Here are the biggest aviation news stories of 2021!
1. Pandemic Continues:
By far the top story this year, again, was the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of which affected aviation in countless ways. At this writing, more than 800,000 Americans have died from the disease caused by the virus since it hit early in the year in 2020, and there have been more than 50 million cases of the disease. Longtime AOPA Pilot journalist Mike Collins died from complications of COVID-19 last spring. Numerous events were cancelled in the wake of the pandemic. On the other hand, the use of chartered planes and private bizjets is through the roof, as travelers shun the airlines and get there their own way.
Longtime Flying columnist Martha Lunken got whacked by the FAA for her admittedly impulsive decision to fly under a bridge near Cincinnati, Ohio. The agency pulled all of Lunken’s pilot certificates as punishment for the stunt, and the news ignited a fiery debate among pilots about both Lunken’s and the FAA’s actions in the matter.
It came to light in 2021 that the FAA was using ADS-B data to bust pilots for flying illegally in some way. Not only did the agency use the data to support ongoing enforcement actions, but it reportedly used it to initiate enforcement actions.
The real title here we’d argue should be, “Santa Clara County Airport Board Uses 100LL As An Excuse To Close Reid-Hillview Airport.” Following a report that it had commissioned showing higher concentrations of lead in the environment close to the airport, the Board announced that it would close the airport as a result. They did not address the fact that several board members had been trying to shut down the airport for years before the County got the Board’s report. The story also brought to light the fact that the FAA and general aviation groups have been unable to solve the leaded fuel problem despite having decades to do so.
Usually, a story that has the word “midair” in it has tragedy in the next clause, but not in this case. In May, a freight-carrying turboprop twin collided with a Cirrus SR22 near Centennial Airport near Denver, Colorado. The pilot of the Cirrus activated the whole-airplane parachute ,and he and another occupant alighted safely in a nearby park. The pilot of the other airplane, a Swearingen Metroliner, landed that plane safely despite it missing a huge chunk of its rear fuselage!
In all fairness, the real news here is that autonomous planes are coming faster than we ever thought they would. This is a result of the FAA’s clearly indicated willingness (if not “eagerness”) to work with developers of autonomous flight, as well as airframers who want to implement the technology in their planes. The economic incentives to this happening are great, as we wrote earlier this year.
Perhaps the big takeaway is that airshows happened this year at all, after both Sun ‘n Fun and EAA Oshkosh AirVenture were cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic. That the airshow experience was so mixed this year, with Sun ‘n Fun being challenged to emerge just as restrictions were being lifted nationwide, with Oshkosh running a highly successful show in the period between the initial infections and the emergence of Delta and Omicron, and the High Sierra Fly-In having its biggest year ever, in a wide-open setting where nary a mask was to seen. Everyone’s fingers are crossed that next year’s events can run smoothly!
8. AD Hell:
2021 was the year everyone had been warning about for ages—the aging of the GA fleet became an undeniable fact with the FAA publishing major and costly ADs on Piper PA-28s and Cessna 182s, among several other models from both manufacturers and others, too.
Not only are used planes getting used-er, but they are also getting way more expensive and harder to find. The values for popular models, like the Cessna Skyhawk and Piper Warrior, for example, have more than doubled over the past two years, and those planes that do go up for sale are getting bought in record time.
Speaking of automation, Garmin International won the Collier Trophy, the most prestigious award in aviation, for the invention and successful certification of its Autoland safety utility. It had help from several partners—Piper, which put Autoland in its M600 flagship turboprop single, Cirrus, which fielded Autoland in its SF-50 single-engine jet, and Daher, which installed it in its TBM 900-series turboprop single.
11. Space Tourism:
While it’s not close to news about light GA, the multiple, successful space tourism flights conducted by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin were remarkable achievements and deserve note. Bigger things are on the horizon in private space flight, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX program to launch a Mars mission by 2026, a date that nobody believes is possible but toward which the company is diligently working.
Famous ex-fighter jock, airshow pilot and warbird guru Dale Snodgrass was killed in the crash of his small taildragger, a SIAI-Marchetti SM.1 (sometimes referred to as the Italian Bird Dog), while taking off from Lewiston, Idaho. Video of the crash, with tower audio, including the pilot’s last words, went viral, igniting further controversy about the public sharing of such materials.
14. Electric Flight:
The big news in electric flight, really, was that there was a ton of “news” and very little actual news, with perhaps one noteworthy exception. The emerging segment continues to be challenged by low power storage capacity of existing batteries, long charging times and weight challenges. One bright spot, arguably, was that Joby Aviation, which flew a one-hour, 17-minute demonstration flight of its as-yet unnamed (c’mon, people) multicopter. The flight was done solo (so very light) but suggested that practical air taxi routes are possible for such craft.
The CEO of pilot supply and avionics manufacturer MyGoFlight was killed in the crash of a company owned Cirrus SR22 in Knoxville, Tennessee, in December. Schneider was an innovator who drove the development of MyGoFlight’s subsidiary SkyDisplay’s lightweight, small and relatively affordable head up display.