What’s Indispensable Aviation Technology?

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With the Model T and the assembly line that produced it, Henry Ford taught the world a seminal lesson in mass production and economics. Some two decades later, he got schooled himself when General Motors caught up and demonstrated a fundamental truth about selling stuff in a consumer economy: Markets stagnate and so do sales unless the products are constantly refreshed and improved. Improbably, the Model T survived for 18 years before the Model A displaced it, driven by intense competition from GM.

This renew-or-die Darwinism is a constant in every industry, including aviation. While the changes in new models often amount to little more than incremental nudges, the new models that do appear—I’m thinking of Diamond’s DA62 and maybe Icon’s A5—do represent enough change to stimulate sales, even if they aren’t market disrupters. If you plot the aircraft units-sold curve against model—and avionics—introductions, the line has just enough spikes to see an effect here and there.

But game changers? Not really, despite the marketing department's inseparable love for that phrase. Engines haven’t changed fundamentally in 40 years; at the upper end, airframes are incrementally faster, but perhaps not more structurally efficient than the best the 1970s produced. They’re safer by dint of better seatbelts and seats, airframe parachutes and more reliable instruments that, increasingly, intervene to keep the pilot from losing control or improve situational awareness to keep him or her from running into something. It’s arguable if, taken together, these improvements are more sustainers than expanders.

I was ruminating on this the other day when flipping through the Bluebook looking for some engine specs. Across the four decades I’ve been flying little airplanes, I asked myself what product or technology I absolutely would not fly without. Couldn’t think of anything to do with engines or airframes. Glass panels? I like them just fine, but I’m agnostic. Glass or steam; whatever. GPS? Nice, but I can still use VORs and those map reading skills I learned so long ago haven’t atrophied. I feel about airframe parachute systems as I do about glass. I like and believe in them, but I’m not a fundamentalist about it.

That left only a single technology I wouldn’t fly without: the lowly aviation headset, with noise cancelling please. But really, just any noise attenuating headset. If you learned to fly, say, from the early 1980s forward, you probably can’t imagine not using a headset and probably with an intercom, too. But much before that, even though aviation headsets were available, they were far from common. When I started lessons in a Cessna 152, we cranked the speaker volume up to max, had trouble hearing all ATC transmissions and screamed at each other to be heard over the cockpit din.

When I started in Cubs a couple of years later, it was worse. Rag wings attenuate zero engine, prop and slipstream noise and if you don’t believe that, peel off your headset in one and soak in the clatter for a minute. Now multiply that times 60 for the typical lesson. Having headsets radically improves in-cockpit and ATC communication and massively reduces the stress of not being able to hear. I’ve been doing a lot of body flying in a vertical wind tunnel lately and even with good, custom-molded earplugs, it’s loud and communication by eye contact and hand signal is barely adequate. It reminds me of the days of being whapped with a rolled up sectional in a Cub. (There are Bluetooth helmet communicators, but I don’t know if they’ve been tried in the tunnel.)

Headsets, or at least my use of them, arrived a little too late to do me all the good they might have. All that exposure to threshold-level noise has taken a toll on my hearing that it would not have if I’d used headsets from day one, as students today are lucky to do. So what’s the bigger game changer, having a glitzy glass panel that shows me real-time winds aloft or having the same hearing acuity I had when I was 30? The answer should be obvious.

Comments (24)

I un-fondly remember instructing in the pre-headset years. The need to turn your head 90 degrees and speak directly into a student's ear was the first thing that caused me to favor side-by-side seating over tandem. I still prefer it, but mostly because it gives me the ability to see my student's face when s/he is lying to me. ;-)

Game-changers? Composite airframes spring to mind. Unshackling oneself from the sheet-metal paradigm is liberating, to say the least.

I believe that Cirrus' Vision Personal Jet will prove to be another game-changer. For not very much more than twice the (flabbergasting) price of an SR-22, well-heeled personal aviators now have access to a pressurized, jet-powered, unbelievably comfortable airplane that arguably is as easy to fly as one of those $900k SR-22s. That, folks, is a game-changer. I've voiced more than my share of criticisms of the SF-50, but I'd nominate it for a Collier in a heartbeat. I really think their first-ever and for-now-the-planet's-only personal jet is going to be that significant.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | January 9, 2017 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Just like you Paul I've lost the ability to hear somewhat and I guard it by using the better noise cancelling headsets. The Bose A20s and the Lightspeed (Zulu or Sierra) work well for me. I own several of each. On the low-tech side I always carry a couple of flash-lights and an empty bottle of Gatorade just in case I drink too much coffee before flight. Otherwise I'm still good for at least a 3 hour flight.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 9, 2017 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Truly indispensable (as opposed to just great to have), yeah, noise-canceling headset. I had one lousy rental headset one day while doing my primary training that I went out and immediately bought an affordable noise-canceling headset right afterward. I've never looked back since then.

One thing I really appreciate having while flight instructing (especially instrument instructing) is ADS-B traffic. It might not replace see-and-avoid, but it sure does help tremendously.

Actually, there is one other "technology" I would classify as indispensable: the standard 6 pack (be it steam or glass). I would never consider owning an aircraft for IFR flight that didn't have a standard 6 pack. VFR-only, though, just the bare minimum of instrumentation is fine.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 9, 2017 11:45 AM    Report this comment

One problem with identifying major improvements in flying is that modern society has a very short attention span for anything new. With the life cycle of computers and other electronics measured in months, not years, we have all become acccustomed to seeing nifty new stuff appear on a daily basis. Just check out the YouTube videos of products from the Consumer Electronics Show and you will see why. It is a blizzard of new and different stuff all vying for our attention. Aviation, by comparison is a glacier moving imperceptibly against the stone wall of the FAA.

My short list of significant technology includes the growimg use of composite structures that allow aerodynamically efficient airframes freed from the constraints of bending aluminum (i.e. Cirrus, Diamond, etc.). The ever widening integration of iPad type devices making cockpit access to real time weather and navigation affordable. And, as you suggest, high quality headsets that make casual conversaion possible as well as the ability to listen to whatever music you choose on a long cross country flight.

Posted by: John McNamee | January 9, 2017 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Huh...what did you say? Too many of us did not use any kind of headset until it was too late. Now we can't hear without them.

Posted by: Dale Rush | January 9, 2017 12:40 PM    Report this comment

I'm surprised that no one brought up the use of intercoms in the same sentence along WITH headsets.

I, too, learned to fly without use of headsets, intercoms, ELT's and even transponders. And altitude encoders ... what the heck was that? The ATL TCA had just been invented (that's Class B for the youngsters). I still have a very cheap and rudimentary Telex headset that was used to fly a T-41A all the way across the Country. I think it might have been the first time I'd ever used headsets and remember thinking how much nicer it was during that 40 hours. NOW, it'd be like clamping my head in a vice.

My mid-70's C172 is bone stock and STILL (sic) has its original Cessna ARC radios which do not have the intercom or sidetone function. What a pain NOT to hear my own voice during transmissions. I have a pile of new equipment ready to go in but I'm hesitant to 'break' the airplane. With ADS-B looming, I guess it's time. An intercom is definitely waiting in that pile.

Just this AM, I saw a pic of the new C172 panel with the Garmin G1000 NXi panels. Nice ... but how many private recreational pilots are gonna pop for one of those? Still, can you imagine if one of 'em could be taken backward in time to be shown to us aviation 'Neanderthals?'

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 9, 2017 1:15 PM    Report this comment

Paul--slightly off topic, but can you provide a link to the vertical wind tunnel operation? I'd like to try it--it's been nearly 30 years since I've had "knees in the breeze."

I recall when the concept was first introduced--as I recall, it was a DC-3 engine and prop, with a metal floor to keep you out of the Cuisinart grinder below. THAT had to be noisy!

I'd like to see what a modern version looks like.

Posted by: jim hanson | January 9, 2017 1:30 PM    Report this comment

My EI FP-5L ranks up there...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | January 9, 2017 1:40 PM    Report this comment

The closest to you seems to be Chicago, where there are three tunnels.

www.iflyworld.com gives all the locations and relevant info. Since these are recirculating designs, they fly year round even in cold country.

I remember the piston powered one, although I never flew it in. There's an outdoor vertical tunnel in North Carolina. Never flow it, either.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 9, 2017 1:46 PM    Report this comment

Like a lot of commenters here I learned to fly just before the headset era, in 1981 in the mighty 112 HP Piper Tomahawk. It was loud. I recall lessons where we were screaming at each other to be heard for an hour and landed with horse voices.

The day after my checkride I ordered a H10-40 headset from Sportys.

I moved to ANRs when they came out in the 1990s.

They are invaluable and are underestimated as fatigue limiters. TIS 1, and now TIS 2 would be my second choices for this category.

Posted by: Joel Ludwigson | January 9, 2017 3:18 PM    Report this comment

The iPhone, Bluetooth headphones and Foreflight.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 9, 2017 5:21 PM    Report this comment

Joel ... what are TIS 1 and 2 ?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 9, 2017 5:35 PM    Report this comment

Something I would fly without today:

What about handheld mics; especially those round bakelite ones with the carbon microphone that make you sound like you're on a 1930s AT&T connection? That's why ATC coined the phrase "Say again please". Every Cessna up through to the 80s had a built-in mic holder on the panel as well.

Flying X-C without headsets was especially jarring to the senses although no one thought anything of it. After about 2-3 hours in the air, whilst being subjected to the constant din of wind & engine noise, a funny thing occurred; you could recall any favorite tune from memory, and by gosh you could "hear" it take on a life of its own as if it was embedded within the wind noise! The power of suggestion works well under sensory overload...

Posted by: A Richie | January 9, 2017 5:38 PM    Report this comment

"Unshackling oneself from the sheet-metal paradigm is liberating, to say the least."

What is the "sheet-metal paradigm" that is "shackling" us? Please explain.

Posted by: Ken Keen | January 9, 2017 5:44 PM    Report this comment

Ken, think sesquipedalians.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 9, 2017 10:11 PM    Report this comment

My favorite quote with regards to headsets comes from writer, Peter Egan. He was writing for Road & Track magazine and took a ride in a P-51 Mustang. Sitting in back, he idly wondered how load it would be without the headset? He lifted his headset off his ears and said the sound was "...like having a stethoscope on a tin roof during a ball-bearing storm."

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | January 10, 2017 5:00 AM    Report this comment

It's only Tuesday, but I think you've won the post-of-the-week award with "sesquipedian." Bonus points awarded because of the recursive nature of that $10 word. Guilty, as charged.

The "sheet-metal paradigm" consists largely of:
1. Materials properties of aluminum alloys in sheet form.
2. Commonly-availed manufacturing methodologies for aluminum sheet.
3. Service-life issues that affect materials-selection, fabrication, and maintenance.

Tooling costs alone discourage designs that include compound curves, causing significant aerodynamic compromise before a design ever leaves the screen. Tapered build-ups (think spars) tend to hew to linear geometries (at least in the X and Y axes). Corrosion always is a concern that must be managed. Subtractive manufacturing techniques (think chemical milling) are complex, expensive, and consequently reserved to high-end products.

Aluminum is cheap, lightweight, and well-understood. But it does require designers to "think inside the box" in ways that composites do not. In engineering everything is a search for an optimum compromise. And in business, money often is the key determinant of "optimum."

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | January 10, 2017 8:45 AM    Report this comment

Good points Tom. However, regarding aluminum verses not aluminum, engineers usually end up simply trading one set of problems for another. Your description of the limitations of working in metal is excellent. Now can you similarly describe all of the problems associated with working in "composites"?

Posted by: Ken Keen | January 10, 2017 10:47 AM    Report this comment

Like delamination, aging, ductubility, etc. Think AA587.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 10, 2017 11:26 AM    Report this comment

...also throughput scale limitations in the factory, unimpressive strength to weight, life limits on the basic chemistry, difficulty in maintaining thickness, limits on color choices due to composite characteristics.

An aircraft chief engineer who worked with both materials told me the more he worked with composite, the more he liked aluminum.

Still, the Diamond series and the Cirrus aircraft would look very different in metal. Would they perform differently? Go slower or carry less? Interesting exercise. Composite probably ekes out a slight advantage, but it's hardly slam dunk.

I never thought it represents a technical paradigm shift so much as a marketing paradigm shift.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 10, 2017 11:59 AM    Report this comment

It may be an unfair comparison, but when considering composites and how they are "glued" together I always tend to remember the 1970s Grummans and the delamination of their wings...old school rivets just seem to be more "definite" of a connection. But that wouldn't stop me from flying a modern one.

By the way, Daedalus and Icarus used a composite glue on their wings as well...

Posted by: A Richie | January 10, 2017 2:12 PM    Report this comment

"What's Indispensable Aviation Technology?"

Gasoline engines.
Take away that and there is no general aviation.
Next question, please.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 10, 2017 5:36 PM    Report this comment

Freedom from the shackles (constraints) of sheet-metal design is nothing more and nothing less than that. It doesn't mean that any composite execution will be superior to any aluminum one. But as an effort to address your question...
I'll try to follow the same basic pattern as enumerated above: materials properties, manufacturing methods, and service-life consequences that than recursively affect the design process.
One huge difference - and potential pitfall - between sheet metal and composites, is that composite raw materials technically do not exist. By definition, composites are a mixture of two or more materials, typically with vastly different physical characteristics. Controlling the blend of materials throughout the manufacturing process is a significant challenge - one not presented by sheet metals.
Pre-preg cloth is the current rage in the effort to democratize composite materials. It can go a long way toward minimizing the chance of tapioca pudding disaster, but it's not foolproof by any means. There are times when I consider crafting multi-layer buildups of pre-preg cloth to be akin to attempting to gift-wrap a live octopus, using a roll of Bituthene waterproofing membrane. Process variability is the enemy of quality control, and composites offer ample opportunities for potentially-disastrous variation.
This is one of the reasons that I have a bias (forgive the pun) for on-mandrel lay-downs of alternating counter-helical tape plies. It's a robotic process, so it can be conducted 24/7 in a "lights-out" environment. It lends itself to run-time in-process inspection. And it offers at-will departure from the constraints of perpendicular warp-and-weft woven-cloth construction - a huge plus. Purposeful local variations in thickness are available at will. Tape lay-down has other advantages, including on-mandrel control of resin ratios, and site-specific employment of multiple tape materials (think selective-site use of aramid fiber in a mostly-carbon structure - like critical-area armor in an A-10-class vehicle). These materials can include conductive traces (think "wiring") and resistive traces (think embedded heating elements). That composite spar already is paid for - why not think of it as a large structural printed-wiring board? On-mandrel build-up also can mitigate the risk of de-lamination (as cited above by others).
Any time you discuss organics, you have to consider the effects of exposure to ultra-violet radiation (sunlight), absorption and adsorption of aviation fuels and other chemicals, changes in flexural modulus, dielectric constant, and a dozen other physical properties, and even simple sublimation. Let's charitably refer to all of this as "aging." We have almost a century of experience with aluminum sheet, with consequent lessons learned - some painfully. We're just getting started with composite primary structures.
I think I'm approaching the post-length limit. Fertile discussion, though.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | January 11, 2017 10:31 AM    Report this comment

A bit tangental but would headsets be needed if low noise was a factor in aircraft design? The military heritage of much aeronautic design excluded low noise from requirements. Away from aircraft even artillery soldiers only started to be issued noise protectors in the 1980s.
In more civilian related design fields (automobiles for example) being quiet has always been a factor.
And even workaday trucks have noise and vibration control built into engines.
But for aircraft, it is still acceptable for some designs to leave the factory with open exhaust pipes, props which reach supersonic tip speeds, and cockpits where it would probably be quieter if the head was stuck out of the window into a 200 knot gale.
Sound meters are relatively cheap now -- you can even get some as smartphone apps although their accuracy is sometimes debatable -- and the number of aircraft at 90 db in the cockpit in cruise is astounding. 100 db is the legal limit for most chainsaws.

Posted by: John Patson | January 12, 2017 3:47 AM    Report this comment

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