Top 20 Aviation Stories of 2012

Join us as we take a look back at the biggest happenings of the year.

19. NTSB Safety Study Targets Experimental Aircraft The NTSB put the experimental segment on its most needed improvements hit list, citing the poor safety record of homebuilts — they account for nearly a quarter of all U.S. GA fatal accidents and currently number more than 30,000 strong. The recommendations in essence call for changes to the way that homebuilts are certificated. The Board asked for better planning, data collection and implementation of homebuilt flight testing, as well as improved teamwork by industry insiders in making the segment safer. The NTSB’s recommendations were the result of the most exhaustive study of the safety of homebuilts ever conducted, with the organization looking at accident data and survey responses from thousands of pilots and working with the homebuilt community to study the issue Read more here.
18. Congress Passes FAA Reauthorization Bill After enduring 23 short-term funding extensions since 2007, the FAA breathed easier when Congress finally passed a long-term bill authorizing $63.4 billion in agency funding. The bill, passed in February, includes money for the FAA to move forward through 2015 with strategic initiatives such as NextGen, airport improvements and unleaded avgas research. Aviation groups hailed the bill's passage, and were especially happy that it didn't include user fees or fuel tax increases. Despite the milestone, the agency has spent the last several months worrying about what would happen to its newly won funding should sequestration cuts related to the fiscal cliff go into effect after January 1. We may find out soon enough.
17. Pilots Bill of Rights Becomes Law After years of lobbying aimed at bolstering support for pilot protections, those efforts came to fruition this fall, when Congressional representatives in the House and Senate signed the Pilots Bill of Rights into law. The legislation – spearheaded by Sen. James Inhofe (R – Okla.), who notoriously landed his Cessna 340 on a closed runway in 2010 – guarantees pilots access to investigative reports and any evidence that may used against them 30 days prior to any enforcement action, as well as the opportunity to fight such actions in federal court. The bill also calls for a more clear and efficient medical certification process, as well as a streamlining of the notam system in order to make the information more easily understood and accessed by pilots. Read more here.
16. Sandy Cripples Northeast Aviation As Superstorm Sandy slammed the East Coast in late October, coastal airports took the much of the brunt of the hurricane's wrath. Several Northeast airports, including Teterboro and Newark in New Jersey, New Haven, Bridgeport and Groton/New London in Connecticut and New York LaGuardia, suffered serious flooding and damage. The storm, which will go down as the second costliest in U.S. history behind only Hurricane Katrina in 2005, caused an estimated $65 billion in damage. The storm wiped out entire towns along the coast, and caused power outages that lingered in many areas for weeks and displaced thousands. At least 253 people were killed by the storm in seven countries. Read more here.
15. Neil Armstrong Passes When the first astronaut set foot on the moon back in 1969, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate quote: "That's one step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." Those were the famous words immortalized by Neil Armstrong, who passed away this year at the age of 82 as a result of complications from heart surgery. Together with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong spent about 2.5 hours exploring the moon, collecting rocks and erecting an American flag flanked by a plaque with the inscription "We came in peace for all mankind." Although the moonwalkers became instant heroes to millions around the world, Armstrong remained a humble and very private man throughout his life. Read more here.
14. ADS-B Explodes on the Scene The mandate for all of us to equip with automatic dependent surveillance broadcast equipment by 2020 turned out to be a rare example of a rule with which pilots were itching to comply. Garmin (with its GDL 39) and the partnership of Appareo, Foreflight and Sporty's (wih the Stratus product) came out with remarkably popular portable ADS-B solutions, Garmin's with traffic. The big draw, of course, is free, no-subscription uplinked aviation weather that approaches satellite weather in terms of the scope and quality of its offerings. Other companies, including Dual and Dynon, announced new products. Garmin, Free Flight, Avidyne and others, came out with products that support the 2020 ADS-B mandate. Sales are reported to be very hot, which makes for another first, pilots rushing to equip long before the date of a mandate. Pilots are also reportedly making themselves expert on the complex and still emerging technology, a trend for which, if true, we at Flying will claim at least partial credit.
13. Felix Baumgartner Makes Skydiving History The world was watching in anticipation as Felix Baumgartner stepped out of his space capsule at 128,100 feet — the highest altitude from which anyone had ever jumped before. Weather had delayed the record-breaking mission, but on October 14 the stratospheric balloon successfully elevated Baumgartner and his capsule to the final altitude. In addition to breaking the record for the highest skydiving mission in history, the Austrian daredevil surpassed the speed of sound during his harrowing descent. Despite losing control momentarily, tumbling through space like a ragdoll, Baumgartner returned to earth safely and made a picture perfect landing on his own two feet. Read more here.
12. Leaded Avgas Fight Heats Up As the search for renewable energy continues, the pressure to find an alternative to leaded avgas reached an all-time high this year as environmental groups stepped up legal action aimed at eliminating the widely used fuel. In March the environmental organization Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against the EPA, alleging the organization has dragged its feet on a 2006 petition for new lead emissions standards. In addition to environmental groups, lawmakers and GA lobbyists have stepped up their calls for Congressional action on the issue, with a number of representatives urging the FAA to speed up the search for avgas alternatives in anticipation of the ultimate replacement fuel deadline of 2018, a deadline that continues to loom over many GA pilots uncertain about their fuel future. Read more here.
11. Piper Turns 75 Piper's 75th anniversary was a cause for celebration, and not just because it marked the start of the venture originally from Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Every time the company turns a year older, so too does the iconic Piper J-3 Cub, perhaps the best loved GA airplane of all time. Piper held a fly-in at its headquarters in Vero Beach, Florida, in November, and the Cub fly-in in Lock Haven in June was well attended, but the real party was held on the grounds of EAA's Oshkosh show over the summer. The celebration started with the "Cubs 2 Oshkosh" event, a coordinated flight of 75 J-3s that flew in single file from Wisconsin's Hartford Municipal Airport to Wittman Regional. They joined a veritable sea of Cub Yellow parked on the Oshkosh showgrounds. The assortment of airplanes included an original Taylor E-2 Cub, forerunner to the J-3, and the only two flying examples in the world of Cubs with Lenape Papoose three-cylinder radial engines. These days, Piper does quite well in Vero Beach with its popular lineup of M-class singles. Read more here.
10. iPad Rules the Market Arguably never before in aviation history has a product so dominated a new segment of the market as the iPad has. The elegant Apple tablet computer showed up a year earlier but in 2012 saw enormous growth, as increasingly powerful and capable apps, including industry leading charting and nav apps from Jeppesen, ForeFlight, Garmin and Hilton Software, hit the scene. But that only scratches the surface of the wave of apps to emerge, from pilot logbook programs to straight chart readers, from maintenance scheduling to flight plan filing. While hard numbers are hard to come by, it's believed that around 200,000 pilots are using an iPad before, during and/or after the time they go flying. And with Foreflight and Jeppesen making strong pushes into business aviation, charter and airline markets, it's clear that the future of aviation charting goes through Apple.
9. Return of Reno After the devastating crash of Jimmy Leeward's P-51 in September 2011, which killed 11 and injured more than 70, the future of the Reno Air Races was thrust into a realm of uncertainty. In the wake of the tragedy, the storied event — held every year since 1964, and one of the few remaining air races in the world — faced a number of seemingly overwhelming challenges, including nationwide public scrutiny, a budget shortfall of $1.5 million and a new requirement for a $100 million insurance policy. Despite those obstacles, the show bounced back, raising the funds needed to meet its high financial obligations and implementing a wide array of new safety measures to reduce the risks associated with the event. Those efforts paid off this September, when the show boasted strong attendance numbers, beautiful weather and races to remember, setting the stage for next year's 50th Reno Air Races anniversary. Read more here. (Photo courtesy of Jim Bryant)
8. Cessna Unveils Diesel 182 With the possible extinction of 100LL in the offing, the near-term future of light aircraft power might well be running on kerosene. Cessna got into the game this year with the introduction at Oshkosh of its diesel powered Skylane, which will replace the turbo Skylane in the company's lineup. Powered by an SMA diesel engine manufactured to Cessna's specs, the new Skylane will offer outstanding hot-and-high performance, fuel efficiency and excellent high-end speeds in the mid-teens. Cessna hopes to certify the new 182 early in the coming year. While it isn't saying anything specifically, we wouldn't be surprised to see other new Cessna diesel models appear in 2013. Read more here.
7. Electronics Innovations Major avionics manufacturers turned up the heat on the competition with new suites and new devices. Garmin jumped with both feet into the Part 25 game, with announcements that its G5000 would be on the new Citations, Latitude and Longitude, and Learjet 70 and 75, to go with previous wins on the Citation X and HondaJet, among others. The closely related touch-controlled G2000 won a place on the new Cessna Corvalis. Rockwell Collins' remarkable new Fusion suite entered service on the equally remarkable Bombardier Global 6000, a new intercontinental jet that is the current state of the art of the "Global" lineup of uber-high-end bizjets. Rockwell Collins and Honeywell also continued to work on integrating head-up products into the primary flight display, utilizing different approaches to the problem while inciting enthusiastic debate on the subject. Perhaps one of the most interesting developments, still in its infancy, is the emergence of small, digital self-contained attitude displays, including a popular one from Dynon Avionics, which give pilots an affordable backup to their built-in attitude systems. Read more here.
6. Big Business Jets Dominate Few could have predicted the blockbuster deals for new large-cabin business jets that would be placed in 2012 considering the continuing economic headwinds faced by the major manufacturers. Still, two record-setting deals were struck this year, first when NetJets in June placed the largest private jet order in history with purchases of up to 425 new airplanes from Cessna and Bombardier valued at $9.6 billion at list prices. That news was followed in November by an announcement from Europe's Vistajet, which placed a bulk order for large jets with Bombardier that could be worth up to $7.8 billion if all sales are exercised. Other business jet makers posted positive results throughout the year, in particular Gulfstream, which introduced the G650 and G280 models to rave reviews. In its latest market forecast released in October, Honeywell said it foresees increasing sales of business jets, and especially large-cabin jets, with the total figure predicted to tally a healthy $250 billion between now and 2022.
5. Drones on the Horizon It's hard to believe how fast it's happened, but the future of light aircraft manufacturing, or at least a big part of it, suddenly looks to be unmanned. Congress surprised everybody not paying careful attention this year by passing a sweeping initiative that would mandate the integration into the national airspace system of drones — or UAS, for "unmanned aerial systems." The pace of integration is staggering with the lightest drones slated to start being flown any day now and much larger drones getting worked into the system within only a few years, all this despite the lack of any established system to allow UAS to sense and avoid airplanes being flown by human beings. Member organizations, including AOPA and EAA, seemed to come to the defense of GA late. The FAA has put the brakes on the integration plan for now, in part because of general concerns over privacy. Read more here.
4. Gulfstream G280 and G650 Certified In a milestone year for the company, Gulfstream received certification for not one but two revolutionary airplanes — the G280 and the flagship G650. With the ability to travel 7,000 nm at Mach 0.85, the G650 unites speed and range in a killer combo unparalleled by any other business jet on the planet. Add to that the advanced Planeview II cockpit, complete with enhanced vision, synthetic vision and head-up display, along with all the creature comforts one would expect from one of the world's supreme business aircraft, and the G650 has all the makings for a lengthy future of success. The G280 also brings immense innovation to its super-midsize class, relying on a technologically advanced wing and robust Honeywell HTF7250G engines to give it the best performance in its class. With numerous innovative safety features, such as autobraking and autothrottles, the G280, like its G650 stablemate, is not only an outstanding performer, but a complete package that delivers on all fronts. Read more here.
3. China's Aviation Ascendency Chinese firms have been on a multibillion-dollar buying spree, snapping up U.S. companies at a record pace. Some of the most headline-worthy acquisitions have come in aviation, starting with the purchases of Continental Motors and Cirrus in 2011 and continuing this year with buyouts of Epic Aircraft in Bend, Oregon, and Glasair in Arlington, Washington. Those latter deals came just before an abortive attempt by Superior Aviation Beijing to buy the assets of Hawker Beechcraft. Then, the biggest deal by far surfaced this month after a group of Chinese companies announced a plan to buy a majority of aircraft leasing giant ILFC from AIG for $4.8 billion. Chinese firms have formed joint ventures and manufacturing alliances, meanwhile, with nearly every major aircraft manufacturer in the world. Analysts say it's all part of a strategy by China to become an aviation powerhouse in the next 10 to 20 years. Read more here.
2. Hawker Beechcraft’s Wild Ride The wild roller coaster ride Hawker Beechcraft found itself on in 2012 finally appears nearly over as the company prepares to emerge from bankruptcy as a leaner manufacturer focused on the Beechcraft line of piston and turboprop models. After several years of troubles, the turbulence worsened in the spring when Hawker Beechcraft filed for bankruptcy. The Wichita manufacturer soon found itself battling against Embraer over an Air Force light-attack aircraft contract. Next, it received and then lost a $1.79 billion buyout bid from China before announcing a restructuring plan that would see the company shelve its entire business jet portfolio and come back under just the Beechcraft name. That's predicted to happen sometime in February now that the company's new owners have pledged the funding that will be needed to launch several new products over the next five years, the first of which could be a PT6-powered single tentatively named the King Air 220. Read more here.
1. The Continuing Economic Downturn It’s not a feel good story, and we’re far from alone in this, but the issue that once again defined the year for GA was the stubborn economic downturn. The continuing result is a slowdown in all facets of general aviation, from sales of sport aircraft up through jets, ongoing economic difficulties for all of the companies still in the game, with thousands of job losses as well as the loss of key players and products, including the former Hawker Beechcraft’s line of bizjets. Somewhat surprisingly, flight activity leveled off, prompting predictions that we have reached a “new normal,” a phrase with which we take exception but that we’ve heard repeated often in the industry. The hope is that next year in this spot we’ll be able to feature the vigorous economic recovery as the year’s top story.
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