Flying's Top 20 Aviation Stories of 2016

Looking back at the biggest GA news stories of the past year.

HondaJet HA-420
HondaJet became one of the biggest stories of 2016 when it introduced the HA-420 into the business aviation market.Honda Aircraft

It was a year filled with big news stories that not only helped to reshape the general aviation landscape but will almost certainly continue to do so for many years to come. The past 12 months have seen aircraft milestones, major changes to FAA regulations and a presidential election unlike any we have witnessed in our lifetimes. How these changes will affect general aviation we won't fully know for some time, but it's obvious we are now at a crossroads that will lead us down a new path. Here are the stories and events Flying covered in 2016 that we'll all look back on as the touchstones for transformative change.

The Battle for Santa Monica Airport

The city of Santa Monica, California, and local pilots are locked in a heated battle for the future of this important general aviation gateway, with both sides securing important victories and suffering setbacks in 2016. The latest round went to pilots after the FAA ordered the city to halt evictions of airport businesses, calling the city’s maneuvering “a clear contravention of law.” But the city may end up getting its way eventually as yet another airport disappears from our sectional charts.

FAA Issues Commercial Drone Rules

There's a new section in the Federal Aviation Regulations — Part 107 — and aviation will never be quite the same again. The FAA over the summer passed rules for the commercial operations of drones weighing less than 55 pounds, opening up the skies to more than 2 million small unmanned aerial vehicles in operation today. That number is predicted to grow to 7 million drones by 2020. How we'll integrate unmanned aircraft with regular air traffic will be one of the biggest challenges of this century.

Chinese Company Buys Stake in Diamond Aircraft

Diamond Aircraft made headlines when it sold a 60 percent stake in its London, Ontario, Canada division to Chinese firm Wanfeng Auto Holding Group. Diamond Canada said the investment will support globally expanded production, sales and service, allowing for a stronger focus on the U.S. market. Wanfeng is interested in growing its aviation arm. Through the investment, Diamond Canada has acquired all rights to the DA62 and DA40 (both Lycoming and Austro engine options) from Diamond Austria. Diamond Canada also said the investment will allow the companies to "review" the future of the single-engine D-Jet or a derivative airplane.

Daher Introduces TBM 930

The launch of the Garmin G3000-equipped TBM 930 this past spring was a hush-hush affair as Daher tried to keep the news quiet. Leaked brochures gave fans of the speedy turboprop single a good idea of what was coming. The 930 builds on the long legacy of the TBM family, giving buyers of the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-powered single a touch-capable avionics system not to mention the category’s first fully enclosed lavatory.

FAA Launches ADS-B Rebate Program

While some questioned the wisdom of announcing a $500 government rebate program for ADS-B equipment just before Oshkosh while simultaneously delaying the official start of the program until after Oshkosh (and thereby putting the brakes on ADS-B avionics sales at AirVenture), the cash giveaway is having the desired effect. GA pilots are buying ADS-B gear in droves as it appears likely that all 20,000 rebate checks will indeed be claimed by next September when the program expires.

Dassault Certifies Falcon 8X

The Falcon 8X is French airframer Dassault’s new flagship model, capable of whisking eight passengers and three crew members on 6,450-nm legs in supreme luxury. The trijet is a stretched version of the fly-by-wire Falcon 7X designed to compete with top models from rival Gulfstream. Priced at around $58 million, the first 8X has been reserved for Serge Dassault, chairman and CEO of Groupe Dassault.

Solar Impulse 2 Completes Round-the-World Journey

After a lengthy delay caused by overheated batteries after its Pacific journey to Hawaii, the all-solar-powered Solar Impulse 2 completed its round-the-world trip on July 26, landing in Abu Dhabi after 17 legs in nearly as many months. Si2 resumed its journey by flying from Hawaii to California last spring, making a total of six stops on the U.S. mainland, the last of which was a triumphant landing at JFK International Airport in New York on June 20. Next, the Solar Impulse team plans to build an unmanned solar-powered airplane that theoretically could keep flying forever.

CubCrafters Unveils Part 23-Certified XCub

It’s not often that an aircraft manufacturer unveils to the aviation press a fully certified airplane that is ready for delivery from day one, but CubCrafters did just that with the introduction last spring of the XCub, a backcountry star that is perhaps the ultimate PA-18 clone. We liked it so much we gave it a 2016 Flying Editors’ Choice Award.

Piper Certifies M600

Another Editors' Choice award winner was Piper's M600, the latest iteration of the PA-46 line, and this one is the best Piper single yet. The secret to Piper's success with the M600 was in giving the airplane a larger wing that increased speed and range; adding 100 horsepower (to 600 shp); totally redesigning the interior; and upgrading the cockpit to the touchscreen-equipped Garmin G3000 avionics system. The changes add up to an airplane that is a worthy step-up contender from high-performance piston models while also giving would-be buyers of some pricier airplanes ample reasons to take a closer look.

Mooney Introduces Acclaim and Ovation Ultra

Mooney is back. The company, now under Chinese ownership, is revamping its factory in Kerrville, Texas, to produce upgraded versions of the M20 Acclaim and Ovation, now with the addition of the "Ultra" moniker. A welcome addition to the new airplanes is a pilot-side door that makes entry and exit a snap. The interiors have also been redesigned with stylish leather seats and the addition of keypads to the G1000 avionics. With a top speed of 242 knots, the turbocharged Acclaim is still the fastest FAA-certified production piston single in the world.

Aviation Mourns the Passing of Arnold Palmer, Bob Hoover, John Glenn and Eric “Winkle” Brown

The aviation community collectively mourned the passing of four of its most celebrated figures in 2016, starting on February 21 with the death of Eric "Winkle" Brown, 97, a renowned test pilot and the British Royal Navy's most-decorated pilot ever. Little did we know at that time that three of America's most beloved aviation heroes — golf legend Arnold Palmer, test pilot and aerobatic luminary R.A. Bob Hoover and Mercury 7 astronaut and former Sen. John Glenn — would also pass before the year was over.

Dynon and Garmin Certify non-TSO’d Displays in Part 23 Airplanes

With help from the Experimental Aircraft Association, Dynon last spring obtained a blanket approval permitting installations of the non-TSO’d D10A electronic attitude indicator in Part 23 airplanes. Garmin followed suit two months later with an STC of its own, this one for the non-TSO’d G5 flight display that the avionics maker originally developed for the Experimental aircraft market. The certifications are just the start of a broad relaxation of FAA regulations aimed at hastening the pace of technological innovation in general aviation while driving down development costs.

Icon Production Delayed

First it was Icon Aircraft's 40-page purchase agreement that caused a minor revolt among A5 buyers, and then came news of a one-year production delay of the light sport amphibian. Both put a dent in the California LSA maker's reputation. Icon has since scrapped its original purchase contract in favor of a much simpler and more palatable document and has been working hard to rectify problems in its production process that caused the year delay. Icon has just opened the first two A5 training centers along with a new composites factory in Mexico that should lead to the resumption of full-rate A5 production by the summer.

ATC Privatization Battle Rages On

Proponents of an airline-backed proposal to privatize ATC in the United States claim that President-elect Donald Trump is a supporter of the idea as well. That has opponents on the other side girding for a resumed fight to keep ATC under the jurisdiction of the federal government. While the FAA’s handling of ATC and NextGen has been far from perfect, there’s plenty of evidence to support the argument by GA interests that privatizing the massive air traffic control system in the United States is a recipe for disaster. Look for both sides to continue the battle into 2017 and perhaps beyond as the new administration comes into power.

Trump Elected

Donald Trump’s come-from-behind presidential election victory was foreseen by none of the pollsters and pundits who believed Hillary Clinton held insurmountable leads in several Rust Belt states. On election night, Clinton’s so-called Blue Wall came tumbling down, ushering into power a pro-business Washington outsider whose policies could be a boon for the economy and, by extension, general aviation – or maybe not. What we know for certain is this will be a very different sort of presidency led by a different kind of president. We’ll let you know in four years how it all worked out.

ACS Goes into Effect

The Airman Certification Standards officially replaced the FAA's Practical Test Standards in August, launching a brave new era in which new student pilots will be taught to more stringent standards that framers of the new rules believe will lead to safety improvements. Not everybody is a fan of the ACS, and that fact led to an epic live debate at Flying Aviation Expo in Palm Springs, California, in October between well-known aviation educators John King and Rod Machado. John helped craft the ACS and is all for the change while Rod has concerns about exposing pilots to longer practical tests and airline-level, higher-order thinking skills that may not be appropriate for new students.

Cirrus Vision Jet Certified

The world's first single-engine personal jet obtained its FAA certification in 2016. Manufacturer Cirrus Aircraft has just opened a new customer center in Knoxville, Tennesee where deliveries of the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet have just begun. The SF50 is revolutionary for giving buyers an incredibly simple-to-fly jet that should prove to be an easy step-up airplane for current owners of SR22 piston models. The Vision is also the first jet ever built with a full-airframe BRS parachute to save the day should things go wrong.

HondaJet Deliveries Begin   Perhaps the most radical business jet design ever, the HondaJet with its natural laminar flow wing and fuselage and unique over-the-wing engine configuration can also be called one of the most beautiful airplanes ever to grace an FBO ramp. Now that the airplane is fully certified with RVSM and icing approvals, buyers are getting the chance to fly their new HondaJets on real-world missions. The early word from pilots is that the airplane is a dream to fly, with excellent handling, performance and operating economics. It's just what the world expected from Honda when the carmaker launched the jet program 20 years ago.

FAA Part 23 Rewrite Emerges

The FAA rewrite of Part 23 light airplane certification regulations could be one of the most significant changes in aviation in most of our lifetimes. The rules haven’t been updated in more than 50 years, and as a result it has been incredibly difficult for aircraft manufacturers to innovate. That’s all about to change with the FAA's crafting of new regulations that will follow industry-consensus standards for light aircraft design and allow for flexibility that should lead to more technologically sophisticated and affordable airplanes in the future.

Third-Class Medical Reform Passed   AOPA and EAA put on a full-court press for this one in 2016, and the associations' efforts finally paid off over the summer. Congress directed the FAA to eliminate third-class medical requirements for most private pilots by July 15, 2017, using data from sport pilots to back up the contention that there's no safety detriment in allowing pilots to skip the visit to their aviation medical examiner every two years. Once the new rules go into effect, private pilots will take an online medical factors course every two years and visit their personal physician every four. The change is expected to remove barriers to the cockpit for many thousands of pilots with minor medical issues and continue to reap benefits for general aviation for decades to come.