1. Comments made by NASA head Jim Bridenstine on the future of autonomous flight were simultaneously refreshingly and disturbingly honest. In an interview with EAA head Jack Pelton during EAA’s Spirit of Aviation Week, Bridenstine, a former FA/18 pilot and homebuilder, said offhandedly that planes flown autonomously would be safer than those flown by pilots. First, ouch. Second, I’m happy that we’re a long way from the point at which this will threaten what we do, though it’s not hard to envision a future in which human pilots are seen as a societal risk. Politicians and the mainstream public are already too quick to demonize pilots and aviation, both of which present negligible risk to public safety, especially when, without naming names, compared to activities that are broadly accepted.
2. It’s hard to believe that a few months ago I was seriously wondering if writing about the pandemic a month in advance, which is the typical lead time for Plane & Pilot to go to print, would put the title at risk of being out of date by the time the magazine hit the stands. Ha. We’re in this for the long run, and like it or not, energy spent months ago arguing about whether or not Sun ‘n Fun 2020 would happen or not might have been better expended arguing over next year’s Sun ‘n Fun. The event, scheduled for April 13-18, 2021, is at real risk. At the rate that vaccines are being developed, it will be a close call whether one will be widely available and distributed by then. And by the looks of it, that’s the only way large public gatherings will happen again.
3. Speaking of the pandemic, airlines are formulating their long-term plans to address staffing after the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have receded to the point that people are flying again in great numbers. Anyone who has soberly observed the actions of the airlines over the years—including the 737 Max fiasco and the irresponsible actions keeping flight crews and passengers safe during COVID-19 times—knows that money trumps everything else. The pandemic has pushed American and international carriers to the financial brink, and they will be furloughing large numbers of pilots. I think it’s safe to assume that many, if not all, of them will use this health crisis as a way to clear the salaries of senior pilots, enabling them to cut salaries going forward. The repercussions of that purge, should it happen, will be far reaching.
4. Which makes one wonder how a new pilot staffing normal will affect flight-training organizations. My initial assumption once it became clear that the pandemic would be widespread was that it would decimate business for schools that train people to become commercial pilots, but that might not be the case. If large numbers of current pilots are forced out, which appears might be the case, then there will be a need for new pilots. One large operator of flight schools, ATP, is betting big that business will stay brisk. It recently placed an order for 100 new Piper aircraft, which is the opposite of what it would do if it weren’t bullish on the future of training.
5. Is there any doubt that electric aircraft will soon be the predominant training platforms? The certification of Pipistrel’s Velis electric trainer by European regulators is a big deal. This doesn’t mean that the Velis will become a common training aircraft here in the States, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues with operating a plane with a two-hour max endurance, but its emergence and growing order book aren’t because flight schools think it’s cool looking, though it kind of is. It’s because the economics of training are so hard to justify, in large part because fuel costs represent the biggest expenditure for busy operations. The cost of recharging the Velis’ battery from zero to 100% is estimated at less than $5, which is the price of a gallon of avgas in many places. At that price per gallon, putting 56 gallons of gas—the capacity—in a Cessna Skyhawk runs $280, or about a hundred bucks per lesson.
6. Speaking of electric trainers, will legacy American manufacturers be developing electric trainers? If they’re already doing it, they’ve kept it quiet. Perhaps they are biding their time and staying happy with fleet orders for their existing four-seat piston-powered planes, or maybe they’re figuring that their expertise making GA planes will allow them to pivot to building electrics quickly. I’m not sure if that is true or not. On the one hand, there is a growing body of industrial practice in building electric vehicles, if not electric planes. So emerging electric plane makers won’t have to create everything from scratch. There will be, or already is, a lot of existing knowledge and product related to such things as battery usage, power management, charging protocols and infrastructure design and implementation. But when it comes to airframe design, how different will that have to be to accommodate practical electric flight, by which I mean “efficient.” Insiders I’ve spoken with at different companies tell me that an understanding of sailplanes is probably more relevant to electric aircraft airframe design than expertise in building gas piston-powered planes would be. So while today’s strategy of taking a measured approach to electric planes R&D might sound fiscally conservative, it might wind up costing much more in the long run.
7. We’re facing a couple of big threats to GA right now, but the most immediate is from the threat of insurance premiums pricing pilots right out of ownership. A big part of the problem was the tornadoes that ripped through the southeast United States earlier this year, resulting in scores of planes, many of them turbines, being totaled and insurance companies on the hook for a lot of associated costs, like leasing a new plane for the policyholder while the storm-damaged one is being repaired. AOPA has reported that it has been communicating with insurance companies about the issue and is quick to point out to them that GA safety is improving and accidents are declining. AOPA suggests staying safe and not switching insurance carriers right now. We agree and like you are hoping for a much less punishing storm season next year.
8. With a declining number of good-quality, affordable used planes, as we get further and further away from the 1960s and 1970s, many are asking what planes will replace those great old models. Those legacy aircraft are not only getting older, but many are otherwise dropping out, some abandoned and unrestorable, along with hundred each year being lost in accidents. New planes are an obvious answer, but the cost of new planes, even LSA, are out of reach for many would-be owners. Filling the gap for many are used homebuilt aircraft, some of which are increasing in demand. The asking price for a good-quality Kitfox (fueled by the backcountry movement) has gone up by multiples over the past decade of little inflation in the general economy. Buying an amateur-built airplane has risks, but there are numerous benefits, too, and EAA has programs in place to help members who are would-be buyers make the right call. With appropriate due diligence, a homebuilt can be an excellent option. There’s little doubt that this segment is a big part of the future of personal aviation.