2003 Year In Review

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It was a year of firsts and lasts, summer dreams and winter fears. Aviators launched new ideas filled with hope, and watched in sadness as doors closed and airplanes flew for the last time. But with 100 years to look back on, that rearward glance seemed to inspire everyone to look ahead with confidence to another 100 years of spectacular achievements aloft. AVweb presents a brief look at the top aviation stories of 2003.

News Features

Note: Click on the links to read extended AVweb reports of each subject.

For GA Airplane Builders, A Year Of Ups And Downs

Cirrus SR20

While some GA manufacturers had a good year -- Cirrus Design, for one, kept setting new sales records -- others found the going a bit rocky. In January, Commander Aircraft Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. OMF started off the year strong -- in April the company was showing off plans for a new four-seater and a diesel model, and in September opened a new facility in Quebec. But by December, OMF's parent company in Germany was bankrupt, and the Quebec factory had shut down production. OMF says it will sort out its financial problems and resume production by May 2004. New investors turned up with millions of dollars in hand for Navion, Lancair, and New Piper. At EAA AirVenture in July, Extra Aircraft announced it would resume production of the Extra 500 aerobatic aircraft, and by October a plant was up and running in Germany. Cessna had a rough year, with about 1,200 layoffs in Wichita, and Raytheon scrapped the Starship, discontinuing support and mothballing the fleet. Overall, GAMA reported in October that piston sales were up 0.2 percent over the first three quarters of 2002.

Light Jets -- All Anticipation

Honda Jet

As of December, some seven manufacturers had joined the race to produce a new generation of light jets. Some of these jets come with acquisition costs below that of a brand-new light twin, operating costs similar to light twins, and performance well beyond that. Orders stand at well over 2,000 aircraft. Two new contenders arrived in 2003: Diamond in January with its single-engine D-Jet priced at about $1 million, and Avocet Aircraft in August. Avocet said it will work with Israel Aircraft Industries, manufacturer of Gulfstream bizjets, to develop and market the six-seat, all-metal ProJet. Projected sales price is about $2 million. Adam Aircraft was the first to fly a conforming prototype, with the arrival of its A700 twinjet at Oshkosh in late July. Honda flew its secretive little twinjet with no fanfare in early December in North Carolina, but then revealed it to the public later in the month. By year's end the company had not yet come forward with its plans for the project. Eclipse announced in February it would replace its original Williams jets with a Pratt & Whitney model. And in October, new owners took over Vantage Jet assets with the hope of bringing that defunct jet program back into full swing.

Sport Pilot Rule Inches Forward

Light Sport Airplane

In July, the crowds at EAA AirVenture were disappointed when FAA chief Marion Blakey said the long-anticipated final rule on Light Sport Aircraft/Sport Pilot might still be a year away. By year's end, the paperwork had crawled out of the Department of Transportation and crept off to the Office of Management and Budget for final review. The slow pace made it seem likely that Blakey's prediction would likely be on target ... if not overly optimistic. Nonetheless, in November, an eager industry scheduled the first Sport Aviation Expo for Sebring, Fla., in October 2004. The new classifications will allow reduced training and medical standards for people who want to fly relatively low-performance light aircraft purely for recreation. "There's a whole industry out there waiting for this," said EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski.

The Centennial Of Flight: A Once-In-100-Years Event

Wright Flyer 2003

No flyer could miss the fact that 2003 was the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first successful powered flight at Kill Devil Hills, and the aviation world couldn't help but celebrate. The year started on an off-note, though, as the much-heralded Aviation World's Fair officially declared itself defunct, after local government support fizzled. In July, Dayton's big celebration got mixed results, with low attendance at some events but great response for a spectacular three-day airshow. September's warmhearted and low-key National Air Tour brought authentic vintage aircraft into dozens of small airports (AVweb's Dr. Brent Blue wrote a firsthand account). On Dec. 15, the Smithsonian opened its huge new annex, the Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Va. (read AVweb's preview). And on a rainy Dec. 17, a five-day celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, at Kill Devil Hills on North Carolina's Outer Banks, was topped off with a speech by President Bush. The EAA's long-anticipated attempt to recreate the first flight with a meticulous reproduction of the Wright 1903 Flyer failed to get off the ground -- but the group did achieve its goal of flying one million Young Eagles by the Centennial date; and in the long run, that might turn out to be the most historic event of the year.

TFRs, Orange Alerts, Two Turtle Doves, And An ADIZ Over D.C.

Washington, D.C., ADIZ

As the attacks of September 11, 2001, continue to loom large in U.S. and world events, the aftershocks linger in the GA world as well. In January, the Transportation Security Administration issued a new rule that allows it to revoke any airman certificate, for reasons it may choose not to reveal, and with no means of appeal. In February, the Washington, D.C., area got its very own Air Defense Identification Zone. Ultralights, homebuilts and vintage aircraft parked within the zone that didn't have the communications gear required to fly in the ADIZ were trapped. Temporary Flight Restrictions sprouted and then vanished across the landscape, with little notice to pilots. Finally, in October, graphical real-time TFRs became available online. Also in October, a panel of GA alphabet groups submitted its security plan to the TSA, in hopes of promoting common-sense, low-cost precautions. As the year ended, the U.S. was on a heightened "Orange" security alert -- with no downgrade in sight -- and the notam system was still widely viewed as inadequate.

Meigs Field Destroyed In The Night

Meigs Field Destroyed

In the middle of the night at the end of March, in what seemed to many like an early April Fool's Day joke, bulldozers tore up the runway at Meigs Field, under orders from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Sixteen aircraft were stranded, and the pilots had to get special permission from the FAA to take off from the taxiway. Demolition crews finished the job in August. "The day we had all feared has arrived," lamented AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Meigs is no more." But the dogged Friends of Meigs do not so easily give up. They arrived at EAA AirVenture in midsummer, with their familiar tent adorned with red flags, and simply changed their motto from "Save Meigs" to "Reopen Meigs." In December, they submitted a proposal to the city that describes a new waterfront park for the site, complete with a runway and aviation museum. In a partial silver lining, legislation was passed allowing the FAA to levy fines of $10,000 a day for every day an airport is closed by a municipality without giving the FAA the required 30 days of notice.

Threats To GA Airports

Recognizing that a big obstacle to the future growth of airports is the noise issue, the FAA in September established a research program, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to find technological solutions. The British launched a similar project in November. Although the focus of the work is larger aircraft and jets, the findings could trickle down to GA, where the same issues crop up repeatedly. As developers push to take over airport sites, neighbors who are all too happy to see those noisy little airplanes go away only speed the process. In November, aerobatic pilots at Hanscom Field, near Boston, found themselves the target of a lawsuit by neighbors trying to stop overflights of their property. Pilot Peter Schmidt told AVweb, "This has been a real wake-up call that it's time for the aviation community to do something proactive." Schmidt, who flies a Pitts, formed the American Free Skies Association to seek long-term solutions by building bridges between pilots and the people affected by the airport. Meanwhile, small fields everywhere face pressures and conflicts as they try to survive in a crowded world.

Technology: Advances In Engines And Avionics...

Honda Engine

Technological change in GA tends to be a lengthy and incremental process, but a few hints of innovation were detectable this year. In March, TCM and Honda announced they would work together to study the feasibility of producing a next-generation piston aircraft engine for the GA market. Honda said it has developed a prototype four-cylinder piston engine that runs on unleaded auto gas. At Oshkosh in July, Bombardier said it has developed a line of engines aimed squarely at the mainstream GA market. A very cryptic statement from the company announced the "engines will deliver what pilots and aircraft manufacturers have been demanding for over 30 years." Change was also perceptible in the avionics market. In April, Chelton Flight Systems was granted a technical standard order (TSO) for its synthetic vision Electronic Flight Information System. That means anyone can install this panel-of-the-future technology, which provides nearly every conceivable type of performance, navigation, weather and systems information and throws in a virtual 3-D picture of the world outside -- anyone with $71,000 to spend, that is. In July, personal locator beacons for search-and-rescue debuted in the lower-48 market, and in November, the first save was achieved in New York state. The Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) signal went online in July, a crucial first step on the way to highly accurate satellite-based navigation in the U.S. WAAS can provide guaranteed position accuracy to within about 10 feet, compared to 300 feet for standard GPS.

...And Vast New Horizons

White Knight with SpaceShipOne

On beyond the everyday world, visionaries keep exploring the infinite frontiers of flight. In April, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites unveiled SpaceShipOne, his extraordinary contender for the long-running X Prize. By August, the ship had completed its first flight, and on Dec. 17, it was dropped from 47,000 feet by the White Knight carrier aircraft, fired its rocket engine and climbed to 68,000 feet, breaking the sound barrier along the way. Other research projects this year explored morphing wing shapes, scramjet engines, fuel-cell powerplants, and tactile controls that let pilots control their craft in the absence of visual cues.

The Fight Over FAA Privatization

Control Tower

The FAA's funding bill became the fulcrum for a lengthy battle about privatization issues. Back and forth went the bill, from the Senate to the House to committee to conference. By October, the fight was down to the nitty gritty, with politicos vying over which states would (or wouldn't) get contract towers. The contenders finally emerged in the year's final moments with a compromise that left all sides declaring victory. But, shortly after the deal was sealed, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) was fuming that the feds had reneged on their promises. PASS said the FAA plans to break its word and privatize maintenance of air traffic equipment at Automated Flight Service Stations. The bill did manage to sneak in a provision for $100 million in relief to help FBOs, flight schools, charter operators, manufacturers, and other GA businesses hurt by 9/11 airspace restrictions. In November, the FAA announced its newly restructured Air Traffic Organization, which will consolidate the FAA's air traffic services, research and acquisitions, and Free Flight Program activities.

Final Flights

Space Shuttle Launch

In January, an Air Midwest Beech 1900 crashed in Charlotte, N.C., killing all 21 souls on board. On Feb. 1, the space shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven were lost on reentry. In April, Sino Swearingen lost its chief test pilot, Carroll Beeler, when the prototype SJ30-2 twinjet he was flying crashed in Texas. In June, the solar-electric Helios prototype flying wing was destroyed when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean near the island of Kauai. The beautiful new Hughes Racer, flown by its devoted builder and pilot, James Wright, was destroyed in August in a crash in Yellowstone Park, on the way home from Oshkosh. In October, Bob Hoover's Shrike Commander 500S retired to the Smithsonian's new Udvar-Hazy Center. In late November, the very last Concorde ever to fly touched down. Vowing to "fight to the end" -- and beyond -- a group called Save Concorde is working to revive at least one of the fleet. In December, the first copy of a New Zealand-built skydiving plane headed for the U.S. market was ditched while being ferried across the Pacific; the pilot was killed. In Africa, a 727 that went missing in May still has not been found. After more than 30 years and 7.6 billion miles of traveling, the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft sent its last signal to Earth in January, and in December, the little Beagle 2 lander failed to send its first signal from the surface of Mars.

Et Cetera ...


  • A model aircraft called The Spirit of Butt's Farm conquered the Atlantic in August, departing Newfoundland and landing on the west coast of Ireland two days later;
  • The secret life of Charles Lindbergh was confirmed in November when DNA tests proved he was the father of three German siblings;
  • GA made inroads in China, as new regulations were put in place, and the market for light aircraft began to open up;
  • In AVweb news, our new BizAvFlash newsletter debuted in October -- look for it every other Wednesday (sign up for it here -- it's free!)
  • Kitplanes joined AVweb as a Belvoir company in October; and
  • For the first time, AVweb featured online video as part of our EAA AirVenture Oshkosh coverage in July.

Thanks for sticking with AVweb for this past year, and we hope you'll join us in 2004 as we celebrate the tenth year of the most popular aviation news site on the internet!