When we asked Air Facts editor Richard Collins 13 questions in a recent article, readers told us they wanted more. So we put Mac McClellan on the spot in this edition. McClellan is the director of publications at EAA, and one of the most experienced journalists in aviation. For over 30 years, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Flying magazine, where he was known for honest opinions. He shares more in this article:
- You’ve written a blog with EAA for more than a year now. How does blog writing differ from magazine article writing? I have to constantly remind myself that blogs, even well-read blogs, are not close to the size of print readership. I write something in the blog and it gets a reaction, and then I write the same thing in the magazine and the reaction is many, many times greater. It’s easy to bury yourself in the online world and begin to believe everyone is reading online, but they are not.
- You’re an avid sailor. How are sailing and flying similar? Is a good pilot also a good sailor? Someone once said that sailing upwind is like flying, except one wing is in the water and one is in the air. The keel and shape of a sailboat hull actually uses water to generate lift the same way an airplane wing does in the air. And the trimmed sail when pointing upwind is an airfoil with camber and angle of attack and all of the other ingredients of lift. But, having said all of that, the real similarity between sailing and flying is that weather rules your life. Fair winds and smooth seas make sailing fun as they do flying, but foul weather is a challenge for either activity. But in an airplane when you encounter bad weather you could—and should—change course or even land to avoid it. In a sailboat if you are more than a few miles from port, you have to deal with whatever the weather hands you because a sailboat is too slow to get out of the way.
- Are piston airplanes really a reliable way to travel? The weather, which is what determines how reliable any airplane can be for travel, doesn’t care much what kind of engine you have. So, yes, piston-powered airplanes can be very reliable in keeping a schedule. The key is that the pilot must be totally competent to fly instruments, and must have a good autopilot, complete instrumentation and weather detection and avoidance equipment. In many parts of the country some type of ice protection equipment is also essential to stay on schedule. FAA-approved ice protection adds nothing because any ice removal or prevention system is only there to give you time to escape icing, and non-approved systems can do that just fine.
- You worked with Richard Collins for decades and are still close friends. Is there anything flying-related where you and he don’t see eye to eye? I really can’t think of anything fundamental that Richard and I disagree on when it comes to flying. That wasn’t always true because I have been convinced that flying single-pilot IFR without a full capability autopilot is crazy, and is, in fact, not allowed if you are hauling paying passengers. Many years ago Richard didn’t agree and flew thousands of hours with only a minimal autopilot in his airplane. But now, with the huge advances in avionics capability, Richard and I both believe an autopilot is essential for flying in the clouds without a copilot.
- You were right about the Eclipse but were roundly booed at the time for being a naysayer. Why do you think so many people got caught up in the hype? That’s easy. It was the price. Every dream airplane is first and foremost impossibly cheap. When Eclipse posted its first price at just under $800,000 every pilot—including me—wanted to believe that was possible. But I knew it wasn’t. Nothing Eclipse proposed was either entirely new, or depended on new technology. The only impossible element of the whole plan was the price. Now that the Eclipse is a complete airplane and the new owners are considering resuming production, the price will be very close to that of the other entry level jets from Cessna and Embraer. If the Eclipse founders had begun with a realistic price I think the program could have been a success and saved investors the billion dollars that vanished in the bankruptcy.
- What’s your favorite magazine story you ever wrote? I just don’t have a favorite. But I can tell you that one of the most popular—at least in terms of comments I received and continue to occasionally receive—was writing my column about the adventures of flying our daughter, Karen, to and from Chapel Hill when she went to college at North Carolina. Those four years included trips in all sorts of weather, and for many happy occasions, and having an airplane made it practical and even fun. Other pilots can relate to those experiences that separate aviators from the rest of the world.
- Richard Collins says he never had a bucket list when it came to airplanes. Do you? If so, what’s on it? I have always been most impressed by technology because, well, nobody can fly without a machine, so I want to be in the most advanced machine. That means the Gulfstream G650 has to be at the top of my list right now because there is no more advanced airplane in every respect.
- We’re going to ask you the same question we asked Richard: are general aviation’s best days behind it? I think GA’s days of greatest growth are in the past, and in many respects the greatest advances in basic performance have already been made so we will see only incremental improvements in speed, range and efficiency. But the ongoing revolution in avionics is adding utility, and eventually safety, that GA pilots could not have imagined. There is no reason that avionics systems can’t safely land an airplane automatically if a pilot becomes disabled or confused. Electronic systems can add stability so that an upset and loss of control are a thing of the past. And avionics can guide us to a safe landing in any weather. So I believe the best days for safe and convenient travel in GA airplanes are still to come.
- You are only allowed one more flight. Where do you go and what are you flying? I think it would be Stancie and I flying to the Bahamas to spend time in Hope Town, and we would be flying a TBM 850. That airplane is the most remarkable personal airplane in service now with 300 plus knot speed, 1,000 nm upwind range, and enough room and payload for a couple or two.
- Do you think simulator training should be mandatory for GA pilots? I think simulator training can make any pilot better because it makes training more effective and efficient. In the sim you can practice realistic procedures without risk, and you can perform many more procedures in the same total time compared to a real airplane.
- Finish the sentence: Shooting an ILS to minimums is … Interesting and I do pay attention, but unlike trying to make a short putt, or drive on a slippery road, there is no luck element, and not really any unacceptable risk. However, flying the approach without a good flight director is a different issue and something I would consider to be not quite an emergency, but nothing anyone should attempt routinely.
- There’s been a lot of change among the airframe manufacturers in the past three years. Is Wichita still the “air capital of the world?” In terms of variety of airplanes and components manufactured, Wichita is still the air capital. Cessna, Beech and Learjet are all still there, of course, but so is Boeing, now called Spirit where the narrow body fuselages are built. Seattle, for example, almost certainly generates more aviation manufacturing dollars than Wichita, but it relies almost entirely on Boeing. The Dallas area, Savannah and southern California are all centers of airplane manufacturing, too, but none can match the variety of Wichita where Boeing 737s and Cessna Skyhawks are born.
- What’s the next big thing in aviation that most pilots don’t know about yet? I think the next big thing in general aviation is a return to the past. I believe that owning and restoring antique and classic airplanes is a passion that will grow stronger. We all look back fondly on the good old days, and puttering around in an old airplane on a sunny day is something we all want to do.
When people ask Mac McClellan what he does for a living, he replies, “I fly airplanes and write about them. And I’m one of the most fortunate people in the world to have been able to make a career of doing what I love.” Mac has been a pilot for more than 45 years, an aviation writer for more than 40 and has been lucky enough to get to fly just about every type of personal and business airplane in production from the 1970s onward. He was on the Flying Magazine staff for 35 years and editor-in-chief for 20 of those years. He has private pilot privileges in single-engine airplanes, commercial pilot in helicopters and ATP in airplanes with more than one engine. He holds several business jet type ratings and has logged more than 10,000 hours. His first airplane was a Cessna 140 and for the past 27 years he has owned a Baron 58 flying it more than 5,000 hours to cover the aviation industry. And now he is a part-time corporate pilot flying a King Air 350.