Our Wasteful Training Habits
I haven't done a formal survey, but my impression from talking to aircraft owners, instructors and FBOs is that the price of avgas is definitely reducing flying hours. That's understandable and a classic market response to rising prices. When something costs more, you buy less of it, find an alternative or become more efficient in the use of whatever it is that's costing more.
Although we're making some progress in general aviation with regard to efficiency, we clearly have a long way to go, especially in changing what are probably wasteful basic habits. Here's an example. Last week, we flew across the state for a couple of business meetings. While waiting to depart Venice, we got stuck behind a slow taxiing Cessna 150 whose instructor and student plodded through what was probably a long checklist, then declined to taxi onto the runway and depart ahead of another 150 on a one-mile final. (Do the math: That's a full minute to taxi onto the runway, shove the throttle in and get airborne and out of the way.)
So we waited behind the 150 and a Bonanza waited behind us—three airplanes pumping $4.25 fuel through about a thousand combined cubic inches of displacement and going nowhere. It got worse. An airplane reported entering the downwind and we could see it was positioned just perfectly to pin us all to the taxiway for another few wasteful minutes because the 150 instructor and student clearly weren't going to move until the final was clear. A cooperative Columbia pilot extended his downwind to break the logjam.
Do we have to keep doing this? And why do we do it? We do it because of inertia and that all-purpose, apple-pie response to everything: safety. The student is taught to taxi no faster than a walk because the checklist says so and following a checklist equates to safety. He's taught to never takeoff with an airplane on final because his instructor—who was taught the same thing—told him to. And he flies a two-mile final and a pattern sequence that would be too wide for an F-16 because that's what instructors teach these days. Why? Because they were taught that and, to them, anything less is unsafe.
In my readings on improving automobile fuel economy which, in case you have noticed, is atrocious, I came across this gem: "Analysts project an increase in the cost of buying a new [fuel efficient] car between $900 and $10,000 depending on which expert is consulted. The only way to achieve this is to drastically reduce the weight of a car, thus increasing the potential for a lethal accident and more dead Americans on the highway."
This, by the way, is the justification for large, heavy cars with necessarily large displacement engines. The only way to use fuel more efficiently is to risk certain death. A little bit of that logic goes a long way.
Three years ago, on a trip to Diamond's factory at Wiener-Neustadt, in Austria, we were having lunch at an airport café hard by the main parallel taxiway. I noticed a Cherokee whizzing by on the way to the runway, then another and yet another. When I commented on the high taxi speeds to my Austrian lunch companions, they dryly noted that when avgas costs $8 a gallon, as it did in Austria at the time, dawdling taxi speeds are for wastrels or the very rich. But what about safety? Somehow, the pilots managed to idle the throttles and coast into the turn onto the runway without undue braking. The tower cooperated by issuing no-delay takeoff clearances to airplanes hustling along the taxiway.
Is this an argument for taxiing at the speed of heat? After all, how much gas could those Cherokee pilots really be saving? That misses the point.
The Austrian pilots—long ago, probably—reached the point where they rationally examined the cost of fuel versus its value to them and changed their habits and procedures to save a little of it. In other words, they rejected the safety-trumps-all argument in favor of efficiency.
I would argue that we're overdue for a little of this in the U.S. And it ought to start with CFIs, who should teach their students to fly tighter patterns, to understand and use ground leaning and even to lean trainers at low altitude. And there's no reason to taxi like molasses just because the checklist says to or to stubbornly wait to takeoff until the closest airplane is three miles away from the runway.
We're going to have to get to this point eventually. And the sooner we do, the better off the industry will be.