Today’s problems have been decades in the making

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One problem of being around an industry for a long time is that you remember what the worries were then and what was or was not done about them. Take airports and air traffic control, for instance.

About 45 years ago, general aviation manufacturers were a part of the Washington-based Aerospace Industries Association as the Utility Airplane Council. Nine airframe and engine companies belonged. They were concerned about their futures if flight outgrew the number of airports and the air traffic control system. They initiated programs: public education about general aviation, the value of airports, a new licensing structure for pilots, research to develop traffic control by exception rather than one-on-one contact, and other subjects to build a better future of flight. They received “”atta boys”” from other aviation groups, but little else. Before the programs were any more than started, aircraft sales picked up, private jets came on the picture, and the manufacturers had other fish to fry. The programs were stopped.

On the government front, FAA administrators have come and gone with the political whims of the party in power. Some were in the position just months; others several years. Many FAA employees, who considered that they ran the show day-by-day, called themselves “”Weebes””—we be here when you came, we be here when you are gone.

One administrator was on the way to Capitol Hill to testify before a Congressional committee about the next fiscal year’s funding. A close friend who knew aviation asked how the administrator could go to the Hill and ask for more money to fund an air traffic control system that won’t work in the future. “”I know it won’t work,”” was the reply, “”but if you think I’m going to tell the Congress that, you’re crazy. We’ll leave that for someone down the line.””

All aviation is now “”down the line”” and the problems so many knew about years ago are here or rapidly approaching.

No major airport has been built in the United States in the last 20 years. Smaller airports have been closing at alarming rates. World wide, air traffic is expected to double in the next 10 to 15 years. Air traffic control still is person-to-person. Imagine how the telephone system would be if every call had to go through an operator. It is said that if automatic dialing had not been developed, the phone company would need every woman in the U.S. over the age of 21 to be employed as a phone operator.

About 45 years ago W.T. Piper urged building an airport every few miles alongside highways as they were being built, saying that when the equipment is there a mile of runway would cost less than a mile of super highway. At the same time, Frank Martin, a vice president at Cessna, pumped for developing an air traffic control system that would require pilots to talk to controllers only in an emergency.

Now, nearly a half-century later, aviation is looking at the three Rs —rationing, restrictions, and refinance.

John Greenleaf Whittier might have been thinking about aviation when he wrote: “”For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.'””

Scott Crossfield who, at the age of 84 died recently in the crash of his Cessna 210, is thought of as a test pilot who was first to break the sound barrier, first to fly at twice the speed of sound and first to test fly many military aircraft. In later years he was a familiar figure around the House of Representatives office buildings where he was a technical advisor to the Committee on Science and Technology. He was there from 1977 to his retirement in 1993.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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