we worked together at Flying, he invited me to be on his Beaumont, Texas, radio show and billed me as a “real live New York City woman.” I hope I didn’t disappoint. After Bax interviewed me for about 10 minutes on life in the Big Apple, there were call in questions and somebody asked if we had grocery stores in New York City. I assured the caller we did, and what’s more, once you paid for your groceries, you walked out of the store and your groceries were delivered to your door. No schlepping. I knew that would impress them. However, I don’t think the listeners ever got over my not owning a car.

    • baxter once wrote an article about a man who wanted to go check out the expertise of local CFI’s, and when asked what his name was, he told the instructor; “Hank Snee” before embarking on his ‘intro flight’ with the CFI.

      this was just one of his better ones he did.

      my guess is that nobody will ever really tell a tale quite like baxter did 😉

  • I always looked forward to getting a card or letter from Bax. I still have a collection of short stories he sent me – authored and printed by himself, in what I’ll characterize as “leaflet” format! Pure gold, though. I still miss the guy.

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