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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A distraction for the species

A debate of epic proportions took place last week. Streamed live via the Internet, the audience was massive and motivated. Each debater was bolstered by their respective armies of supporters and intellectual warriors. The concepts being addressed were critical to all humanity — or so the hype would have us believe. Evolution or creationism, which is the more viable option?

On the science side, Bill Nye. The Science Guy is in fact not a scientist at all. Rather, he’s an entertainer who has honed an ability to share highly technical information with non-scientific audiences and make the quest for knowledge sound appealing.

On the creationism side stood Ken Ham, president of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which hosted the engagement. Ken believes the book of Genesis can and should be taken literally.

It should have been a pay-per-view event. Interest in the discussion was certainly high enough to have brought a windfall to both speakers and their causes.

Yet, like so many purportedly great events, it fizzled. Neither debater was swayed by the other. Few, if any, viewers were inclined to switch affiliations based on what they saw and heard, either. What it all came down to in the end was two men defending their beliefs as strenuously as possible. That’s a good thing. Bravo for both debaters.

Not everyone holds that position, of course. In fact many in the scientific community wince at even the suggestion of this debate taking place, ever, between any two debaters.

They’re wrong, of course. Debate is good. Not only is it good, it’s necessary.

Debate allows for an exchange of ideas, both good and bad. It is this airing of perspectives that leads to learning, understanding, and ultimately a new sense of wonder that pushes humanity forward to new inventions, new technology, and new ways of perceiving our place in the universe.

No debate is too stupid to allow. Send the participants to their podiums and let’s get rockin’. If physicist Stephen Hawking gets the opportunity to debate comedian Pauly Shore about the likelihood of earth being swallowed by a black hole in the next decade, and both parties are willing to engage in the verbal sparing, they should do it. Really. Imagine the audience attracted to that intergalactic donnybrook.

The hubbub about the Nye/Ham debate continued to rage after the debate ended. Those who backed Ham suggested he’d won. On the other side, Bill Nye has taken a bit of a beating for not convincing the audience at the Creation Museum to lose their faith, convert to Darwinism, and embrace the idea of an earth that is many hundreds of millions of years old. Seriously? Does anybody think that was a reasonable expectation given the audience and the venue?

Who won is unimportant. The fact that they participated is what it’s all about. The only thing that could have made it better for me would be if they had debated a better question — a question that actually matters.

Consider this: Let’s imagine that instead of a worldwide audience, Nye and Ham were debating in a closed room. Their only audience consists of the three hosts of the Fox Business News program, The Independents. Kmele Foster, Kennedy, and Matt Welch attend with open minds, ready to adopt the position that’s best represented. Nye knocks it out of the park, virtually proving that Darwinism is the correct answer. Ham does equally well making that case that Genesis can be taken literally as a description of how life on earth began.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Kmele buys Bill Nye’s position hook, line, and sinker. He becomes a dedicated disciple of Charles Darwin and the theories he expressed in Origin of the Species. Matt Welch goes the other way, adopting Ken Ham’s creationist perspective completely. Their counterpart and big ol’ ringleader, Kennedy, hangs on the fence, intrigued by aspects of both arguments, but not enough to be swayed one way or the other. She vacillates like a cheap tabletop fan.

All of this begs the question, so what? Would Kmele’s belief in the scientific method make it impossible for him to attend religious services at his leisure? Would Matt’s alleged embrace of theology keep him from experimenting with photo-voltaics and possibly discovering a new, lighter weight, higher output crystalline structure that would make solar panels cheap, efficient, and plentiful? Would Kennedy’s indecision prevent her from showing up at the studio tomorrow morning where she knocks out an epic program on Los Angeles’ most astounding alternative radio station? No. Their beliefs about where we came from don’t have a thing to do with what we’re doing now, and even less to do with where we’re headed.

Debate is important. It allows us to participate and even compete in the arena of ideas. Yet, what matters is not the topic or even the outcome of the debate. What matters is that the debate happens.

When the purveyors of two divergent trains of thought meet, interact in a respectful manner, and part ways again, we all win. That’s true whether the topic is evolution, creationism, raising the sales tax, or lengthening a runway.

Talk may be cheap, but it matters. Let’s not become so entrenched in our positions that we lose sight of what really matters — our ability to interact productively with other people — even with other people who hold very different beliefs from our own.

The elephant in the room

Superbowl Sunday was anything but super. Not only was the game a huge disappointment to anyone who enjoys competitive sports, but earlier in the day news broke that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment.

Aviation shares something in common with sports and show business, whether we choose to believe it or not. [Read more…]

Searching for that last straw

Long, long ago I was fortunate enough to hear a joke that’s stuck with me for all these years. What I hadn’t anticipated was that a single joke would help inform my political sensibilities forevermore. That’s right, a joke has become a guiding light to my method of dealing with others.

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Courting the cross-over effect

While out and about recently I saw something that left an impression on me. It was a line of sports cars and a Formula racer parked right there on the ramp in Sebring, Florida. They were bright red and carried names like Porsche and Mazda. Their engines had the ability to put out significantly more horsepower than the light airplanes I typically fly.

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Everybody has a game plan

General aviation is something of a massive storage locker that houses a plethora of game plans designed to save the industry. It seems as if virtually everyone has one they’ve been working on, refining, honing to perfection. And the story of each plan is the same. It’s better. It will achieve more impressive results. Honest, it will.

There’s only one problem. For all the rock’em sock’em can’t-possibly-fail game plans on the table, there’s no team willing to take the field and implement them. We’re all chiefs with no indians. [Read more…]