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GA Has Its Own Version of the Airline Mess…

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…it's just not as critical, although it's getting there. Specifically, it's the industry response-or lack thereof-to escalating fuel prices. All we're doing, really, is reducing flying hours, just as drivers are reducing car trips. Both are a logical and, for the time being, necessary response. But the world auto industry is doing something the general aviation industry isn't: It's vigorously tooling up to deliver a new generation of more efficient cars, including diesels, fuel-efficient gasoline cars and hybrids. The market is rapidly heating up.

In contrast, GA's response could be generously characterized as sticking our thumbs up our butts while waiting for fuel prices to magically shrink back to 1990 levels. The gold- plate standard engine in GA remains a six-cylinder, 500-plus cubic-inch engine dragging a heavy airframe with probably twice as many seats as it really needs. Now the GA manufacturers do this because that is what their customers tell them they want. That's why Cirrus sells 700-plus airplanes a year. In other words, because new aircraft buyers are wealthy enough not to have to worry much about fuel costs, sales of high-performance singles haven't completely tanked. Yet.

But I think there's an underlying psychology that will begin to erode this attitude and we had better be ready for it. Anyone who's rich enough to buy an airplane got that way because he or she was smart to begin with. Smart people read, listen and think and they eventually figure out their place in the world. What I'm getting at is that I think enough buyers of new airplanes will say, "ya know, even though I can afford the gas, I choose not to because I want a more efficient solution." My theory is that this has a little to do with carbon emissions, but a lot more to do with the personal pact every individual makes with the whole by answering this question: In a world with limited resources, how much am I personally entitled to?

Everyone has a different answer. Mine is basically that I'm entitled to what I need without apologies and I'm damn sure not going to waste any or expect more. For this reason, I now drive less, ride my bicycle more often, double and triple-up errands or occasionally don't do them at all, use less electricity and I fly less. None of this has diminished my lifestyle in the slightest. I just have to plan a little more. Big deal.

I'm not giving up flying, either, although we recently sold our Mooney K-model in favor of something simpler and cheaper in the LSA line. For me, living in the southeast corner of the country (Florida) means that using the airplane for transportation became an economic non-starter. It takes 15 gallons of gas just to get to the state line. So I fly less generally and use the airlines when I do. But man was meant to sing, so I'm searching for the right airplane. (Might even be a Diamond Katana.)

As I'm writing this, crude prices are closing under $130, down $16 from the peak two weeks ago. This has ignited a round of news stories under the moronic theme "relief at the pump" encouraging the notion that Americans are somehow entitled to cheap gasoline when, in fact, high oil prices are actually a blessing in disguise that will well and truly launch the lasting effort to develop alternatives. If Congress had any guts, it would levy taxes to keep prices at some threshold that would make alternatives profitable to develop.

But back to industry leadership, or lack thereof. To be fair, some companies are paying attention to aircraft energy efficiency. Diamond is one, although it and Thielert's execution of diesel technology is verging on disaster. Continental is announcing its own diesel, SMA already has one and DeltaHawk is plugging away. But I've heard no serious discussion of a "sustainable" aircraft design that would squash the curves from both directions-a more efficient engine married to lighter, low-drag airframe with two instead of four seats. In my view, this kind of design is inevitable and at some point, the market is almost certain to demand it.

AOPA should be a leader in this quest, so I was disappointed last week to see it sign on to the airlines' shell game of asking Congress to legislate against speculation in the oil markets. Reasonable people can disagree about whether speculation is a factor, but the fact that so few do agree probably means that legislation will have zero effect on oil prices. Compared to the vast forces of supply and demand, market controls are likely to be puny. Trying to force prices back down goes to that notion of entitlement to cheap gas. It's just unseemly. It's also worth noting, perhaps, that the speculators are often hedge and pension fund holders whose earnings allow them to buy airplanes and gas in the first place. But I digress.

The focus needs to be on two things. Industry groups like AOPA, EAA, GAMA, NBAA and others shouldn't waste their time on noise issues like speculation, but should raise the profile among their members of the need for a practical, workable national energy policy that recognizes GA's need for a sustainable liquid fuel. Second, the industry ought to be proposing airframes and engines that are profitable and practical at a fuel price higher than what we're paying now. I don't know what that price is, but if I were doing this, I'd be thinking about fuel in the $10 a gallon range.

LSAs are a start on this, but there's no reason that a low-drag, light airframe couldn't also be fast enough to serve as affordable personal transportation. I'd like to see the industry get ahead of this and stop fooling around with fringe issues that don't recognize that the price of oil will continue to rise.

Ten years from now, GA will look very different from what we see today. The companies that will prosper in it are the ones bold enough to step off now.

Any takers?

Comments (13)

You are on the mark with $10 a gallon gas becoming a reality. If you consider what a gallon of gas will do for you, $10 a gallon is still cheap in my book. However, I think you are on the wrong track in regards to alternatives to 4 seat aircraft with 500 plus cubic inch engines burning leaded avgas. There are many reasons that this exists as it does today and I dont think that the equation will ever significantly shift in the direction of efficiency without significant tradeoffs elsewhere.

A light weight two seat but fast aircraft? Manufacturers currently fight to rid an aircraft to a few pounds, and the aircraft industry currently and in the last century has attracted the brightest minds around. Aircraft dont get lighter without losing strength or options. Piston GA is such a small sliver of the population as it is, shouldnt this be preserved for powerful, capable aircraft at a premium cost?

I can still fly my Mooney Missile half way across the country with half the seats full of people and the rest of the cabin crammed with camping gear for the less fuel cost than two airplane tickets. Thats about 196 gallons of fuel roundtrip CAE to DEN ($1000-1200). If I were to drive my Honda Accord it would take me 100 gallons of fuel ($400). Airline tickets are $1800 for two (Delta website). I think that is darned efficient and enables me to pursue more happiness than riding on an airline or driving across the country.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | July 22, 2008 9:32 AM    Report this comment

This AOPA member is also disappointed that AOPA is getting distracted by the "noise issue" of oil speculation, instead of the substantive issue you've identified, namely practical aircraft and powerplants for a $10/(unleaded) gallon world.

To its credit, AOPA has identified another substantive issue: the shrinking of the pilot and aviation population, which will make our markets smaller niches, our airports less supported, and our aircraft more expensive. We shouldn't accept non-commercial GA as "a small sliver of the population".

In the USA we tend to get cars which are large and powerful enough for every possible mission, from commuting to driving the kids to soccer. As a result we have heavy, energy-hungry vehicles, and we get conditioned to the idea that we should only have one vehicle which must do everything.

It's hard for a large, energy-hungry vehicle to be energy-efficient. But it is possible to use a small, energy efficient vehicle for a limited purpose, and rent other vehicles (maybe gas-powered) for other purposes. Car-sharing services like zipcar.com are handy here.

By the same token, I sense that many recreational pilots in the US want to own one plane which can do everything. The result is a heavy, energy-hungry aircraft. But we could specialise, and rent the small, fuel-efficient two-seater when that's all we need, checking out the four-seater cross-country machine only when we really want to move four people (or luggage) long distances.

Posted by: James DeLaHunt | July 22, 2008 1:33 PM    Report this comment

One answer to the automotive side of the energy/transportation conundrum is already well-known and documented. Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute (an energy consultancy with plenty of business cred) teamed up with a materials manufacturer to see what could be done about cars if you began with a clean sheet of paper. The result was a full-sized SUV with plenty of room for everything and everyone, but obtained 80MPG. How? By retaining strength (acutally, they made the damned thing stronger) and eliminating weight through the use of a carbon fiber "fuselage." The material is expensive now, but, unlike oil, coal and gas, as demand for it grows its price has dropped. Toyota is opening a plant to produce carbon fiber panels. I wonder why? Now, if an aircraft manufacturer designed a fast, 4-place aircraft that used moderate (say, IO-360 class) thrust to obtain high speed instead of offsetting the weight and drag of aluminum/fiberglass etc, we might see a useful traveling machine that cruised at 200 knots and burned under 10 gallons an hour. Or better. Think a carbon-fiber RV for four. I would buy one. Wouldn't you?

Posted by: Robin White | July 23, 2008 3:11 PM    Report this comment

In my opinion, the GA aircraft around today are a pathetic effort.

It seems that the vast majority of 4 seat aircraft I fly were designed in the 1960s or 1970s with engine technology that was outdated in the 1950s.

I am acutely aware that development of better power plants, airfoil sections and aircraft systems is prohibitively costly - but shurely this is where the noise should be directed - so that one day we may be able to take off in an aircraft that is loaded with an adult person in each seat, more than a toothbrush for baggage, full fuel tanks, and go on a flight where the fuel burn is comparable to that of modern automotive power plants.

The LSA category doesn't have the certification costs of GA - and despite its limitations there have been some very encouraging results. Shouldn't we be taking a leaf out of the LSA designer's book and looking to improve GA aircraft's performance while retaining the benefits of GA flying?

I for one would be a taker of a REAL high-performance 4 or 6 seat single, and by performance I mean an aircraft that embraces the technology that is already available - to bite the hand that currently feeds avgas to our outdated, unsustainable aircraft.

Posted by: James Waters | July 23, 2008 8:31 PM    Report this comment

I'd agree. I wondered as a student pilot why I was flying an airplane designed in the 1950s, and never really got a good answer. The C-172s and PA-28s I learned to fly in could carry full gas and two people, or a little bit of gas and three. I never found a way to put four adults in the seats and carry enough gas to get to the next airport. The experimental market has made huge strides in efficiency (pilots of Van's RVs routinely get better mileage than my midsize car while traveling at 180 knots on conventional engines) that could translate directly to the certificated market with cooperation from the FAA.

Posted by: Gregory Reeves | July 24, 2008 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Whoa there. We are not 'entitled' to cheap gas. We have 'cheaper' gas because we do not have the same level of oppressive taxes/USER FEES on each gallon -- yet. Our refineries are paying the same price for a barrel of oil as any other refineries are, and I would expect production costs are about the same (but again, there may be higher or additional taxes paid by the refineries in other countries, which would skew the production costs up even further).

Or, am I wrong about this?

As for a fast, efficient 2 place ship, my company (Team Rocket LP) produced the F1 Rocket. 200KTAS @ 15,500MSL on 10GPH. Of course, this aircraft comes with 'some assembly required"....

Carry on! Mark

Posted by: Mark Frederick | July 24, 2008 9:59 AM    Report this comment

There are lots of pipe dreams in the responses. I feel the need to clear the record before opinions turn to public policy. First - carbon fiber is not a cure all miracle material. It is just another choice of materials if you are building a fiber reinforced plastic structure. It has its strengths and weaknesses - one of its major weakness is its extreme expense. As fuel gets more and more expensive and more manufacturers have experience with the material it will probably become more commonplace. But the change will be incremental not monumental.

An 80MPG SUV - you gotta be kidding me. I could see this in some ultra-impractical stripped down machine on flat ground with a scientist on the gas pedal. People honk at me when I roll downhill with the engine off during a traffic jam, apparently I am expected to dart ahead with every extra foot that is available.

The reasons that we have the Certified GA aircraft that we have is well documented if you chose to really look into the issues - Certification, Cost, Market, Safety, etc.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | July 24, 2008 10:15 AM    Report this comment

Paul, My eyes glassed over and you lost me half way through your column when you suggested that Congress have the guts to levy a tax to keep gas at some threshold limit. Socialists would love you, Paul. NO TAXES to keep gas prices high! ABSOLUTELY NOT. That would give Congress even more of our hard earned dollars to squander. The market is working quite well on its own to keep prices high enough to spur conservation and innovation. I'm coping the same way you and everyone else is; flying less, driving less and slower(better mpg); making my trips count for more. I too would like a light sport a/c for my recreational flying, but to spend a $100K or more to burn 5 gal/hr vs. 10 gal/hr doesn't compute in my brain and just won't work for my budget, either. Market prices will work their way without any government tinkering. Old Stinsons like mine will gradually wind up disassembled in barns or garages(as well as old 172's). The more efficient and newer technology LSA's will gradually envelope the recreational segment; and I suspect the high end single engine market (Cirrus etc) will survive because they have a genuine transporation application for small businesses. And those new airplanes ARE getting more efficient; FADEC, LOP operation, etc.

NO TAXES to establish a "threshold price" for avgas. That would give people like me just one more reason(re: high cost) to throw in the towel on recreational aviation. Dennis Crenshaw

Posted by: Dennis Crenshaw | July 24, 2008 10:48 AM    Report this comment

Diamond has the answer in the DA 40 and the DA 42. These are the very latest in GA airframe design using the very latest in materials and construction techniques. True, Thielert has "screwed the pooch" but there are other heavy fuel engines out there and more on the way. I fly the Thielert now; though it is a very smooth-running, responsive and fuel sipping engine, it is economically untenable and destined for the trash heap even in Thielert gets its act together. No one I know in aviation will ever purchase a Thielert again; so Kuebler can say what he wants and woo all the investors he can and rebuild the company but we customers have been hung out to dry and will NEVER forget it. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me...

Posted by: Todd House | July 24, 2008 12:27 PM    Report this comment

I beg to differ with you on this subject. Like Mark above I fly an airplane I built and I find it to be very economical. I recently flew from Sacramento to Provo UT in 2 hrs and using about 25 gals of fuel. At cruise I was burning 9.6 gal/hr at 210 kts. When we discuss economy we need to evaluate all perameters not just fuel burn. What is the fuel burn relative to the speed. I burn more fuel but the trip takes a LOT less time, therefore my airplane is more economical. We get wrapped up in only one number gal/hr. This is only 1/2 the story. Admittedly I do use Gami injectors and electronic ignition which greatly helps my economy. Also there was a recent article in AvWeb (I think) that some one discussed the options for getting from somewhere in Texas to Oshkosh. I am guessing on the numbers but you will get the general idea. For 2 people Airlines=13hrs with stops and changes and about $1400 Driving= 2 to 3 days, hotels, and about $1200 Private aircraft= 1/2 a day and about $500. This oil shortage is an artificially created situation created by are very own government. There is plenty of our own oil available if we could just drill for it. This doesn't mean we shouldn't conserve. Jim

Posted by: James Robinson | July 24, 2008 1:09 PM    Report this comment

Well last week I left the skymaster parked and drove form Dallas to Roanoke Virginia and back, saved about $400.00 in gas at a cost of 24 hours of hard driving. It may cost more to fly myself and I may be depriving myself of the TSA massage, the sight of women in bhurhas checking me and my laundry for something which might signal terrorism, the lame airline excuses for being late, cramped, nickel an dimed to death.

It may not be priceless to be running down the road at a 170 knot without a hassle, but the peace of mind is worth a lot

Posted by: Jack Wybenga | July 25, 2008 4:32 PM    Report this comment

We are experiencing the effects of depending on foreign oil sources and the certainty that consumption will eventually match supply. We as a nation may have been wise to use the rest of the world's supply when it was cheap, now it is time to find our own. As to what is going to be the next Cirrus type of success only some venture capatalists may have heard about. Be assured that the best solution will come from the free market not some government law about speculation on commodities. The US consumer is spoiled to low prices, refiners today are making no or little profit on gasoline, have you checked Chevron's stock prices lately? Historically refining and marketing are a terrible profit center. If we regulate the supply side of energy watch the cost of fuel skyrocket! My Mooney Rocket still does a great job of taking me quickly where I need to go at a competitive price vs driving (let alone the great time savings) and no $3000.00/mo payments.

Posted by: Donald Shapansky | August 1, 2008 2:23 PM    Report this comment

I have been trying to figure out the same thing. I haven't been flying much after landing my jointly owned airplane in a salt water marsh back in 2004. But what airplane? I want to fly, love to fly but what to fly? With aviation fuel and other costs continuing to escalate, selecting my next airplane is a big decision. 2 seats or 4. Fast or slow. SLSA is nice but I do like to fly IFR.

The Liberty might be the right compromise. A used one costs a little more than a new SLSA but it's IFR certified. It only has 2 seats but most of my weekend flying is only with another person anyway. Fuel burn is only 5 gal/hour and it has FADEC which means the engine is managing itself not your other club members. The airplane was built with low cost in mind. With four people in a club, the fix costs would be very reasonable.

I sure would love another Mooney M20J but don't see how it is possible these days...

Posted by: Dana Nickerson | September 13, 2008 10:31 PM    Report this comment

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