Can aviation get its mojo back?

There was a time not so long ago when aviation was cool. It was hip. It was a celebrity in its own right.

Being photographed next to an airplane was a dream come true. Being one of the lucky few who got to actually fly from here to there, faster than any train or car could transport you, was treat that would be told and retold at water-coolers and cocktail parties and pretty much anywhere else people gathered. If you actually knew how to fly you were a virtual demi-god, celebrated by friends and neighbors. You were feted by family. Aviation was king.

It ain’t that way no more.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the U.S. space program, the point is clear. Not the space program of recent years. What we see now is a thin, barely perceptible shadow of what used to be our space program.

President Kennedy stood up straight and tall, announcing to the world that the United States of America would send a man to the moon, and return him to the earth, alive, by the end of the decade. Consider the context of that statement. He made it in 1961 only 20 days after Al Shepard became the first American in space. Not in orbit, in space. Shepard’s brief ballistic foray into space had taken all of 15 minutes. Straight up, then straight down. Based on that minor success the President of the United States came out in public, to a joint session of Congress, and announced the unthinkable, the unimaginable. The United States would commit itself to doing something that was absolutely impossible, and we’d do it on a tight time table.

We hadn’t orbited the earth yet. Nobody had docked in space. We didn’t even know if that was possible. The engines, accessories, computer systems, and spacecraft needed to land on the moon hadn’t been invented yet.

The first astronauts were celebrities. We knew their names. The next nine were known as well. They were all pilots. The cool factor aviation experienced as a result of the space race was undeniable. Everyone who could manage to muscle a Piper Cub or an Aeronca Champ into the air was suddenly imbued with the same ultra-cool swagger the astronauts enjoyed. Aviation was awesome, and anyone involved in aviation was just about as cool as could be.

I remember all this vividly. Those were my good old days, growing up in East Hartford, Connecticut. Just across town was the Pratt & Whitney facility that had hosted Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart in an earlier era. That factory produced thousands of round engines that powered warplanes that flew over Europe and the Pacific a generation earlier. When I was a kid they were pumping out JT8Ds that would hang on B-727s and DC-9s.

At my house there was a framed certificate hanging on the wall in our tool room. It proclaimed my dad to be a member of the Mach Buster’s Club. As a young, bold, college educated F-86 pilot, my old man climbed to altitude over the Arizona desert, nosed over, powered up, and waited for his diminutive fighter to plunge through the sound barrier. His mach meter jumped and he became one of the coolest guys on the planet. A member of what was then a very small club.

By the time we lived in Connecticut the big man had left fighters behind, trading them for a Boeing 707 with a big blue Pan Am ball painted on the tail. That alone was enough to draw newspapermen to our door to inquire about the adventure, the excitement, the almost unimaginable awesomeness of flying here and there, laying over in exotic locations like Rome, and Paris, and Tokyo.

I was in the seventh grade when Dick Nixon went to China. Although we’d known about it for a while at my house, it was something of a secret that my dad was flying one of the airplanes in the entourage headed to the far east. He piloted an airplane carrying the press. On the day the president’s party left for China, my dad’s picture was in the local newspaper. A teacher who was apparently under the impression I was a little dimmer than a refrigerator bulb stopped me in the hall that day to ask, “Do you know where your father is today?”

It seems he thought he had greater insight into my family’s travels than I did, because he’d read the paper that day. But he also thought it was pretty cool that he was talking to a kid who was connected by blood to one of the most amazing geopolitical stories of the decade.

Yeah, aviation was cool. It was respected. It was amazing and daunting and attractive and maybe a little scary. But it had something special about it that we’ve lost. Maybe we lost our way when President Kennedy’s vision was replaced by the desire to take political advantage rather than accept the risks of advancing a people and their technology. Perhaps aviation became too darned safe and predictable to hold the public’s admiration.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if general aviation could lead the way back? If aviation gained its rightful place in the public eye through a branch of aviation that wasn’t dedicated to destruction, or protection, or on-time passenger service, that would be ideal.

Because it’s general aviation that can still welcome kids onto the field, and create family friendly events that allow people who have never taken the controls of an aircraft to do so. To experience the thrill, the challenge, and the unfettered freedom of flight first-hand is priceless. Only GA can do that.

If aviation is to get its mojo back, it’s in our hands. It’s up to us. To you. To me. We sent men to the moon nine times. We can do this.


  1. Rex says

    All these comments on here are good we each have our ideas of what is and what is’nt, from Kent switching to Boating which is “Cool” by the way
    along with Rod Beck’s “Big Band Era”
    But lets face it…. the heyday for GA is over! The Millenial Generation is not interested in Aviation as we knew it, today they find Computer’s, Cell Phone’s, iPad’s fill their niche for entertainment that and the occasional. flyer owning an RC Drones. Those of us in the GA Class are the last of a Dying Breed

  2. pilotman says

    The cost of flying along with the regulations has been a big detriment to GA, But one of the worst things to happen was when the Arrogant ” Big Three” auto manufacturers each flew a 40 to 50 million dollar jet to Washington to beg for a bailout. When the pols and media jumped on that, all of a sudden you were a bad guy if you owned a plane, especially a jet. Obama used “the fat cats and their corporate jets” repeatedly in his class warfare that got him elected twice ” . ( It’s OK for him and his family to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-payers ‘money flying around on Gov’t jets, but we’re supposed to all drive around in a little POS electric car ) . GA will recover, but probably never to the prominence of the past. I hope I’m wrong.

  3. says

    Have any you flown a Vans Aircraft RV or met any of the more than 8,000 pilots flying them? The passion and excitement for aviation that these pilots have is remarkable. After reading this article and the following comments, I was enticed to let you know RV pilots are feeling the aviation mojo. It amazes me how many pilots are unfamiliar with the world of experimental aircraft. RVs are great traveling machines and pilots are flying around the world in them. They are enjoying aerobatics, formation, pancake breakfasts, fly-ins of all types, and an amazing sense of comradery, as if the aviation mojo is hiding within the many small groups of EAA chapters all over the country. The world of experimental aircraft is a grass roots, free peoples world, devoid of the more stringent regulations.

    I choked up when I saw the video of 49 RVs flying in formation over the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium during the 2013 federal sequestration cuts. As the national anthem sings “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” there was a roaring stadium, looking up at home built aircraft flown by both military and civilian pilots, working together showing the world some American aviation mojo.

    Just imagine if our government was more supportive of aviation, like it was back in the Kennedy era. In the meantime, as Jamie said, “If aviation is to get its mojo back, it’s in our hands. It’s up to us. To you. To me. … We can do this.”

  4. BJS says

    Mike and Kent both hit the nail on the head. Every direction one turns there is a tax, fee, license, registration or something robbing what would be expendable income to be used for such things as flying. Government produces nothing, it only takes, so this income which could otherwise be used to support the economy is instead wasted by the government on supporting those who don’t want to work (look at the exploded rolls of “disabled”), ever expanding rolls of government employees being paid much more that like jobs in the private sector, graft and corruption. Then there is the total lack of responsibility for one’s actions that Mike so very well describes. There was a firm in Oklahoma that made plastic gasoline and diesel fuel containers that was sued numerous times by ambulance chasing lawyers over the stupidity of users of the containers (one idiot was pictured throwing gasoline from one of the containers on an open fire then sued because he got burned). The company didn’t lose any of the lawsuits but the last one cost them over two million dollars so they finally closed the doors, laying off 40+ workers according to newspaper reports. Then as Kent pointed out from personal experience, Obamacare is wrecking the country. For the $728 extra per month he’s paying for his health insurance (and although he didn’t elaborate my money says the coverage is not as comprehensive as he formerly had for $248, and likely with a bigger deductible) he could nearly make the payment on a 2005 model Cessna 182. Not only would this infuse the economy but it would allow him to enjoy flying. Instead his $700 is being used to “purchase” insurance for some deadbeat who doesn’t work or pay any taxes; other than for what he buys with his government issued food stamp card. Until the taxpayers (only about 50% of us left) wake up and stop re-electing these politicians who continue on this course of economic destruction, aviation and many other endeavors are only going to sink further and further into the abyss.

    • PB says

      Supporting what you have said, the decline in GA is due to cost (aka lack of affordability).

      Yes, government is the problem, and it’s scary to see that the politicians who are in the wings are more of the same tax and spend zealots who have gotten us into the mess we are in now.

      The boom years (when US aircraft manufacturers were building about 50,000 units a year) were when we had a 10% investment tax credit (ITC) and five year depreciation. The VA was available and many veterans used their VA allocation on flight lessons. We see none of this stimulus today.

      It would be good to revitalize the industry, but $6 and $7 fuel is ruinous. The Twin Comanche that I fly just uses $100 an hour in fuel, and that’s cheap for a light twin, but it’s still $100 an hour. It’s a disincentive to fly, and the expense is serious.

      Unless the industry can be made affordable again (which takes tort reform which the lawyers in the state and federal government will never vote for) then the industry is doomed. My outlook is that the decline will continue, and perhaps China can stimulate activity there.

      • says

        Frankly, PB, sounds to me you “want your cake and fly it too”- PLEASE! Twin-Comanche – perhaps to be more cost/benefit, I suggest an Ultralight?

        Or, in the “alternative”, WATCH the “new” owner of your bird, after you sell it (good luck and much cheaper than a divorce!), fly off to “West Jabib” for the elusive $300+ (estimated?) burger; And, as a LAST resort, read classic 60’s editions of Flying, Private Pilot and AOPA Pilot Magazines!

    • Mike says

      BJS…so glad there are still true Americans out there that understand that freedom is the ultimate method for happiness and prosperity! As civilization gets on the path of “sophistication”, we end up losing rights and we end up with a safe society that never produces anything.

      When you look at the challenges of single engine airplane development, with certification costs, high labor costs because of high end benefit packages and the cost of insuring ever possible event, you just can’t develop an affordable airplane to meet these challenges.

      As we saw in US Today, a slanted story about Borg-Warner and the faulty carburetor, but what does one do to build a 100% no fail system? I was saddened to read the story about the airplane crashing, but my understanding is that the float was made specifically for 100LL, AND NOT AUTOGAS. So who should be responsible for adhering to this? My question would be, should we make it mandatory to replace the float every 12 months? We can make the airplanes safe, but after all the bitching about the price of flying, I don’t think this would be what everyone is looking for.

      Airplane development, and specifically piston engine development is so far behind, because liability issues and profit margins for a limited demand market. If there is a method to innovate and bring a much more reliable AND maintenance free way of offering a new piston engine for airplanes, the fact remains not many will want to do it. It is why we are still flying around with magneto drives, mechanical fuel injection, and expensive annual inspections. Put a limit on liability, and make the lawyer who loses the frivolous lawsuit pay the defendants attorney’s fees, and I bet you would see the cost of production go down on MANY products we buy.

      You at some point, have to come to the conclusion that you can’t regulate stupid. When I read NTSB reports of airplane crashes, it is many times I say to myself “by the grace of God, there I am”, but it was and would have been MY FAULT, not the company that made the airplane, ok!

  5. RayLRiv says

    Aviation will always be cool and hip. And aviation innovation is taking place in Light Sport Aircraft, composite materials, and avionics technology. Cessna/Textron AirLand is developing the Scorpion, an off-the-shelf light fighter jet. Honda Jet is currently in preproduction, and emerging technologies are ushering in more fuel-efficient, comfortable and exotic aircraft. Just check out this article from The Economist:

  6. Dr. Kenneth Nolde says

    To all the naysayers and the “sky is falling” crowd, I say aviation is still a great source and wonderment for the young and old alike. At 76 I still fly min CTLS on a regular basis and I give rides frequently. I find that people are still fascinated with flight and the young love it. The problem as I see it is that those who comment on aviation, know-nothing reporters, in particular portray flying (aviation in general) as somehow dangerous and to be approached with trepidation. Break ground, and on the turn out of traffic and the passenger is calm commenting on actually seeing what flying is all about. So from my perspective, the more pilots expend time to show what flying is all about, we are in good hands–ask my grandchildren and neighbors!

  7. Kent misegades says

    I’ll add it Mike’s and Rod’s good comments. As one politician so famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” No offense Jamie, I am not referring to you, but to the Polly Anna’s in the MSM and Aviation alphabets. Unless you are one of the dwindling number of Americans with a secure defined-benefit pension or have a government job, the economy is a disaster with no end in sight. People are counting their pennies and are scared, especially with the crushing costs of Obamacare and the high inflation in living costs that is not being reported. My medical insurance premium went from $248 to $968 per month thanks to Obamacare. Guess were I cut my expenses? Goodbye sport aviation, which I have enjoyed since 1973. Hello boating, where I have zero hassles from the government and buy my fuel at the gas station instead of paying $6 a gallon for Avgas. Both of my A&P sons have left the industry for better jobs and are above the poverty level as a result. But you’d never know there is a problem reading AOPA Pilot or EAA Sport Aviation. It was fun while it lasted.

  8. says

    The “Big Band Era” (1935-47) had its day – social change, economics, musical taste, early TV, etc brought about their demise.
    Frankly, I believe “recreational” GA will, like the swing sound, always be present – perhaps with a limited or “cult” following?

  9. says

    I would approach the aviation environment, as stale at best! This is the problem right now, most of these airplanes are getting aged, either in design or manufacture. There just isn’t a lot to get excited about, especially when you look at the price of a new Skyhawk.

    Unless some development in the category of single engine airplane takes place, I don’t think you will see very much interest in aviation. Aviation used to be cool and have the romance of traveling on an adventure…somewhat unknown. Now, you can thrill yourself with virtual reality and solve the instant gratification, and if you need to go somewhere, the airlines have cheap ticket prices to most resort destinations that people want to visit.

    You can only hype the crowd for so long, and they lose interest. It is like a new private pilot who takes his friends on a ride after getting the license…and/or going to the pancake breakfast…it loses its charm relatively fast. When GA had it going, Cessna introduced new models all the time, Bellanca had test flown the Rocket III, the first plastic airplane was certified in the Windecker Eagle. There was a lot of interesting designs, and continued development.

    But…as a society, we have a change in character as a nation, we no longer want to be risk takers, and we value safety to the point that doing anything dangerous is banned. Partly because of a need for tort reform, when I read about Porsche being sued by the widow of the driver doing 100+ mph through a corner “placarded” at 30 mph! I recently went to the local motocross track, and there weren’t near as many riders in that dangerous sport, and wonder if we just don’t have the “guts” to do it anymore.

    Flying has an inherent risk that will make you pay if you are stupid. For some reason, we can’t seem to consider the fact that we are responsible for our own actions, it isn’t the manufacturers fault, it isn’t a problem of the system and certification. The biggest problem is growing up in the school system believing that we shouldn’t be held responsible, and that nothing is our fault, it is the evil capitalist that are causing this widespread prosperity and opportunity…oh, that is exactly the problem. Rake on capitalism and you only end up with a lower standard of living…but it is FAIR!

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