Piston aircraft manufacturing today is different than it once was. The Big Three are no longer so big. These companies are still making some great airplanes, but they’re not turning out nearly as many of them, and they’re building far fewer model types as well. Beechcraft produces just two piston models, and Cessna makes just three (four if you count the LSA Skycatcher) and Piper just a few, the Mirage, the Matrix (pretty much the same airplane but without pressurization) and a handful of Seminoles and PA-28s. Times have changed and so have these companies. They’re smaller, in many ways smarter, and more attuned to the importance of being lean.
While times have been changing these past 30 years, companies have come and gone, and new ones are emerging. Could Pipistrel be a coming giant? It doesn’t sound likely, but one thing history teaches us is that unlikely things have a funny way of coming true.
Again, it’s nothing new, companies coming and going. While it might be strange to imagine pilots in the 1950s fretting the loss of Stinson, Luscombe and Globe/Temco, they did indeed do just that. It’s only in great hindsight that we think of the loss of these once-impressive companies as being fated, as being the necessary result of the march of progress. The truth is that nobody had that kind of perspective back in the day. Back then it was simply a tragic loss.
As aviation changes, one of the casualties is institutional knowledge. I’ve been around airplanes for quite some time, but in some ways I consider myself a newcomer. When I want to know something about the Golden Era of air racing, I still call my dad, who at 86 seems to me to know it all. Despite my relative inexperience, at a briefing it’s not unusual for me to know more about the history of the airplane that I’m being briefed on than the usually younger person doing the briefing. For the record, they always know more about the details of the current model than I do; they’re just foggy on what model it might have evolved from or who the CEO was at the time it was launched decades ago. They are, after all, salespeople, not historians.
Things have changed across the aviation industry as companies have pulled up roots and moved from one city to a different, distant one, as they’ve abandoned certain product lines and scooped up others, as they’ve lost workers to layoffs and retirement, and as they’ve worked hard to stay profitable in challenging economic times by cutting staffs and programs.
Often, the sad result of these upheavals is the loss of history. Some of that is natural. The last guy who knew everything about the history of the Piper Aztec has long since departed the Piper factory, so it’s a natural, if sad, fact for that history to be gone.
The thing that’s preventable is the loss of the tangible history, documents, blueprints, photographs, movies and, more and more, digital archives. Unfortunately, when companies are going through big changes, the last things they tend to concern themselves with are these kinds of artifacts. So the records of the airplanes just disappear. What happens to them exactly is hard to say, but I’ve heard stories of file cabinets full of precious history, decades-old photographs, drawings and documents being loaded into dumpsters as the company was vacating a once-busy facility and heading out of town.
It might seem that nothing can be done about this state of affairs, but that’s not true either. For those of us who care about aviation history, we can vote with our wallets and our volunteer time to preserve it. We can give as generously as possible to an organization that promotes and celebrates aviation history. Be it a museum, like Evergreen in McMinn-ville or the Museum of Flight in Seattle, or a living aviation museum, like the Commemorative Air Force, there is much work to be done and a constant shortage of funds to do it.
It’s a fact of life that we can’t preserve every drop of history there is to save, but organizations like these do great work in keeping alive whatever flying history they possibly can. If you’re like me, being a part of that work in any way possible makes me feel I’m making some kind of a difference.