Will My Airplane Last A Century?
At the end of Sun ‘n Fun, as I was shooting this video with P-51 owner Louis Horschel, I was marveling at the fact that with only about 100 of these aircraft still flying, it’s still supportable. As Horschel explained, parts are findable, if not readily available, and the economics allow the manufacture of some parts. Mustang owners know where to find them, too.
Horschel figures he’ll own the airplane for another 20 or 25 years, by which time it will be essentially a century old. Boy, I thought to myself, that’s really something. Then the other day, tooling around in the Cub with my partner Bob, I realized that mine’s even older; the J-3 will reach the century mark in 2038, 21 years from now.
I’m certain of one thing. By then, I’ll neither still own it nor be flying it. The horizon is in sight, so to speak. But will the airplane itself still be flying and still be supportable? It’s a tantalizing question with a number of factors to ponder. First, what will the state of GA be by then? Hardbitten though I may be, I’m not the type to clutch my pearls and sniffle about the death of the industry at the hands of evil regulators and wingtip-wearing suits in Wichita or maybe Beijing. I can summon neither defeatism nor delusion. Call the middle ground optimistic realism. But either way, my beer will remain free of tears.
Of course GA will exist. It will always exist because although the numbers might be diminishing, there will always be enough people passionate about flying to maintain it economically in some form. But what about the micro-communities that support small-population types that are no longer manufactured? In the case of Horschel’s Mustang, that’s a monied crowd and there are no more than a couple of hundred on the entire planet who have both the wealth and predilection to own and fly a World War II fighter. But there are enough to keep it perking along.
A Cub, or a Champ or a Luscombe costs pocket change to own and operate, at least compared to a Mustang. Herschel burns in an hour what I use in a couple of months of flying. What makes these small owner communities work is to have enough people involved with the airplanes to sustain the Univairs, the Wag-Aeros, the Groves and a handful of other companies that support them. So far, so good. Of about 20,000 Piper Cubs made, some 5000 are still on the registry if not flying. That represents a serviceable population.
Casting forward, what would threaten the continued vitality of airplanes like the Cub, as they approach the century mark? Maintenance skills for one. Finding people who can do good fabric work is a challenge, but it’s not a deal breaker. The Continental A-65 engine and its variants are currently reasonably well supported. We’ve never been beached for lack of parts. Stuff like cables, turn buckles, fasteners, hoses and the like are standard aviation items.
But 20 years from now? Hard to say what the Cub ecosystem will look like. Some of it may depend on the continuing market value of the airframes and I think higher is better than lower. While I’m convinced there will be plenty of people participating in flying in some form two decades from now, it’s just as possible that they won’t be as interested in the kind of flying the Cub and airplanes like it represent. It’s nostalgia now. In 20 years, it will be ancient history. We're already finding that locating a new partner to fly the machine has been difficult.
The best I would hope for is a resurgence in interest in vintage airplanes from younger pilots coming into the fold. Old taildraggers might enjoy a panache of sorts not shared by whatever is new in 2038. And there will be something new. I’ve been known to place a wager or two and I would put my money on that very thing happening, at least to the extent of keeping a few hangars populated by classic yellow taildraggers. But there might be a lot fewer of them than I'd like.