2004 Year In Review

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Aviation's second hundred years began in 2004, and it was an interesting start, launching at least two vastly different new ventures that could change GA's future. The boosters of the Sport Pilot rule hope that it will open up sport flying to new generations, with a return to aviation's roots -- easy-to-fly and inexpensive -- while making the most of new materials and technology. On the far side of the flight spectrum, SpaceShipOne opened a new frontier of privately funded space travel for the (relatively well-heeled) masses. Plenty of other people and events affected the GA life in 2004; AVweb presents our year-end look at some of the highlights.

Each story has links to AVweb's original coverage for more details. You can also read about the year's business aviation news in our BizAV Year in Review.

Sport Pilot, Unleashed!

Without question, the biggest GA story of 2004 was the release of the FAA's new Sport Pilot rule -- finally, after years of struggle and revision and back and forth among a handful of federal agencies and a league of sport-aviation groups. Unveiled at Oshkosh in July for maximum drama and impact, it leapt from the gate and went... well, nowhere much, right away. The rule took effect Sept. 1 and at year's end, the bones of the new structure are still being put in place.

In October, the first Sport Pilot Expo, held in Florida, won critical raves and robust participation from the industry, even if attendance was less than stellar. The first set of consensus standards for Light Sport Aircraft also came out in October. The knowledge-test questions have been posted by the FAA, and paperwork is ready for the first Sport Pilot Student Pilots to take off, driver's licenses in their pockets where medicals used to go, and rush home to land before the runway lights come on. Watch for them in the skies near you in 2005. This new year should tell whether Sport Pilot will prove to be the hoped-for kick in the tail for sport flying, bringing in scads of new pilots ready to fly and buy, or if it will join the scrapheap of tried-and-went-nowhere aviation boosters, along with the Recreational Pilot certificate and the Primary Aircraft category.

X Prize Won By Homebuilder

The other big story of the year was the $10-million X Prize competition. This might have been less of a GA story and more of a story for hard-core space fans if not for the fact that the lead contender was GA's own Burt Rutan, kitbuilder king and longtime god of the tinkering classes. (Every year at Oshkosh we see dozens of Long-EZs and their canard kin lined up, seeming to genuflect toward Mojave.)

Rutan and his merry band at Scaled Composites worked in secret, funded by the deep pockets of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, and motivated by the vision of Peter Diamandis and his X Prize Foundation. SpaceShipOne was unveiled in the summer of 2003, it reached space for the first time in May 2004, and in the fall it flew two spectacular X Prize flights, broadcast live to the world on CNN and the Internet, to make Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie into the world's first private-sector astronauts. (If you missed it in September, check out AVweb's image gallery from the Mojave Spaceport, shot by editor Glenn Pew on the scene.)

The team now can keep busy filling an order from Richard Branson for a fleet of bigger spaceships for Virgin Galactic, to ferry paying passengers into space. In December, after much back and forth in the halls of Congress, President Bush signed into law regulations that will govern the first generation of private suborbital flights for space tourists, allowing eight years for the new industry to grow with minimal oversight before the FAA starts squelching, er, managing things. The loophole: If ships start crashing, the FAA starts regulating.

One TSA, Many TFRs, And Some Aliens In A Pear Tree

In just a few short years, the Transportation Security Administration has earned a place right up there with the FAA when it comes to government agencies that have an impact on the flying world. In 2004, TSA was in the news frequently, and not always in the best of circumstances. In September, the agency released a set of GA Security Guidelines, after much discussion and input from the industry, and for the most part these were accepted without much fuss -- maybe because most airports already had implemented most of the suggestions in the three years since 9/11.

But when TSA released a new "interim final rule" in September that imposed new rules on flight-training providers, the response was much less accepting. Student pilots would be required to verify their citizenship, and aliens would have to pay for a federal security check. TSA chief Rear Adm. David Stone made an appearance at AOPA Expo in October and got a full ration of ... input ... from the frustrated GA crowd. The new training rules were just the final straw, after a year that had already seen a proliferation of VIP TFRs due to election campaign travel, and the continuing entrenchment of a host of other security limitations on GA that are widely seen as producing little (if any) actual security while disrupting GA operations and damaging businesses.

Diamond's TwinStar Glows As GA Recovery Continues

The most attention-getting new debut of the year would have to be Diamond's perky little DA-42 TwinStar, which made its first North American appearance at Oshkosh. The four-seater is ready to fly, though North American deliveries have been slowed while waiting for a support network to be in place for the Thielert diesels.

Sales of piston singles were up overall for at least the first three-quarters of the year, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association reported in October. A big boost was attributed to an extension of bonus-depreciation tax rules to the end of the year. After the first quarter, Cirrus was boasting that it was the number-one producer of single-engine airplanes, beating out Cessna for the first time ... they kept it up through the midyear, but didn't expect to trump Cessna for all four quarters, though the final numbers aren't yet in to see how that turned out.

Mooney watchers had their usual bout of motion sickness trying to track the ups and downs and turnarounds in the company ownership. In June, the Mooney Aerospace Group (MASG) sold off all the Mooney Airplane Company (MAC) stock, then filed for bankruptcy. At Oshkosh, MAC debuted its new Garmin 1000 glass panels for the line. In October, Gretchen Jahn took the helm as new CEO, and in December, MASG had its reorganization plan OK'd in court, and re-acquired its stock in the airplane company.

Symphony Aircraft also bumped along in 2004, trying to regroup after its German parent company went bankrupt in December 2003. By July, the company's former management team had pulled together a financing package to buy up the company assets and get back into business. "There have been some dark days, and it's nice to finally get here," said Paul Costanzo, president of the new (and the old) company. New aircraft on this scene this year included Epic, which turned up at Oshkosh with a flying six-seat jetprop and a unique business plan. Quest Aircraft, of Idaho, rolled out its new 10-place single-engine turboprop utility aircraft in October, and had logged over 25 flights by year's end.

A Quiet Year For MicroJets

Fleets of microjets are still in the works, but it was mainly a quiet year on that front as the manufacturers kept plugging away on their designs, with most aiming for certification and sales sometime in 2006 or beyond ... although Adam Aircraft is hoping to beat the pack at the starting gate, with deliveries in 2005. Adam announced a fleet sale of 75 of its A700 jets in May, and in October said it had a plan for training and insuring new jet pilots. In March, Honda was reported to be flying its twinjet with Garmin glass panels. In April, Bob Bornhofen, designer of the Maverick kitbuilt twinjet, was reported to be at work on a four-seat, single-engine Sport-Jet design. In July, Aerocomp's single-engine kitbuilt jet took its maiden flight above Florida.

As of Oshkosh, Diamond's single-engine D-Jet and Cessna's Mustang were both reported to be moving along on schedule. In October, Aviation Technology Group (ATG) opened the doors for a look at its two-seat Javelin Jet-in-progress in Colorado, and Epic joined the field with a plan for a six-seat jet to be owner-built at their factory. Eclipse Aviation announced in November that it had also solved the thorny problem of how to train and insure the pilots who will fly its light jets, and rolled out its first conforming prototype in December.

A Noisy Year For Air Traffic Control

It's been the year of "Hire More Now" for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), and it started in May, when hundreds of controllers took their message to Capitol Hill. In June, FAA chief Marion Blakey told Congress the maximum retirement age of 56 for air traffic controllers might need to be raised to help deal with an expected avalanche of retirements. NATCA was quick to respond that the solution was to start hiring more controllers now, and kept up a persistent message on that theme all year long.

In July, NATCA went on the road, holding news conferences at busy towers around the country. In December, the FAA finally said it would get going and hire 12,000 new controllers. Meanwhile, workers at Flight Service Stations are waiting for the results of an FAA study that will determine who will take over their operations. A decision is expected in early 2005. Other contentious issues of the year were the FAA's foot-dragging and cost overruns in implementing (or not) new technology like WAAS (for enhanced GPS approaches) and STARS (to replace aging ATC systems). And just to keep things interesting, AVweb introduced Jane Doe, an anonymous air traffic controller who said (in effect) that we don't need more controllers, we need fewer slackers. NATCA responded, and AVweb's mailbin was kept full for weeks with input from both sides.

New Technology: Going Glass And Going Fast

This was the year that glass cockpits became the single-engine standard for many manufacturers. By late summer, at Oshkosh, most major players had some kind of announcement. Another advance this year was the proliferation of satellite links bringing real-time weather data into the cockpit. In October, Cirrus offered a factory-installed Avidyne version using XM weather, and Garmin introduced the GDL 69, which receives XM weather data and delivers it to Garmin's avionics systems.

In the engine category, Honda and GE broke the big news that they will collaborate to produce and market the HF 118 turbofan jet engine, and later in the year, Honda announced that it has established a new U.S. subsidiary, Honda Aero, to focus on the aviation engine business. Aerion Corp. unveiled its plans for a supersonic bizjet at the NBAA convention in October, with plans for an aircraft to fly Mach 1.6 with a "natural laminar flow" wing design.

Trials And Tribulations

Like every year, 2004 had its share of good and bad, success and failure. Florida weathered three hurricanes in rapid succession -- Charley, Frances, and Jeanne -- that damaged hundreds of airplanes and hangars in their paths. In October, the Yankee Air Museum's 50,000-square-foot hangar, at Willow Run Airport near Ypsilanti, Mich., burned to the ground, destroying at least four airplanes and countless aviation artifacts. A rash of bizjet crashes late in the year attracted mainstream media attention and raised safety concerns, which NBAA and others in the industry worked to defuse. In December, all Beech A45 and T-34 aircraft were grounded by the FAA after it was discovered that cracks in a location on the wing spar not covered by a previous Airworthiness Directive led to the crash of a Texas Air Aces T-34.

Adventurers And Record Seekers

Every year, a certain number of aviators will set out to do something that nobody has done before. Sometimes the general reaction is, well, why would anybody want to do that, anyway? Undaunted, those with the adventuring gene light out for new frontiers. Among that group in 2004 were Gus McLeod, of Maryland, who launched in January in a modified Velocity kitplane called the Firefly, in an effort to become the first person to fly solo over both the North and South Poles in a single-engine plane. He didn't make it, turned back by weather and logistical issues, but says he will try again.

Two trike pilots set out from South Africa in December 2003 to fly around the world. Alan Honeyborne was killed in a crash in China, but pilot Ricky de Agrela air-freighted his trike to the U.S., where he met a new partner, Martin Walker. They stopped in at Oshkosh in July on their way across the U.S., but Martin later died in a crash in Mexico. On his own again, de Agrela shipped the trike across the Atlantic and flew safely across Europe and Africa back to S.A., arriving in November. In May, trike pilot Richard Meredith-Hardy towed a hang glider over Mount Everest.

The always-pushing-the-envelope flyer Bruce Bohannon met his white whale in 2004, as he kept trying to reach 50,000 feet in his modified RV-4, Exxon Flyin' Tiger, and never quite made it. He tried at Oshkosh, then lengthened the wings and tried again in Texas in the fall, and came short each time. We expect he'll be trying again. NASA's experimental scramjet broke the all-time speed record for an air-breathing engine, reaching close to Mach 10 on a test flight over the Pacific in November. At year's end, the ubiquitous Steve Fossett was prepping for his next big flight -- around the world, nonstop, solo, in Burt Rutan's GlobalFlyer, set to launch from Kansas in February sometime.

Et Cetera ...

In the wide and varied world of aviation, we run across all kinds of stories, and some just don't quite fit into any category. Here are a few of those that, nonetheless, left their mark on 2004.

The Red Bull Air Races gave an energy boost to the world of competitive aerobatic flying. Starting in August in Budapest, where the course included flying under a bridge, the contest wrapped at Reno in the fall...

Pennsylvania tried to pass a law against drunken flying after one pilot's wayward flight ...

Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (DRVSM) to take effect in January, despite industry calls for delays ...

Operation Migration faces budget crunch despite success in helping rare wild birds to migrate ...

A group of pilots in Massachusetts started a legal defense fund to help pilots who have been sued over noise complaints ...

NBAA underwent an upheaval at its upper levels, and Ed Bolen from GAMA became new CEO...

The airplane wreck from the final flight of author Antoine de Saint-Exupery was found off the coast of France...

Ercoupe owners rallied to attest to their endurance for long-distance flying after an AVweb article noted the dearth of Ercoupe airplanes in proportion to Ercoupe pilots at Sun 'n Fun ...

Alaska's Capstone project was credited with reducing accidents statewide by 40 percent ...

Meigs Field re-opened as a nature park in September....

Australian pilots rebelled against new airspace rules ...

Groen Brothers Aviation flew its SparrowHawk Gyroplane for the first time...

ALPA said it might consider changing its long-held position to uphold age-60 retirement for airline pilots...

Two NBC-TV reporters went under cover in August to test GA security, and tried to charter a helicopter at St. Louis Downtown Airport. Much to their dismay (and subsequent arrest), the FBO staff found them exceedingly suspicious and called police ...

Eleven TFRs were changed to "National Security Areas," which are no longer temporary but eat up lots less airspace.

We expect lots more like this and a few unpredictable surprises in 2005. Whatever happens in the world of aviation, AVweb will be there to cover it all for you, bringing news, pictures and commentary straight to your computer, every Monday and Thursday. See you there!

We couldn't mention everything that happened this year in aviation, but if you think we missed something significant, let us know and we'll report back in an upcoming edition of AVmail letters to the editor.

More news features are available here, including last year's review of 2003 aviation news.