What controversy? 5 debates new pilots don’t understand

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.

152 in a spin
We are still debating spin training, 65 years after the FAA eliminated it.

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.

iPad in cockpit
This is not radical anymore.

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.

Cirrus with airframe parachute
It’s not cheating, it’s not the sign of a bad pilot, it’s progress.

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?

12 Comments

  • While I dont like spending money needlessly, I went ahead and made my airplane 2020 compliant with a SALUS3 for less than $1800, and can use it in any additional airplane with a $200 upgrade. That’s $1000 per airplane for 2 or $670 per airplane for 3. I think that is good value for my money.

    Pilots are FRUGAL, not necessarily cheap.

    • I am one of the newer pilots mentioned that has a different perspective on EFB’s. Personally I don’t care about ADSB-Out. What i will never fly with again is ADSB-In. I spent so much time looking at my IPad that I stopped flying the plane. I still use the moving map, but I will not use the traffic.

  • C’mon, John … we’ve barely gotten started on never-ending aviation debates 🙂

    It’s only when the oldest of old geezers finally check out and fly west that some debates end … I chuckled in one of the threads here a month or two ago where one of the oldest of old timers was arguing that the aviation world really messed up big time when we changed out the old “doghouses” of those pre-1960s turn and bank indicators for those new-fangled unreliable turn coordinators. And another one or two more senior flying citizens chimed in to agree with him. Maybe in another 20 years that one will finally go west.

    On the other hand, you seem to enjoy stoking a new raging bonfire of argument on electric propulsion vs. internal combustion for light aircraft … might as well strap in for that one, it’ll be going on at least another 50 years.

    • At least the electric propulsion debate is worthy of the name – it’s exciting terrain and far from settled. I’ve heard thoughtful arguments on both sides.

      I think a few other topics may be a little stale… except whose idea was it to get rid of the lighted airway beacons? What if your GPS, 2nd GPS, VOR receiver, ADF, smartphone and radar all quit on the same day?!

      • Contemplation electric propulsion properly should separate the motors from their source of electricity. Battery technology is a non-starter (forgive the pun) for any practical airplane. But electric motors are a great idea. Fuel cells fed by on-board hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen offer dazzling promise. Their only airborne “pollution” would be falling ice pellets. Could the Greenies live with that?

        • Yars – Yes, agreed, the propulsor and the energy storage are two separate systems. Frankly, I’d love to see all light aircraft have electric motors, and not necessarily one on the nose … even if using internal combustion hybrids or fuel cells for making the trons.

          The battery aircraft is not quite so easily dismissed, though. The two-place Sun Flyer, in development by AEAC, claims a three-hour endurance and 30 minute recharge time for training scenarios. If that proves out, that’s actually a practical battery powered aircraft. They achieve their endurance with a combination of advanced battery storage tech, regenerative energy capture, and wing-mounted solar panels (obviously good only in daytime!). Their greatest claimed benefit: $1 an hour fuel costs. Along with very low noise and no tailpipe emissions.

          Batteries are slowly advancing, even if hyped “breakthroughs” seem to pan out much less than advertised. Lithium-oxygen, using solid state oxygen, seems to offer considerable promise for boosting battery energy density to the equivalent with gasoline in terms of driving energy delivered to wheels or props. A lot of research going into boosting recharge time too.

          I expect that in the next decade we’re going to see, in concert with the Part 23 reforms, a lot of new electric propulsion aircraft, in various forms, coming onto the market. Maybe even electric retrofits for the old legacy birds.

      • John,
        Options abound should all of the electronic navigation devices fail concurrently:
        — Pilotage even works from 20,000 feet. Not quite the same, but it works.
        — LAND and wait it out. The sky cleared of contrails and aircraft engine sounds a little over 15 years ago. It remains a highly viable option should a sunspot, nuclear blast, terrorist attack, or massive power grid failure occur.

        BTW, what kind of a back up is a second GPS?

        I had to chuckle at your argumentation. Your scenario is about as realistic as … Conestoga’s coming back on line as primary freight haulers.

        • Great options, John, especially landing.

          I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the 2nd GPS, though. It’s far more likely that the box itself quits (or the wire or the database card) than the entire GPS constellation fails. That’s what you’re really preparing for, not a catastrophic failure of the satellites.

          I agree that my scenario may seem unrealistic, but you should talk to some of the “old school” pilots I have lately. Apparently they still fly radial engine taildraggers using a whiskey compass and a sextant. At least that’s what they say…

          • John – even the very low probability of the GPS constellation failing simultaneously is going to get very much lower soon.

            The Russians already have their own GLONASS constellation, and the EU are working on their own global GPS constellation, and I understand that another one or two are in the pipeline due to come online in 2020. GPS receivers that use both the US and Russian systems are already being marketed, and we can expect that by 2020 a “multi-constellation” GPS receiver will be the norm.

            In the meantime, I bet a very large proportion of pilots these days already have at least two or three or more GPS receivers in the cockpit – in the panel, in our tablets, in our smart phones, and/or even in our wristwatches. I always have at least three GPS navigators with me in the airplane at all times, two of which are independent of the aircraft electrical system.

  • Random thoughts on each item, from an admittedly old (sometimes ancient) pilot:

    Tablets: I transitioned to an iPad and Foreflight beginning 3+ years ago, taking about a year to stop carrying paper charts. It works great and has been reliable, and with my iPhone with Foreflight as a backup to the iPad, I feel pretty comfortable not carrying around a bundle of heavy charts.

    VORs: As long as Uncle keeps dinking with GPS, mostly centered in the southwest but actually affecting a substantial part of the country, GPS will remain less than 100% reliable. It doesn’t take much to shut it down entirely, whether for testing, national defense needs, or whatever, with the flick of a switch, unlike VORs which would have to be shut down individually. Best to be conversant with VOR navigation and approaches for IFR pilots, and with VORs and pilotage and ded reckoning for VFR pilots, until Uncle finally decides that repeated testing of the GPS system is counter-productive and that it’s in the national interest to keep it on and fully functional 100% of the time.

    Gas cost: $5 today would have been 88 cents when I started flying in 1972. I’m having trouble remembering the exact cost of 100LL back then, but I’m pretty sure it was more than 88 cents. Actually, I think that was about what mogas cost for my car on base when I was stationed in Alaska at the time. So I don’t think that gas today, inflation considered, is out of line.

    Parachutes: Not so sure I’d say “the nicest planes”, but certainly the Cirrus fleet has reduced its accident rate from its early days. Whether that has anything to do with the parachute, I don’t know. I’d guess that better Cirrus-specific training has had a greater impact than the parachute on the accident rate, and a reduced accident rate naturally means a reduced fatality rate. Perhaps also canning the ridiculous “go anywhere, anytime, in your own airliner” marketing has made a difference. If after market parachute installations and subsequent airworthiness requirements were less expensive, and more models of airplanes were approved for parachute installations, perhaps more owners would install them in other airplanes.

    ADS-B: I’ve had ADS-B In using a Stratus 2 for 3 years, and it’s made quite a difference in my confidence in reading the weather enroute–such a difference from previously, when the only way to get enroute weather for us little guys was through Flight Watch. In January, I had ADS-B Out installed, at a ridiculously high price for its current benefits, but hopefully those benefits will improve as the mandate date draws nearer. If in the long run, it makes travel by air safer, then it’s worth it. Allowing the military and the airlines to slide on their installations, though, is a huge mistake, as there is no reason that they can’t tow the line, too.

  • Cars are dangerous and should not share the road with horses or horse drawn carriages. Radios will distract the drivers. Seat-belts will kill drivers in car accidents. Aviation is a hobby for rich playboys. These are all things there were once hotly debated topics. Once the debates went beyond opinion and into verifiable advantage, they became the new norm.

    Mr. Zimmerman makes great points. Debate helps to develop safer products and a better world. It must be constructive debates, not “I think iPads are a crutch”. To often they aren’t debates, but baseless opinion.

    Lets keep the debates alive, but make sure that they are debates that move aviation forward and not just a way to hold on to the ‘good old days’.

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