The future of GA belongs to the dreamers

In Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat,” he explains that there is a segment of the world’s population that seems to be continually striving to bring everyone else down to its very low level.

Fortunately, he explains, the vast majority of people look around and see how great other people are living and notice all the positive aspects of life that are available. These people decide they want to raise their own fortunes so they can be like the people they see or read about. They learn on the Internet about how others live and they strive to achieve the same benefits.

These are the people who are ready to work hard to get additional education and, most important of all, according to Friedman, they continue to dream.

General aviation is blessed with more of the dreamers of the world than those who feel that everything that can or should be invented has been and, besides, they like things just as they are now, thank you. Ever since Wilbur and Orville did their thing 100 years ago, dreamers have populated general aviation.

I got to thinking about all this the other day as I was reading a story in the September 2005 issue of AOPA Pilot about Teledyne Continental Motors joining with Aerosance to continue development of the PowerLink system of engine control. Called FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control), it was approved a couple years ago for installation in Beech Bonanzas. Unfortunately, there were some bugs in the system, according to the article, and the companies went back to the drawing board to improve the system.

As I understand this technology, it is a single lever controlling fuel flow at all phases of operation. This control eliminates the need for mixture control or carburetor heat. It means the engine runs smoother at the optimum settings in all phases of flight. The net result is fuel economy, longer engine life, fewer cylinder woes and lower maintenance requirements. Not everything is completely proven yet because testing continues, but it is a lot closer now.

The new version is installed and being tested in a Cirrus SR22 on an IOF-550-N (the F stands for FADEC).

Having such a system makes a pilot’s workload considerably lighter. We all know that workload and problems increase in geometric proportion as weather deteriorates and mechanical failures show up in the cockpit.

I’ve long maintained that GA isn’t going to fulfill the dream of “an airplane in every garage” until the operation of an airplane is comparable to getting into a car, turning the key, starting the engine and going where you need to go. The person who drives to the airport in a Mercedes, Cadillac or even a Kia, expects to find an FBO that is as professional as the auto dealership where the car was purchased. When they want to learn to fly, people with the time and money expect instruction to be well organized and efficient. These people don’t want to crawl under an airplane to drain sumps, have to get a ladder to visually determine that the fuel tanks are full or dig out the dipstick to make sure the engine has a sufficient quantity of oil.

The FADEC control is one step along the path to developing an airplane that requires no more attention than that which people give to the auto that gets them out to the airport.

We trust computers to control virtually everything in airliners, cars, buses and the space shuttle booster system. Today we have glass instruments for GA planes. I’m certainly not an engineer or techno whiz, but I firmly believe there are people and companies out there who could make sure all the critical elements of the plane can be tested via computer without having to do it manually. Probably someone has the smarts to figure out a way to eliminate the water from fuel if it actually shows up. Or, at a minimum, give the pilot an alert so it can be handled manually.

Oh yes, the purists are going to scream about such techniques, but I don’t think they are seeing the glass as half full. Today, 66% of the population has access to a computer with Internet access either at home or at work. When you check that out for people under 45 years of age, the percentage gets much higher. These are the people who want the convenience and efficiency of a plane but aren’t going to fly solely for the joy of flight. That’s not their thing. They want and need practical answers and solutions in order to join the world of general aviation.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that someone at Microsoft (or high school student Joe Smith in his bedroom) can figure out how to write software that allows you to develop your flight plan on your home computer, burn it to a disc and then simply put it into your plane’s computer? The computer then does everything once you’ve started the engine and taxied to the takeoff position.

When you shove in the throttle, the auto controls take over for the flight you have programmed. The computer does everything else automatically. I think this will be a safer system for pilots and passengers, take less training and recurrency and get you where you want to go without the chance of running out of fuel.

Can it be done? Of course it can!

Will it be done? I am convinced that such a system will be developed because people in general aviation want to make things better. Pilots aren’t stuck in yesterday and they don’t want everyone to be restricted to a 65-horse J-3 because that’s what they learned in.

I’m just not sure when it is going to come about!

Dave Sclair was co-publisher of General Aviation News from 1970 to 2000.

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