Air Facts turns 4 (or 77) – what we’ve learned about pilots

Air Facts is a unique magazine, perhaps most interestingly because it is both old and new. The original Air Facts magazine was founded 77 years ago last month by Leighton Collins, serving an audience that barely existed at the time: pilots flying airplanes for personal transportation. Since then, the magazine has followed the arc of general aviation history and started the writing careers of some legendary authors along the way. This history offers tremendous perspective. Curious what the hot debates were in aviation during the 1960s? We can look them up in the archives.

And yet, Air Facts is also very new – we relaunched as an online-only magazine four years ago this month. So while we have the benefit of rich tradition, we are also unabashedly forward-looking. Our format, online, takes advantage of technology to offer more frequent updates and more reader participation than print ever could. Many of our articles also look to the future, from our series on the state of general aviation to our celebration of young pilots.

Air Facts magazine
Air Facts began as a print magazine 77 years ago (1951 issue pictured).

Over the course of the last four years, we’ve debated hot topics, shared great flying stories and revisited some of the unique articles from our history. In reviewing many of these articles, a few trends stand out:

1. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Flying a Cirrus in 2015 may seem radically different from flying a Taylorcraft in 1938, but in a world of dizzying technological progress, it’s worth reflecting on all the things that haven’t changed. Reading through the Air Facts archives shows that the essential elements of aviation don’t change too much: pilots have always been passionate about flying, have always used airplanes in creative ways and have always sought to do it better. 77 years later, we’re still learning about weather flying and we’re still complaining about federal regulations.

Many of the debates are strikingly similar too: earlier initiatives to require transponders in controlled airspace mirror our current move towards ADS-B, and concerns about eroding stick and rudder skills seem to be as old as the airplane. More than a few of our readers have been with us since the 1960s, and they have shared that the principles of safe flying are virtually unchanged.

2. Pilots from around the world share a bond.

In just the past few years, we’ve published stories from pilots in Australia, Canada, Iran, Cyprus, Britain and of course America. The flying experience varies from country to country – most US pilots don’t have to worry about massive military restrictions on flying – but all of these stories share a common thread. Being a pilot takes commitment, focus and creativity, yet the rewards are unmatched by most any other activity. This shared experience can create friendships among people who would otherwise never associate. Anytime two pilots get together, no matter what their background, the conversation is spirited. That’s one reason we value the thoughtful and respectful comments (over 10,000 of them) our readers have shared.

3. Every pilot has a story to tell.

In reading many of the “I was there” stories on Air Facts, it becomes clear that everyday pilots are doing extraordinary things with airplanes. It doesn’t make the front pages of any newspapers, but there are thousands of pilots who are flying their airplanes all over the country (and the world) in pursuit of business, fun or charity. Not every flight is a Hollywood movie, but there are lessons to learn anytime we fly. Our goal is to help share those stories, so pilots can be inspired by the “missions” of others and the general public can get a glimpse of the incredible world of personal aviation. If you haven’t shared your story, it’s easy to do.

Richard L. Collins
One thing has been consistent – a Collins name on the masthead.

4. Safety is a moving target.

From literally the first issue of Air Facts, safety has been a central topic of conversation. Leighton Collins recognized that an improved safety record would be good for general aviation’s growth, and was an early advocate of accident analysis. Getting to that better record, however, has never been easy. While general aviation safety has improved dramatically from the early days of open cockpit airplanes and dead reckoning, progress over the last 20 years has been less impressive.

Every few years there is renewed hope that we have turned the corner, that some new technology or regulation will solve the mystery. In the 1960s it was multi-engine airplanes, then the focus was put on better instrument flying. More recently, big hopes have been pinned on everything from GPS to angle of attack indicators. None of these developments have been bad for aviation, but none of them have been miracle cures. At a certain point, we have to accept some risk for the freedoms we enjoy as pilots.

5. Some airplanes are always lightning rods.

First it was the V-tail Bonanza, now it’s the Cirrus. For reasons having more to do with human psychology than aerodynamics, some airplanes (and the pilots who fly them) attract a disproportionate amount of attention. The debate usually centers on the new type of pilot such cutting edge designs attract, and whether safety has been compromised in the march of progress. Were V-tail Bonanzas really flown by doctors with more money than sense? Are Cirrus pilots real pilots or just button pushers waiting to pull the chute? While opinion is still divided (just read our comments section), both airplanes have proven to be good machines – when flow within their limitations.

Cirrus with airframe parachute
We’ve been debating new airplane designs from the beginning – Cirrus is just the latest.

6. The glory days are over, but all is not lost.

Flipping through an Air Facts from the early 1970s is both inspiring and depressing. Slick ads from a variety of airplane manufacturers show an optimism and a pace of innovation that seems foreign today. Did they really build 17,000 new airplanes in 1978?!

But reading more recent articles give some hope for pilots who may have missed the golden era of piston airplanes. Innovation has not stopped – exciting advances in avionics and engine technology are coming – and new pilots are entering the market with realistic expectations. Flying is still fun and rewarding, even if there are fewer of us doing it. In the ned, general aviation may look different in the future, but it will hardly die out.

7. Flying brings families together.

Whether it’s fathers and sons or husbands and wives, aviation has a unique ability to strengthen family ties. In a busy world filled with complicated relationships, something about the immersive experience of flying seems to break down unspoken barriers and bring out the real character of a person. Many of our most thoughtful and popular articles have tried to explain how being a pilot, without even knowing it, changes who you are.

Looking back, looking forward

In my four short years at Air Facts, I’ve learned an awful lot, changed my mind on a few issues and enjoyed every minute of the ride. Working with consummate professionals like Richard Collins (Editor Emeritus) and Patricia Luebke (Managing Editor) is a real joy.

Some highlights for me include our first special report, which addressed the elephant in the room: is general aviation terminally ill or just adjusting to a new reality? The answers were honest and thought-provoking. Another highlight has been Richard Collins’s Logbooks series, where we get to fly along on his most memorable flights. It’s like riding in the right seat with one of our era’s most accomplished pilots.

More than anything, though, I’ve relished the chance to meet so many pilots and talk to them about their flying experiences. As Paul Poberezny has famously said, “you come for the airplanes, but you stay for the people.” That’s true for Air Facts.

What’s ahead? We are growing and we will continue to try new things (stay tuned for our latest project). You’ll see more real world flying stories from readers like you, more practical tips for safer flying, more honest debates about important aviation ideas, and more of Richard Collins’s unique wisdom. We hope you’ll join us for the next 77 years.

Have a question or a comment? Drop me a line: editor@airfactsjournal.com

7 Comments

  • AFJ is a go-to treasure, for which I’m deeply grateful. Congratulations, and best wishes for another 76 successful years.

    -Yars

  • John, thanks for the overview and promise of great things to come. The link for the journal is at the top of my screen, and I look almost every day for new stories and comments. The most notable thing about the journal is its disintermediation (izzat a word?): you have torn down the walls, and The People Speak. And The People of aviation have brought to us entertaining, moving, informative, thoughtful stories we could not otherwise have heard. Many stories make me laugh, most make me think, some bring tears. Thanks to the Air Facts triumvirate and fellow writers for a job well done.

  • John, I would point out that while aviation will never be like it was still my “Glory Days” as a relatively new (9 yrs) pilot are quite different from yours perhaps. I don’t know much about flying in the 1970’s so, perhaps thankfully, I do not have that baseline. These are my glory days and I’m loving ’em.

  • John,

    Thanks for the perspective. I started flying in 1975 while at Ohio State. I do remember the “glory days”. I don’t think GA is dying, but I do think it is adjusting to a “new reality”. Time for some of us old dogs to learn new tricks!

    Hope to be around for at least part of the next 76 years!

    Richard

  • As I have mentioned previously, glad you have resurrected Air Facts. I was introduced to the magazine in 1949 by Jesse Stonecipher. He was Chief Pilot at the Institute of Aviation, University of Illinois. I completed my Instructor rating training there that spring and was hired as an instructor for the fall session. Got IFR rated the following year and even got a ride from Jesse in one of the U of I Bonanzas!

    Wonderful times and Leighton taught me as much as did the good folks at the U of I.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *