When you get familiar with something important to you, it’s easy to forget its substance and focus on its form. That’s true with brands like ours, Plane & Pilot. It’s probably not something you think about beyond the fact that it’s a name you know and hopefully trust and maybe even love. I know that’s how I always viewed it.
But then on a flight one warm evening recently I thought about it some more and came away looking at it completely differently. I realized that not only is our title descriptive of what the brand stands for; it is in fact the perfect brand name. No disrespect intended, but our title doesn’t talk about a broad subject, as some others do, and it doesn’t refer back to the organization for which it stands, as a few others do as well. No, Plane & Pilot recognizes the two pertinent facts about what we do. Those of us who create the content, our staff and incredibly talented contributors, are all pilots who love airplanes. Plane & Pilot: it’s what we love; it’s who we are.
And it’s not only for now but forever.
We recently received a submission for our Lessons Learned about Flying (and about life) column from a gentleman who flew for many decades but who, at age 88, no longer flies. He wrote about a time when the rear window of his Cessna 150 (yes, it was called Omnivision) paid off in more than marketing terms. Something having to do with F-4s and how a Cessna 150 isn’t quite as fast as the McDonnell Douglas fighter jets are. This Plane & Pilot reader wasn’t a former pilot. He was and always will be a pilot. The knowledge, the experience, the memories and the inner takeaway of being a pilot are deeper and stronger than anyone who’s not a pilot can ever understand.
Pilots are special people, and that’s not just emotion. It’s quantifiable. Less than one percent of people in America are pilots. It’s a much smaller percentage if you’re a woman pilot, too, as women make up just about five percent of active pilots, a figure that has been stubbornly and inexplicably far too low for decades. (For the record, I think around 50/50 would be a good ratio.)
It’s not just pride based upon rarity, though. It’s tough to become a pilot. As I was reviewing a private pilot study course for this issue, I realized how incredibly arcane much of the required pilot knowledge is. How many landings do you need to make to a full stop (why not touch-and-goes) to stay current to fly at night, with passengers? Why not solo? Why no instructor required? And how frequently must you maintain this currency? If you know the answer, congratulations. You’re almost certainly a pilot.
But think of someone coming to aviation with little background knowledge. How can they possibly be expected to learn and remember all of these tiny details? I don’t know either, but that’s what we expect of people looking to become pilots. And the amazing thing is, somehow they pull it off. All of us did it. It wasn’t easy. Far from it. But we did it. And we’ve kept on learning, picking up all kinds of new information and skills, sometimes because we were seeking higher ratings and sometimes because we’ve become addicts, needing our daily (okay, many times daily) aviation fix.
There’s a new way of looking at discretionary income that perfectly jibes with what we pilots know about what matters in life. The idea is that experience is more important than possessions. The thinking goes that possessions are merely things, important insomuch as we get experience from them. A nice new guitar is great, but it pales in comparison to the experience of sitting around in the evening playing guitar and singing songs with friends and family. The ideal would be to pair that new guitar with friends and family and song.
This is nothing new to pilots. The perfect combination for us is a plane, people we care about, faraway places and the experience of all we see and do there. Included in that experience is a part of it that only the pilot will really understand, being in command of a flying adventure based on our hard-won knowledge, skills and experience.
Owning an airplane is the most rewarding ownership experience I’ve had in my life. I’ve got an old Fender Telecaster I love, a speedy, carbon-fiber road bike that weighs less than the guitar, and some antique furniture we got for a steal. With none of those things, as wonderful as they are, can I do what I do in my old Skylane: travel in three dimensions and take in the world below unfolding before me as I fly.
And we only get that opportunity because we decided at some point to make the crazy decision to do the seemingly impossible and learn how to fly.
Short of putting a kid through school or buying the family home, it’s the best money any of us has ever spent. Or ever will.
I’m comfortable with change. In fact, don’t feel fully alive unless I’m doing new things and trying wild ideas. I rock climb, I run competitively, I play rock and roll and, oh yeah, I fly planes. The plane I own, a Cessna Skylane, isn’t a brand-new model but a 53-year-old one, an antique by most measures but designed and built in many ways the same as Cessna is building them today. In some regards, that’s good, but in others, it’s not so good. The Skylane is a great plane. It’s strong, it performs well and it’s roomy and powerful enough to haul four grown-ups with enough range to go somewhere far away.
At the same time, the 182 is an old plane. Mine has antique radios (a fact I’ve written about before), and an antique engine—the Continental O-470 six-cylinder opposed carbureted gas piston engine. Today’s Skylane has space-age electronics and an updated version of a comparable model powerplant, the Lycoming IO-540, a six-banger, too, but with fuel injection and…well, that’s about all that’s different. It still has magneto ignition, the same engineering design as it had 50 years ago and the same basic prop configuration, too.
In 50 years, we’ve seen a lot of progress in powerplant technology in the automotive, motorcycle and even the watercraft segments. In light aviation, however, technology has largely passed us by. Okay, the materials used to build our engines are better, and the tolerances to which they’re built are tighter too. And there are a few aero-diesel engines out there that are pushing the progress envelope, too, but in all fairness many of them are based on auto engines. The larger truth is that we need disruptive powerplants if new planes are ever going to be an option again for consumers who are less than independently wealthy.
True, there are certain questions we need to ask ourselves when we think about mixing things up. The most critical is this: Will changing the way things are done wind up costing lives? In the case of allowing non-certificated avionics into light planes, the answer is almost certainly no. In fact, the change will almost certainly save lives.
When looking at disruptive policy changes, one also needs to ask what the purpose of the disruption is. With the Part 23 rewrite, which identifies safety guided-consensus standards as the driving goal behind the certification of light planes, the goal is twofold: to create a smarter, more efficient means of certification for light planes while maintaining an equivalent level of safety. In reality, the changes will do far more than that. They won’t just keep the accident record where it is, which is unacceptably high, but it will improve upon it, in part by giving existing small planes far better avionics options than have ever been possible before. The avionics revolution, mark my words, is only getting started.
The other thing it’ll do is allow manufacturers to offer new type-certificated sub-12,000-pound airplanes, maybe as many as a dozen a year, instead of half a dozen a decade. The change will also allow the FAA to address certification applications in a far more efficient manner. By all accounts, they’re doing a great job despite being woefully understaffed. For every complaint I hear from manufacturers about the FAA process, I hear a dozen compliments.
I say let’s put our money behind changes having to do with cheaper, smarter technology, modern, fuel-efficient and economical powerplants, and maintaining our nation’s aviation infrastructure, from the little airports right up through the behemoths. And let’s turn our disruptive attention to those places in the system where change is long overdue.
After all, disruption when applied with thought and with the right motives is the way to make any complex system better and more efficient. When it’s done for the wrong reasons, it’s a way to more deeply entrench all the bad things we’d like to get rid of in the first place. And, yes, that means privatizing ATC. Let’s all just say no.