This article may either excite you or annoy you.
I understand. I have mixed feelings about a new class of airplanes I don’t understand as well as familiar, legacy ones.
Perhaps like you, I’m annoyed because I didn’t foresee this and because these new proposed machines are not my experience over many decades of flight. Nonetheless I’m also excited as I enjoy new technologies and how they can help us in myriad ways.
However, it may not matter what you or I think.
You and I may be the veteran pilots of the USA (and perhaps the world). We have years of experience. Americans account for around half of all the pilots, half of the airplanes, and half of the flight hours in the world.
Yet much like veterans of the auto industry, we are in danger (or is it a benefit?) of being upended by the world of tech. The Information Age is upon aviation in ways we never envisioned.
Tech’s Many Benefits
Those in the Light-Sport Aircraft world — and a growing number of GA aircraft — now have gorgeous screens in our cockpits that are quite inexpensively replacing a panel of round dials, while also supplying us with much more information, even synthetic vision.
Every pilot can use an iPad to dynamically plan and map his or her flight in ways we couldn’t envision just five years ago.
Airframes are increasingly made of composite, often carbon fiber. Titanium has found increasing use as well.
Everyone has a GPS and more are acquiring ADS-B technology that delivers real-time traffic and weather to the cockpit.
Airframe parachutes and safety cell (crush zone) technology are making pilots safer than ever.
Autopilots and angle of attack indicators on contemporary sport planes are inexpensive and work well. They allow “Level” and “180° Turn” buttons that respond with a single tap.
Highly fuel efficient, computer-controlled powerplants are common in LSA. These engines output far less emissions. They are also significantly quieter. You may not care about that, but airport neighbors certainly do. Imagine what happens if aircraft of the future all go electric.
In short, the entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and visionaries of aviation have delivered much better aircraft while lowering the price points (at least for some aircraft types).
Most of these developments — and technologies well beyond these — may be incorporated in the aircraft of tomorrow. Will you assimilate these changes? Is resistance futile?
What’s the Plan?
While I doubt airliner behemoths Boeing or Airbus are aiming to create aircraft you might buy, their work, along with other developers, may nonetheless lead to something new in the future for recreational aircraft pilots and buyers.
On the last day of January 2018, the Airbus-funded Vahana Alpha One spent 53 seconds aloft, under its own power and autonomous control. It reached a height of 16′.
Big deal, huh? While a 53-second flight may not sound like much, look what followed after the Wright brothers’ even shorter flight a century ago. Humankind went from primitive powered flight to landing on the moon in 66 years and the pace of development is vastly faster today.
Executives from Airbus, Boeing, and several other billion-dollar companies say the flights of the experimental aircraft seen with this article mark “the start of a fundamental change in the way we get around.”
Alpha One’s brief flight represents a full-scale demonstration of a single-person, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
“The idea is to remake the way we fly,” say developers.
They are talking about autonomous transportation, but what if these aircraft get (relatively) cheap and become available to pilots who want to fly them by their own hand — or at least by their own decisions?
Instead of piling dozens or hundreds of people into big jets that fly back and forth between airports, these little VTOL aircraft would work much like personal cars, taking a few people (or just one) on short trips in and around cities.
Thirty Vahana engineers, funded by $150 million from Airbus, worked for two years to make their aircraft ready for its January flight. This investment is a staggering sum in the world of light aviation. That’s more than Cirrus spent to develop and certify its SR series that has become aviation’s biggest selling single-engine piston aircraft — all to provide one single-seat demonstrator.
Sooner Than You Think?
In another story, through a pairing with Boeing, ride hailing pioneer Uber reportedly plans to launch air taxi networks in Dubai and Dallas — as soon as 2020. Again, we’re talking autonomous, but these aircraft could easily be configured for on-board-human operation.
You are most unlikely to buy an air taxi… even if you might take one sometime in the future, just as we’ve learned to do with the Ubers and Lyfts of the world. Air taxis, whatever their size, will serve a transportation role. In addition, to pass regulatory approval, they will surely be more expensive than one flown by a decision-making human.
You may see nothing wrong with the transportation role, but those of us involved with recreational flying prefer to do the piloting, to enjoy the skies in our own personal way.
Yet does that mean you would refuse to fly a quad- or octocopter, especially if it was mass produced, affordable, safe and enjoyable to fly?
What if this thing could be flown with regular controls like the aircraft you presently love? What if it turned out to be a hoot to fly? What it if had capabilities beyond your present aircraft?
My radio-controlled drone flies well in wind. Its gyro-stabilized camera is amazingly smooth even in gusty conditions …and mine is already an antique, a whole two years old.
Will the future of recreational flying be transformed the way Vahana developers and Uber envision? A glance at electric autos lead by Tesla with its autopilot capability suggests driving in the future may be remarkably different, possibly safer, possibly more eco-friendly, possibly even more fun in ways we cannot currently imagine.
Could tomorrow’s sport aircraft be radical revolutions? Or will this all die down and we’ll just keep flying the aircraft we have today?
I feel fairly sure recreational flying isn’t threatened by these new developments but the aircraft we fly might evolve to become vastly different than what we have at the start of 2018. Stay tuned…!
Recreation or Transportation?
Ride-hailing services have upended the taxi industry and, no matter how you feel about it, that service is unlikely to change because users love them. Uber and Lyft in this country and copycats around the world are changing the way we hire an automobile to carry us around town.
Aircraft, like the ones shown in this post, may completely change how people move around big cities.
Indeed, Uber has announced its vision for a future in which metropolitan areas are served with “vertiports” — tiny airports where small VTOL airplanes take off and land. I imagine these aircraft landing in your driveway to haul you to an important meeting or a doctor appointment across town. Your driveway may be big enough if your neighbors don’t object.
In Uber’s vision for a decade from now, someone traveling from San Francisco to San Jose (a trip that can take two hours in traffic) might take a short self-driving Uber car ride to a vertiport, hop on a self-driving VTOL airplane that takes a 15-minute flight to a San Jose vertiport, and then catch a second self-driving taxi to their destination. Uber estimates such a flight will initially cost $130, but it could become as cheap as $20 in the long run.
Less ambitious goals include enabling more affordable short-haul flights between regional airports.
Not only can short-range electric airplane flights be more energy-efficient, but self-flying airplane technology may eventually eliminate the need for pilots on small, short-range flights. This could allow the flights to be even cheaper and might revitalize smaller airports where operating large conventional commercial airplanes doesn’t make sense, aviation visionaries suggest.