The answer to GA’s woes: Technology

There is a story going around about a toothpaste company that was having quality problems. It seems that every once in a while an empty tube would go through the system and get to the stores. This was causing several customers to threaten to cancel their orders.

So the president of the company, who was a business type, showed his leadership skill and hired a consulting firm. For $8 million, the consulting firm developed a high-speed scale system that would sense the weight of every tube going down the line. When a “light” tube was sensed, the line would stop and a buzzer would go off. The technician would remove the tube and restart the line.

The first day the system was on it found 150 empty tubes, the second day 175 tubes, and the third day zero tubes.

The president panicked and went down to the plant manager and shift supervisor to find out what happened. Neither knew, so they went down to the line and talked to the technician. He said that the constant buzzing and line stoppage was slowing down the process, so he installed a $20 box fan on the line, which blew the empty tubes off before the high-speed scale.

So how does this relate to general aviation?

One of the main problems in almost every industry is that they are being run more and more by the business types and consultants and less and less by the people who really understand the show.

For example, if you read almost any aviation publication, you quickly realize that two of the biggest concerns in GA are the declining pilot pool and the need for an unleaded aviation gasoline. The answer to both concerns is the same — technology.

If you have dealt with any person under 40, you quickly understand that the people we are trying to get into GA have been raised on high-tech things. They really do not relate well to low technology things.

These young people think aviation must be cutting edge, but then they take their first flight. After we get done explaining when to pre-heat, sump the tanks, set the mixture strength, hit the primer, etc., we realize their eyes glazed over between the pre-heat and setting the mixture strength.

These young people quickly realize that they are about to fly an engine based on 1930’s technology that they do not relate to at all.

For comparison, I bought a new snowmobile last year. It has a 160-hp four-cycle engine that starts instantly even at -20°F with just the turn of a key. It runs perfectly smooth on pump gas and is almost bullet proof.

So why does aviation depend on 80-year-old technology, but other pleasure craft use modern technology? Part of it is the FAA approval process and the huge liability burden for GA aircraft.

But look at the Light-Sport Aircraft and experimental part of our business. Why does our industry stick with air cooling when liquid cooling is so much more efficient? How about direct drive? Every turboprop aircraft, car, truck, tractor, mower, motorcycle or any other vehicle has some form of gear reduction, so I must assume that they have perfected the technology.

And what about fuel injection, electronic ignition, knock sensors, variable valve timing, and on and on? Why aren’t any of these systems being used in aviation? There are a lot of reasons, but a significant part is the “we never did it like that before” attitude of a lot of people in general aviation.

Years ago I had the opportunity to fly a 172 with a Porsche engine. It scared me because it was so quiet, smooth, and easy to operate. But it failed, partially due to high price, but also because of lack of customer acceptance.

It appears to me that our whole industry must take a giant leap from the 1930s to the 21st century and start to embrace some new technology. For example, if you are designing a completely new diesel cycle engine, why go with air-cooling and individual cylinders? If you are designing a new LSA engine, why use the same old technology? If the special fuel for your engine is not available, why not use current technology that is well proven and will work with available fuels? Oh, that’s right, we never did that before.

And now the rest of the toothpaste story: The president got a seven-figure bonus for solving the problem. The plant manager and shift supervisor got promoted and the technician got laid off because he was no longer needed. But do not cry for him. He saw the error of his ways and became a consultant. He’s now making a seven-figure salary helping the FAA cut back on expenses and services.


  1. Kimberly Bush says

    Interesting article and follow-up comments, coming after I have just spent a week helping to babysit a B17G. Perhaps some of you should visit the airport more often when you are NOT flying and just talk to some people who really support the cause of aviation, pilot licensing not withstanding.
    Automobiles that are completely computer operated have been in existence since I first saw Al Roker sitting in the right seat at some car show in Vegas in 2007. I don’t know a single person who owns one, and I now know so many people that I can’t always put names to faces.
    In addition to my various love affairs with ‘old iron’, I have decided “I like coffee AND whiskey. I can do this.” and am studying for my private pilot license at this time. Reading and reading and reading and reading. Most of it makes for good bedtime stories. It is repetitive and as you are realizing you have recently read something that sounded similar, you look back at the previous section and sure enough, there it IS, only with a different section heading.
    All I want at this point is ONE airplane that goes by ONE name and is best flown ONE way.
    LESS variety, complications, confusion, frustration, and at least a small illusion that the aviation community likes each other.
    (We will then start work on that kinder, gentler nation thing. I think that enough runways can by lit to provide that 1000 points of light)

  2. says

    Your example reminds me that pilots could have had FREE NWS DOPPLER RADAR in the cockpit for the purchase of a slightly modified RadioShack WX receiver. How? The NWS not only provides the AWOS vhf transmissions, but also provides consumer voice wx updates also on vhf channels throughout the US. The NWS could also transmit a shaort databurst (of the radar image) on AWOS. You would hear the voice AWOS and then a short tone. The audio output of your AWOS rx connected to a tiny modem chip and then USB’d to a tabletPC or ipad could see the latest radar (typically 5 min old).
    It would cost the NWS almost nothing to do the above. Could have been done years ago. I recently sent a proposal to the head of the NWS (three times) on this and never got a reply. Probably because the FAA is so enamored with ADSB, they don’t want anyone to know how cheap technology is sometimes a better frix.

  3. Ernie Kelly says

    Great overview of an opportunity to reduce costs through available technology. I’m hopeful the certification process will be streamlined somewhat. If not? Well, that’s what the EAA is all about.

  4. Greg W says

    Ben, technology for the sake of technology is a popular, but a poor idea. If their is real benefit, cost of operation or purchase great, if not it is simply something else to buy and have fail. Last year on a flight of mine my passenger took along his portable electronics. During the flight his I-phone quit first then the I-pad with fore flight, my handheld Icom radio battery failed. The funny thing is that the Eiseman magnetos kept working, the Bendix compass kept working,the paper charts and E6B kept working. In short the 1946 Aeronca did not miss the technology nor did I and we made it back to Michigan just fine. The airspace may be more complicated but the air is the same as in ’46 and the Champ simply kept flying at 4.5 gal/hr. and 85-90 mph, (an efficiency hard to match today).

  5. says

    Let us see if there are some parallels here.

    In another life, when I was a CEO of a company in the emerging computer business, I went around and listened to our potential customers, and I paid great attention to their desires.

    IBM was selling their 124-chip video card solution for $1,500 – just because they could. Chips and Technologies, an emerging player in the field, went out of their way, reduced the chip count to 45, and sold a much better performing product for around $800. Paradise Technology, another player, up the ante and came up with an 18-chip solution, and price was down to around $500. Both companies were tiny in size and resources in comparison to IBM’s, yet they went after the behemoth and won on technology alone. Their market share stayed miniscule in comparison to IBM’s. At that time, corporate purchasers felt more comfortable with buying IBM’s product, but despite of this conservative market climate, the two small companies were getting their share of business, and prospering.

    Our challenge, as the smallest entrant to the market, was to best the two small players. I proposed to my engineering team of four people, to shrink all the complexity into one chip. It would be the ultimate achievement, because no one could best that. It took us just under one year to do it. The key to our success was rather simple. We took a calculated risk, we got the best design tools money could buy, and unlike our competitors who relied on existing technology, we designed our product based on an emerging technology.

    Seiko was coming out with a new process of making computer chips. They had it up and running about the same time as we had our design done. The year was 1986, the company was Gemini Technology and the final price of the IBM’s $1,500 solutions became much more reasonable $75. We paid Seiko $13 per chip to make it for us. Oh yeah, by this time we were a good size company of 35 employees. In 1990, Seiko took over Gemini. I started Gemini in 1984 on a $100,000 loan from a doctor friend.

    The moral of the story is simple. It took four bright Gemini engineers to trash IBM’s $1,500 solution, and bring the consumer price of an “EGA” video board down to $75. However, “can’t be done” was not in our vocabulary, and we were not constrained by old thinking and unreasonable regulations. It seems that the FCC is more in tune with the real world, than the FAA is.

    If the earth-bound transportation segments were as much regulated as the aviation is, I speculate, we would be still riding in horse and buggies. I have a 2009 Subaru Forrester Turbo, a much more complex engine than any of the aviation four-bangers are, but other than oil changes I didn’t have to do anything to it – not even spark plugs change. This may be a horrible admission for a pilot, but I don’t even change my own oil in it; I have no legal way of disposing of it. Here is another admission, I only lift the hood to fill the windshield washer tank, and I remember giving a boost to someone once.

    As much as we complain about the cost of the LSAs, at least they are pushing the innovation boundaries. If the regulations were further relaxed, I bet we would be happy to buy a modern, decked-out, “LSA” 4-seater for $200,000, instead of plunking $400,000 for an old recycled Cessna 172 design. Oh yeah, with more players in the field, the prices would likely stay reasonable, and the smaller companies would not be an attractive target for ambulance-chasing lawyers.

  6. Jscott says

    While I disagree with much of what is in this column, the one point I think we can all agree on is that the FAA certification has a stranglehold on technology, or for that matter bringing anything new to market in aviation. Look at the difference between the costs and utilization of technology in the cockpit of Amateur Built Experimentals and Light Sport Aircraft vs Certificated Aircraft. That contrast alone demonstrates how huge the FAA roadblock is to technology.

  7. Roger Lambert says

    “Years ago I had the opportunity to fly a 172 with a Porsche engine. It scared me because it was so quiet, smooth, and easy to operate. But it failed, partially due to high price, but also because of lack of customer acceptance.”

    The Porsche engined Mooney cost almost $100,000 more than the Lycoming engined aircraft of similar performance. The lack of customer acceptance had very little to do with rejecting new technology, but almost entirely with cost. Wonderful “new” technologies that only increase cost without quantifiable performance enhancements will lack consumer acceptance in almost any situation.

    By the way: Lycoming and Continental have produced geared engines, fuel injection is used on many certified aircraft engines and water cooled engines were used in many aircraft during World War Two.

  8. Kent Misegades says

    Ben, for an old guy (I am one too) your ideas are refreshingly young. New engine technology abounds, in Europe. The engines you describe are in production at Austrian Rotax and Austro engines, Belgian ULPower, French SMA, German TakeOff GmbH and others. Yet one still reads of the death of GA in Europe from our own aviation journalists. On consultants – they cause more damage than good when so-called leaders stop leading. I was present at an EAA Board meeting two years ago when the Board accepted Rod Hightower’s recommendation to allow his consultant buddies to restructure the organization. The result was the now-famous purge in the winter of 2011/2012, the turmoil it caused and the eventual dismissal of Hightower. The damage he and these consultants did may be irreparable. The Board approved them and they are still there.

  9. says

    Yes technology in aviation has not kept up with modern science. Bringing this technology up to modern standards would be more appealing and maybe lower the cost a small amount. But its not causing the downturn in pilots and student pilots. That sir is caused by one thing and one thing only. That is the high cost of flying because of fuel costs that have gone through the stratosphere. Gas at the airport C77 where I keep my plane a cessna 210 is $6.30 a gallon. Because of that I will barely be able to fly my plane 5 hours this year. My plane holds 90 gallons at this price it would cost $600 to fill the tanks. Its simple math, it just costs too much at these prices to fly. On top of this so many people are still unemployed or underemployed. This is why aviation is shrinking. It is not affordable for the people who used to fly 10 or 15 years ago. Wages are lower and cost of living has gone up since then. There is no money for people to spend on flying when they are having trouble paying their mortgages and putting food on the table. All activities that use gas are way down. Boating, travel by car are all in a decline because of cost of fuel. Its that simple.

  10. Robert Stansfield says

    You have a point Ben. Maybe for the minting of new pilots high technology is the way to go. But, we know it is a two edge sword. Motor skills and basic airmanship vs pushing buttons. However, there are many of us “old guys” who love the sound of a roaring piston engine and the whine of a P-51 Merlin going by or the blue exhaust and noise of a wright cyclone being started. While I agree that we all need to use and understand new technology, we can not forget that when it fails the only solution is having learned basic airmanship. (HOW TO FLY THE PLANE) Once that is understood, by all means go for the electronics if you so desire.

  11. unclelar says

    Great article. One thing is the amount of financing required to get new technology to market and then actually profit from it at such low volumes. The venture capitalists or other financers/lenders who are interested in such a project are apparently not located here in America. Even though I don’t like the thought of it, it may take the Chinese to step up to the plate and get us moving forward.

  12. says

    Sorry Ben, But I couldn’t DISAGREE more with your thesis! The very problem GA, with the possible exception of the “higher end”, is that technology seems to take presidence over PRACTICAL marketing methologies FIRST before a product is brought to the market place; “Flying Car” or even the misplaced idea that Day Jet would provide the “retail” (demand) avenue for the Eclipse when it appeared 4-5 years ago are prime examples!
    That said, however, if what your referring to is a more “cost effective “means of delivering the product to the ultimate consumer – I agree with you totally! BUT avaition and the demand for most of its products and services, just doesn’tt qualify since the VOLUME or total demand wouldn’t fall under rule or application of “economies of scale” – back to the drawing board!

    • Bart R says

      Not true. GA doesn’t need the “economies of scale” because we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A lot of the current automotive technology is applicable to GA engines and systems. Why not use it? Because the FAA is in charge of “safety” and writes the rules that determine what technologies can be used in certified airplanes. Not so in Experimental where we have much better engine systems and avionics flying in the same airspace and using the same ATC system.
      Having said that it is true that econ of scale won’t work in attracting new pilots to GA because there isn’t and never will be a flying equivalent of a car until the whole thing is operated and flown by a computer. Not impossible but not likely in my lifetime.

      • says

        So Bart/Mr. “Wizard of Smart”, Why isn’t it working $$ then? I suggest you consult your nearest economics prof! Ever heard of “supply and demand”. And most aircraft purchases are made by people who have a pilots license of sorts – no pilots/aviation consumers to BUY (dirty word here) products and services – “O” sales!
        NOTE: Seems to me all or most of the comments made here by “non-business types” or non-conservatives? Bet that wll evoke a response!

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