ANN's Aero-Dozen: The Top Twelve Stories of 2006 (Part Two) | Aero-News Network
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Tue, Jan 02, 2007

ANN's Aero-Dozen: The Top Twelve Stories of 2006 (Part Two)

Depending on who you talk to, 2006 was either a very good year for aviation, or a year of much foreboding.

This was a year... in which general aviation continued to make much progress, but saw the specter of user fees threatening it at every corner.

This was a year... in which the F-22 and the F-35 flew, but the reality of budget tightening threatened both programs.

This was a which the Airlines made progress, slow though it may be, from the brink of bankruptcy to the brink of profitability -- however at the cost of their employees, stockholders, and the trust of the American public.

This was a year... in which business aviation continued to thrive, but also a year in which it continued to take flak from a media that didn't understand it, an FAA that didn't value it, and the airlines who covet their prosperity.

This was a year... actually a great year for sport aviation, as the sport pilot community saw blue skies for the first time in a long while, and new airplanes filled the sky at a rapidly increasing rate... but the costs of entry into the LSA community still seems to be way too much for the average Joe to handle.

This was a year... in which the space shuttle got back to business, the commercial spaceflight industry made incremental progress, and plans for the future on both sides of the aisle moved forward... but to all intents and purposes the progress has been marginal, and far less than what people expected by now.

So, okay... 2006 was a mixed bag and it's bloody hard to determine which stories or story topics truly line up at the top of a list that we've decided to limit to a solid dozen entities -- presented in quasi-alphabetical order. But warts and all, this is what we've come up with -- the stories that made a splash in 2006 -- while also containing some promise (good and bad) for the future. Read them, think about them, and let us know what YOU think.

FAA vs Controllers... A Sign Of Things To Come

In a year typified by some pretty harsh rhetoric, virtually unlimited political skirmishing, and verbal wars propagated through the media; the 2006 battles between the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association were some of the most vociferous and (frankly) bizarre. While neither side was all right and neither side was all wrong, the turbulent war of words and intermittable political one-ups-manship couldn't help but make one think that this was two groups of folks who just had no idea about how to talk to each other.

On the FAA side, there was what should have been an easy sell to the public in regards to issues involving controller pay, benefits, and working conditions. There is no question that the lot of the NATCA member has improved dramatically over the last few years as a function of the current contractual environment. Their pay is up, their benefits have increased, and when you compare the average wage of a controller to the average wage across the country, it's hard to feel bad for folks pulling down some pretty good money for what most admit to be a fascinating job. But... the FAA didn't make their case very well, preferring instead to demonize the controllers, while pretty much ignoring a number of solid points NATCA (when you looked below all the fluff and bluster) made when they weren't crying poor.

On the NATCA side, the controllers did as poor a job as the FAA did, in stating their case. They further complicated their lot with aggressive rhetoric that went "over-the-top" more times than we can count. The public counts on controllers being cool, calm, reasonable, and considerate personnel... but a number of the NATCA press releases were long on hyperbole and short on reason -- and a few were just plain nuts.

The sad part of this particular war of words is that there is no question that the controllers have a number of quite legitimate grievances concerning working conditions, equipment issues, FAA communications issues, and the rules under which they try to keep the American public safe in the sky. The FAA, as well, had excellent points to make about the cost of fielding the air traffic system, and the fact that controllers (by and large) were reasonably well-paid -- but somehow the message was lost in the FAA's reticence to bulldoze through the war of words and actually reach a dialogue with NATCA. As a result, the FAA resorted to bureaucratic sleight of hand to force the controllers into a position that should have been avoidable if either side had quit playing games and sat down to talk... for real. The worst part of this skirmish is not that neither side won a whole lot, or even lost a whole lot, but the strong perception that there's been some tremendous damage done in the ability of the FAA to communicate with the controller community. We think that bodes nothing but trouble for the future. Keep an eye on this issue, folks, we're going to see trouble along these lines again.

F-35/F-22: The Return of the Super Fighters

2006 was a good year... if you're a fighter pilot. F-22 Raptors are rolling off the line, the F-35 production prototype saw air time late this year, and a new generation of fighters is preparing to defend America.

While ANN is not the kind of organization to rubberstamp everything the military wants, there is no question that the future needs of the military are going to be very hard to determine, and that the best way to prepare for the future involves trying to be as strong as possible, in order to defend this nation -- against God knows what -- or whom.

Unfortunately, budget-cut fever is already sweeping through Congress . Changes that came as a result of the November elections promised that those who now control the purse strings may be inclined to do some belt-tightening -- putting both the F-22 and F-35 production lines at risk. While this nation's need for front-line fighters is hard to determine right now, the threats these fighters may have to encounter in future years is even harder to determine. There is so much instability in the world, and so much confusion about who is an enemy and who is a friend, that it seems that the most conservative course to a proper defense must start with something a bit 'offensive.'

In this case, the nation has F-22s rolling out the door with capabilities virtually unheard of less than a decade ago, and a whole new generation of wunderbirds based on the F-35 will not only be prepared to protect America but a number of America's allies throughout the world. We're hoping that the myopia already espoused by those proposing some belt-tightening is replaced by clearer thinking as the hard work of developing these aircraft is done, and all that remains is to build them. God help us if we find ourselves in the kind of shooting war where either the F-22 or F-35 could truly excel -- but God help us if we have need of the birds, and they're simply not there.

The last few years have taught us one cardinal lesson... be prepared for anything... and the F-22 and F-35 program make for a good start. As always, ANN will keep an eye in the world situation and America's ability to deal with it from the standpoint of military aviation.

LSA Industry Starts Maturing

The 'sport pilot' promise of a new generation of light sport aircraft was long in coming. After over a decade of dickering about the possibility of new regs and new certification standards, the cheerful reality is that the FAA and the sport aircraft industry have managed to come up with what appears to be a workable set of regulations, and an opportunity to use consensus standards by which LSA aircraft and manufacturers will have more say in their destiny than they have ever had before.

That's a great start... but it's still just a start.

Light sport aircraft are showing up in greater numbers than ever before, and while the gross numbers are less than staggering, the steady improvement in sales figures are one of the few truly bright spots the sport and general aviation industry has seen in many years.

But... it ain't all grins and giggles. Yet.

The ready to fly contingent of Light Sport Aircraft cost too darn close to $100,000 for many people to give them serious consideration; American manufacturers are a bit dismayed at the rate in which foreign manufacturers have dominated certain segments of the market; and general aviation's acceptance of their younger brothers in the light sport aircraft movement is coming slowly and with (occasionally) great resistance.

The future remains a positive one for sport pilot -- and if the numbers improve on the manufacturing side, there may finally be some downward (and much needed) pricing pressures that will lower the entrance costs for the erstwhile sport flyer. The announcement by Cessna Aircraft of their interest in pursuing LSA manufacturing, was potentially the brightest star in the LSA universe for all of 2006. While no one in the light sport aircraft community relishes competing with the marketing behemoth from Wichita, virtually every member of the community agrees that the Cessna decision legitimized this market segment in a way that they, collectively, could not have done by themselves.

With Cessna's quite conventional, if a little uninspired, LSA's potential production entry coming up in the 2007 market, we see three things that may result.

  1. The first is that the more conservative aspects of general aviation will finally be willing to embrace light sport aircraft and light sport aircraft training as a true entry-level to the general aviation world...
  2. The second is that sales numbers should increase across the board based alone on the additional interest, marketing and excitement that Cessna will generate...
  3. And finally, with more aircraft in the mix, the LSA economic model will allow fixed base operations to participate in, and utilize the sport pilot movement as a profit center in greater numbers than we've seen before.

So... while we remain upbeat about the future of sport pilot and the light sport aircraft in the next year, we see price pressure keeping a great number erstwhile flyers out of the market, and the limited acceptance of general aviation (of LSA) being two of the primary stumbling blocks that we have the potential to be overcome, in part, as 2007 proceeds.

As to the issue of foreign designs taking such a large market share or in the American market... we're not sure if that is a problem or a blessing -- but we see this problem as being solvable only by American manufacturers (Cessna being chief among them) who are willing to compete more aggressively with the very attractive offerings that are coming in from overseas. In other words, sport pilot, and the LSA community's future rests solely in the hands of the LSA community-- and after having to cow-tow to the FAA and other dominant masters of the aviation universe in the past, this may be the most hopeful sign of all.

GA Accidents: Same Ol', Same Ol'

I am terrified with the ways that pilots insist on killing themselves, and their hapless passengers, year after year. One of the less pleasant rites of the morning grind at ANN is perusing the latest accident stats in search of entries that might give us a chance to educate others as to those issues that keep causing perfectly good airplanes to go down -- at the hands of pilots who insist on killing themselves in much the same way as others have done.

Every day, the news reports are riddled with reports of plane crashes. And while plane crashes happen far less often than do car accidents, motorcycle accidents, or even boating accidents; the plane crash is particularly fascinating to the media... and most of that is, honestly, our fault.

We need to quit crashing. There, I said it. It doesn't matter what you fly... and while a number of manufacturers are too easily disposed to blaming their competition for all manner of ills, the plain fact of the matter is that every type of aircraft (as we see from each daily accident report) are involved in the same kind of accidents that are taking down virtually every other type in the aviation universe. We still have aircraft that are blundering off into weather for which the airplanes (and/or pilots), are ill-equipped; we still see way too many pilots dumping airplanes on takeoff or landing due to wholly avoidable stalls and other errant aeronautical behavior; we still see way too many airplanes going down due to the inattention of the pilots or their unwillingness to practice the kind of judgment they all claim to bring to each flight; and way too few pilots are taking advantage of the growing and impressive opportunities for additional training and retraining that would not only help perfect their judgment, but fine-tune their skills in ways that the "same ol', same ol'" causes would no longer be a threat.

Are you with me?

As a long-time CFI in both airplanes and rotorcraft, I have to tell you that perusing the accident stats becomes truly difficult. The same accident causes arise day after day. It's actually become quite a chore to check them out each morning. It's not that the industry isn't trying new things, hasn't been aggressive enough about increasing the professionalism among the flight training community, or hasn't been honest about the issues that we all face -- its the brutal truth is that pilots are killing themselves through thoroughly unimaginative and wholly avoidable mistakes that have been made hundreds of times before.

Even when complicated by outside factors, like engine failure, there still seems to be few reasons for aircraft to wind up in as many pieces as they do today. In the last few days I have looked at a number of aircraft accident photos, of recent date, in which a number of pilots went down and impacted the ground at higher rates of speed or at more aggressive angles of impact than the situation seemed to dictate, AND despite having plenty of open territory in which to land, or even sufficient space to dissipate the forces of impact in ways that would have saved those within the aircraft. I don't get it.

And personally, I'm sick of it. I don't doubt that many others are as well. But like many of our brethren in the aviation, and more specifically the flight training community, I'm at a loss as to pinning down any new training protocol that can finally instill the kind of judgment necessary to keep pilots from making the same dumb mistakes, exercising the same level of stupidity, or thinking through an emergency circumstance effectively enough so that a bad situation is made less of a problem than it already is.

So... I'm going to leave this one up to ANN's readership, and ask you all some simple questions: what aren't we teaching pilots what we need to, and how do we instill the basic good judgment necessary to keep good pilots from pushing their aircraft into bad circumstances? I, for one, will still look to each morning's accident statistics with dread... and if this industry is going to make significant progress both for its own sake, as well as a critical member of the nation's transportation infrastructure, we have got to clean up our act and quit killing ourselves in such thoroughly ridiculous, unimaginative and AVOIDABLE ways.

What say you?

FMI: Comments?


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