Aviation is a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them. There’s always something going on, something new, something old, something unbelievable. Perhaps one of the more unbelievable things is that it has been a solid half-century that Plane & Pilot magazine has been on the scene reporting and commenting on aviation. Through its pages, you can see clearly that the world of aviation appears to have lived a very schizophrenic life for the last 50 years: Much has changed, but much has stayed the same.
At The Beginning: 1965
In many ways, this magazine was born into a time of change. Take aerobatics, for instance. For many decades, it had been an obscure sport that existed only at the very fringes of aviation and was populated by a different breed of pilot who flew mostly antique biplanes and ratty military trainers. The year before Plane & Pilot hit the stands, however, Champion Aircraft Corporation did a very unlikely and gutsy thing: It modified its lowly Champ and certified it as an aerobatic airplane, the Citabria. Suddenly, the sweaty, unwashed masses (you and me) had a grassroots, newly built, easy-to-fly, affordable aerobatic trainer available to them. Acro schools popped up around the nation, and a newly created aviation community took firm root.
The years leading up to Plane & Pilot’s first issue were crowded with airplanes, old and new. The Bonanza still wore the crown as America’s premier cross-country airplane. Cessna had led general aviation into modern times with the mid-1950s C-150 and C-172. Its hoped-for Bonanza killer, the C-210, debuted in ’58. Piper continued its move away from rag-and-tube airplanes, but it wasn’t until ’61 that it started the Cherokee line. This proved a viable competitor for Cessna in the training and light personal airplane market. Still, as late as ’64, Piper was still building fabric cousins of the Tri-Pacer—the two-place Colt, alongside modern, low-wing, all-metal touring and training machines. Not to be left out, Beechcraft introduced its new, entry-level single engine line, the Musketeer, in ’63.
At the same time, the darling radio of the 1950s, the Narco Superhomer coffee grinder navcomm was being pushed over the horizon by the fabulous new Narco Mk. 12, which turned out to be not only a terrific, wildly successful radio, but was one of the last tube-type aircraft radios in existence and some of the later, solid-state versions would still be in service for another half century. Better yet, just about every middle-grade airplane had one of them new VOR thingies.
By 1965, the easily seen explosive changes throughout aviation spelled a healthy future and cried out for yet another aviation magazine. And Plane & Pilot answered the call. When the magazine debuted, it was surround by new hardware in every direction. And the changes kept on right on coming. For a while, anyway.
1970s: A Great Beginning, A Tragic End
The first two-thirds of the ’70s was an absolute rocket ride. Airplane sales were going through the roof, and there was no excess inventory. If it was built, it was sold. Aviation had never been healthier and “new” was the name of the game. RG (retractable gear) became a buzzword and was applied to just about every single-engine airplane that flew. Cherokees, Cessnas and even Musketeers, suddenly appeared to have had their legs amputated.
The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) moved its fantastic fly-in from Rockford, Ill., to Oshkosh, Wis., in 1970, eventually moving its entire headquarters and museum there. Today, it’s hard to believe the aviation Disneyland it has built in Aeromecca North and the amount of enthusiasm it channels into all forms of aviation.
New cockpit goodies, especially avionics and navigational aids, began to take aviation by storm. Loran arrived in light aircraft during the decade, but was relatively short lived. GPS first peeked over the horizon in the late ’70s, and the way of aviation’s navigational future was clearly seen, but its real effect wouldn’t be felt for some time to come.
As the decade prepared to draw to a close, times were rosy in Airplaneland. But not for long. In 1965, 11,000 general aviation airplanes were delivered. In 1978, 18,000 new airplanes found their way into owner’s hands. Then the bottom dropped out! Deliveries fell precipitously until, in 1986, 4,000 aircraft were delivered. In 1994 only 928 units were delivered. The great aviation crash of 1978 had happened, and general aviation hasn’t been the same since.
The cause of the abrupt end to 20 years of aviation market growth is complex, but much has to do with huge price increases that are usually attributed to liability insurance. According to some sources, manufacturers’ liability premiums increased nine-fold over a seven-year period. To make matters worse, both GI-Bill flight training and tax investment credits came to an end, and aircraft plants became ghost towns almost overnight.
1980s: A Rebirth Of Sorts
There wasn’t much fun to be had in aviation during the 1980s, especially among the major manufacturers. Cessna, aviation’s single-engine 800-pound gorilla, closed its single-engine plant in 1986. It was a serious period of retrenching during which every aspect of aviation went into survival mode. Everyone except Burt Rutan and the experimental aircraft crowd, that is. They were going a different, definitely more upbeat, direction.
Rutan flew his first composite airplane, the so-called glass-backwards foambuilt VariEze, in 1975. The 1980s saw him and the creative folks he hired produce a wildly imaginative, highly efficient series of canard composite aircraft. Each involved a clean-sheet-of-paper design approach in which Rutan found forgotten bits of technology, namely winglets and canards, and put them to work in the modern world. He openly says he invented nothing new, although his “moldless” form of composite for homebuilts hadn’t been seen outside of the surfboard world. His line of homebuilt, otherworldly designs brought new technologies to aviation, and it wasn’t long before his contributions began to be felt in the more serious parts of the aviation community. He left homebuilt aircraft completely behind in 1985, as Scaled Composites, his company that’s dedicated to “doin’ neat stuff,” took off.
Rutan has left his mark in aviation in many indelible ways, but in 1986, when his Voyager circled the globe non-stop, unrefueled, he made a mark no one can erase. Or equal.
1990s: It’s Alive! Aviation Begins To Breath Again
The Rutan Effect—his proving of the viability of composite construction in powered planes—easily jumped the divide between experimental homebuilts and certified aircraft in the 1990s. In some ways, his making “plastic” airplanes socially acceptable is responsible for a whole new generation of manufacturers, most of whom got into the game in the ’90s. This caused a shake-up in the traditional structure of general aviation manufacturing, which had previously been dominated by the “Big Three” (Cessna, Piper, and Beech). Composites became the name of the game, and new marquis began to pop up on the list of active aircraft manufactures.
Overseas, composites gained acceptance faster than it did here in the U.S., with the Austrian-designed, Canadian-built Diamond Katana hitting the airways in 1995. If nothing else, the Katana set new standards for aeronautical sex appeal. It also proved to the world that with composites, any shape was possible, making it difficult for a manufacturer to think of using any other form of manufacturing.
In 1984, the Klapmeier brothers, then of Baraboo, Wis., cut their composite teeth on the VK-30, a high-performance, pusher experimental kit, which gave them the experience to create aviation’s modern success story: the Cirrus. Making its first flight in 1999, the Cirrus has become the standard for four-place, cross-country flying and, to date, Cirrus Aircraft has sold more than 6,000 copies, something that hasn’t been seen in the aviation market for decades. On top of making glass airplanes (both in the cockpit and in the airframe) the standard, it proved that something as seemingly out in left field as a ballistic parachute can be a valuable sales tool.
The tailwheel, which had some sort of fear-oriented karma attached to it, once again regained its rightful place in aviation and companies like Aviat (Pitts, Husky), Cub Crafters (Super Cub clones) and American Champion got a shot in the arm.
Possibly the most important development during the 1990s was GPS. It had been around for years as a military/governmental navaid, but some of its features were restricted. Then the restrictions were lifted and handheld GPS’s hit the shelves. By the end of the decade, any other form of navigation was relegated to second or third place.
2000s: Today Is On the Way
Look around: what we’re seeing today is the net result of events, good and bad, that were sprinkled through the 2000s. The collateral effects of 9/11, for instance, are seen in every aspect of daily life. It’s most obvious on airline trips, but it also can be seen at the local airport level. We’re asked to report “suspicious behavior” to airport security, CFIs have to track their students, etc., even mid-sized airports have grown miles of fencing, which make it even more difficult for people interested in aviation to gain access to it. At the same time, when Al-Qaeda made transitioning through airline airports, an already irritating experience, even more aggravating, it gave corporate and charter aviation an invigorating boost. The only way to avoid the hassles and possible terrorist threats is with your own airplane. Several new generations of corporate jets, very light jets (VLJs)
and turbine twin growth were all part of this effect.
At the lower end of the scale, the creation of the light-sport aircraft (LSA) category created yet another entirely new, and healthy, aircraft community. At the very least, it became easier to stay in the flying game when our health begins to slip.
The need to get across country fast and avoid airline airports helped fuel Cirrus and Cessna Columbia sales, both of which combined the fast-moving trend toward composite airframes sporting all glass cockpits. Digital everything had taken over.
2010s: The Rise Of Pad Navigation And Chinese Aviation
As quickly as avionics manufacturers have been developing ever-more sophisticated panel-mounted, avionics/navigational suites, Apple and other smartpad manufacturers (iPads, etc.) have been in the process of beating traditional avionics suppliers at their own game. Software authors took dead aim at the navigational and informational needs of the general aviation pilot and gave them everything they could possibly want in a portable device at bargain prices.
Another trend, this one somewhat disturbing, includes the Chinese purchase of major portions of the U.S. aviation industrial complex. Groups in that country, most of them allied with their government, have bought Cirrus, Continental Motors, the Glasair Glastar two-place experimental (they plan to certify it for training) and CubCrafter’s Top Cub line just to name a few. It’s going to be interesting to see if Cessna’s discontinued 162 Skycatcher, built entirely in China, will resurface under another name for China’s own training use.
And The Beat Goes On
Scanning back over the last 50 years of GA’s ups and downs borders on being exhausting. However, for those who yearn for simpler times, take solace in the fact that the C-172 and 182 are still with us, 59 years after the fact. Some things never change. But, if they do change, you can count on Plane & Pilot being there to report on it. Enjoy the next 50!