There is a story that circulates in the music business that suggests an interesting parallel to general aviation. The story takes place in the late 1960s when Jimi Hendrix and his band arrived at the BBC studios to do a soundcheck in preparation for a performance to be recorded later in the day.
For those who are unfamiliar, a soundcheck is an abbreviated performance that allows the sound engineers to talk to the musicians, try each instrument in turn, try them all together, and find the various volumes and settings that allow the band to sound as they should for the performance.
Hendrix and the Experience ran through a few numbers to give the engineers a sense of what they sounded like. The engineers became quite concerned with technical issues and asked the band to play again. This process repeated until the interminably long soundcheck disturbed even the band’s manager. Chas Chandler, who not only managed Hendrix but also played bass for The Animals, scurried up to the engineer’s booth to find out what the problem was.
The engineers were beside themselves with frustration and worry. They explained that although they had tried everything the could think of, they weren’t able to stop the infernal squealing of feedback, or the crackling and banging that was so prominent on every song. To which Chandler supposed replied, “That’s the show, man!” or something to that effect.
The point of the story is pertinent because it so closely resembles what’s happening in general aviation today.
The old guard may be highly trained, respected, experienced, and absolutely necessary to the operation of the industry. But they are perplexed by the state the industry is in and they are resistant to accept changes that are foreign to them, even as they become the norm for many who are new to the industry.
Perhaps worst of all, many have become vocal detractors of the industry, bemoaning the departure of the good old days, and the bleak outlook they predict for the future.
This isn’t all that different from the engineers, concert musicians, and conductors who dismissed Hendrix’s music as noise, or the Beatles as little more than four young men with a disturbing hairstyle, or the Rolling Stones as a collection of thugs who had the audacity to carry musical instruments.
Aviation has seen this before, too. When the Wright brothers first flew, there were newspapers that refused the run the story, thinking the whole idea of a flying machine was too ridiculous to take seriously.
When Frank Whittle patented the turbine engine in 1930, it wasn’t just ignored, it was ridiculed. And so was its inventor.
When Billy Mitchell had the gumption to suggest an airplane could sink a battleship, he was scorned by his superiors. Not even a successful demonstration could change the high command’s thinking about the upstart who saw air-superiority as essential to military success so early in the 20th Century.
Today we have Richard Branson preparing to haul passengers into space as a commercial service. We’ve got glass panels in light-sport aircraft that make the navigation equipment in early Boeing 747s look inadequate. We’ve got Rotax engines showing up on general aviation aircraft in increasing numbers.
The ultimate conclusion of the general aviation fuel debate continues to be in question, and we have the unsettling irony of an industry that has grown to the point that it positively affects virtually every person on the planet – yet the number of detractors continues to grow, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are, themselves, using the services they deride as being elitist and unnecessary.
Transition can be ugly. Thankfully, we have a roadmap to follow. It’s provided by our own history where we see example after example of remarkable accomplishments being branded as nonsense before finally breaking through and finding a widening appeal that leads to a general acceptance in the market.
I live in a place where the local aerospace high school is growing. It’s so near its capacity, discussions are now underway to explore building a second aerospace high school facility. There are more students interested in the field than there is space to accommodate them, so we’re looking at our options to increase our capacity.
This is exactly the opposite of what is happening in many parts of the country. Our educational programs are thriving, our students are achieving, our student pilot starts are up and the number of high school and college students we have involved in some aspect of aerospace science is increasing.
This is all happening for one very simple reason: The people who are in a position to make good things happen have refused to accept the standard lament that general aviation is dying.
Instead we’re committed to forging ahead, into the present where there is a new look and feel to general aviation. It’s our students who will drag us into the future. They’ll see what we don’t yet envision.
Ah yes, the future of general aviation is bright indeed. This growing crop of new students is going to take us places we never thought possible.
And until that day comes, I’m going to whip out my phone, plug in my earbuds, and crank up some Jimi Hendrix Experience. Because I like that squealing, buzzing, crackling sound. It sounds like the future, no matter how far into the past it takes me.