From time to time in history for reasons that are hard to understand even in hindsight, a short period of years becomes the confluence for a number of critical events that one might have seen coming but the conclusion of which no one can reliably predict. Such bonfires of change can be spotted from afar in every movement from fine arts to computer science. Why such radical changes often come heaped together is a mystery to me, but it’s hard to deny the phenomenon.
In aviation it’s happened a number of times, often but not always with war as a catalyst. The remarkable rate of development in aerodynamics and propulsion that took place in the WWI and WWII years are prime examples, as is the non-war driven homebuilding revolution of the 1960s and 70s that shook the way we think about airplanes.
It seems to me that the second half of the 2010s will be a time of such change, much of it focused on the economics, sustainability and safety of flight.
Here are a few big questions we’ll see answers to, most likely over the next several years. How they wind up being resolved is anybody’s guess. But resolved they will be one way or the other.
1. Lead in fuel: When I started taking flying lessons in 1975 there was still leaded aviation gas available at every FBO in the country. After a while, 80 and 100 octane were phased out in favor of 100LL. At the time it seemed odd to me. If lead were such a danger to the environment, why wouldn’t we just do away with it altogether, I wondered? The answer was a lot more complicated than my 16 years of experience would allow me to understand. Fast-forward 40 years, and here we are, almost ready to phase out leaded fuel. Why 100LL has remained desirable is no mystery, but why it’s taken so long to find an alternative is. Over the next five years or so we’ll find an unleaded solution. The questions that remain are: What will it be? How much will it cost? And how well will our airplanes perform on the new fuel?
2. Certification: To say that the FAA is dragging its feet on the rewrite of Part 23 Certification is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of self-imposed change in a giant bureaucracy. The big unknowns are, how long will it take to see real change and will that change be enough to bring about a change in the troubling economics of new-plane production. We’ll have answers one way or another by 2020, or so.
3. Safety: The overall and fatal accident records of general aviation have been an embarrassment to us all for too long. Over the past few years, we’ve started seeing some real improvement in that record, and improvement can continue. Much of that change will likely come from new electronics, better training, improved hardware and better safety technologies, but exactly what form those improvements will take remains to be seen. If we’re to get on top of our safety problem, we’ll need help from every segment of the industry.
4. Propulsion: The leading cause of the decline in light general aviation is outdated propulsion technology. While I don’t think we’ll see big changes in the next five years on this front, change is on the horizon. Check back with me in another five years, and we might have a very good idea of what an emissions-free future for GA might look like.
5. Pilots: It sounds silly to say it out loud, but if we’re going to have a healthy GA in five years or ten years, we’re going to need new pilots, and lots of them. Where will these pilots come from, if they come at all? This is the biggest question of them all, and the answers to 1-4 will provide a lot of clues about the possible outcome for this one.