Aviation Predictions We Got Right. And Wrong.

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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 nave. 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.

Comments (13)

A traditional magneto could never hope to meet the standards that the FAA has set for an electronic ignition. There are plenty of systems in the homebuilt world that work just fine, but you'll never see them go certified because just doing the paperwork alone would bleed the manufacturers of those systems dry.

Part 23 isn't the issue--it's Part 21. I'm not sure of any other industry where the internal business practices are so highly regulated as they are in aviation. It's easier for a doctor to put something in your body than for an aircraft manufacturer to modify a part on an airplane.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | January 15, 2017 4:32 AM    Report this comment

Didn't Continental Motors introduce a fully certified engine with a FADEC (electronic ignition) system back in 2009?

I wasn't active in flying then, but I read that it failed because "the market" wouldn't accept it.

Sometimes we have to look away from the FAA and into the mirror if we want to solve GA's many problems.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | January 15, 2017 3:46 PM    Report this comment

Much earlier: 2002. The original approvals date to the late 1990s. Liberty XL2 had a FADEC engine and so did a DA20 variant. Never caught on.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 15, 2017 7:03 PM    Report this comment

I flew the Liberty. That FIO235 was a great engine. You could feel the difference. It had two performance tables if I remember right. It had redundant electronics and would run on just on if needed. It had a back up electrical bus. It had two performance tables if I remember right. One for WOT (Wide Open Throttle) and one for cruise. Started easily, ran very smooth and you could feel the timing change as you accelerated. Sounded different as well. Much more automotive like. Was good on fuel as well. Continental bought the original development company Aerosance. One of the principals in Aerosance had his Baron fitted with a system. It was EXPERIMENTAL but ran much better than stock. You could hear the different sound in the exhaust note. Continental discontinued the product line.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | January 15, 2017 7:58 PM    Report this comment

The Liberty XL2 (Now Discovery Aviation XL2) is still out here and flying fine. It's a great little airplane. Cruises about 120 knots at under six gallons/hr. Yes it has a back-up electrical bus for the FADEC and some instrumentation.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | January 15, 2017 8:20 PM    Report this comment

Did "the market" not accept FADEC because of the technology itself? Or was it because of the price premium? I'm willing to bet that it would do a lot better if the price were comparable (which it should be, if we were able to leverage automotive technology and parts--see the SDS system for example). Charging a five figure premium and then saying "nobody wants it" is dishonest.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | January 16, 2017 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Did "the market" not accept FADEC because of the technology itself? Or was it because of the price premium? I'm willing to bet that it would do a lot better if the price were comparable (which it should be, if we were able to leverage automotive technology and parts--see the SDS system for example). Charging a five figure premium and then saying "nobody wants it" is dishonest.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | January 16, 2017 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Hard to say if it was price, but I doubt it. Even $20,000 on a $600,000 airplane is unlikely to be much of a deterrent and buyers typically want all the gadgets they can get. When glass was first introduced, it was thought it would be an option. But all the buyers wanted it, so steam gauges went away.

There were issues with reliability of the early FADECs. I was at Mooney once and they told me they were having trouble keeping it running reliably in the air. Several stoppages. This got sorted out, but the OEMs never heard the customers demanding it so they never pushed it.

Even Liberty didn't do well with it. About 130 of those airplanes made. Just no strong demand.

There's another lesson here you may not know about. The uptake of the electronic Rotax 912iS has been slower than thought, with many OEMs selling more of the ULS because it has a better torque curve and better takeoff performance and is simpler to maintain.

Price is a part of it, but probably not even an important part.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 16, 2017 1:20 PM    Report this comment

Nearly 3 1/2 years after my retirement my name appears in an AvWeb article. Thanks for the honor Paul. I remember that graphic very well, and yes there were accusations. Thanks for setting the record straight my friend.
The circumstances for the mention gives credence to my consistent response to those who would accuse me of being "famous" in the avionics industry, to which I would reply, "no, I am infamous, there is a big difference." Always an honor to be remembered.
Tim Casey

Posted by: Tim Casey | January 16, 2017 2:12 PM    Report this comment

Nice to hear from you, Tim. Hope you're doing well.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 17, 2017 4:13 AM    Report this comment

Some mention has to be made of the Porsche attempt to enter the GA engine market. I tried for several years to get to fly one. At first it was a "sure fire" idea but only made it to fizzle.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 17, 2017 7:20 AM    Report this comment

"Some mention has to be made of the Porsche attempt to enter the GA engine market."

I was fortunate to fly the Porsche Mooney on a short hop from Kerrville to San Antonio International and back. The engine started easily and ran very smoothly with that familiar Porsche hum. The single lever engine control seemed strange at the time, but one could easily get used to it. I was not very familiar with Mooney performance back then, so I could not say whether the PFM was better than the regular plane, but it was smoother and quieter than the 4 cylinder Lycomings.

I'm not sure why the PFM never caught on, but I suspect it was a combination of the rocky economy at the time and pilot's reluctance to embrace radical new ideas.

Posted by: John McNamee | January 17, 2017 10:54 AM    Report this comment

Kudos on your clairvoyant GPS prediction Paul, that is amazing.

Regarding Cub prices, in the early 1970s an FBO friend of ours "collected" old used J-3s in the large hangar he managed at the county airport. At one time he had maybe 10 of them, wings off and fuselages tipped up on their noses together in the back of the hangar like a line of shopping carts at the Piggly Wiggly.

When asked what he intended to do with them, he said wistfully "You know, someday those Cubs will be worth $10,000 apiece". A couple of bystanders, myself included, laughed out loud at that one! (Seriously I'm not kidding) Smart man; he must have done a lot of things right, as they later named the field after him.

Posted by: A Richie | January 17, 2017 10:18 PM    Report this comment

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