CEO of the Cockpit #39: What Does the Future Hold?

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Aviation is only 100 years old. AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit feels like he is pretty close to that age, too, as he ponders the future of airline flying and bores your kids with his thoughts.

One of the many responsibilities that come with the title "Renaissance Man" is helping our little crumb crunchers learn about aviation. Remember, "Children are our future" is more than a platitude -- it is a frightening reality.

So, this aging airline captain finds himself at least twice a month at the local aviation museum trying to explain the magic of flight to a group of ankle biters, soccer-mom offspring, and future MTV viewers. To them, aviation is a series of video games, a smallish seat in the back of an Airbus, or something that grandpappy goes on and on about just before his nap.

I'm not dissing these kids, yo! I think they are smarter than the group of black and white television watching baby boomers I grew up with. They have deeper technical knowledge, are more politically savvy, and when it comes to being cynical, I can't approach their level of smugness.

CEO On Tour

Today, my group is made up of 12 so-called "gifted students" from a nearby public middle school. These were seventh-grade kids with brains. All of them were potential student pilots with enough intellect to become flying doctors or aviating lawyers. Some of them might even become airline pilots, if such a thing exists in 20 years.

Ms. Crump, the student's erstwhile teacher, seemed to want me to steer the students to the bigger aircraft on display. You know -- the "gee-whiz" birds that had the Navy or Air Force markings. The kids were more interested in learning about an airplane their own size -- namely a Cessna 150 on display as a "touch me" learning experience. The kids could sit in this bird, play with the controls and generally go "vroom-vroom." This was real metal, not a computer image or construct.

Once they all had a chance to sit in the left seat and have the controls and indicators explained to them, a few of the kids showed more than a passing interest in flying. I expected more curiosity, but I had to remind myself that they had more exposure through their computers to the world of flight than I had when I was twice their age. The difference, at least to me, was the ease at which they got this information.

During my childhood it took literally hundreds of visits to libraries to find information about flying. It took hundreds more visits to the local airport -- transported by my trusty three-speed bicycle -- to get any hands-on experience with aircraft. Now if kids want information on any aircraft or aviation subject all they have to do is figure out the right internet search term.

It was during the post-tour question and answer session held in the Wright Brothers meeting room that I learned all I needed to know about the future pilots of our world. Imagine about a dozen cute kids wearing nametags that say: "Hi, I'm ..." being led by a teacher who closely resembles a C-119 on steroids.

Ms. Crump made a big show of introducing me and touting all of my so-called aviation achievements. The way she described me even impressed me, and I'm not easy to impress. I have to admit that the thing about myself that I'm most impressed with is that I've managed to survive the stupid mistakes I've made over the years.

Collisions at the Crossroads

Kyle, a brown-haired young man wearing the latest in official, NFL-endorsed clothing asked the first question. "I noticed a lot of references to a thing called a "VOR," he said. "From reading the signs in the museum it looks to me like a navigational station that makes all of the aircraft fly over the exact same point in space."

Yep, that's it, I said.

"Kinda dumb, don't 'cha think? I mean the last thing you would want would be all the airplanes arriving at the same point in space at the same time."

Cute kid.

You nailed it, Lyle ...

"Er, sir? My name is Kyle."

Right you are, Miles. You have to forgive me. After all my years flying the 727, the hearing isn't what it used to be. Now to answer your question, you are right. It is a very bad idea for a bunch of airplanes to be in the same place at the same time. Anybody who has ever gone to the Sun & Fun fly-in or Oshkosh and lived to tell the tale will agree with you. The VOR system used to be the best we had when it comes to navigation. Now GPS is the big dog on the block. Strangely, it too directs pilots over where the old VORs used to be. Sure, we have other fixes and intersections, but when you are using a GPS and are cleared to Pioneer you are still flying to a point in space that used to be set by a VOR signal and not a satellite.

Dinosaur Pilots and Planes

Kimberly raised her hand to ask question number two. I was beginning to get the idea that these kids were too smart for their own damn good. Maybe we should put them in charge of things a couple of decades early.

"Sir," she began, "do you really think that the airlines will be around when I am old enough to get a job flying for them?"

Nope. I don't think it will exist the way it does now at all.

"Would you care to explain that answer in a little more detail?" asked Crump who apparently had 40 more minutes to fill before the bus came back to pick the group up and take them to the pizza place for lunch.

Personally, I love airliners, and flying them has been a great career. But I'm putting this question in the context of time. If you asked a passenger train employee the same question in, say, the year 1930, I'm sure they would tell you that passenger trains had a great future in this country, After all, back then most people traveled long distances by train and the airline world was in its infancy.

Now the airline world is a little older, but such things as video and internet conferencing are just getting started. Why would a businessperson in the year 2024 want to travel all the way to Tokyo to meet people when he could meet a 3-D image of them in the virtual conference room down the hall? I'd be willing to bet that in the next 20 years they will develop conferencing tools that will allow you to actually "be there" without being there. By that I mean sights, smells, nuances of body language, the works.

Because business travel as we know it will cease to exist, it follows that the motel system in the world will have to be reworked and traveling salesman jokes will be a thing of the past.

Kimberly, completely missing my joke, had a follow-up question.

"That virtual conferencing thing is probably true," she said. "I can talk with and see my grandmother in California using our home computer. It isn't exactly the same, though. Won't tourists still want to fly places?"

I'm counting on it, Kimberly. Real people wanting to go to real places will be a backlash of the internet age. Today, you can go to Epcot and pretend you are in Europe, but it is a sanitized version. I predict that tourists 20 years from now will make up the bulk of airline passengers, because they will demand the real thing in terms of vacation experiences. Rafting down the Amazon River, for example, will be a real break from the eight to 10 hours a day they spend in the make believe worlds of our computer and information driven age.

Computer Jock Pilots

There were a lot of more generalized questions from the group about airplanes, the history of some of the exhibits and the like, but it was Tyler who came up with the best question of the day.

"What about little airplanes and military flying?" he asked. "Is there any kind of future with them?"

I think there is a big future in both and I'm very excited about them. First, I think fighters and military strike aircraft that are actually piloted by onboard pilots are on the way out. Too much of the payload of today's fighters is spent keeping the soft-tissued, weak pilot living and functioning. Imagine the savings in weight if you didn't have to have a cockpit, pressurize it or heat it. No flight instruments necessary and you won't have to worry about gee limits either.

The first time an unmanned enemy fighter doing 15 gees in a turn shoots down a bunch of manned fighters that can only pull six to eight gees, you'll see a radical change in thinking. Also, our ability to put ordinance on targets is getting better through technology. The other upside of unmanned military strike aircraft is that when the bad guys shoot one down there is no POW to worry about.

That is where all of your computer upbringing will come in handy, kids. Sure, it won't be as glamorous being an earthbound fighter pilot, running the dog fight from a trailer behind the front lines, but your life expectancy will be much longer and I'm sure they'll still let you wear cool uniforms, maybe with scarves. Also, being a fighter pilot will be based on how smart you are, not on how thick your neck and how good your eyesight is. This will open up military flying to a lot more people.

Jumping for GA

I think the biggest part of the future when it comes to flying is in general aviation, or little airplanes. They are getting much easier to fly, cheaper to build and more fun to operate. Recently, they came up with the recreational and sport pilot licenses, and the newer airplanes have automatic controls for their engines.

I'm very sure that within the next 20 years general aviation aircraft will become so inexpensive and easy to operate that flying will be more like owning a ski boat is today, and less like an expensive moon mission. I predict that it will be much more fun to fly and you'll have to memorize a lot fewer dumb FAA rules than pilots today do.

At least I hope my prediction about the future of flying is true. There are too few youngsters like you guys interested in flying and when I go to fly-ins I see way too many old guys like me wearing embarrassing ball caps with our airplane's "N" numbers on them along with those Pratt and Whitney belt buckles holding our beer guts at bay. We really need smart kids like you, and trust me, flying is way more fun than anything you'll ever do in a computer.

Our time together was done and the kids were beginning to file out of the room on the way to their long yellow transports for the ride to cheap pizza.

I had to interrupt their escape by saying that even though we had been talking mostly about their future I hope they spend a little time thinking about aviation's past.

On your way out I want you to look at the display about the Doolittle Tokyo raiders. They met here a number of years ago and there aren't too many of them left today. People like that made our country's freedom -- including our freedom to fly our own planes -- possible today.


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.