What do we want?

There’s a great scene in the movie, “Field of Dreams,” that sticks in my head. Kevin Costner’s character has taken the character played by James Earl Jones to a baseball game. Kevin plays an innocent who has an unlikely story to tell and a major favor to ask. Jones, on the other hand ,plays a legendary writer who no longer publishes and has become something of a recluse. Their relationship is tenuous at best, showing signs of strain from their very first meeting. It remains tense throughout their early interactions.

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There will be paperwork

After leaving a phone message and receiving the requested call-back from a fully qualified staff member, I was able to make an appointment to visit a critical government facility here in central Florida. On the appointed day I motored over to the semi-secret location and rode the elevator to the floor where I had been instructed my appointment would take place. Put another way, I visited the Orlando Flight Standards District Office.

The incentive for my visit was the renewal of my flight instructor certificate. No matter what you do in aviation, there will be paperwork.

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The circus is more than just a circus

It’s an American tradition that continues unabated, thank goodness. Kids start smiling a little wider in the weeks before the big day. Neighborhood dogs pick up on the excitement, wagging their tails with abandon. Moms and dads prepare for days of high strung adventure, followed by the easily predictable collapse of exhausted young ‘uns. Wait a year and the whole process repeats. The circus is coming to town. Rejoice!

Now in all honesty, it doesn’t matter if it’s the circus coming to town, the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas (often abbreviated to read SXSW), the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Massachusetts (more frequently referred to by locals as The Big E), or the Tillamook County Fair in Oregon.

What gets the local chamber of commerce excited about all these events is the draw they create. Folks come from the countryside to the city to see the sights, or they come from the surrounding counties to the fairgrounds to enter their prize bull in competition, or they fly an airplane from one side of the continent to the other so they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with tens of thousands of other aviation minded folks in one of the truly great aeronautical spectacles on the planet.

This is what economic opportunity looks like. Whether the event’s logo features clown in full makeup, a movie star, or a kid chewing on an ear of corn — it doesn’t make one bit of difference.

There are major and minor festivals, carnivals, conventions, and expositions from one corner of our nation to the other, and it is to our great benefit that aviation plays a role in many of them. In fact, our aeronautical interests take center stage as the primary focus of a handful of major events each year.

Which means we aviation nuts can take a bow right alongside the major festivals intended to celebrate film, music, the strawberry harvest, this year’s corn crop, and the wonder of maple syrup production.

Yes, I’m talking economics. Money. Cash flow. The magical principle of what happens when people from out of town come to your local area, spend money, and leave with a smile on their face and a song in their heart.

This fiscal reality matters to the general aviation community more than it does to those other festival and special event organizers for the simple reason that few communities are trying to rid themselves of clowns or maple trees. It’s rare that a city puts the kibosh on a music series or a film festival. Nope, we welcome the fruitcake toss festival, and the international rotten sneaker contest, and even the Bonnie and Clyde Festival that celebrates a pair of dangerous psychopaths from the Great Depression.

But aviation? That’s where a disquieting number of communities decide to draw the line.

Would those communities be so quick and relentless in their opposition of aviation if they knew the real economic impact it can bring to their doorsteps? I doubt it.

Let’s consider two major aviation events as examples. AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is the gold standard, with Lakeland, Florida’s SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In and Expo taking the silver medal in terms of size and scope.

SUN ‘n FUN is going on right now. As much of the northern portion of the country struggles to shake off the frigid mantle of winter, thousands upon thousands of people have gathered in central Florida to walk amongst the airplanes, rub elbows with legends like Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon) and maybe even take a ride in an open cockpit biplane so they can experience the way aviation used to be — and still is for many of us.

SUN ‘n FUN’s economic impact on the region has been calculated to be something on the order of $64 million. AirVenture nearly doubles that with a whopping $110 million effect. That’s real money. Big money. And it repeats year after year.

Aviation brings real value to these communities. Whether you like airplane noise or hate it, there’s a case to be made that aviation is a boon to the people and businesses of Wisconsin and central Florida. If a new customer walks into your restaurant, movie theater, book store, or clothing shop to make a purchase, does it really matter to you what their hobbies are or in what industry they make their living? Of course not. A sale is a sale. And a sale to an out-of-towner who brought money into your economy from their hometown is a bonus.

More important to the average reader than the economic impact of SUN ‘n FUN and AirVenture is the origin of the two events. Both began as humble ideas, essentially over a kitchen table. A small group of friends simply got sidetracked talking about what might come to pass if they could gather up a few volunteers to help. They faced hurdles, but they cleared them. They’ve had bad weather and economic downturns to wrestle with, yet they’ve persevered.

Everything that could dissuade them from continuing with their planning and execution of the master plan has happened, and still they keep on planning, keep on executing, and keep on bringing dollars into their economy year after year.

It’s been said, from small things, big things come. SUN ‘n FUN and AirVenture certainly prove that adage to be true.

Which begs the question, how many more aeronautical events could be going on in our sizable nation’s market? How many more communities might become richer, more diverse, better known, and incentivize greater investment by simply embracing the odd ideas of a small group of people gathered around a kitchen table postulating, “Hey, you know what we ought to do…”

Willfully distracted and pointlessly engaged

My local coffee shop has been abuzz with conversations about the same top news story that’s dominated the chatter at yours, I’m sure: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It seems every news channel on television has dedicated untold hours of coverage to the story, while newspapers have filled innumerable column inches with every rumor that comes down the pike.

Understandably, the folks who gather at my table each morning explore the possibilities, too. And eventually the question comes to me. “Hey Jamie, do you think that’s what happened?”

It doesn’t really matter what “that” might be, my answer is always the same. I simply say, “I don’t know.” [Read more…]

The great ones use leverage

A fairly bright man from the ancient world said something to the effect of give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum to place it on, and I can move the world.

Admittedly, it’s been at least 2,200 years since Archimedes supposedly uttered these words. So allowing for transcription errors and smudged copies, I’ve chosen not to use quotes. I can’t possibly verify that he said those exact words, or any exact words. But the meaning of what he had to say is clear. Better yet, it’s as true today as it ever was.

That Archimedes was one sharp guy.

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General aviation in the marketplace

Last week the news broke that Fantasy of Flight, the aviation-themed attraction in the heart of central Florida, was closing. That was the message most people got, even if it is slightly skewed from the announcement the company intended.

Those who read the full story (included the one by Drew Steketee right here in General Aviation News) already know the facility is closing to the public for a time and will reopen later in the year as a scaled down museum. It will remain available for special events throughout.

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Can LSAs go commercial?

It’s a regulatory certainty that Light-Sport Aircraft cannot be used in commercial operations. Sure, the LSA category is fast growing. Yes, it’s permeated the marketplace well enough that LSAs can be found on fields across the land.

Admittedly, the aircraft are designed and built to a standard that is as high — if not higher — than that of many venerable classics we’ve come to know and love. But you can’t conduct commercial operations in a LSA for one very specific reason: It’s against the rules.

It’s right about here that I find it necessary to remind you that rules can be changed. Sometimes, they should be changed. This may be one of those times.

First, let’s consider what a commercial operation is. In its simplest form a commercial operation is one that generates a dollar. Money changes hands. That constitutes commercial activity. It might be for hauling a tourist aloft to see the sights. Perhaps it involves towing a banner advertising a restaurant, or a bar, or an event. It might involved pulling a glider up to an altitude where it can glide back to earth for a few minutes, or grab a thermal and stay aloft for hours. A commercial operator might carry a package from Airport A to Airport B to deliver it more rapidly than it would arrive by surface roads. Pipeline and powerline patrols are commercial operations, too. So are are agricultural flights that allow aircraft to spray crops with pesticides or herbicides.

Currently it’s not legal to perform any of those flights in a light-sport aircraft. To which I ask, why not?

Aviation is changing. The future will look very different than the aviation we grew up with. Automation is becoming smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more reliable. Drones are among us. UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have become one of the hot topics in aviation.

Hot enough, in fact, that non-aviators are talking about them, and talking about using them commercially. People who have almost no understanding of what it takes to operate UAVs are beginning to share their opinions about how those vehicles should fit into the airspace. Some have good ideas. Some are so far off-base it’s scary.

So let’s consider the future of commercial aviation in the United States. Let’s consider LSAs and UAVs.

There is room for both in the system. And that’s good because there is no reason to believe that technology, once developed, will not be deployed. That’s the way of the world.

Both UAVs and LSAs have advantages. It’s also fair and accurate to suggest that both have disadvantages. Our interest lies in their commercial use however, and it’s there that the specific advantages and disadvantages should guide us. Should both UAVs and LSAs have a place in the commercial market? Yes, I believe they should. Is it practical or even wise to use them for the same operations? Probably not.

In terms of safety, the two categories offer very different considerations. If the life or health of the pilot would be at risk, the UAV has the advantage. If the lives and health of people on the ground are a concern, the LSA has the upper hand. Simply put, the LSA includes a pilot. Having a human at the controls who can weigh options, make decisions, and feel the emotional and physical ramifications of whatever happens — well that’s priceless.

Given two extreme examples it’s obvious that both categories of aircraft have a role to play. If you’re flying a package of scientific instruments into the crater of an active volcano, it’s probably better to use a UAV. If the aircraft is lost, the instrumentation will go with it. But the data collected will be safe in a computer back at the base camp, probably not far from the pilot who is healthy, safe, and nowhere near the crash site. On the other hand, if you’re taking a tourist for a sightseeing ride along the beach, the LSA piloted by a commercial rated pilot is the better choice.

UAVs will force us to rethink how the airspace is used. They will cause us to re-imagine what roles aircraft can fill that benefit society as a whole. That’s good. Because the advance of technology has always offered human beings the opportunity to revise the way we live in ways that benefit us. From the discovery of fire to improved building techniques, the introduction of glass windows into our homes, and even electricity and plumbing – each new stride forward brings new opportunity coupled with unavoidable risk. However, when applied carefully and with forethought, risk can be mitigated while benefits can be enhanced.

As we enter into this new age of aviation, let’s make sure we consider LSAs as seriously and carefully as we consider UAVs. There is a place for both in the system. We simply have to create a regulatory system that addresses them with intelligence and creativity.

Ours is a bold new world, indeed — provided we accept it and manage it appropriately.

Clearing obstacles

Making great progress isn’t worth much if you don’t know where that progress will lead.

There’s an old joke about travel that ends with the subject proclaiming, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m making good time.”

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