1998 Year-End Wrap-Up

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SPECIAL REPORT. 1998 has come and gone, leaving in its wake many notable events and developments in the world of aviation. The news stories just kept on coming good and bad, joyous and sad, funny and tragic and AVweb kept you abreast of it all. The AVweb news team has assembled this brief glance back over our shoulders, offering our pick of the top ten aviation news stories of the past year, plus some very special year-end awards and a remembrance of the passing of a few friends.

Top 10 Aviation News Stories | Awards of Distinction | Final Flights

The Top 10 Aviation News Stories Of 1998

10.  Viagra

viagra.jpg (6028 bytes)These little blue pills (at least that's the color we're told they are...) will appear on many 1998 retrospective lists. Beyond the huge amount of coverage the new "erectile-dysfunction" drug has received in the popular press, aviation has seen its share of Viagra-related stories also. In fact, pilots who use the medication — nobody we know, of course — are warned that it can adversely affect one's ability to distinguish colors, especially at night. The drug was even suspected — however briefly — in the fatal crash of an experimental airplane near Annapolis, Maryland.

9.  The Revolution Mini-500

mini500_1201198.jpg (17849 bytes)A series of accidents involving this single-seat homebuilt helicopter — seemingly out of proportion to its numbers — has focused unwelcome attention on experimental aircraft in general. A number of investigations — formal and informal — have been made of the helicopter and more can be expected as no single, fixable problem with the type has been identified.  As of October, there had been 19 Mini-500 accidents — six of them fatal — plus at least one more since then. The coming year will likely see owners banding together to demand remedial action by the type's producer, Revolution Helicopter Company Inc.

8.  Italian Cable Car Tragedy

ea-6b.gif (16823 bytes)The ultimate fate of the crew of a U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare platform was still undecided as this wrap-up was being assembled. The crew was on trial for involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide in a military court after their jet sliced through cables supporting an Italian ski gondola, sending the 20 passengers inside it to their deaths in a valley below. The Prowler was being flown at low level for training purposes, but authorities maintain the crew was well below the minimum required altitude. In addition, early reports emerged indicating that the squadron involved had a history of low flying and that its commander was relieved for allegedly telling the Prowler's crew to destroy evidence related to the incident.

7.  Congress' Failure To Pass Aviation Legislation

capitol2.jpg (8006 bytes)After many fits and starts, two years of effort and usually honest intentions, Congress ultimately proved incapable of agreeing on legislation to extend the FAA's airport and equipment programs, defaulting instead to a simple six-month extension. Similarly, the federal legislature's best-laid plans to adopt a measure addressing airline competition never really got off the ground. Legislation that tried to level out what many believe has become a bumpy road for start-up airlines ultimately fell by the wayside as the major carriers successfully obstructed what a handful of legislators believed were unreasonable changes in the ways markets and service options are decided. Look for early attempts to pass some kind of FAA reauthorization in 1999, with at least a half-hearted attempt to revisit airline competition issues.

6.  John Glenn's Return To Space

At 77 years of age, many of us are content to bounce our grandchildren on our knees between Saturday morning flights in search of a $100 hamburger. Not John Glenn. The four-term, soon-to-be-retired U.S. Senator (D-OH) and the first American to orbit the Earth made it into space one last (?) time aboard the Discovery shuttle. The October 30 liftoff from Cape Canaveral was accompanied by a NASA PR blitz the likes of which have been unseen since the days of Apollo, but who cared? Some folks — including Chuck Yeager — complained that the mission was a political stunt, but that sure looked like a bunch of sour grapes to us. A genuine American hero — prevented from returning to space after his first spaceflight simply because he was a hero — was back where millions of us remembered him and where we believed he belonged.

5.  Aviation Safety

calgary_copter_081798.jpg (13669 bytes)Whether related to aircraft systems as in the Swissair 111 tragedy, to pilot error, to turbulence, to antiquated ATC equipment or to the simple failure to see and be seen, the safety of aviation continued to be a major story throughout 1998. Which is as it should be. Still, we aviators continue to find new and innovative ways to bend sheet metal. That aviation continues to be the safest form of transportation (except maybe for elevators), is perhaps our own undoing — any crash is bound to make headlines. For 1999, let's all be careful out there, huh?

4.   Swissair 111

swissair111_090298_map.jpg (21001 bytes)What went so horribly wrong aboard Swissair 111? Within 16 minutes after its crew declared "PAN, PAN, PAN" in cruise at FL330 and with smoke in the cockpit, the MD-11 with 229 aboard had smashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. No one survived. Compounding the mystery, the plane's cockpit voice and flight data recorders failed to record the flight's last six minutes. Canadian investigators are leaving no stone unturned in their search for clues enabling them to unravel the mystery. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, numerous reports reached AVweb of airliners large and small diverting without the slightest hesitation over the faintest whiff of smoke in the cabin or the cockpit.

3.  The Sad, Sordid Saga Of Bill Bainbridge

"That's how the system works." That's what FAA attorney John Curry told FAA staffer Bill O'Brien after O'Brien told him that the agency's enforcement action against Bainbridge for selling unapproved parts should be dropped. Curry, instead, wanted to force Bainbridge into court because there was no similar precedent, even though doing so would cost Bainbridge as much as $30,000 in legal fees. After both AVweb and the EAA increased the exposure of Bainbridge's situation, and following public confrontations between Bainbridge and Jane Garvey at Oshkosh, Garvey intervened personally.

But, for once, the good guy won. Ultimately, the FAA dropped its enforcement action against Bainbridge and sent him an unprecedented written apology. And FAA lawyers got a dressing-down behind closed doors. All of which took place over a non-approved alternator that Bainbridge sells for experimental aircraft through his Kansas-based company B & C Speciality Products and which requires a Form 337 to be used on a certificated aircraft. Let's hope this is a harbinger of things to come in 1999.

2.  Civil Air Patrol's "Operation Drop-in"

caplogo-md.gif (10359 bytes)Good intentions do not make good policy, especially when the implementation of that policy is subject to interpretation. So it was with the Civil Air Patrol's "Operation Drop-in," a program designed to assist federal law enforcement agencies with their anti-drug programs by collecting data on "suspicious" aircraft parked on ramps around the country. The collected data would then be forwarded to the FAA and made available to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Customs Service for God knows what purposes. Amid catcalls of "little brother" spying on fellow pilots for "big brother," plus outright animosity, the CAP wisely decided to drop the program.

1.  The FAA's "Traffic Ticket" Enforcement Scheme

ramp2.jpg (16186 bytes)As if there wasn't already enough distrust between the FAA and the pilots and mechanics it regulates, the agency last year came up with an ill-conceived and poorly-explained idea for administering on-the-spot regulatory violations of a relatively minor nature. After a storm of protest from AVweb and several aviation associations over the "frontier justice" nature of the proposal, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey announced that it would go back to the drawing board to fix its most glaring problems. Those problems included potentially irreparable harm to a certificate holder's record and the lack of an appeal process.

But, what was the top story for 1998 will likely make the list this year, also: just before Christmas, Garvey announced a revised program would be resurrected for implementation by June 1999.

AVweb's 1998 Awards Of Distinction

The year also saw new highs in silliness and new lows in attempts to do damage to aviation, plus several that fall somewhere in between, proving once again that those involved with aviation continue to do interesting, embarassing and sometimes downright inexplicable things. As always, we call 'em like we see 'em:

  • Worst Idea of 1998 Award: To U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell's (R-GA) legislative proposal to allow federal law enforcement ill-conceived, totally unnecessary and poorly-implemented "order-to-land" powers.

  • Worst Idea of 1998 Award (runner-up): To the Department of Transportation for its proposal to require "peanut-free" zones aboard passenger airliners.

  • Most Disgraceful Betrayal of Trust by a Public Servant Award (tie): To FAA lawyers John Curry and James Whitlow for their mean-spirited handling of the Bill Bainbridge affair.

  • Perseverance Award: To Bill Bainbridge, for standing up to so-called public servants (a.k.a. bureaucrats) John Curry and James Whitlow.

  • Best Performance by an FAA Public Servant Award: To Bill O'Brien of the agency's Aircraft Maintenance Division for taking a stand in the Bill Bainbridge case. Ultimately, O'Brien's report on the matter was the beginning of Bainbridge's exoneration, although O'Brien got transferred to a different job in the bargain.

  • Free Eye Exam Award: To the pilots of two Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighters who expended more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition at a runaway research balloon without downing it.

  • Free-fall Award: To round-the-world balloonist Steve Fosset, whose 29,000-foot plunge through the center of a thunderstorm off Australia gave new meaning to the term "pucker factor."

  • End of an Era Award: To retired former head of American Airlines Bob Crandall, who had a major impact on the state of the airline industry "as we know it" in implementing and taking advantage of deregulation.

  • Left Hand Giveth and the Right Hand Taketh Away Award: To the management of Newark International Airport for first inviting GA pilots to bring their airplanes to EWR in celebration of the facility's 70th anniversary and then caving in to pressure from the carriers to cancel it.

  • Best Conversion of a Jet into a Glider Award: To Cessna test pilots Scott Simpson and Mark Chavas, who ran out of go-juice and safely deadsticked their CitationJet prototype onto a highway near Wichita.

  • Three-wire Award: To Jerry Warren, whose apparent encounter with wake turbulence resulted in his catching his Cessna 150's landing gear on power lines at Seattle's Boeing Field.

  • Vaporware Award: To Toyota, which announced the end of its program to develop a general aviation powerplant and then announced development of an all-new GA airplane only weeks later.

  • Vaporware Award (runner-up): To Trimble, who rolled out a new suite of GA avionics at Oshkosh and then in October announced they were getting out of the general aviation market.

  • Shiniest Brass Cajones: To AOPA's Phil Boyer for his decision to trade his Cessna 441 Conquest turboprop for a brand-new Cessna CitationJet, justified in part with a full-page editorial in the association's magazine.

1998's Final Flights

A short and hardly-complete list of notables that left us in 1998. We are poorer for their passing, but much richer for having known them and for continuing to benefit from their contributions to aviation.

  • Alan Shepard, America's first man in space and one of the last to walk on the moon. True pioneers are hard to find, and even more difficult to qualify. As one of the original "Mercury Seven" astronauts, including Shepard in this list was a no-brainer.
  • Barry Goldwater, former U.S. Senator, USAF Maj. Gen. (Ret.) and indefatigable booster of all things aeronautical. Always ready with a refreshing — if sometimes controversial — opinion on whatever issue faced government, he never turned away from a challenge.
  • Marion Carl, who became the USMC's first ace during combat over Midway and Guadalcanal in the early, dark days of WWII. Often viewed as the "Chuck Yeager of the Marine Corps," he also served in the Korean War and, during the Vietnam War, commanded the 2nd Marine Air Wing, retiring in 1973. Tragically, Carl was shot to death during a robbery in his Roseburg, Ore. home at the age of 82.
  • Sture V. Sigfried, former Pan Am pilot and designer of the famed NACA "speed cowling" for radial engines. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, though, was helping to decide the site of an airstrip for the then-fledgling Chicago Flying Club. Thousands visit that landing strip every day — we know it as Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
  • A.M. "Tex" Johnston, chief test pilot for Boeing from 1949 until 1968. Perhaps Johnston is best known as the pilot who barrel-rolled a Boeing 707 in 1955. He was supposed to do a flyover for a group watching from the shore of Seattle's Lake Washington but instead rolled the big bird right on around without causing so much as a wrinkle or working rivet.
  • Perry Young, Jr., the first black commercial pilot in the U.S. On February 5, 1957, Young served as the copilot of a 12-passenger New York Airways helicopter. Before that time, airlines simply refused to hire black aviators. During World War II, Young became one of the first black flight instructors in the U.S. Army Air Force.
  • Clay Tice, former World War II fighter ace and USAF test pilot. He was reportedly the first American to land on Japanese soil at the end of the war, a result of an in-flight emergency (not his) during his fourth tour of duty. He went on to become Deputy Commander for Test & Operations of the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards AFB in 1960.
  • Tony LeVier, former Lockheed test pilot, who wrung out the P-80, the F-104 and the fabled U-2, then went on to teach aerobatics and unusual attitude recovery to thousands of pilots.