March 29, 2013
They are exceptionally durable machines, built of aluminum or, increasingly, composites. When properly maintained, they can provide decades of service. Commercial aircraft operated by airlines can last for hundreds of thousands of hours. Your car may give you 10 years, but after that it’s time to recycle it or ship it to Cuba.
Even the smallest airframes serve as reusable containers for new engines and electronics, upgrading as each new wave of technology washes over the stubborn structure. Wooden aircraft can rot, and aluminum can corrode, but both forms of decay can be kept at bay by care and maintenance. If that doesn’t work, there’s restoration and refurbishment. A Beech Bonanza, to cite one popular general-aviation airplane that typically is used heavily by its owners, will need an engine overhaul roughly every 2,000 hours. A smart owner will divide the dollar cost of an overhaul by 2,000 and salt away that many dollars in the bank for each hour flown as an “engine reserve” to pay for a new or zero-time engine when the inevitable replacement day draws nigh.
The virtuous durability of airframes became a vice when product liability lawsuits took off during the 1970s and ’80s. Manufacturers suddenly woke up to the fact that every long-lasting airplane represented long-term exposure to corporate liability in the event of a malfunction. After a long struggle, airplane makers were able to secure passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, which limited their liability to personal aircraft not more than 18 years old.
Although engines need regular attention, avionics are the best deal in the world. An owner can add them piecemeal or just yank out the whole instrument panel and replace it with technology such as that offered by Aspen Avionics: That company makes “glass cockpit” displays and systems that fit right in the old holes where the steam gauges used to sit, and it’s the very latest technology at an affordable price. Instant new airplane. And you don’t have to buy a new operating system every three years.
At small airports across the country, airplanes are handed down from one generation to another, not just as heirlooms but as real, live working modes of transportation. We’ve all complained about the programmed obsolescence of our cars, our appliances, our computers. Here’s one possession designed to last.
November 2, 2012
People in the airplane sales business try to dress for success, same as anyone. But the formula has changed over the years. Back in the days of multibillion-dollar airliner deals involving Boeing, Douglas, Lockheed, Convair and others — before deregulation, during the golden age of air-travel glamour — the costume was hand-tailored business suit, preferably a nice dark blue pinstripe, and wingtips (those are shoes, for those who’ve never seen a pair–you can Google them). A rule of thumb in those days was that the price of a really top-quality suit closely tracked the market price of an ounce of gold.
The folks who sell to airlines haven’t changed clothes, even though the airline business is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was back in its heyday. At Paris and Farnborough, the boys from Boeing and Airbus are still wrapped in Saville Row as they schmooze clients. At the next level down — high-priced executive jets and even mid- to economy-priced GA airplanes — fashion has changed markedly since the ‘70s. Back then, a general aviation salesman from Wichita, Kansas who hoped to make an impression might dip a toe in the water of mod styling. You could spot the guy from the marketing department a mile off by the glare from his white patent leather belt and matching shoes. Hairstyles matched the longer, coiffed look of the times, with fuller sideburns and more exuberant cuts that draped just over the ears. Trousers were flared but not bell-bottom, and contrasting sport coats were a light color or bold pattern, with a pocket hankie to match the primary-color trousers. (Some “looks” should stay in the era from which they came. The leisure suit should not, by law, be allowed to survive except in museum collections and photos of the quaint old 1970s. It is the swastika of men’s fashion.)
That was kind of fun and adequate for selling airplanes with propellers to doctors and oilmen. But when the GA factories started building jets, the sales department went straight for that Wall Street look – the full Corporate Uniform.
Now we’re undergoing yet another, more subtle shift. Blame it on Silicon Valley, where nobody ever wears a tie knotted four-in-hand, but the business-jet crowd is showing the first signs of shedding the banker look. In some recent advertisements, manufacturers (of airplanes with a price so high one must not speak its name) are depicting their executives tieless. The big issue becomes whether to leave just one shirt button open, or go radical and liberate two [music from Born Free here]. If the Google guys and that Facebook billionaire can run around in tee shirts aboard their Boeings, surely airplane people – who are just as high-tech as you are, dammit!! – can drop the ties.
But don’t lose the dark navy-blue blazers. Please. That would be going too far.
October 9, 2012
Back when the general aviation industry was booming — that would be in the 1970s and ’80s — Beech Aircraft recognized a need and formed the Aero Clubs, which were flying clubs affiliated with authorized Beechcraft dealers. As a member of the club at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina back in the 1970s (part of Stevens Beechcraft), I was able to fly any of the small fleet of Beech-built aircraft, from the Musketeer family to the speedy Bonanza. The club also hosted occasional cook-outs and social gatherings. And although the original Beech Aircraft has gone through ownership changes, the Beech Aero Clubs have survived.
Now the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) is launching a related effort designed to encourage the formation of flying clubs where none exist at present. “It’s about accessibility,” says Thomas Haines, an AOPA executive vice president and editor in chief of AOPA Pilot magazine. He notes that flying clubs often bring the costs of operating an airplane within the reach of middle income enthusiasts who might not be able to afford their own aircraft.
The AOPA will launch a web site this Friday, October 12, to foster growth in the pilot population, which began its decline in 1981 and ’82, according to Adam Smith, a senior vice president at the AOPA’s new Center to Advance the Pilot Community. Smith, who hails from England, credits that nation’s flying clubs with providing his start in an aviation career, “twenty years before I would have done,” he says.
Smith says that in the United States right now there are about 650 such clubs, and, “Research tells us they are doing a valuable job now, and we’ll shine a spotlight on that area of aviation, which forms a vital part of a healthy aviation ecosystem.” The AOPA will provide support in the legal and organizational aspects of launching and maintaining a viable club. As Smith says, “I think there are a lot of people interested in forming a flying club, but it feels slightly daunting.”
Most airplanes, which are expensive assets, spend their time tied down on a ramp somewhere. By sharing ownership, the cost of the asset spreads out among the members and its usage rate increases. As a current member of a boat club that operates on the same model, I can vouch for the appeal. Paying monthly dues beats making airplane, insurance, hangar, tiedown and maintenance payments.