It was a nice, sunny day at home. A day off with great weather can be a rarity where I live and I intended to enjoy it to the full. My neighbor and fellow pilot, Chad, and I had one appointment to attend to before we headed out to play tennis. Apparently, there is such a thing as a free lunch and an aircraft manufacturer was about to provide us with one. We're talking top-of-the-line steak and cocktails at a top-of-the-line steak and cocktails place.
It was obvious whey they invited Chad. He is a rich lawyer who happens to own a Beechcraft Duke. Why they invited me remains a mystery. The company that was providing a $50 lunch said they only wanted us to sit through a 40-minute presentation about their bird. Then we would be free to play with their mock-up that was located in the parking lot and perhaps go for a demo flight later. I won't name the manufacturer here, but rest assured that this is an aircraft company so confident of its design that it attaches a parachute to each and every model it produces.
I have always been a little skeptical of an airplane having its own parachute. I am probably wrong and old-fashioned in my discomfort; even Cessna Aircraft has recently announced that they will be attaching chutes to their single-engine line. It's just that, as an airline pilot, I've gotten used to the concept of bringing the airplane to the ground in a controlled method, not landing it like a Soyuz spacecraft re-entering the airspace over the former Soviet Union and slamming down onto the steppes below a canopy.
"If I have to use a parachute during an in-flight emergency," said Chad, "I want to have it on my back or butt and bail out like a man. John Wayne would never have a parachute on his plane. It would be like putting a trigger lock on his trusty 0.44 or putting an airbag on his horse."
The statistics that Nate, the salesperson, presented at the lunch were compelling. For some reason, people have gotten the idea into their heads that they should fly their light, single-engine aircraft through all sorts of weather at night. Their parachute system had saved some lives.
"This airplane can fly in very low and foggy conditions and has deicing systems and a thing called "WAAS" that can help you steer around bad weather," said Nate. "The parachute gives you an added margin of safety should something go wrong." He then showed a slide of their airplane enjoying a smooth ride above a solid undercast.
I've been guilty of flying light singles in heavy rain at night and in 200-and-1/2 weather in the past, but now I don't really feel comfortable in nasty weather without about 300,000 pounds of Boeing 767 around me. I know it is a weakness on my part and I know that single-engine flight has come a long way since the early days, but Lucky Lindy wasn't called "lucky" for no reason. When Chuck crossed the big wet in his single-engine Ryan monoplane, the reliability of his motor probably crossed his mind more than once during that night.
We were halfway through the salad course before Chad noticed what we should have seen as obvious: Except for the salesperson giving the spiel, we were the only pilots there. This particular aircraft company had come to a marketing conclusion that every general aviation manufacturer should have arrived at years ago: The industry should not be selling to pilots, they should be selling to non-pilots!
The little-airplane makers should be basing their marketing efforts on proving that their aircraft isn't really an airplane so much as it is a luxury car. I'm not talking about the people who refurbish P-51s or build aerobatic aircraft, but let's face it: Most pilots can't afford to pony-up $600K for a single-engine ride but rich people can.
What better way to "increase the herd" of pilots than to offer the dream of flight to your basic oral surgeon, trust-fund baby or tort lawyer? I know that light-sport aircraft (LSA) is another big trend and is considered a "gateway drug" by the manufacturers. They figure to trade people up from their LSAs to bigger iron at a later date. This particular company decided to go right for the people who already were wealthy enough to blow big money for a new airplane. They recognized it is unlikely that people who chip in for a tenth-share of an LSA will be stepping up to the half-million-dollar investment on a toy level of affluence any time soon.
That isn't to say that the LSA sector isn't a great thing and isn't doing a ton of business. At this year's Oshkosh alone, people lined up to write checks for the new Cessna SkyCatcher and the company doesn't even have a factory to build one in yet. Out of the 700+ people who wrote deposit checks that week, a few had bigger, more expensive airplanes, but they were fish that were already in the boat. This parachute-plane company was trying to re-stock the pond with a new crop of check-writing aircraft owners.
Part of the deal with your new airplane is a full-time professional "eagle of the skies" of your very own ... for only $70 grand per year. That's right folks, I said $70 grand. To the people slurping martinis at the lunch and planning their next vacation to Aspen, this much money is one week's wine allowance; but to your basic, lowly, airline jock, that sounds like a lot of smackeroos to feed and water a single-engine corporate pilot. Heck, that is way more than airline pilots make a year for the first 10 to 15 years of their careers. I was beginning to wonder where I could sign up for one of these jobs until the show moved out into the parking lot after dessert to view and talk about the mock-up.
It was during this protracted conversation I had with the non-pilots that I thanked the aviation gods that for the past 28 years I had been protected from them by a locked cockpit door.
We were all standing around the mock-up and Rich Guy One said, "Dam'n Cletus, you can't fit my golf clubs in this thing!" Rich Guy Two, who was accompanied by Rich Lady One, said, "This is great! We can fly to the beach house at St. Simons any time we want. But how are we going to get the kids, the nanny and cook down there too?"
Rich Guy 3 summed it all up and confirmed the manufacturer's whole marketing plan when he said, "Yeah, I'll probably buy at least one of these things. I just came into 500 million bucks and need a fun plane to go along with the jet. I'll get one the same color as my new Lamborghini so they'll match."
Nate worked his way over to me and wondered if I would ever be interested in owning a parachute-equipped, single-engine plane with my very own personal pilot to fly me to 100-dollar hamburger joints. I think my answer disappointed him when I told him that I am probably just being old-fashioned about this, but I want my airplane to be an airplane, not a car. I am personally sick to the teeth of cars. I am tired of dealing with cars, insuring cars, hitting other cars, paying to park cars, and filling cars with gas. When I fly, I want to fly, not drive.
Chad added, "Yeah, we want to feel the wind in our hair, the bugs in our teeth and a firm, rigid stick in our hands!" Obviously, Chad had enjoyed one cocktail too many, but in his own, marginally homo-erotic way, he echoed my sentiments exactly.
I hope the company in question sells a million new cars ... err, airplanes ... and that none of them needs to literally bail out on themselves. But as flashy as they are with their TV screens and whatnot, I'll take a steam-gauged, sputtering tail dragger that has adverse yaw out the wazoo any day over a glorified Toyota with wings.
But, then again, they weren't selling to me in the first place.
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