Archie Trammell, the man who set airplane standards

Archie Trammell died in early February at age 89. Archie accomplished much over decades in aviation, including being a foremost expert on use of airborne weather radar. But I think his greatest contribution was making it possible to compare airplane performance, weight and price using a constant standard.

Archie gave me my start in aviation publishing when he hired me to be the technical editor of Business & Commercial Aviation magazine in 1976. At that time B/CA and Flying magazines, plus several other aviation publications and newsletters, were all part of Ziff Davis Publishing.

Archie Trammell
Archie Trammell was known as a radar expert, but he had a long publishing career as well.

Archie had been a senior editor at Flying before he was appointed editor in chief of B/CA in 1975. Flying was the national, and even international, leader in aviation magazines with a circulation near half a million. B/CA was an industry magazine focused on business flying and circulated only within bizav circles.

Archie arrived at B/CA determined to transform the magazine into the most effective tool possible for those determined to use private aviation to enhance their business. At the top of his list of frustrations he found at Flying, and within the general aviation industry, is that there was no way to make useful apples-to-apples comparisons between various airplanes.

All that was available from airplane manufacturers were base prices, and the weight and performance of that base airplane. Even worse, manufacturers would advertise cruise speed at high speed cruise, and then list maximum range at long range cruise without pointing out the huge gap between the two airspeeds. Payloads would be listed using the empty weight of the base airplane, which was beyond useless. And takeoff and landing distance information was at who-knows-what weight and with zero margin for obstacles, or even normal glideslope touchdown point distance.

In those days, the base airplane was beyond stripped down. For many manufacturers what any pilot would think of as standard equipment such as right-side flight controls, a cabin heater, even an interior, were options. Want even one com radio? Optional. What about exterior paint? A pricy option on many base airplanes. Sometimes the base airplane was not even legal to fly under daylight VFR because required equipment such as compass was an option.

Archie knew this was total industry BS and decided the B/CA staff would create a listing of airplanes all having equipment we determined were normal for safety and effective use of the airplane. And we would total the weight and cost of the optional equipment to standardize the payloads and performance—and the price—of a B/CA-equipped airplane.

There were no personal computers or spreadsheets in those days so we on the B/CA edit staff asked each airplane manufacturer for a list of all optional equipment, including the price and weight of the options. We also received the airplane flight manuals and pilots operating handbooks containing performance data at various weights, air temperatures, airport elevations and so on.

In late November or early December, the staff—while also creating content for the regular issues—would begin working on what Archie named the Planning and Purchasing Handbook to be published in the April issue. It was really one giant pain in the butt to search through every document to find the avionics and airframe options that brought a base airplane up to the B/CA-equipped standard. But that was the only way to know what a real usable airplane weighed, and what it cost.

We then took the weight information and calculated the real basic empty weight, which allowed us to tell pilots what the real useful load would be. With the weights, we could then determine required runway, time to climb, cruise speed and usable range based on payload versus fuel versus cruise speed.

BCA cover
The Purchase Planning Handbook remains a popular feature for Business and Commercial Aviation.

Readers loved the April issue. For the first time, you could see what an airplane could really carry, how far it could fly, how fast, and what it would cost, and compare that to other airplanes in the category.

At first some airplane manufacturers were upset to see what the airplanes they were actually delivering weighed and cost and what they could do in print. But soon they realized the benefits. All manufacturers were, for the first time, on a level playing field. The industry adopted the standard and would use “B/CA-equipped” data for their own marketing. Major publications such as the The Wall Street Journal also recognized and used the B/CA information. Archie had made sense of the whole airplane shopping and buying decision.

After a few years, and after I had moved over to Flying magazine and the titles were sold to different owners, the business aviation industry took over the job of standardizing data. A committee from the airplane manufacturers—particularly the jet makers—used the B/CA standard concept to generate industry norms to compare weights, performance and price.

We take it for granted now that the range, speed and price of airplanes we see represent a typical and usefully equipped airplane. But that didn’t happen by itself. It was one man, Archie Trammell, who did it.

I do remember the long nights in the office compiling the data, and the grumbling, and not always admiring Archie for his persistence and demand for detail, but that’s what it took to get the job done. Was Archie something of a slave driver? Yes. Was he an aviation visionary? Even more so. I was lucky to work for and with him and he taught me lessons that served me well for the rest of my aviation publishing career.

7 Comments

  • Thank you, Mac. Hard to believe that there was no standardization before Mr. Trammell’s extraordinary effort. That was truly “buyer beware”. A far cry from today’ relative transparency and consistency. A great history lesson.

  • I have no words to thank Archie the big and detached aid he gave me in the task of writing my “Notes on the use of the WXR-700” aimed to help my colleagues understand the radar secrets.
    The way he shared his knowledge was particullary interesting and educating. Through sharp questions he was guiding me in the proper path.
    Dear Archie, we will miss you a lot!

  • Thanks for this tribute to Archie, Mac. I worked with him on several of the titles I’ve been at and knew that his contribution was great but had no idea just how profound it was.

  • Mac,

    Another cool thing that Ziff Davis published was the Flying Annual, from mid 60s to mid 80s. That comprehensive general aviation aircraft directory was incredible.

    As a kid and young adult I dog eared plenty of them as I dug into specs on biz jets, helicopters, commuter airliners, etc. Sure, you can get all that info on the web today but it is not nearly as user friendly or fun.

    Glad you are still writing on GA!

    Thanks!

    Todd Price

    • Thanks for the kind words, Todd. I also worked on the Flying guide. It was a 13th issue sold on newsstands. Unlike what Archie created at BCA, we included only manufacturers specs and prices. But while BCA focused only on airplanes suitable for business aviation, at Flying we tried to list everything that flew. If a flying machine fit into the broadest possible definition of general aviation, we put it in. That made the Flying guide a useful and inspiring place to launch your airplane buying dreams.
      Mac Mc

  • I was also at FLYING during the FLYING Annual days and one memory stands out. The issue was published in January and one year, a totally irate rep from one of the airframe manufacturers called livid that we’d gotten the numbers all wrong and canceling their advertising in protest and threatening all sorts of things. When the numbers that this company submitted were retrieved from the filing cabinet and compared to the ones published, they were identical. When told that the company itself supplied those numbers… their response was like “ok, never mind.”

  • I remember back in the day going to Archie’s radar school in Memphis, Tennessee. What I learned at that school I used every time I turned the radar on!

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