Pilots love a good debate. This may be the only thing that isn’t controversial in aviation. Enthusiasm for debates doesn’t necessarily make aviation unique; after all, sports fans are famous for their spirited arguments too. What is different is our need to debate the same issues, year after year, sometimes decades after the facts are settled. Two recent examples are particularly long-running – to the point of being frustrating.
First, Richard Collins explored the safety record of multi-engine airplanes in his latest article, and concluded (again) that twins simply don’t have a better accident record than high performance singles. That doesn’t mean multi-engine pilots are stupid or twins are unsafe, but it is pretty well a fact at this point. Heck, most new airplanes these days don’t even have retractable gear, much less two engines. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Collins first wrote about these safety trends over 50 years ago in Air Facts.
I was reminded of another, even more persistent hangar flying topic when I recently read Alan Meyer’s thought-provoking book on general aviation in the postwar years: spin training. This debate usually divides along old school/new school lines, with the former assuring us that “back in the good old days” you had to learn to recover from a two turn spin before you could earn a private pilot license. Just as a reminder, though, the FAA removed the requirement for spin training in 1949 – that’s over 65 years ago! Since then, the fatal accident rate for general aviation has improved dramatically. Certainly it’s not all due to the elimination of spin training, but this change hardly caused carnage. Yet the debate rages.
For a refreshing change of pace, I recently spent some time discussing hot topics with two newly-licensed (but not necessarily young) private pilots. It was educational, mostly because neither of these thoughtful, well-read pilots had even considered these two eternal debates. They dream of flying a Cirrus some day or maybe even a TBM 900, but Aztecs and Barons just seem old fashioned. Likewise, neither one did any spin training before their checkride and neither felt like they were missing out.
What becomes obvious is that, like so many things in life, our perspective determines our priorities in aviation. For someone who learned to fly in the 1970s, possibly from a World War II pilot, certain trends today are frustrating and regrettable. For a pilot who learned to fly in 2015 after years practicing on a flight simulator, these same trends are simply the facts of aviation life.
Take the following five complaints as examples (the list could easily be twice as long). Each of these reflect comments that are often heard when experienced pilots get together, but are considered totally uncontroversial for newer pilots.
1. Tablets and apps aren’t new. There’s no doubt that the iPad and electronic flight bag apps like ForeFlight have changed general aviation. For some pilots, this change has been bewildering, and the thought of using a tablet during flight training is shocking. But for many new pilots I talk to, it’s expected. Indeed, for anyone who has learned to fly in the last 5 years, EFB apps are all they’ve ever known – they’ve never used a paper chart as their primary reference. Unfortunately, FAA testing guidelines and many flight schools have not caught up, so portable avionics training is inconsistent and half-hearted. I’m not suggesting a new pilot get issued an iPad on day one, but to treat such devices as if they’re exotic tools only to be used by advanced pilots is naive and irresponsible.
2. VORs are historical curiosities. GPS has been a fact of life for as long as many people can remember (the Garmin 430 was introduced almost 20 years ago). Even basic airplanes these days have a GPS in the panel, and the few that don’t probably have a portable GPS or smartphone on board. Learning to use VORs is a worthwhile exercise for emergency situations, but that’s about all it’s good for these days, especially for VFR flying. It’s sort of like learning to read microfilm – it might come in handy some day, but probably not. So forgive these new pilots if they aren’t up in arms about the FAA’s current plan to shut down 8% of the VOR network over the next five years.
3. Gas has always been $5/gallon. The aviation equivalent of “how about that weather” is surely, “Can you believe how expensive avgas is right now?” Well yes, as a matter of fact, a lot of pilots can. While 50 cents/gallon would be great, the fact is the big avgas price spike was roughly ten years ago. Sure, the price bounces around, but $4-5/gallon has pretty much been the reality for anyone learning to fly since 2006. It is the new normal.
4. The nicest airplanes have parachutes. While many pilots love to criticize the whole airplane parachute system on the Cirrus, younger pilots view it as one of the most exciting innovations in general aviation. Actually, it’s a marker of a premium airplane. Maybe this acceptance is because newer pilots have less desire to prove themselves or maybe the Cirrus safety record has finally converted some people. Whatever the reason, “the chute” is not controversial anymore.
5. ADS-B is kind of cool. The FAA’s requirement that most aircraft be equipped with ADS-B Out by 2020 has sparked outrage on the part of some owners who don’t like the gubment forcing them to pay $5000 for avionics upgrades. It’s become a point of pride to declare that “I’ll equip with ADS-B on December 31, 2019.” The new pilots I spoke to had a different perspective: equipment requirements are always changing, they admitted, but that’s a small price to pay for the tremendous access we have to airspace in the US. Besides, the weather and traffic sent up over that ADS-B system is nearly magical – with an iPad and a portable receiver, they have access to essential information that would have previously cost many thousands of dollars. One of the pilots was shopping for a used airplane, and his first upgrade will be an ADS-B In/Out system.
No doubt some readers are preparing to quote Ronald Reagan to me, who famously said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Aren’t these rookies just ignorant of the hard battles that were fought in years past?
I don’t think so. The Gipper was right about freedom, and I’m no fan of expensive avgas or FAA mandates. But technology and culture change over time, sometimes for the worse but often for the better. Perhaps more importantly, expectations change. Yesterday’s technological breakthrough is tomorrow’s base package.
It’s quite clear to me that the next generation of pilots don’t expect things to stand still, and they don’t expect flying to be cheap. If we’re not careful, us old guys (I consider myself old in spirit) can sound pretty ungrateful, like the contrarian who complains about color TV just because it’s new.
It’s time to let the debates about spins and twins die, and hopefully some of the newer arguments never get started. Let’s move on to more important topics – Red Sox or Yankees?