5 good things about general aviation in 2019

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.

Garmin G3X
A glass cockpit in a Tiger? It makes sense given the new avionics options from Garmin and others.

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.

Triple Tree fly-in
Triple Tree Aerodrome is a special place – and a very popular one too.

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.

GFA map
The latest GFA cloud top product (right) is much more accurate than the old one (left).

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.

14 Comments

  • John,

    Thank you for the fantastic write-up. I too am passionate and excited for the future of general aviation. My older-than-me skyhawk has taken our family on multiple cross country adventures, provided many first-flights, and many solo therapy hours (still cheaper to go fly than see a therapist, lol). I believe we can continue to see great advancements as long as our pilot population bands together, shows a willingness to be flexible to new ideas, and continues the amazing experience that so many small airports provide. I couldn’t imagine my life without this, and I’m counting on at least 40 more years of flying!

    As in business, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

  • You are very correct in being positive. The weather information available today is so great, particularly as an aid to VFR pilots. Having inflight weather and the great online products for planning are such a game changer. Forty years ago it was great to walk in and talk to the flight service folks, but the data was definitely dated at the time and they did not have as much info as can be gained from weather apps and AWOS stations at so many airports.
    All of the other points you noted are reasons to be positive, too. We just have to keep sharing the good news and educate the public about the positive benefits.

  • The improvement in weather forecasting models, and their dissemination on the internet, has been a huge plus for GA. I’d also make a plug for flight planning software. Twenty years ago It took a week to plan a coast-to-coast flight using a pencil and protractor – and four copies of the A/FD. Today you can do it in an hour or so on your I-pad.

  • John,

    Booyah! Totally agree on flying today vs. 1999. Can’t beat GPS direct, and if I get surprised by weather it’s my own fault. New airplanes for $50,000 would be nice though.

  • John,
    I’ll be that commenter who’s going to have a little different opinion. Contrary to you I did not grow up in an aviation family. I also do not hold an ATP certificate, which I assume allows you to make 6 figures (and to fly the aircraft listed in your bio).
    I had a passion, to learn how to fly. I had some great experiences and people motivating me to do this. However since flying professionally was not my goal, and i am not working in the Aviation industry, I consider myself a “true” GA member. My struggles might therefore seem foreign to you or your readers. I’ll try to keep it short and concise.
    Making the US average household income, i couldn’t even get a 30 year loan for a house as expensive as the “affordable” Piper you mentioned. Because airlines are hiring, it might be a benefit for all you CFI’s but it is a detriment to GA because now you’ve made it $20-50/h more expensive for anyone to learn how to fly for fun (I managed to pay $25/h for my instructor, but I’ve seen prices as high as $75 lately). The glass cockpit might become more reasonably priced, but only if you already managed to spend good money on an airplane, at which point is snarky ask, what’s the problem with a $20k upgrade? Well, i rented a 172 for $95/h wet a few years ago. Those have now been upgraded to G1000 panels and turned the $100 burger into a $185/h burger. So, Hooray for airplane owners, woe for anyone trying to rent a plane every now and then to fly “for fun”.
    Being a lifetime EAA member I am appalled how EAA and AOPA are more focused on issues for the old (those who can’t fly anymore and need new medical exceptions) and the young (those who don’t know what to do with their life).
    Aviation get together’s are also a point of contention. If we talk about GA we should see a wide variety of people at those meetings. Not only old, white males. Wife’s don’t usually come to these things so where are all the women pilots? I’ve only met one man of color at a get together…and he never came back (I can imagine why). These clubs are nothing more than the country clubs of old. A new member is asked what plane they fly. Owners are separating themselves from renters. Well meant suggestions include “you should ask X to let you fly his plane; it could use the engine time” but the person saying this owning 2 airplanes does not offer for you to fly his planes. Or when talking about trying to build a $30k airplane because of budget restraints: ”get an RV or it’s not worth it” (lowest price tag I’ve seen was $80k). This is the ”camaraderie” between old aviators, airplane owners, and mechanics. But if you’re not one of those, you’re an outsider, and it’s palpable. I’ve been part of 6 chapters…they have all been this way to varying degrees.
    So, when speaking of GA, please remember that there are two kinds: people like you, immersed in long family traditions of flying, aviation careers and ownership; and people like me, who have nothing to do with aviation, make an average living, but would like to spend their hard earned money on this ’entertainment’ called flying every now and then. A hobby that’s become more and more a luxury than the ”freedom” aviation outlets like to think of when talking about GA.

  • There is still one more thing about general aviation today that continue’s to haunt us, the extremely high price’s of av-gas. Still after all these years of ripping us off it continues to date, with no letting up in sight. What is it going to take to get someone to listen to us and help lower the price of fuel? All we here is the same old broken record of how high the cost of making fuel is, so the cost is placed on the consumer. It wasn’t that many years ago when I was buying 100LL at the local gas station for $1.59 a gallon only $.30 higher that car gas per gallon. In the 60s 100LL was $.39 per gallon ethyl was $.35 per gallon, point is, ” why could it be refined in that era with no problem with older tech knowledge a very reasonable price, and today at over $5.00 per gallon. Comparing the 1960s to the 2019s, its the same old rip off only at a larger scale, some things never change and the old adage of, if I can take your money with ease today, I will continue to do so tomorrow..sorry, those are my thoughts of 2019.

  • The skies sure have looked clearer lately dispite more moisture in the atmosphere. Most of the guess work about the weather is gone as well as those long phone calls the Flight Service Stations and their mimeograghed charts.
    I was in “Private Planes” before I could walk. We used to play on the swing set at the Flying L Ranch in NJ (without any fences between us and the runway) back when Bob Cummings would wow the crowd with his state of the art T-Bone. It is so good to see so many young faces at Sun&Fun, Oshkosh and at airports in general and see them take interest in real airplanes that don’t have jets.
    I grew up around airlines but never had an interest in the 2400Z time clock and I quit turning wrenches when every GA airplane I worked on was ‘corporate’. So I am thrilled to see handcrafted homebuilts, fat-tired tail-draggers, soaring gliders, open air ultralights, floating balloons, parachutes that climb and even oversized people caring electric drones.
    Flying is life serious business but it is nothing if it doesn’t bring adventure and smiles. Good to see the smiles again.

  • Phil: Your comments come under the same content as the question “have you quit beating your wife yet?” Try spending time flying a GA aircraft in many other counties as I have and you might get your eyes opened as to the freedoms that we enjoy in the US. How would 50 euros just to file a flight plan strike you? Make you even more negative I suspect. Or how about the equivalent of $10.75 per gallon of avgas? I have even paid up to $15.00 and thankful to find any avgas. My profession often requires that I spend months in other countries, so I have learned that there are countries where a special certificate from ICAO will not get you into the pilots seat of even a 2 person aircraft, and an FAA certificate means nothing. To add one more trite saying – “wake up and smell the coffee”.

  • Another great piece. I am approaching retirement ( now around 110 days) and I am really looking forward to more aviation enjoyment including more fly ins and som novel places.

    Our plane is now relocated to Platteville, WI ( PVB ) and look forward to what you describe!

  • I’m been thinking lately how important positivity is.
    Agree with all this but one thing I’d like to see is someone make a price breakthrough in engines similar to avionics.
    I’d love to build a homebuilt but can’t swing a $25k Rotax or Lycoming and don’t trust auto conversions.

  • Phil and George, your comments are both of great value, and I can see in them a nice complement to John’s article. Maybe because I am exactly stuck in between these two worlds. Starting my career with no family aviation background as a cabin crew, 14 years ago, somehow I managed to get to the right seat of a Dreamliner in the middle east nowadays. So, my passion for GA came late in life, during my basic flight training in the US, where I got my licenses, before heading back abroad to find someone who would pay me to fly their airplane. Notwithstanding that GA is nearly invisible in most parts of the world, the ease to fly under the FARs – and this goes from insurances to avgas prices, from infrastructure to regs – is second to none. Flying will probably never be as cheap and straightforward as most of us would dream of, but if there is a place where it is still plausible to rent or own an aircraft to fly for fun fairly often, it is called USA. Enjoy!

  • George, I appreciate your input. Let me point out however that I am a German citizen and am quite aware of the differences. But maybe that is exactly why I am aware of what is happening here and might just try to be the voice of reason for those who don’t know because they don’t know. I feel like talking about this is similar as Canadians trying to tell Americans about healthcare. Just because something is ”ok” doesn’t mean it can’t be better. Just because ”this is America” doesn’t mean it’s the top of the line.
    Germany had a ban on aircraft after WWI as part of the allied restrictions…the same timeframe aviation picked up steam in the US. Then they were completely destroyed in the 40s focusing on rebuilding infrastructure compared to the US allowing soldiers to use a Gi bill to fly and sell off wartime airplanes for cheap. Those ”average” men and women were the basis of GA. But where are they now? Could a staff Sargent afford a plane today? Doubt it. Why is it that I can build a plane buying parts from dozens of different vendors (all making a nice profit) and assemble it cheaper than any new plane?I couldn’t even build my own car cheaper than just buy ing it off the let. Why are we wasting millions on 16 year old kids to get a PPL when we drop any support once they have it and turn 18? Why is it better to ask Congress to let people with health conditions fly than to drop the price of AvGas or work on lowering certification processes? When I see the big picture, I think there is so much more potential. But I seem to be the only one who sees outside the box…probably because I know how it will look like when the power of the people in aviation is reduced to only a handful of people without any backing to (possibly) keep GA as free as most ”think” it is.

  • Single income husband with handicapped wife learning to fly in Southern California from 1985 to certificate in 1994. Maybe not so lucky, but maybe lucky, there were no children dependents.

    Pilots are special humans. I’d really like to think it’s more than the adventure gene, we are definitely more curious. For me, and it sounds like Phil too, I started at or below the median income after a six year enlistment in the US Navy SeaBees. Despite the flying insect inference, we didn’t command flying machines. The SeaBees are a pretty awesome group of construction people, with guns. For this upstate New York hillbilly, the world was presented.

    I found similar tough-to-break-in introductions at the local chapters or clubs. There are those that fly because they have the money, or family ties to flying machines; and those that sacrifice most everything, and what little money they do have, to fly. Ray Stits was one gleaming example of dedication to a dream. Someone who never lost sight of his passion. Ray started with no money, but had the drive and a curiosity that developed into a comfortable life for his family; and his benefactor EAA Chapter 1. I volunteered as Chapter 1’s news letter editor for a couple years in the 90s. It was something I thought I could do, they needed one, and it would also keep me close to others that shared the dream. That commitment allowed me the opportunity to meet many others that started with nothing but a dream. For me, it culminated in sharing the PIC responsibilities of flying a 182 from So Cal and using the RIPON approach, actually land on whatever color dot at Oshkosh in 2000 – thank you Bill!

    Yes it has sometimes been tough. My curiosity has allowed me to advance in a totally different blue collar career than aviation. I don’t own the company. I am not executive management. I do now own an airplane and keep it in a hangar at a nearby public use airport.

    It can be done.

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