It's a Long Way From May to December

It seems these days that aviation is under attack. But Tom looks to the future and sees signs of hope.



My Dad, a renowned research doctor, used to argue that the human gene pool has reached its zenith and is on the decline. He'd cite the recent efforts at promoting intelligent design, ignoring global warming, preventing stem-cell research and the disavowal of science in general. Maybe I'm a pessimist, but I'm beginning to wonder if general aviation, as we know and enjoy it, has also reached its zenith and whether it too is now on a decline.

At the General Aviation Manufacturers Association Annual Industry Review & 2006 Market Outlook Briefing, Jack Pelton, Cessna chairman, president and CEO and GAMA chairman, and Peter Bunce, GAMA president and CEO, likened the forces acting on general aviation to the four aerodynamic forces that impact an airplane in flight: lift, thrust, drag and weight. "Lift" and "thrust" were positive, while "drag" and "weight" were negative influences. It would be nice if we could "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative," but I'm concerned that's not going to be easy to do.

The forces arrayed against general aviation are formidable and growing stronger. Perhaps the most serious threat is the potential for the implementation of user fees. Despite the common sense approach of continuing to employ the current method of using fuel taxes to collect funds, the FAA and the ATA (Air Transport Association) seem hellbent on imposing user fees. A chorus of general aviation associations have been vocal in disputing the FAA's premise that the Aviation Trust Fund is in trouble and questioning its estimate of thousands of very light jets soon joining the fleet and overwhelming the air traffic control system. The alphabet groups insist that general aviation already pays its fair share, but unfortunately, the arguments appear to be falling on ears deafened by politics.

But even without the implementation of user fees or an increase in fuel taxes, we're going to continue to get pummeled by the increasing costs for aviation fuel, parts and maintenance. Another potential "gotcha" is the burgeoning concern about aging aircraft. Initially directed at the airline fleets, attention is now being focused on our general aviation airplanes. The camel's nose under the tent may be the Airworthiness Directive that targeted the T6/SNJ airplanes and mandated that all of them-not just those used in mock dog fighting or aerobatic exhibitions-undergo immediate and repetitive inspections of the inboard and outboard, upper and lower wing attach angles of both wings for fatigue cracks.

In the name of protecting us from terrorists, there are efforts to proliferate and make permanent the temporary flight restriction areas that are designed more as window dressing, to imply that something is being done to keep us safe, than to really thwart any acts of terrorism. Despite proof that our small airplanes don't pose a credible threat, we haven't been successful in convincing those in charge. And we've seen what Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley was able to do in the name of Homeland Security.

In addition to the new threats, there are the perennial barbs and daggers aimed at general aviation by its detractors. Nimble

NIMBY-ites oppose every effort to build a new airport or to even expand or improve an existing airport. And citizen's groups rally around anti-noise, anti-pollution and the fear of falling airplanes to attempt to restrict our access and activities.

Suffice it to say, we face a number of challenges and we can't assume someone else will carry the water for us. We're going to have to be pro-active. But so far it seems most of us have been sitting on our hands. NBAA created a link on its website to allow people to send messages to their government officials but the participation has been disappointing.

Whether general aviation has had its "May" and is now declining toward a cold "December" will depend on whether we can work together to fend off the various slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

But enough pessimism. It's really not all doom and gloom. Recently two people - one May, one December - have revived my faith - and hope - in the future.

The first is Sarah Hanlon, a student pilot who, at 14 years old, won first place and Best in Show among eighth-grade students in both the Twin Counties Science Expedition and the Chatham Middle School Science Fair. I had briefly met Sarah at AirVenture and after learning she was a neighbor arranged a dinner back home for a disparate group of four. In addition to Sarah, the group included Doug Stewart, National Certificated Flight Instructor of the Year for 2004, Sarah's mother Sandy and me. Missing from the gathering was John Kilcer, a pilot and owner of a Europa XS motorglider and Sarah's sixth-grade science teacher and mentor.

I had asked Sarah to show me her science fair project in which she had investigated the relative fuel efficiency of a fleet of corporate jets and turboprops. The presentation seemed a reasonable excuse to get together for dinner and some hangar talk.

In order to compare the airplanes, Sarah planned a flight from Westchester County Airport (HPN), White Plains, New York, to Kansas City International Airport (MCI), Kansas City, Missouri. Using the actual winds aloft for five different days, Sarah compared the flight times, fuel burns and passenger loads at 24,000 feet for both the jets and turboprops and at 37,000 feet for the jets. The display of the results of her research included some 60 graphs. When the results were all in, Sarah's research determined, based on all the factors and the five flights, that the Gulfstream IV was the most efficient. The Bombardier Challenger 300 came in second, followed by the King Air 200. Interestingly, depending on the winds aloft, the King Air and the Challenger switched places on at least one of the days.

What prompts a14 year old to plan an aviation project? Obviously there had to be something that triggered her interest in airplanes. Turns out it was her grandfather who ignited her passion. He had been a gunner on a B-24 that was shot down over the Alps and spent seven days in the mountains before being rescued. One of 11 grandchildren, Sarah was the only one who shared her grandfather's fascination with airplanes and the two would often sit at the Columbia County Airport watching the airplanes landing and taking off.

Sarah's been taking flying lessons from Doug Stewart and, while waiting to be old enough to solo powered airplanes, has joined the Nutmeg Soaring Association to learn to fly gliders.

That evening at the restaurant when I mentioned I was planning to fly the following day, Sarah's eyes lit up. I took the hint and invited her along. She flew my Cardinal a lot better than I would have expected for someone with only some 11 hours. But those hours include time in a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, a Diamond DA-20, a J-3 Cub, Kilcer's Europa XS and a Stearman. When I landed back at the airport I was once again forcefully reminded to be humble; the plunk-down nearly jarred our fillings loose. In an e-mail in which she thanked me for dinner and the ride, Sarah wrote: "I just heard about that landslide in Greenport. We better be quiet about your landing, or else everyone will start pointing at us." No question, if Sarah's indicative of the next crop of pilots, general aviation's in good hands.

If Sarah is the May, then Lou Wise, who was 85 at the end of April, is at the other end of the age spectrum and provides another opportunity to accentuate the positive of general aviation. Wise, who lives in Toronto, Canada, owns a 1968 Piper Cherokee 180 and vows to keep flying as long as he can pass his First Class medical. Most of Wise's flying is to conduct low-level oblique aerial photography for conservation groups in southern Ontario. His photography has helped raise funds to preserve wetlands and other environmental projects. In 1998 he flew above the Rouge River Watershed to photograph the main streams and every tributary to help with planning rehabilitation work, stream cleanup and tree planting. In 2000 he shot the 12 rivers that rise on the north slope of the Oak Ridges Moraine and run into Lake Simcoe, and in 2001 he photographed the 14 rivers in the watershed across the Durham Region for the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority in Oshawa, Ontario.

Like the Energizer Bunny, Wise keeps on flying and photographing. Earlier this spring he learned that funding has been arranged for complete oblique, digital photo coverage of all the rivers and streams in the Kawartha Lakes Conservation Area (northeast of Toronto). "That'll keep me off the streets this spring and summer," he said. "I had my 85th birthday at the end of April and the shooting will get under way in mid-May when the world has turned green again. What better birthday gift could a fellow expect?"

Age is interesting. Satchel Paige, the baseball great, said, "How old would you be, if you didn't know how old you was?" I would guess Sarah feels older than her chronological age and Lou feels younger. For both of them general aviation is making an important contribution to the quality of their lives-and they to ours.

Paige also said, "Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." I wish that were true, but it seems the older I get the quicker time is accelerating. As a result I'm always surprised, for example, that the two years since I renewed my CFII have gone by so quickly. The other day, helped me set up an account on its website for my pilot, engine and airframe logbooks. The program includes timers that display a warning when a required action is imminent. As soon as entered my data a couple of items came up in red indicating, depending on the lead time set for the warnings, that they needed immediate attention.

If you had asked me how long it had been since I had the transponder and pitot/static systems tested (FAR 91.411 and 91.413), I would have said, "I don't know, about a year or so?" But time flies when you're having fun flying and they were both coming up on their 24-month limit. Ouch! I had to scramble to stay legal and just managed to complete the checks on the last day of the month they were due. According to those two checks are the ones most often forgotten by owners.

As a result of the near-expiration of my airplane's legality, I wondered why an enterprising avionics shop doesn't pack a panel truck with the test equipment needed to perform transponder checks and IFR certifications and establish a two-year circuit. Like an itinerant preacher, the van would make the rounds of needy clients. Once an airport was on the circuit, owners would be able to schedule their currency checks and not have to fly their airplane to another airport to have the work done. It would save money and avoid last minute scrambling to get the tests completed.

In the meantime, there are barbarians at the gate. In the past, general aviation has weathered other assaults, and with people like Sarah and Lou, I'm confident it will survive the current onslaught. Nevertheless, I'm still concerned we may have seen its best days. "It's a long, long while from May to December. And the days grow short when you reach September." Are general aviation's days growing shorter? I'm hoping we'll get through this winter and soon it will be spring again.