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Going Direct: There’s A Deep State In Aviation, But It’s Not What You Think

Why a few big, completely wrongheaded ideas prevent us from achieving a more perfect flying world.

Deep State in Aviation
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There’s a kind of Deep State in Aviation, but it’s not what you think. There’s no established, underground organization of political operatives seeking to impose their will on the private flyer and aircraft owner. But there is a collective set of ideas, an orthodoxy that drives aviation down a pathway that works to limit innovation, consumer choice and, to some degree, basic aviation safety. I’m not naïve enough to think that just by identifying it we can change it. But at least it’s a start.

As with everything in culture, and even in science and technology, today’s heroes were yesteryear’s objects of mockery. People today forget that the pioneers of our digital world were often ridiculed as geeks and nerds, and their inventions were seen as fringe tech, stuff that no one would ever want or need. At some point, it might have been laughable to mock the idea of email or social networking. Now those things are so ingrained into our culture, for better and for worse, that’s it’s frankly hard to understand how we ever could have questioned their value, or at least their desirability.

A big part of that dogged orthodoxy is our bad habit of idealizing the good old days.  For us, that would be the 1960s and 1970s, when factories in Wichita and Vero Beach were cranking them out by the thousands every year, when planes were cheap and avgas was cheaper. There was a good FBO on every block, hardworking reasonably priced mechanics under every shade tree and… Well, you get the idea. The truth is, the past really was pretty good, but even then, observers understood why it was so. It was all demographics and economics. With WWII-era folks and then early Boomers enjoying the benefits of an unprecedented economic expansion, the numbers were on our side then. They’re not now. So on the subject of going back to the good old days… yeah, it’s not going to happen.

In aviation, innovation has always gotten a similar treatment. Back in the 1960s when Mooney came out with positive control, which is basically a full-time automatic wing leveler, there was an underground trade in homebrewed tech to defeat the thing. Same with Piper’s automatic gear extension feature, though there were, to be fair, some actual issues involved with it.

Still, when the 90s rolled around, two things pushed the industry into new realms that were even harder to reconcile. The two most transformative ones were digital technology and, for lack of a better compartment for it, something I’ll refer to as novel safety technologies.

Some in the old guard were ready for high-tech, and business aviation early on embraced technologies such as head-up displays, digital heading and attitude and advanced flight management systems, but those systems were in Gulfstreams and Falcon jets, and the world wasn’t quite ready for how quickly those technologies would migrate down into the world of GA.

A few companies saw it all coming, and one in particular, Garmin, realized that this new wave of digital hardware along with a new satellite constellation known as GPS would allow it to create technologies we little airplane folks could only have dreamt of 25 years ago. Numerous other companies, from ForeFlight to Bose to Cirrus to BRS, have ascended into aviation prominence riding a similar new-tech wave, and in every case they did so by believing in a technology that few others did and committing to its promise. These innovative companies all succeeded by seeing through the arbitrary barriers that deeply ingrained patterns of belief have imposed on all of us in aviation.

I’m tempted to say that in order to get to where we want to be—economically feasible flying for large numbers of pilots—we have to change everything. The FAA, with its byzantine layers of rules regarding both plane and pilot certification, is a case in point. To its credit, it has liberalized its certification processes for many things light-plane related, thanks to innovative thinking that started at least 15 years ago from the Small Airplane Directorate. Behind that thinking is this revolutionary idea: If safety isn’t affected by liberalizing a rule, say, with basic med, or retrofit avionics upgrades, then why on earth would be we against it?

I’m not against regulation. Far from it. I entitled a Going Direct column from more than a decade ago, “Why Certification Matters,” and I still believe every word.

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But behind my belief in regulation and effective oversight is an equally strong belief that regulation and oversight needs to, one, be responsive to facts and, two, be readily changeable when new facts emerge.

With Basic Med a big success with apparently no attendant loss of safety, why not go all in with a driver’s license-style medical and retire the 3rd Class medical for good? Europe has had great success with its far more liberal advanced ultralights, which allow for bigger and faster machines certificated under relaxed regulations. Why wouldn’t we want that too? The commercial license practical test is a throwback to the 1950s. Why not bid farewell to eights on pylons and lazy eights, and replace those odd and arbitrary maneuvers with ones that matter a lot more in real life?

The answers in defense of questions like these will vary. But it often comes down to the fact that people are comfortable with the way it has always been done (whether that’s really true or not) and the fact that those attitudes are entrenched in the many bureaucracies that make up the FAA. This top-heavy, change-averse infrastructure of orthodoxy are the very fabric of the aviation Deep State.

The good news is that the solution to this kind of tyranny is easy. Look at the data and try new things, and if the old rules get in the way of doing that, change the rules. It really should be that easy.

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