The following story by Frances Fiorino appears in the July 27 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technoollgy as part of its EAA AirVenture Coverage.
People flock to Oshkosh for three reasons: airplanes, airplanes, airplanes. Despite hard times, more than a half million from 70 nations will attend the show—their passion to explore new technology as strong as their desire to see industry recovery.
“The big gorilla in the room is the overall economy,” says General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. (GAMA) President and CEO Pete Bunce. The economy blindsided all aviation sectors, with aircraft production slowed or canceled and workforce slashed. Looking at the lighter end of the GA market, GAMA statistics indicate piston sales dropping 21% in 2008 compared to the previous year (see chart). In the first quarter, the number of piston shipments dropped to 179 compared to 399 in the same period 2008.
While waiting for a turnaround, general aviation faces formidable challenges—gaining access to environmentally friendly avgas fuels, grappling with TSA security requirements and building a base to launch aviation careers.
Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for aviation is evident, says Experimental Aircraft Assn. (EAA) President Tom Poberezny, who has been chairman of Oshkosh since 1976.
By mid-July, EAA’s indicators—advance sales, exhibitor participation and mass fly-in registrations, to name a few—led to projections that this year’s AirVenture (July 27-Aug. 2) will see a similar or higher turnout than the 540,000 people who attended last year.
The Concorde’s visit to EAA AirVenture in 1985 changed the perception of Oshkosh “from that air show in the Midwest amid the cornfields, a place where people built airplanes in their basements and garages” to one of a more global nature that encompasses all aviation sectors, notes Poberezny.
Flight fever runs high at Oshkosh, considered “aviation’s family reunion.” Visitors include astronauts and engineers, airline, military and private pilots and aviation enthusiasts from around the world who come to view, kick tires and discuss the latest aircraft technology and innovation. Some 2,500 aircraft will be on display: homebuilts, ultralights, warbirds, vintage aircraft, car-planes, boat-planes and electric aircraft.
The LSA/Sport Pilot Certificate program celebrates its fifth year in 2009. Flight Design delivered its 300th CTLS light sport aircraft to a U.S. customer this month.Credit: Flight Design
This year’s special highlights include the Airbus A380 test vehicle No. 004, in its first public flight demonstration, and Scaled Composites’ WhiteKnight2, dubbed “Eve,” the mother ship that will transport space tourists.
Oshkosh is not only about airplanes, but the people who design, build and fly them, says Poberezny. At the nearly 1,000 forums, workshops and seminars, attendees will have a chance to hone their flying skills and meet and engage in hangar talk with people such as Burt Rutan and the flight crew of US Airways Flight 1549, Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, who will relate their experiences of the Jan. 15 water landing on New York’s Hudson River.
EAA AirVenture embodies the exuberant spirit of aviation. But the teetering economy allows only cautious optimism about the industry’s recovery. “In the December-February period, general aviation was in free fall, the global economy and aviation fell off a cliff,” notes Poberezny.
He believes the industry is now at a point “where we have hit bottom . . . and before you get better, you’ve got to stabilize. And the industry is perhaps seeing the first signs of stabilization and slow improvement.” Poberezny thinks it will likely take another 6-9 months before GA sees more valid indicators.
GAMA also sees encouraging signs, says Bunce. For example, there has been some decrease in inventories, and manufacturers are reporting that more people are interested in taking demo rides—which could lead to more sales. An increase in hours flown during June could be another hopeful sign, says Bunce. But he warns, “We haven’t had indications long enough and sustained enough to claim that [recovery] absolutely.”
During stabilization and turnaround, GA will be grappling with major challenges, the availability of environmentally friendly avgas, for one. “Whether we are burning kerosene or 100 low-lead, we have to move the community to finding different types of fuel” .
“Then there’s that three-letter word, T-S-A,” says Poberezny. Since the Transportation Security Administration was formed shortly after 9/11, the general aviation aircraft, from pistons to business jets, were seen as vulnerable to use by terrorists and subjected to various security requirements.
Poberezny, like many other general aviation leaders, cautions that “we have allowed our government to monitor our safety with an agency that is basically not accountable to the public. We have to be very careful that we don’t give away freedoms that people have died for under the guise of safety.”
Never was the need more critical to create an infrastructure to build a professional pilot pool, says Poberezny, “one that will hopefully maintain the vitality and health of aviation in the long-term.”
With baby-boomer pilots retiring, and the military no longer the spawning ground for professional pilots, GA will be the base of the aviation career pyramid. In 2006, the U.S. pilot base fell below 600,000 for the first time, to 597,109, and decreased again in 2007 to 590,349. Poberezny predicts it will take another 5-8 years until a new base takes hold.
Currently, most efforts to attract young people to aviation careers are initiated by individual organizations. The EAA, for example, is expanding its Young Eagles program, opening chapters at colleges and universities.
“The enthusiasm is there, the passion is there, but the economy is limiting people’s ability to participate at a level they would like to. It’s not a question of interest or passion, but of economy and time,” says Poberezny.
“We need a national dialog” on building this infrastructure, notes Bunce. And to make pilot careers more enticing, Bunce believes industry must find ways to increase pilot starting salaries. “The safety the men and women flying these airplanes are charged with is not commensurate with the absolutely abysmal wages they are paid—and wages have made an impact on the number of people we can draw into the industry.”
Much of the hope of building that infrastructure rests in the Light Sport Aircraft/Sport Pilot (LSA/SP) certificate program, which was launched in 2004. The EAA campaigned 10 years for the program, designed to break down the barriers to aviation.
The LSA/SP initiative simplified the regulation of manufacturing processes, enabling aircraft makers to build affordable, easy-to-fly aircraft that cut training time. The new category LSAs are one- or two-seat, single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft with a maximum gross weight of 1,320 lb.
The aircraft have a stall speed of 45 kt. and fly at a maximum speed of 120 kt. Trainees aiming to secure a sport pilot certificate have limited flying privileges, but they can train in less time and at significantly lower cost—$3,000, compared to an average $8,000-10,000 to train for a private pilot certificate.
With a price tag generally below $150,000, LSAs are easier to fit the budgets of flight schools and individuals.
“The LSA/SP is a 15-year program, and we are only in the fifth year,” notes Poberezny. “Entry-level flying is a high priority. It is not an elixir, a fix-it for everything, and it will take the aviation community working together to accomplish the task.”
The program is gaining momentum, and Poberezny expects to see incremental growth. According to the FAA, there are now 26 light sport aircraft manufacturers in the U.S. alone, and 1,101 fixed-wing aircraft registered as “special category-LSAs” and 2,997 fixed-wing aircraft registered as “experimental LSAs.” There are now 3,811 licensed light sport pilots (see chart above).
LSA production in the U.S. has met a few setbacks, however. In April, Duluth, Minn.-based Cirrus Design, citing “challenging economic times,” called a indefinite halt to production of its light sport aircraft, the SRS (for SR Sport), which it introduced at Oshkosh in 2007.
Cessna Aircraft Co. garnered more than 700 orders after introducing its $111,500 SkyCatcher Cessna 162 light sport entry at EAA AirVenture in 2006. But the program encountered delays when one SkyCatcher prototype was destroyed and the other damaged during spin tests in September 2008 and March of this year. In June, the damaged prototype returned to flight-testing. Cessna had planned to manufacture 40 SkyCatchers and begin deliveries this year.
An FAA/Industry LSA Joint Steering Group was formed in February to review flight safety issues, certification standards and causes of accidents. The FAA plans to release the findings at EAA AirVenture and will offer an action plan for improvements. The agency says it is committed to the LSA/SP rule, which serves as an inspiration for a new generation.