Aviation Predictions We Got Right. And Wrong.
The good thing about having advanced ADD is that the distractions can you lead you on some fascinating forays into the obscure, the esoteric and the downright bizarre. The other day, I was paging through our archives looking for something—I can’t even remember what—and I found an article published in a 1992 issue of Aviation Consumer scoring various predictions that the magazine had made.
“Move Over, Jean Dixon,” blared the headline in the inimitable style of my predecessor, the late Dick Weeghman, one of the cleverest and most talented aviation writers ever, who oversaw the magazine at the time. He had a lot more fun then than we do now, I think. With tongue poked in cheek, the magazine boldly made a couple of dozen predictions which, a quarter century later, are interesting to reconsider. Shout out to then associate editor Andy Douglas, too.
Among the predictions graded were these: A mint-condition Piper Cub would bring $50,000. That didn’t quite happen by 1992, but the half megaton price has since easily been exceeded. Fully restored show-grade Cubs are out there for $70,000. Even an average pristine restoration pushes $50,000.
In the midst of what was then a booming ultralight market, the magazine predicted that these Part 103 airplanes would outsell certified aircraft. And indeed, they probably did 25 years ago. These days, it’s experimental amateur-built airplanes that rival production aircraft. We didn’t see that coming in 1992, although there was plenty of EAB activity.
Another prediction foretold the demise of the magneto, replaced entirely by reliable electronic ignition. “Keep dreaming,” read the score sheet. “The only people using electronic ignitions are homebuilders.” A quarter century later, that’s still largely true. Spanking new Cirri emerging from the factory still have magnetos, as does the entire piston line from Cessna. In 1992, I would have thought that by now, as Weeghman did then, that magnetos would have been consigned to aviation history. It’s true that Rotax has electronic ignition in its engines and Lycoming and Continental have both developed and certified these systems. But for the latter two, magnetos are still mainstream.
Further on the topic of engines, the magazine playfully predicted that by 1992, only one company would manufacture aircraft engines: Kawasaki. Clearly, our ability to understand the staying power of legacy technology lacked anything approaching prescience. Despite Toyota’s dabbling in engines and airframes, the Japanese have no major presence in general aviation and if I can add a prediction of my own, they’re unlikely to. From the never-saw-it-coming file was the Thielert, then Austro and now Continental diesel engines.
Here’s one we got right: “Certain aircraft will be equipped with parachutes that allow them to drop straight down from the sky if the pilot gets caught in bad weather.” Drum roll, please. Even then, BRS had sold some 7000 systems, mostly for ultralights. But it would be another five years before Cirrus came out of the ground with the SR20 which, at the time, many of thought was nuts. (Really.)
In 1992, the BendixKing Silver Crown package was ruler of the avionics roost. GPS was emerging, but Garmin was still a garage operation and no way did we foresee glass panels. We should have, because glass was well established in the newest transport airplanes. We did predict that “Collins, King and Narco will market an all-embracing satellite-directed navigation set.” That foretold GPS mapcomms from Garmin and BendixKing. Narco stumbled across the finish line with the StarNav NS9000, but it had no market penetration.
Garmin’s GNS430 appeared in 1998 and just ahead of that, I got very specific with my own prediction on what was coming. I even drew a graphic of it and published it in Aviation Consumer 18 months before the GNS430 appeared. (I spent an hour looking for the damn graphic and here it is.) At the time, this got Tim Casey, then handling press relations for Garmin, in big trouble because the company assumed he leaked it to me. He didn’t. Anyone could have figured it out, based on what technology we had seen up to that point. It was less predicting the future than connecting some visible dots.
Another thing we got wrong was our prediction that the Navstar GPS program would turn out to be a scandalous boondoggle that would be obsolete by the time it was completed. While the system had some delays, especially the WAAS system later on, it has proven a technological mainstay nearly as important as the very transportation systems it guides 24/7/365. Think about that next time you thunder about how bad ADS-B is.
Perhaps the most fascinating prediction we made involved fuel prices. We said avgas would reach $5 by 1992. It didn’t. Not even close. The highest price we could find that year was $3.32, at JFK airport in New York.
But let's crunch some numbers here. That $3.32 was the top-scale high price then. Now, according to airnav.com, 100LL costs $7.10 at JFK, although the site lists $9.99 as the highest in the U.S. I’m not sure where that is. In 1992, regular car gas cost $1.13, which is the equivalent of about $1.96 today. As 2017 rolls in, we're not paying much more than that. A couple of months ago, regular gas was floating around $2 in Florida. Avgas in 1992 was about $1.25 or about $2.17 in today’s dollars.
Oil prices are boom and bust, typically, and in 1992, West Texas Intermediate was at about $33 in today’s bucks. Today, it’s just over $52, proving that what we’ve always known is still true. Avgas pricing is only loosely linked to crude oil prices and the cost of producing it. It’s even less linked to inflation. It’s driven mostly by declining demand and market-will-bear psychology. That’s the only thing that explains why it’s $2 higher than underlying inflation suggests it should be. And, of course, we are talking about aviation, where supply and demand works by the laws of a parallel universe many light years distant.
One other pie in the sky predication related to fuel that we got wrong was this: Automotive premium gas would form the base stock for a new aviation gasoline. Ah, so plausible. And so naļve. But then that’s an occupational hazard for a futurist.
Body Flying in the Tunnel
Reader Steve Evans sent a note asking for fuller detail on my mention of body flying and indoor skydiving in a vertical wind tunnel in last week's blog. It's a bit off the center lane for AVweb, but I repurposed this Facebook video for the AVweb channel. It provides some additional detail.