Late in the Eisenhower administration a series of atoms came together to make up a human being. A baby human being. A starter kit that, with proper care and feeding, grows to become an adolescent, then ultimately an adult. The particular collection of atoms I’m thinking of came to be me in my current form. What a lucky break, huh?
Any casual observer can tell that I am significantly larger now than I was when I started this journey through life. And I have capabilities now I didn’t have in the beginning. For instance, I can walk, and talk, and make a decent pancake breakfast these days. Early on all I really knew how to do was breathe and transform clean diapers into dirty diapers.
But am I really much better than the original model? That’s an open question.
Around the time I came into being, Boeing started producing the 707, a narrow-body transport category aircraft that introduced turbine power to the traveling public. Douglas did the same with its DC-8. The race to bigger and faster was on.
By the time my age was measured in double digits, Boeing was working on the 747, a wide-body behemoth of an aircraft that could carry more than twice the passenger load of the 707. As a result, air travel got cheaper, passenger loads got bigger, and a much higher percentage of the general public were introduced to flight first hand. Albeit, flight from several rows back into the fuselage, sandwiched between strangers, awaiting a meal service that became famous for its power to disappoint.
On the other end of the aircraft manufacturing scale, Piper and Cessna and Beechcraft were abandoning the fabric-covered steel tube structure of old for the aluminum monocoque construction of the future. The Comanche led Piper’s lineup, followed just a few years later by the venerable PA-28 Cherokee.
On the upper end of the personal aircraft single engine scale, the Beech Aircraft Corporation was pushing Bonanzas out the door to a select but appreciative audience of the business and personal travel leisure class.
Cessna was several years into building the Chevy Impala of the air, the C-172. A four-seater that could honestly carry three aloft with full, or nearly full tanks, the stage was set and the goal was clear. General aviation was in as transitional a stage as Boeing and Douglas were. But rather than going bigger and faster as the transport category crowd was doing, GA focused on making the airplane comfortable, convenient, and as practical as possible.
We can probably thank the crosswind gods for the invention and subsequent popularity of tricycle gear. Conventional gear was and continues to be available. And why not? It’s a point of pride for those of us who have the endorsement. It’s an even bigger point of pride for those who can actually land and taxi with confidence in a taildragger. Still, there may be no greater gift to the student or casual pilot than tricycle gear.
The improvements that made GA aircraft really leap into the realm of possibility for an ever wider audience that has yet to fully embrace their potential can be found in the panel. That’s where the sizzle is. And like the introduction of the 747 decades before, the alluring electronic gizmos found in a modern panel are becoming more affordable as they become more common.
It’s a brave new world, for sure.
Like the B-707, the early model 747s came with cockpits that were resplendent in steam gauges. Inertial navigation systems provided guidance. For the uninitiated the two front seats might as well have been behind the panel of the Lunar Excursion Module NASA was using to land men on the moon.
Although significantly less complex systems were used in GA, the basic airplane as a concept was nearly as vexing to new students. The panel was festooned with incomprehensible gauges, overwhelming many a new applicant to the point they missed the most important instrument available to them — the windshield.
Rather than going bigger, GA went for better. Cleaner panels, better systems, improved brakes, STOL kits, shoulder restraints, and the acceptance of innovations like GPS, Angle of Attack indicators, and even ballistic parachute systems began to creep into the mainstream of the fleet. All of which make getting into a personal aircraft a safer, more satisfying, and thoroughly more accessible experience.
The bulk of the GA fleet will never be as fast as the average transport category aircraft. They won’t be as big, either, or have legs nearly as long. But the improvements that have become commonplace in GA are so earthshattering as to have been unimaginable in 1969 when the City of Everett, the first B-747 to fly, rolled out of Boeing’s facility.
There is one other advantage to light GA aircraft that is often missed when comparing these particular apples and oranges. The 707 and DC-8 are gone. The 747 is most commonly seen in boneyards today. But those late-1950s 172s, the first of the PA-28s, and Bonanzas built in the post-war years continue to ply the skies.
Transports represent an expense. GA aircraft represent an investment.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better. My bathroom scale can attest to that, surely. So can the availability, the increasingly affordable cost, and the always impressive utility of the general aviation fleet.
Building better is a more nuanced concept than merely building bigger. GA has nailed that difference and revels in its mastery of it. Always improving, always intriguing, ever more attainable for those who wish to take that one giant leap Neal Armstrong started with…in GA.