More Thoughts On Economical Aircraft

Friends,

The previous post on affordable aircraft and why they matter in aviation sparked a lot of email and a number of calls. Not everyone saw it the same way, but just about everyone had a different facet of the same issue to illuminate. As always, all thought out perspectives are welcome.

To further illuminate my line of thinking, let us look at the same issue from a different passion, sailing.  Looking from the outside, many people think of sailing as some type of elitist activity, but I can make a good case that it is as American as Baseball or Jazz, and there is a longstanding connection between sailing and flying where many people are heavily into both. I grew up in a Navy family, and we all know how to sail. As a young teenager in 1970s Hawaii, it was the first real taste of doing something adventurous without my parents to protect me. Being 13 and sailing a Rhoads 19 out of the mouth of Hickam harbor by yourself is something like soloing a plane for the first time.

The same way that Americans came to be at the forefront of much of aviation between the Wright Brothers and Neil Armstrong, American competitive sailing came into its own at the same time. The absolute measure of this was the America’s Cup, which the U.S. held onto for more than 125 years, beating challengers from around the world.

Now, let’s just look at the 1960s.  Sparkman and Stevens produced a 12 meter boat named the Intrepid that was unbeatable for much of the decade. It was the first boat that had a shot of winning three America’s Cup defenses. It is a magnificent design, the finest sailboat in the world, so expensive that its construction and campaigning was financed by a syndicate of wealthy philanthropists. If you have a top down view of sailing or anything else, including aviation, you would conclude that the Intrepid was the single most important sailboat of its era, and worthy of all the praise and attention that could be given to it. In a moment I will turn this upside down and explain why this is wrong, and to solely focus on the Intrepid would have been destructive to sailing. Two other boats from the 1960s turned out to be massively more important to the long-term health of sailing.

In my previous post, my central point is that the aviation industry, particularly the journalistic side of it, spends all of its time applauding and promoting the most expensive planes and products. I hold that the net effect of this is a three-phase process: Few entrepreneurs are motivated to develop and market low-cost products; with the bottom rung on the ladder getting ever higher, working class guys are getting fewer options; an ever greater percentage of people who love planes feel that being a spectator is the role that they are economically restricted to playing. Many people think that these results are acceptable. I do not.

The two sailboats from the 1960s that were far more important than the Intrepid were the Hobie Cat and the Alcort Sunfish. Previous to these two boats, very few designs were produced in quantities over 500. Between the Hobie Cat and the Sunfish, production went over 300,000 boats. And crucially, both of these boats were inexpensive enough for regular working families to afford. Understand that without affordable boats, the Intrepid could only produce spectators. Hobie Cats and Sunfish produced Sailors. Because of the development of two inexpensive boats, sailing experienced an explosive growth in the 1960s and ’70s. At that point, the U.S. had already held the Cup for 100 years. Obviously, being in possession of cost-is-no-object world record holding craft is not the stimulus to industry growth that affordable entry-level designs are.

Here is the aviation connection: If you look at our magazines, attend our airshows and look at our Web sites, almost all of what our journalists are covering is aviation’s equivalent of the America’s Cup boats. Yes, there are exceptions, but any reasonable person can look at the crop of 912 powered imported LSAs and understand that a $120K aircraft is not an entry-level machine, and they are never going to have the effect on our industry that the Hobie Cat and the Sunfish had on sailing. I agree that there are many stories covered on reasonably affordable planes each year, but I think that most people very seriously underestimate the very strong message sent by our fixation on products that working people stand little chance of affording in their lifetimes. The lack of affordable design coverage and simultaneous adulation of things for the wealthy make any reasonable person just looking at aviation rethink the pursuit, and convince many people with modest dreams that they are going to be treated like second class flyers.

The new head of EAA publications previous job was being the editor of Flying for several decades. I only read that publication while standing at the magazine rack when I am stuck on a layover at Atlanta. It is obviously a publication that reviews products that 2% of America can afford. The other 98% of people reading it are relegated to being spectators.

I don’t care about the content of Flying, it is a commercial publication, and if they wish to entertain spectators and cater to the dwindling number of pilots that long ago got many rungs up the ladder, great. However, I do have an issue with Sport Aviation, the journal of our membership association, having the same content. Our new man got off to a false start by writing a great review of a TBM turboprop aircraft that cost a million dollars. This has no place in our publication. Many people spoke up about it, but not nearly enough. Every working class guy in the EAA needed to send a polite and clear message to headquarters that the goal of our organization is to make each member an Aviator, not a spectator, to that individual’s fullest capacity. Articles on French turboprops do not serve this goal.

The closest thing that certified aviation has ever produced to a Sunfish and a Hobie Cat are a J-3 Cub and a Cessna 150.  Between these two designs, 50,000 airframes were produced. These aircraft made a very large difference. Each of them did an incredible service to aviation by introducing countless aviators to their first solo flight. Yet today, Piper will never produce another affordable aircraft, and the 162, the “modern” 150, is incredibly expensive and produced in a totalitarian police state that also happens to hold the mortgage on our national debt. Cessna donated one of these aircraft to the EAA for educational flights. This was a task previously done by a GlasStar and an RV-6A.  I for one do not wish to have our membership driven organization giving a very valuable endorsement to an aircraft that should have been produced in Kansas instead of China.

Every J-3 and every Cessna 150 came with an engine produced by Continental Motors. For a very long time, each and every data plate on every engine had a picture of the U.S. Capitol building, emblazoned with the creed of the company “As Powerful As The Nation.”  Almost no journalist covered it, but last year, the overnment of China bought Continenal motors.  This and the fact that Cessna is having the C-162 airframe built in China are two very good examples of stories that aviation journalists are not covering. There are 1,400 people who worked for Continental in the U.S., many of them EAA members. I often wonder how they feel about nary a word on the sale of their jobs appearing in our magazines. 

I can make a good argument that any industry that doesn’t make sure that entry-level products are available is not going to last. It is plainly obvious that the affordable aircraft will not be produced by global corporations that do not value individuals. Affordable aircraft, our Sunfish and Hobie Cat, are only going to come from small business entrepreneurs operating in the world of experimental aircraft. Our journalists and membership association must preserve a place for, and welcome them. 

I arrived in aviation in 1989. It existed for me to arrive in because countless others, people long gone,who I will never meet and cannot thank, did their part to preserve our ability to learn, build and fly. As I approach 25 years In The Arena, I am a grateful beneficiary of those who came before, and I view it as my duty to do something to keep aviation from becoming a spectator sport. The concept of the privileged minority enjoying themselves while the commoners are reduced to watching may fit in other countries with class and caste systems, but it isn’t part of the country of the Wrights, Doolittle, Lindbergh and Armstrong. They did not pass it on to us so that we could squander it or drop the ball. It is an invaluable legacy that we have been entrusted with by past aviators, some who paid everything, to make sure we had the same chance…. Decide now that you will not fail them.   -ww