With a hot coffee at hand, the crackling fireplace provided ambience for perusing a stack of magazines and several issues of Trade-A-Plane. Not that I would ever sell the Duke, but you never know when an irresistible MU-2 may flirt with the Air Force retirement check and seduce my better judgement. A sigh accompanied the turning of the final, big yellow page. The remaining magazines laid before me like a pile of high-school homework.
The stack was primarily pilot periodicals, but some were for non-pilot, common folk: world and national news, hunting, fishing and writing magazines. They had accumulated after a month of vacation and a month of post-op recovery (robotic assisted, laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair for the surgeons among us). Who knew; Percocet impairs the ability to read, remember and thusly to keep up with, well, everything. The vacation and blurry post-op weeks were followed by a fast-paced and focused month of training and check ride on the B737-800 NG. During Guppy School, there were no brain cells for recreational reading. Once you have seven, eight or 92 dozen periodicals in a pile, it’s like mowing the lawn after having waited too long, or in my neck of the woods, waiting too long to shovel snow. After a three-month absence, even when using the force, behind the reading power curve I was.
We all have our favorite writers that motivate us to read at least a couple stories from each magazine. In fact, we keep some subscriptions active just for the articles of our favorites. You know the characters: Rod Machado, the legendary Mac McClellan, Thomas Haines and Barry Schiff. There’s Martha Lunken, Dave Matheny, Patty Wagstaff, Dick Karl and our own David Miller, just for starters. You can’t throw out unread works of these authors, so we savor their stories then flip through the remainder of the magazine to catch up on events and new developments. We assume that the same advertisers will always be there, but we tear out ads for things we like, just in case.
When in “news debt,” you feel disconnected. What did I miss? According to the stack of magazines and our favorite writers, no one is sure how the lifelong, GA-using president will treat us pilots and the Part 23 revisions to aircraft manufacturing standards are approved. Pilot third class medical reforms are about to be implemented, electronic ignition for certified, piston aircraft engines is finally here, 94 UL fuel is out there and UL102 may be here in 2018. Electronic technology continues to enhance our airplanes. According to Mac, the future promised by the FAA 20 years ago has arrived as VORs give way to GPS. We have WAAS with LPV minimums, synthetic vision displays, HUDs, FADEC in every kitchen and, coming soon to a cockpit near you, AR (Augmented Reality) glasses that superimpose computer-generated images into our view.
The drone population is growing and development continues on pilot-less airplanes. The movie Sully was a hit and put a positive shine on all of us, some of the shine, unrealistically, at the expense of the NTSB. Several magazines dissected its accuracy and narrative including a review by FO Jeff Skiles. The bad news: we lost Bob Hoover, experienced pilots are still running out of gas and some of us continue to encroach onto active runways. While the used aircraft market has recovered to what is historically normal levels, turbine owners may be selling again. The final shocker is that GA is approaching a tipping point in pilot numbers that, if allowed to continue, will question the viability of the GA industry. What? When did that happen? I thought we were in a period of recovery and growth.
An Endangered Species of Swashbuckler
As hundreds of lifelong professional flight instructors, whom can instruct and inspire with Yoda-like results, begin to relax more often than they sit in a hot, bumpy trainer, GA is slowly losing oil pressure. EAA and AOPA have been promoting programs to entice young people into GA: Young Eagles and the You Can Fly programs. And they are helping. But the national completion rate for private pilots is just 20 percent. Gen-X and millennials aren’t any less skilled than previous generations. In fact, they’re a level or two of magnitude beyond previous generations in their ability to understand, interpret, and even embrace new technology. From computers to phones and tablets to avionics, it’s their domain.
Having finished a month-long course of training on the 737 using a combination of electronic trainers and simulators, I’m inclined to agree that a quantum leap in the use of simulation in GA is due. It’s a step to reduce the entry fee into our world and should increase the completion rate of these tech savvy students to something north of 50 percent. Medical reform should also have a positive effect by removing a perceived obstacle in learning to fly.
Another source of GA pilots is those already certified. There are about a half-million non-current pilots and my Wings of Mercy co-pilot is one of them. We all know that it boils down to time and money. I’ve offered to pay for him to get current. No time, he says. It’s a matter of leading a horse to water, I suppose.
The new flight hour requirement for entry into Part 121 employment is not helping draw pilots to the industry. I agree with the point, but respectfully disagree with those that say the hours aren’t needed. A 400-hour pilot in the right seat of a 50-passenger jet, at night in the weather, flying alone after their over-60 Captain had a “medical event” is an invitation for brain freeze. Especially in a new pilot that has never faced the real (not simulated) boogey man up close and personal. Or watched a captain deal with him. The affordability of aircraft rental or purchase and the amount of income that flying can potentially generate, remain the quintessential conundrums in gaining the experience to face these issues.
For years, the regional airlines could hire relatively inexperienced pilots that were willing to work for historically sub-standard pay. Mainline Part 121 operators are starting to feel a hangover from that era as they cannibalize the pilot ranks from their feeders to re-populate the mainline with experienced pilots. As a stop-gap measure, managers are currently trying to squeeze more time and money out of the soon-retiring generation of pilots. Often in violation of negotiated working agreements (union contracts) designed to assure adequate rest and quality of life (days off). There are over-the-road truckers in their 70s and 80s. Why not pilots? A news report pointed to the obvious reason: an increase in accidents in this age group of truckers. That’s the latest rumor at work: age 67 retirement. But it’s only a rumor. I think the industry recognizes that the safe, low-hanging fruit in that cost-saving bucket has already been plucked. Age 65 will remain the end of that column in their miserly ledger. I say that from the perspective of one of the low-hangers already plucked. Soon, the only source of new airline pilots will be from GA.
Decades of flying, research and access to industry movers and shakers puts those favorite writers from above at an altitude in which they have a good view of our issues. But (no pun intended) opinions are like, well, you know, and everyone has one. So here is mine: If I were looking to become an airline pilot, I’d be happy to see the timing that is playing out in GA and Part 121 these days. They say the cyclic nature of the airline business is ending and we are headed toward a future of stability. The airlines are hiring. Salaries are headed up. And in GA, airframes, powerplants and avionics are more reliable and functional than at any other time. The changes to Part 23 will be helpful in managing costs and increased use of simulators in GA is due. But we need to increase our numbers.
The best thing you can do is the right thing;
the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing;
the worst thing you can do is nothing.
It’s nice to sit in front of a crackling fireplace, searching for an irresistible airplane. But the hangar is nice, too. If you’re a student pilot, now is the time to keep at it. More use of sims and the pilot medical reforms will lower both the cost and apprehension of entering the ranks of GA. If you are non-current, go flying and take an instructor along; they don’t bite. If you’re an owner, your baby in the hangar misses you. Keep up with events and rumors through periodicals and your favorite writers. Like a Walter Cronkite news broadcast, some must be read every time regardless of the length of the grass, depth of snow or the half-life of Percocet.
And that’s the way it is.