2005 Year In Review

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Happy New Year

Disaster, exultation, milestones, conflict, celebration, tragedy, and remembrance ... in 2005, the world of general aviation saw all that and more. Here's our year-end review of the news, with links to AVweb's original coverage for more details.

Oshkosh Shows Us The Future

If it seemed that after 100 years the world of flight would have nothing new to show us, that feeling was shattered at EAA AirVenture in July. The show brought a burst of energy and enthusiasm to the GA universe, with the appearance of SpaceShipOne and the experimental HondaJet, a whole new slew of light sport aircraft on display front-and-center, and a herd of light jets on the verge of breaking into the market. "The energy is really surging here," Cirrus spokeswoman Kate Dougherty, a veteran of many Oshkoshes, told AVweb. Traffic through the Cirrus tent was "incredible," she said. "We're very excited."

Burt Rutan's GlobalFlyer, White Knight, and SpaceShipOne flew before huge crowds, and Rutan and company drew overflow audiences to at least a half-dozen various forums. Rutan and Richard Branson announced a joint project to build five passenger-carrying versions of SpaceShipOne for space tourism. Yet more energy was generated at the nearby LSA Mall, where little two-seaters sought to entice new markets of GA flyers. "We've been hopping here all week," said Dan Johnson, who organized the Mall for EAA. "At least 20 LSAs have been sold, that I know of, so far," he said Saturday morning, and every day six to 10 of the aircraft flew in the LSA Parade.

Two Eclipse jets flew every day, and a live jet with finished interior was open for visitors at the Eclipse tent, finally replacing the long-suffering mock-up. The Cessna Mustang flew in for its debut, and the mysterious HondaJet experimental aircraft taxied into Aeroshell Square, stayed for just a few hours, then flew off to get back to work. Adam Aircraft showed its A700 jet prototype, which already has been flying for a couple of years. Epic unveiled a new jet design. Diamond's TwinStar Diesel got its FAA certification. "The DA42-TDI is the world's very first certified piston aircraft that incorporates new technology airframe, powerplant, and avionics technology," said Peter Maurer, Diamond's president. The all-composite twin also sports a full Garmin G1000 panel in addition to the Thielert engines, which churn out 135 hp each while burning less (cheaper) jet fuel per hour than many singles.

If you missed any of our image galleries from the show, check them out now online.

NATCA And FAA Butt Heads

Relations between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) have grown increasingly contentious over the last few years, and when negotiations for a new contract started in July, the conflict heated up. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey insists that the agency can't afford another contract like the last one, and wants NATCA to accept a two-tiered wage system, with new controllers hired at a considerably lower pay scale than what current controllers get. With a wave of retirements expected soon, about 12,000 new controllers need to be hired and trained over the next few years. Blakey said the FAA wants their pay to be more in line with other FAA workers. The FAA has also said the last contract gave away too much management control over worker's schedules and working conditions, and is trying to get some of that back. NATCA is objecting to an FAA proposal to eliminate pay incentives, and says controllers' concerns about safety and staffing levels are being ignored.

By November, the FAA was saying the talks had stalled (while NATCA said they were moving along, though slowly) and called for a federal mediator to step in. Neither side is shy about stating its case, with Blakey staunchly repeating her talking points on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, and NATCA's leadership speaking out with national ad campaigns, daily online blogs, and a deluge of news releases to the media.

In August, the FAA fired nine air traffic controllers at the volatile New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) for allegedly failing to report on medical forms that they'd sought treatment for stress. In December, all nine of the fired controllers in New York got their jobs back after NATCA appealed.

Stay tuned for more on this one in 2006.

User-Fee Fears Intensify

Like a gentle drumbeat that grew louder and more menacing as the year went on, the FAA talked over and over about problems with its funding structure. "You do the math," said FAA chief Marion Blakey. "The equation doesn't work." The Airport and Airway Trust Fund system now in place is due to expire in 2007, and Blakey wants to replace it with a system not tied to ticket taxes. That kind of talk raises red flags to GA fliers, and AOPA was quick to respond to every hint of coming user fees. Also, there was much discussion over whether the FAA's fears of the Trust Fund bust have any real basis.

The General Accounting Office found problems with FAA finances, but said it's not the funding structure to blame but FAA's overspending. The White House's Office of Management and Budget said the fears of an exhausted Trust Fund are unfounded, and it should continue to grow. AOPA and NATCA also questioned the FAA's math. AOPA spokesman Chris Dancy said, "We're working very hard on this issue. It is our number one issue." NATCA said all the funding talk was just another tactic to build a case for privatizing services -- a charge the FAA denied. The funding bill passed by Congress in November maintains the current system ... for now.

The End (and The Beginning) Of Flight Service

In October, Flight Service as it was known in the past ceased to operate, as its functions were taken over by a private contractor, Lockheed Martin. The National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, which represents the Flight Service Station staffers, worked up to the last moment trying to stop the takeover and even persisted after the fact, trying to have it reversed ... so far, without success. AOPA was in favor of the change, expecting that Lockheed's version of flight service will be better for pilots than what we got from the FAA. New services are due to begin in 2006, including a full-service online portal where pilots can obtain preflight briefings, file flight plans, store user profiles, and get graphical flight planning and weather products. Lockheed will consolidate the FSS facilities, ending up with 17 facilities to replace 58. When the 18-month transition is complete, pilots' telephone calls must be answered within 20 seconds and radio calls within 15 seconds.

Security Concerns Continue To Threaten GA Airspace, Airports

The FAA proposed in August to make the Air Defense Identification Zone over Washington, D.C., into a permanent Special Flight Rules Area, severely restricting general aviation activities in a wide region within 50 miles of the nation's capital. The plan drew widespread opposition from the GA alphabet groups, who rallied their members to send in comments on the proposal. By year's end, over 18,000 comments had been registered, and the comment period was extended until Feb. 6, 2006. "This proposal does nothing to enhance security while it eviscerates the general aviation infrastructure in that area," said EAA. AOPA also lobbied its members to send in comments. The ADIZ is "ineffective, operationally and financially burdensome, a threat to aviation safety, and unnecessary," AOPA said. Rather than making it permanent, "it should be eliminated or dramatically modified." Public hearings on the plan are set for January 2006, so this is a story we'll be covering into the new year.

In November, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) informed Potomac Airfield -- one of three small GA airports in the Washington area that operate under special post-9/11 security regulations -- that its security program was suspended, effectively closing down operations. "The airport was told it is not in compliance with its approved security plan," TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser told AVweb. Airport owner David Wartofsky told AVweb that the security procedures he has put into place at Potomac are not exactly those prescribed by the TSA plan, but in fact are enhanced. "It's like if they told you to use 25-watt light bulbs and instead I put in 100 watts," he said. "It's not what is in the plan, but it meets and exceeds what is in the plan." After about six weeks of working through various channels, Wartofsky got the OK to reopen the airfield. He agreed to abide more strictly by the TSA procedures, but said he is pleased to have established a dialogue that he hopes will lead to change. "Our pilots understand and respect the objectives of this effort, however temporarily inconvenient it was," he said.

DCA Reopens To GA -- Sort Of

A chartered Hawker 1000 jet landed at Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) on October 18, the first GA aircraft to land there since September 2001. But no rush of small aircraft was likely to follow. Under the new GA access rules, the operator of any private aircraft must submit passenger and crew manifests to the TSA 24 hours in advance of landing, and the TSA will conduct background checks on everyone. Only corporate aircraft with professional crews need apply. In addition, the airplane first must land at one of 12 "gateway airports" where the TSA will inspect the plane, passengers and baggage, charging a fee of over $500. And an armed law enforcement officer must be on every flight.

"We definitely would like to see the rules made a little more workable," said Dan Hubbard of NBAA. "The whole advantage to business aircraft is time. It's an efficiency aircraft. Once you've made the stop [at a gateway airport], now you're not getting the trip done any faster than if you just flew into Dulles." GA flights at DCA also are limited to a maximum of 48 operations per day. The rules remain prohibitive, and even unworkable for many businesses, NBAA said. "But NBAA views this day as cause for celebration," said NBAA President Ed Bolen. "The nation's business aviation community is grateful for the end of the prolonged closure of DCA to general aviation."

According to a study by NBAA, the ban on general aviation at DCA cost over $200 million as a result of lost jobs and wages, business lost by local aviation firms and their suppliers, and lost tax revenue to the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

GA Hurt By Hurricanes, But Rallies To Help Katrina Victims

The hurricane season this year in the Atlantic was the most active ever recorded, with meteorologists running out of names for tropical storms. Four hurricanes over six weeks pummeled Florida early in the season, destroying airplanes and hangars along the way. Damage from one storm wasn't even cleaned up yet when another one would come along and make missiles of fallen tree limbs and debris. Then came Katrina, devastating New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with an unprecedented loss of life and property. Also unprecedented was the response from GA pilots, who quickly volunteered to do whatever they could to help, despite the obstacles set up by beauracrats, floods, and general devastation. NBAA scrambled to move its annual convention from New Orleans to Orlando. In October, the second annual Sport Pilot Expo had to cancel when Hurricane Wilma threatened the region. (The event is now set for Jan. 12-15, 2006, hopefully well past hurricane season.)

New Technology, New Airplanes

The behemoth Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger jet, flew for the first time in April, lifting off smoothly from Toulouse Airport in France. At the Paris Air Show in June, a French-Japanese consortium announced plans to develop a next-generation supersonic transport (SST). "Three-year research activities are planned for technologies related to composite material structure, reduction of jet engine noise and other areas which can overcome the difficulties unique to supersonic flight," said a Japanese government statement. France's Aerospace Industries Association will collaborate with the Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies. By October, the consortium was testing a 38-foot model in the Australian desert. Also, the Reno-based Aerion Corp. said it will pursue plans to develop an SST of its own, which could be in service as soon as 2011.

Unmanned aircraft also continued their impressive evolution and proliferation. AeroVironment, the forward-thinking California company that has explored solar-powered flight, in July launched the world's first liquid-hydrogen-powered unmanned aerial vehicle. Bell Helicopter announced in December that its tiltrotor Eagle Eye TR918 unmanned aircraft system received FAA certification. It's the first such aircraft to get the FAA nod and the mind boggles at the possibilities for commercial and military uses. The Eagle Eye will be tested at Bell's new XworX facility in Texas.

As the useful drones proliferate, GA pilots wonder how they will integrate into the skies with manned aircraft. The Air Force announced in August that 12 Predators would be based at Ellington Air Force Base as it prepares to take away the F-16s currently attached to the 14th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard. Ellington is in the middle of some pretty busy and complex airspace, inside Houston's Class B and just seven miles from William P. Hobby Airport.

Late in the year, rumors suggested that Cessna is working on a next-generation single-engine aircraft, perhaps moving into the composite realm.

A New Era For Air Sports

The Red Bull Air Races continued to make inroads into the public imagination, bringing their combination of speed, noise, spectacular flying and showmanship to the U.S., with the season's final event held in San Francisco in November. But if those guys are not fast and loud enough for you, how about rocket racing? The same folks who brought you the Ansari X Prize teamed up with car-racing executive Granger Whitelaw and announced in October that they have formed the Rocket Racing League, in which rocket-powered planes will square off against each other in head-to-head competition. X Prize founder Peter Diamandis said that while the race series will be tremendous spectator sport, it will also help advance private exploration of space. He called the races "a critical commercial step in opening up the space frontier." The racers will be based on the EZ-Rocket and the airframes will be supplied by Velocity Aircraft, of San Sebastian, Fla. XCOR will do the final assembly of the racers, which are expected to enter competition in October 2006. Also, the first Tunica Air Races were held in Mississippi in June, just south of Memphis, bringing air races to the southeastern U.S.

For The Record Books

Steve Fossett made it 'round the world nonstop, solo, in Burt Rutan's GlobalFlyer in March. The flight launched from Salina, Kans., and landed there 80 hours later. In December, Dick Rutan took a 10-minute hop in XCOR's EZ-Rocket, a modified Long EZ, from Mojave to California City, a short flight but enough to set a record for that rare type of airplane. In India, Vijaypat Singhania flew a hot-air balloon to 70,000 feet in a five-hour flight in November. "When I broke the record, I was euphoric," Singhania told The Associated Press. "This goes to show to the world that we are not bullock-cart drivers, but we can compete against the best of the world." Singhania occupied a pressurized capsule hanging beneath the 150-foot-tall canopy. In July, Fossett and Mark Rebhol flew the Vickers Vimy biplane nonstop across the Atlantic, following the route flown in 1919 by the British team of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown. The 20-hour flight was the last of three adventures that re-created the original Vimy's historic flights.

One attempt that never got made this year was Gus McLeod's second try to circumnavigate the globe via the two poles. McLeod says someone apparently poured lacquer thinner into his aircraft's fuel tanks, effectively sabotaging the mission for this year. "This is a hard thing to wrap my mind around," Gus McLeod told the Baltimore Sun. "I can't believe I would be so important that someone would want to hurt me." McLeod told the Sun he left his Firefly, a modified Velocity, outside his hangar one night with a can of laquer thinner on the ground beside it. He found the empty can the next day, and on a later shakedown flight, he experienced engine problems and upon landing found yellow goo in the fuel lines. Later tests confirmed the presence of laquer thinner in the fuel. McLeod hopes to launch again in the spring. He got within 1,000 miles of the South Pole on his first attempt, in 2004, before airframe ice forced him back. McLeod got in the record books in 2000 when he became the first to fly an open-cockpit biplane to the North Pole.

Final Flights

Every year, a few venerable aircraft and pilots make their last flights. In an unusual scenario, in August, an airliner lost cabin pressure, disabling the crew, and flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a Greek mountainside. More than 100 people died when the Helios Airways Boeing 737 crashed near Athens. Veteran airshow performers Bobby Younkin and Jimmy Franklin were killed while flying their "Masters of Disaster" show in Canada in July. In June, aviation storyteller Gordon Baxter died at age 81 in Texas, and AVweb's Michael Maya Charles shared his memories of the man. The one-of-a-kind CarterCopter gyro crashed in June, destroying the aircraft, but the crew was able to walk away. In April, an airplane and skydiver collided, killing the skydiver, in Florida. The pilot's license was suspended for nine months.

The famous Tuskegee Airmen said in September they've held their last annual reunion. The 200 airmen left alive of the original 992 African American aviators who made up the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Groups are now in their 80s. The Airmen said they will continue to gather annually in conjunction with another group of younger black aviators.

Et Cetera

Efforts to change the Age 60 Rule continued with discussions in Congress, but no changes by year's end ...

Plans to build a commercial spaceport in New Mexico were announced in December by Virgin Galactic ...

Kitfox aircraft kit manufacturer Skystar Aircraft Corp. filed for bankruptcy in October ...

A young commercial pilot was charged with taking a Citation VII on a joyride in October ...

Another crankshaft recall affected more than 1,000 aircraft in July, and in October another 2,800 engines were affected by an NPRM on aftermarket connecting rods ...

ATG's little two-seat Javelin Jet flew for the first time in September, in Englewood, Colo. ...

"One Six Right," a documentary film about Van Nuys Airport, in California, held its world premiere in Hollywood in June ...

In February, a court found Textron Lycoming to blame for faulty crankshafts ...

Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums (RVSM) went into effect in January, with little fuss.

AVweb's Russ Niles and Glenn Pew contributed to this report.

In the mood to reminisce more? Take a look at AVweb's overviews of aviation news from previous years:

2004 Year in Review

2003 Year in Review

1999 Year-End Wrap-Up

1997 Year-End Wrap-Up

More news features are available here.