The following is guest editorial by my father Randy Groom, an industry veteran and owner-pilot.
2020 marks the 40th year since I left college and joined the general aviation industry at Beechcraft in Wichita. In those 40 years, I have watched with amazement as new designs and new airframe companies attempted, and in some cases, succeeded in entering the marketplace. I thought it might be interesting as we enter this new decade to reflect on some of those failures and successes and contrast them with some of the latest developments on the board for the future.
The first design that comes to mind (probably no surprise) is the Starship, which was announced early in my career at Beech. I was incredibly proud and excited to see Beech “reach for the stars” with a futuristic design to replace the venerable King Air. I was convinced at the time that we had a winner on our hands. Seven years later, I had moved to a Beechcraft dealer and we picked up our first Starship – serial number 10. I felt “super cool” flying the airplane, but the performance and reliability fell far short of expectations and ended up being an enormous business failure.
I think it is important to point out that just because a new product becomes a business failure doesn’t necessarily mean that the aircraft was a bad airplane. The later serial number Starships proved to be more reliable and better performers, but by that time the negative reputation was impossible to overcome.
During the 1990s, the Very Light Jet (VLJ) “craze” was in full swing with at least a dozen different companies, many of which were startups, were being designed, the most notable being the Eclipse. There was incredible hype that the “skies would darken” with VLJ’s with Eclipse being the leader. I was a skeptic of Eclipse’s ability to pull this off, particularly at their announced initial price close to that of a Beech Baron. One after one, most of these startup VLJ companies closed their doors, draining the pocketbooks of many deposit holders and investors, creating a tidal wave of new aviation skeptics. Eclipse certified and delivered several hundred airplanes before going bankrupt and allegedly burning through a billion dollars. Again, a colossal business failure, but I am told by one of my hangar neighbors that his late production Eclipse is a great airplane, quite fast and efficient.
Also, during the 1990s, a number of single-engine turboprops were under development and as a King Air salesman I went into high gear of skepticism. Who in the world would want a turbine airplane with one engine? Oops, I really missed the mark on that one. Particularly with the PC-12, which clearly inflicted some damage on our B200 sales.
And then there was the Cirrus phenomenon. Once again, as a Bonanza salesman, I thought, who in the world would want to buy a fixed-gear “plastic” airplane from an unknown start-up company? After all, hadn’t just about all the other startups that I had ever heard about vanished into vapor? Oops, missed the mark again. Cirrus tore into the marketplace with strong marketing, a very credible product and continuous refinement. And now they have a jet that will capitalize on a large, loyal installed base of SR22 owners and will likely become the most popular VLJ ever.
So now we enter into a new decade with lots of new designs on the boards and me, an almost retired grouchy aviation skeptic. As I have confessed, I haven’t always been perfect at predicting success or failure in this industry, but here goes:
Flying Cars – In my simple mind, cars and airplanes have very different structural requirements, so if we are talking about an airplane that flies in, folds up and becomes a car on our highways, I can’t see it.
Electric Airplanes – It would be great to have an airplane that was economical and had a low carbon footprint. Today’s battery technology is such that none of those airplanes would likely have the range to satisfy most private owners. However, flight schools where the missions only require an hour or so of endurance are a great application until such time that the technology advances.
Vertical Takeoff and Landing Drones (Ride Share Use) – This arena reminds me of the VLJ days of the 1990s. There are a ton of start-ups, most of which I predict will disappear into the vapor. Again, electric powerplants will likely limit capability and the regulatory hurdles for airspace and passenger carrying will likely take many years to sort out. However, I think these machines will likely prove their capability in the short-haul cargo arena before passengers ever step into an aircraft with no pilot.
Supersonic Business Jets – Maybe someday. But I will likely be in a retirement home still not able to wrap my mind around the cost to accomplish such an ambitious project.
In short, I hope I am wrong. In my lifetime, there are amazing accomplishments and advances in technology, efficiency and affordability for general aviation. We need it as an industry to excite and attract young people into our industry. And if we do, this old skeptic will smile ear