Pilots have a well-earned reputation for seeing the glass half empty, even if it’s threatening to spill over the top. In the last three months I have personally heard the following ever-popular complaints: gas prices are too high, the FAA is out to get us, and (most importantly) it was so, so much better back in the good old days. A little nostalgia once in a while is understandable, but, when it becomes completely divorced from reality, we need to call a timeout. Too much negativity is bad for an industry that is trying to attract new entrants, whether they be recreational flyers or airline pilots.
So in the spirit of fairness, I like to pause every few years and consider what’s going right in aviation. Call me a naive optimist if you like, but I still see a lot to appreciate, from the thousands of airports in the US to the relative openness of our airspace to the strong experimental aircraft movement. These trends are old news; five newer ones caught my attention at the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-in last week, and I think they bode well for pilots.
1. Lower cost avionics are taking over. The dream of modern, powerful, and inexpensive avionics has seemed within reach for 20 years, but only in the last two it has finally become a reality. A stroll around the show last week in Lakeland showed a huge variety of avionics that truly do make flying safer and easier, but do not required a $25,000 buy-in. From Garmin’s sub-$10,000 G3X glass cockpit to uAvionix’s wingtip ADS-B transmitter to Aspen’s affordable E5 flight display, there are plenty of great options from established companies.
Taken together, these breakthroughs in avionics value make a 50-year old piston airplane worth upgrading. You can buy that 1970 Cessna 182 and put a new panel in it without spending more than the airplane purchase price. Or, you can build a new airplane around these avionics that is (relatively) affordable, like Piper’s $260,000 Pilot model.
The innovative avionics companies deserve a lot of credit here, including giants like Garmin who have continually reinvented their product line and startups like ForeFlight who have challenged the giants with new ways of doing business. But don’t forget the regulatory and legislative changes that have made these new avionics possible. The FAA’s flexible NORSEE policy has allowed the installation of non-certified avionics in thousands of airplanes, but without complicated paperwork and expensive certification. Likewise for the revised Part 23 certification standards, which may finally encourage some new airplane designs. Whether you credit AOPA, Congress, or the FAA, the folks in Washington deserve some applause.
2. Backcountry flying is hot. If you’ve spent any time on YouTube lately, you may have noticed a growing number of videos showing taildraggers landing in remote places. Some are recognizable YouTube stars like Trent Palmer, while others are simply private pilots with a Cub and a dry riverbed. Combine this with the good work the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) is doing to preserve backcountry airstrips, and even the new High Sierra Fly-in at a dry lakebed in Nevada, and you have a real trend. Flying airplanes is not just about tricycle gear airplanes landing at paved airports anymore.
Whether you land off-airport or not, this growing niche is good for general aviation, because – for a change – it’s all about the fun. While I believe an ILS to 200 feet is as thrilling as anything in flying, many non-pilots would disagree, and it’s a lot harder to relate to than fly fishing next to an old Cessna. Besides, traveling by GA isn’t easy without a high performance airplane and an instrument rating, both of which cost money. What the “fat tire cowboys” and other groups offer is a more accessible and more adventurous brand of aviation. Sure, some of the airplanes are high priced bush planes, and some of the locations are remote, but the overall culture is welcoming. Anecdotal evidence (the emails I get and the people I talk to at air shows) suggests they are attracting a whole new type of pilot.
3. Community spirit is strong. Some pilots wax nostalgic about the days when “the pilot brotherhood” was strong and hangar flying sessions would last all day. In fact, I see plenty of signs that this community spirit is as strong as ever. It might look different, but that doesn’t make it bad. Consider three trends.
- First, flying clubs are growing in popularity after years of neglect. Both AOPA and EAA have encouraged this growth, and it seems to be paying off at least a bit: AOPA announced last week that over 100 new clubs have been started in the last five years. That doesn’t count the many new IMC/VMC clubs that have popped up, where pilots meet monthly to discuss real world scenarios. I’ve attended a few of these meetings over the last year and I can confirm that pilots still like to meet face-to-face and learn from each other.
- Second, fly-ins seem to be reinventing themselves. The high desert fly-in mentioned above is a prime example, as are the rotating AOPA fly-ins, which offer free, local events around the country. Both have been successful, and last week’s Sun ‘n Fun event was as busy as I can remember, but Triple Tree Aerodrome in South Carolina may be the most interesting. This beautiful grass strip is a pilot’s paradise, but instead of guarding it for personal use, the owner throws the doors open multiple times per year for fun events. This includes radio control airplane contests and even a young pilots’ fly-in. No big exhibit tents, no fancy air show, just a relaxed atmosphere to meet new friends and admire other airplanes.
- Finally, there are a variety of online groups that keep pilots connected. From Facebook groups (Cirrus pilots, student pilots, and tailwheel pilots all have active ones, among dozens of others) to Slack channels to this website, I see plenty of examples of pilots sharing their experience with others. Not all of this is positive and encouraging, but compared to much of the garbage on social media, I’ve found most of it to be honest and helpful. I know I would have loved such a resource when I was a student pilot.
4. Weather tools are much better. Weather will never be “solved” for pilots, but the increasing number and quality of weather tools has made life a little better for pilots. It’s easy to lose track of the recent advancements, but they are notable. For a start, subscription-free ADS-B weather has made in-flight radar more available than ever before and tens of thousands of pilots are flying with it for the first time. This service continues to improve, too, with the introduction of five new weather products late last year. I believe ADS-B and iPads have had a real impact on safety.
Online tools are also improving. The Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA) is the replacement for the Area Forecast, and the overall goal is laudable – to replace coded text forecasts with easier-to-understand graphical products. Unfortunately, its first iteration was underwhelming. The team behind the GFA stuck to it, though, and recent versions are much better. In particular, I’ve found the cloud tops tool to be far more accurate after a recent change to the algorithm.
The same effort is paying off with graphical ceiling and visibility forecasts (MOS), and icing forecasts (CIP/FIP). These were once nothing more than experiments, but they have become quite reliable and are now an essential part of any preflight briefing. Even turbulence forecasts, previously only released for the flight levels, are now available all the way to the ground. GA pilots have more – and better – tools than ever before, and we very rarely have to pay for them.
5. Airlines are hiring. Certainly one of the most visible trends over the last few years, this one might not seem to have much impact on general aviation pilots. However, I see positive spillover effects everywhere: thousands of new people coming into aviation to seek airline jobs, busier flight schools paying flight instructors more money, piston airplane factories staying open to support training fleets, and more airline pilots with extra money to buy piston airplanes for fun flying. Even if many of these new student pilots leave GA and never come back, they can provide quite the stimulus during their 3-5 years in training. The airline economy dwarfs general aviation, so when it is on the upswing, we can’t help but rise too.
Yes, I hate high ramp fees, pop-up airspace restrictions, and expensive airworthiness directives. I wish new airplanes cost $50,000 and Meigs was still open. But given the chance to fly in 1999 or 2019, I wouldn’t hesitate. Hand me my iPad and let’s go flying.