Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Unplanned Obsolescence


Antiquity is strictly a point of view


As far as that goes, the airplane I fly almost every day was built in 1974. Do the math: It will have its 40th birthday before long. That's nuts! How did that happen? Here's a better question: If it's still doing its job, what difference does it make how old it is? I can answer that: It makes no difference. None at all.

This question of how much age the artifacts in our lives have accumulated is of zero consequence if they still perform the functions we ask of them.

That's one of the beauties of aviation—at least when it comes to the hardware. Every airplane has a mission for which it was designed and, for the most part, those missions haven't changed enough to actually demand a new kind of airplane. The reason we go to a new airplane is usually because of comfort, speed, efficiency and mechanical upkeep. If we based acquisition decisions on how well it was doing the basic job, we'd never change airplanes.

If we're talking about learning to fly, for instance, how much have the requirements changed? Lift, thrust, drag and gravity haven't changed much since Wilbur and Orville's time. So, the only reason trainers have changed has been to increase the ease and cost of operation—nosewheels fly easier than taildraggers, small engines burn less fuel, etc. Past that, what do super sophisticated trainers teach better? An argument could be made that they're actually a downgrade in terms of teaching the basic skills (don't get me started).

And how about going places? On a 500-mile trip (the average general aviation trip), the difference between doing 150 and 200 mph is 45 minutes. Going 125 mph adds another 45 minutes. So, going 500 miles in a simple-as-a-ball-peen-hammer old Tri-Pacer that costs almost nothing to own or buy (relatively speaking) would get us there an hour and a half later than a brand-new, 200 mph hotshot that costs more than our house and more than our mortgage to own. Most of us are flying because we like to fly, so is it worth that much to shorten something we like to do by an hour and a half? The obvious answer is no.

So, should any of us feel bad that parts of our lives have the patina of age on them? No, because that patina only comes from experience. Should we feel old because portions of our memories are judged as antiquated by others? No, because each of those memories taught us something, and the more memories we have, the more we have to pass on.

If we're lucky, our mechanical and mental support systems are still doing their job beautifully. So, there's no reason to update either our hardware or our way of life. There's no reason to change because everything has molded itself to us like a well-worn pair of boots, and that doesn't happen overnight.

The first indication that I've decided things need changing will be when you see me mounted on a pole out in front of a VFW hall with pigeons perched on my head. That's when you'll know I'm officially retired.




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