So Then the Decade Ended

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This is a chicken-egg thing. I don’t know whether people like to tie things up in 10-year bundles because they like bundles or we do that in the press because some long-dead editor proposed it and we could never stop. Or because some of us work on New Year’s day.

Nonetheless, as the decade closes, and a new one is afoot, I’m noting some general aviation milestones. Technically, I’m 364 days early, because the decade doesn’t officially end until December 31, 2020.

Here then, placed in order of actual and potential impact, is my list of general aviation milestones for the past decade.

Chinese cash infusion: This is more important than many are willing to admit. Without Chinese capital, Cirrus may have withered, Continental wouldn’t be getting a new factory and Mooney would have faltered, although it did anyway. For reasons mostly related to insufficient return on investment, western capital gave many of these companies a pass. That Chinese money did not has been a plus for U.S. GA so far. Prediction: Don’t be surprised to see some of these companies come back to U.S. ownership.

Basic Med: Another one I thought I’d never see. Eliminating the Third-Class medical requirement has knocked down a worrisome barrier for many would-be pilots and brought back quite a few into the fold. While I don’t think it’s the game changer some people claim, Basic Med is still a significant step forward. 

Prediction: Driver’s license certification will be a reality for pilots flying other than for-hire by 2030.

Autoland: This one sneaks in just under the deadline, having been announced just two months ago. Its short-term significance is trivial, because it’s unlikely to find much use in the seldom-needed emergency backup role for an incapacitated pilot. It will be a nice sales lever for the airplanes that have it available, such as the Cirrus VisionJet, the Piper M600 SLS and, soon, the TBM.

The larger impact is in the distance because autoland portends autonomous flight and that’s the next major evolutionary step. It’s not that the industry—Garmin—has done it, but that it made the commitment to do it. Prediction: The market will clamor for routine-use autoland.

Simulators: In the airline and bizjet worlds, simulators have been standard equipment for decades. It’s getting that way in light general aviation and it bodes well for better, more effective and less expensive training. Airplanes have always been terrible classrooms and now even the smallest flight schools can afford capable simulators. Prediction: More competition and ever more sophisticated visuals and displays plus a major breakthrough in feedback and fidelity.

Affordable avionics: This is one I never would have predicted. But in 2016, when EAA approached Dynon about approvals in certified aircraft for its D10 electronic gyro, the FAA got on board. That unleashed the hounds and before long, Garmin was investing in approvals for its own line of experimental avionics—including autopilots—and developing new products to fill the pipeline. Judging by what we’re pretty sure is coming, the process continues. Prediction: Five years hence, both avionics and airframe approval will follow ASTM-style consensus standards.

ADS-B: You knew I had to mention it and midway on the list seems appropriate. Forced into buying what they did not want and insisted they couldn’t afford, many owners have come to loathe the very idea of ADS-B. But for not that much investment, it returns real benefits in datalinked weather and traffic information, something that was a pipe dream two decades ago. Prediction: Equipage rates will continue to increase, but the FAA’s NextGen will be mired in delays and performance shortfalls.

Tablets and apps: Early in the decade, when tablet apps first appeared, we sniped “some cool apps, but mostly hype.” By now, however, tablets have evolutionized the way some pilots fly, blurring what used to be lines between preflight planning, flight management and navigation. For many pilots, lack of a tablet is a no-go. Tablet technology seems to have plateaued so the next development may be price breaks.

Prediction: Through cellphone and onboard networks, apps will become ever more integrated with the airplane, especially new aircraft. But aftermarket hardware and apps will update even older airplanes.

Diesel engines: This milestone applies mostly to one company: Diamond Aircraft. Through vision and sheer determination, Diamond has a full line of predominantly diesel aircraft powered by the exceptionally smooth Austro engines. Judging by my recent visit to the company’s London, Ontario plant, sales are strong.

Predication: Diesel will remain a one-trick pony ridden by Diamond.

Cirrus VisionJet: This airplane merits special mention because of what it represents: Survivor status of a would-be swarm of airplanes called very light jets. But the VisionJet is the only aircraft that truly fits the definition and as we’ve noted in our coverage, this airplane uniquely matches the requirements of its customers, while remaining accessible for a reasonably skilled pilot to fly safely.

Prediction: Before 2025, two competitors in the small VLJ class will emerge. Cirrus will introduce a new engine option.

Electric airplanes: As a market presence, electric airplanes have still failed to launch. Battery limitations are only part of it. The airplanes remain minimally capable and are quite expensive to build, but attractively cheap to operate. So far, only one company, Slovenia-based Pipistrel, has anything approaching volume you could call market share.

But the technology continues to improve and the much-discussed urban air mobility idea will generate breakthroughs, even if the market itself doesn’t gel quite the way Uber thinks.

Prediction: By 2030, electric airplanes will be a major player in the training fleet and some commercial electrics will be in service. But gasoline engines will still rule.

Worthy of mention are some also-rans. Although not a huge seller, CubCrafter’s XCub is the ultimate iteration of the rag-and-tube taildragger. It’s luxuriously appointed and if a pleasanter flying taildragger exists, I haven’t seen it.

Three safety items of note. Angle-of-attack indicators, TKS and synthetic vision. None of these are new to the last decade, but all three have become more widely fielded. Of the three, TKS may be the most potent safety enhancer. It’s effective and practical and owners who have it swear by it. While I like AoA, I remain skeptical that it’s been properly ingrained into training doctrine to have had much effect.

Two more honorable mentions apply to the powerplant development field, which is, due to weak demand and the cost of certification, somewhat moribund. Nonetheless, Rotax has stepped up with two engines, the 912 iS and the 915 iS. Both are state-of-the-art FADEC-driven engines that are finding buyers in the light sport market. Lycoming quietly continued work on the IE2 electronic engine and it’s now entering service in the Tecnam 2012 Traveler commuter aircraft. Engine progress is slow, but it’s not invisible.

Misfires? I can think of a few. Mooney’s attractive M10 trainer failed to ignite after the company put a sharp pencil on market potential. Cessna killed both the high-performance TTx and the hapless Skycatcher, after neither got much love from the marketing department. The decade also saw Cessna announce then cancel two diesel projects, one for the 172 and one for the 182.

BendixKing struggled to compete with Garmin not just in the past decade, but the one before it, too, culminating in the demise of the KSN 770. If I do more than mention NavWorx, I’ll provoke too much collective heartburn so … I won’t.  

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Good work Paul. Thanks for the recap and the predictions. If you published a similar piece back in 2010, I would be curious to see how well those predictions panned out. Might make for interesting reading. The last line here made me smile, but only because crying is the other choice.

      • If you are looking for a compliment, I’ll be the first to fall for the trick. I think your predictions would have been as close anyone out there. For the last 10 years, I want to thank you for very informative and enjoyable reading, always looking forward to your next article. Thanks again!

  2. As far as the US is concerned, diesel is dead. Diamond’s primary market is not the US and even in the US Diamond has brought back the DA40 XLS Lycoming powered IO 360 M1A.
    Electric planes, are you really serious Paul? How long are you going to beat that drum? All you have to do is look at electric cars and how long it has taken them to get where they are now which is not anywhere even close to universal acceptance not even mentioning the infrastructure required to support these very few electron guzzlers. Viable electric airplanes, not even a dream.

    • You might want to check your facts, Tom. If diesel is dead, why has Diamond sold about 60 of them into the U.S. market during the past 18 months? Diamond is now building to order. When I was there last month, they hadn’t built a Lycoming version in more than a year. Just starting to do that now. Also, 20 to 25 airframes a year of the diesel DA62.

      It is dead–almost–for every other manufacturer except Piper, which has sold about 30 DX Archers.

      • Paul, Diamond and Piper are are hardly setting the aviation diesel world on fire especially when you consider how long the diesel industry players have been trying. Ok, I’ll give you “diesel isn’t dead, yet,” however, it has been in a coma and on a respirator for a lot of years.

        • If you think from the development side, or technology growth, both electric and diesels are “on fire” compared to development of lead guzzlers. I would dump my Lyco O-360 (as trustworthy as it is) in less than 4-strokes for an electric. It might be a dream but I am dreaming of counting engine failures in the million hours instead of thousands. Infrastructure, are you seriously thinking that would be a problem? So did the naysayers when the reciprocating engine was replacing the horse. From the safety aspect, both diesels and electric will significantly improve my big ‘ol Briggs n’ Stratt wannabe.

  3. Whenever I think about electric airplanes – even dedicated trainers – I think about sub-zero temperatures at even modest training altitudes. And the ability of an electric cabin heater to suck the life out of a battery, in a jiffy. Happy new year, all!

  4. To me, the decade of 2010-2019 has closed. We’re in the 20’s now. xkcd.com/2249/ 🙂

    I’m not so sure about the prediction on simulation, though. At least in my area, sims like the Red Bird don’t seem to be doing so well, and they’re often priced close to the cost of a basic trainer. It seems most pilots would just rather fly in the “real thing” than a sim (even though you can practice things in a sim that are not safe or practical to do in the real thing, but could happen in an emergency).

    It would be nice to see some US GA companies move back to US ownership, though.

    • That would be the “third decade of the 21st century”, which is a formulation rarely used. When speaking of decades, the usual reference is the “teens” or “oughts” or “twenties”, and we just closed out the “teens”. Decade and century boundaries do not necessarily align.

  5. Survival of aviation companies in particular, is dependent on cash flow. Who ever supplies that is the owner. Whoever has the cash flow is “buying” time for some return on investment in the future, mostly years (especially in aviation) down the road. Considering China, Russia, and Southeast Asia are socialist run governments, they don’t have good aviation infrastructures. Therefore, they have a reason to invest in what used to be mostly American aviation companies taking the risk of little or no ROI regarding air-frame manufacturing but huge return via having better aviation technology needed to build an aviation infrastructure that does not yet exist. What is left of American aviation, is actively seeking these relationships for purely economic survival. We have an excellent, if not the best aviation infrastructure and the freedom to use it. Since the vast majority of us are more than happy to fly 40-60 year old airplanes that were built in the boom years of 1946-79 whose performance matches or exceeds the few latest and greatest offerings still being manufactured here or abroad, the global market has settled into a 20 year old trend of selling 3,000 new airplanes of all types and classes per year. My prediction: More aircraft manufactures will be bought by foreign companies. Most aircraft engine companies are already owned by foreign sources. Besides, it is now a global economy. We all have our hands in each others pockets already.

    ADS-B has driven more avionics innovation, airborne situational awareness, and caused more than just one or two avionics manufacturers to get into excellent, design, and manufacturing of both software and hardware. And with all that competition, along with a global need for enhanced traffic/weather information, the price point has been dropping and will continue to drop. Tablet and cell phones are now the heartbeat of most cockpits. As Paul said, many will not fly with out it today. After us old farts are done ( including dying out) figuring out how to integrate this stuff with our VOR’s, paper sectionals, 10-30 year old panel mounted GPS, and 30-50 year old autopilots, the next generation that trained or are in training on tablet/PC simulators and are introduced through MFD/Glass cockpits that are in most training airplanes, LSA’s, and virtually all commercial/corporate aircraft, are and will be quite comfortable rapidly pushing buttons on multiple screens, as ATC gives them taxi, VFR/IFR clearances, without needing paper and pencil. Frankly, I would be happy to know and understand all that capability on my tablet. But that won’t happen for me at this late stage in aviation life. For me, it is information overload. For the younger generation, it is a normal way of life, airborne or otherwise. Prediction: Tablet/cell phone hardware, aviation apps, and software updates will get even better, cheaper, and be standard, if not mandatory operating equipment within as little as five years.

    Until flight simulators get cheap enough so that average flight schools are charging 1/3 to max, 1/2 have the wet rental price of the average trainer, AND have the ability to scare the student once in a while, I don’t see the simulator business growing much. Cockpits are cramped, hard to get into, and are generally ergonomically uncomfortable. Most airline sims mimic all of that, and being full motion, can do a pretty good job of scaring the crap out of the student if needed, plus offer a vast amount of tactile feedback that allows for a relatively seamless entry into the real deal. Most GA trainer simulation gives good visual clues, but don’t give much else. They don’t bounce around, make a lot of noise, have a sweaty instructor velcroed to your right arm and shoulder, have you sashaying around in turbulence/wind, or fly any different in hot or cold weather. So, why pay 80-90% of flying in a real airplane and get the sterile environment of a modern GA sim when you can do that at home on your PC, Xbox or PlayStation? Prediction: Very little sim growth.

    Diesel technology, even aviation diesel technology has been around and quite refined. However, only selling 1,000 or so new piston singles and twins per year globally, pretty hard to introduce economically into new airplanes. Diamond gets its business from a more global market. The US has plenty of avgas and quality mogas. Outside the US, that is not the case. Most of the diesel technology has been refined by foreign engine makers. That adds to the complexity of certification, business integration, manufacturing and assembly logistics, and the ability to work together. Diamond does all it needs to do in house. They learned a hard lesson of depending on another manufacturer for innovative diesel power-plant design. Electric aircraft manufacturers could learn a lesson from that experience as they move forward with electric airplanes. Pipistrel understands what Diamond has learned. Does the aviation world need several diesel aircraft engine manufacturers? Diesels have to compete with Rotax today in overseas markets. As Rotax improves plus gains more marketshare, they off set the fuel savings, and increased cost of diesels. While EPS, Safron/SMA, and DeltaHawk make great diesels, how many engines can any of these engine manufacturers sell in a total global market of 1,000 potential airframes?

    Experimental aviation is now the “golden age” of US GA and even commercial aviation. What cannot or will be done in certified aviation gets done in spades via the homebuilt crowd. Van’s, Sonex, KitFox, Rans, Zenith, GlaStar/Sportman, CubCrafters, and a few others are the new Cessna, Piper, Bellanca, Mooney, Meyers, Luscombe’s, etc., of the modern aviation scene. Likewise driving the avionics boom. Virtually all of the improvements in engineering, design, even aircraft construction/manufacture, the use of composites, improved ignition sources, aerodynamic innovation ( thank you Burt), propeller improvements, interior ergonomics have come via the experimental category. Cirrus owes a lot of its success to experimental aviation. US GA should be thankful for the EAA. Prediction: Experimental aircraft yearly completions will overtake certified manufactured airplanes yearly production and sales within this decade. Want a new airplane? Assemble one. Experimental aviation has to be protected at all costs.

  6. > Tablet technology seems to have plateaued
    > so the next development may be price breaks.

    I don’t think so, Paul. From what I’ve seen in other corners of technology, there’s a price floor below which it’s not economically feasible for companies to go. The next development in such cases is not price breaks but feature bloat, i.e. lots of bells and whistles that look good but which just get in the way.

    My wife enjoys using her iPad to keep track of our progress while flying – and she does a good job of it – but I get along quite well with our GTN650/G5 combo, writing down clearances on my knee pad.