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The Future Of Airplane Manufacturing

Plane and Pilot Mag logo Plane and Pilot Mag 9/26/2022 Plane and Pilot Mag

By Isabel Goyer

© Plane and Pilot Mag

For the past few decades, the small airplane supply was a known quantity, and a sustainable one, at that. Until recently, if you wanted to buy an airplane, you had your choice between a few still-produced new planes, most of which were expensive but featured upgrades like advanced electronics and safety systems, or a used airplane, which was much, much cheaper but came with a pile of dusty logbooks and question marks galore.

Research

But things have changed, and not for the better. New airplanes have done nothing but increase in price. For many would-be owners, they are not a financially realistic option. And the huge fleet of used aircraft built from around the mid-1950s to the late 1970s are dwindling in number and greatly increasing in price while becoming increasingly expensive to maintain.

We find ourselves at a crossroads. Whereas used planes were a great answer to the supply side of the equation and played an increasingly important role in the ecosystem as new-plane prices rose, today many plane buyers find themselves stuck between new planes they can’t afford or justify or used planes that cost more than ever and require a lot of additional investment in new equipment and ongoing maintenance.

Something has got to give.

Way Back Machines

In 1973, if you wanted to buy a new light, piston-powered propeller plane, you had literally dozens of models from which to choose, and across a wide spectrum of types, too. There were light twins galore, high-performance singles, work-a-day fixed-gear four-seaters, beefy and utilitarian single-engine models and more. The prices were competitive, affordable by upper middle-class types, and if you improbably didn’t find what you were looking for, you could always wait a year and take your pick from a handful of new-airplane introductions.

That kind of vibrant light-plane marketplace was, in ways that we’re only now beginning to understand, a shooting star. While it seemed as though that period would last forever, in retrospect, it was unsustainable, and in ways we should have been able to see at the time but didn’t.

As new plane prices have risen dramatically over that time, there has been a lot of discussion over what steps we could take to make new airplanes orders of magnitude more affordable. In retrospect, that was a fool’s errand. The truth is, it’s simply not possible to cheaply build incredibly complicated, production-intensive small-volume vehicles that require expensive components that can’t be built in-house. The very nature of aircraft manufacturing will never let us turn back the clock to cheap new planes, and that’s been true for as long as people were fantasizing that it could be done. It was simply never going to happen.

So, we find ourselves in a light aviation segment with a small number of new planes being produced, most of those either trainers or very high-engine singles, and with an aging fleet of used planes that are getting harder and harder to keep flying.

What comes next remains to be seen, but by looking at how people behave and how our world is changing, we can certainly make some solid predictions.

Historian Jared Diamond, in his seminal work “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” wrote, “[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.” Granted, Diamond’s argument is sometimes dismissed as a rephrasing of George Santayana’s oft-repeated saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it’s more than that. Diamond goes beyond the sense of history-as-object-lesson with the single word “values,” which suggests, rightly so, I’d argue, that people cling to history not as a point of policy but, rather, as a familiar emotional touchstone, whether that’s good for them or not. Most often, it’s not.

While Diamond wasn’t writing specifically about aviation, his point resonates in our cozy world of modern personal aviation, a segment that started immediately after World War II and that was powered by the creation and introductions of light, modern and relatively affordable new, all-metal designs, like the Cessna 172 and the Beechcraft Bonanza, both of which have been built in the tens of thousands and are still being made today.

Like many enthusiast activities, flying is captive to its demographics and the values the members of that demographic hold dear. The discipline is more than a marketing tool, though, granted, it is a powerful one. At its heart, the study of populations seeks insights into how change takes place, what it means for people today and how it might transform future populations.

These transformations are often influenced by conflict and technological advances. In the case of American aviation in the second half of the 20th century, big demographic changes were inspired by a couple of world wars, from around 1915-1918 and from around 1938-1945. Both conflicts were, of course, brewing for years beforehand and simmering for years afterward. Some historians see the two wars as being a single global conflict, a pause in armed hostilities between them. The way they were conducted was driven by advances in communications, transportation and weaponry—advances that were only possible because of the intellectual, scientific, medical, agricultural, economic and industrial revolutions, each of which supercharged the progress of the others.

These conditions helped populations boom and allowed heads of nations (who had the same base impulses as we see in Europe today) mobilize and support huge armies with powerful weapons doing the horrific works of war, which predictably resulted in untold millions dead, nations in ruins, a world economy in tatters but with a powerful industrial engine of progress needing to figure out how to turn its energies to peacetime efforts.

During the post-World War era, which, again, many some historians believe we are still experiencing, we saw technological and infrastructure progress unseen in human history: the building of roads and dams and communications infrastructure, modern medicine, the creation of television and computers, affordable transportation, along with cheap food and housing, and the building of vast, modern standing armies and the machinery of war that they demanded.

And values rose in sync with these changes. Invented along the way were beliefs that supported such societal structures, the belief in the good of progress, in the potential of humans to live in peace and in the ability of nations to agree to and work toward a shared framework of peace and prosperity, all of which was to be enforced by power.

Personal Flying Is Born

It was easy for Americans to buy into a vision, dubbed The American Dream, that came about because of these changes. As it emerged from the war, the United States, despite the loss of around 400,000 people (this compared to an estimated 27,000,000 Soviets who perished), found itself in a historically unprecedented position. Because the United States mainland had never been effectively attacked, the nation emerged from the war with tremendous economic gains and the economic and industrial might to greatly expand its powers and, hence, its wealth and that of its citizens.

Aviation saw immense gains during this period, with the birth of the turbine engine and long-range commercial airliners that gave humans unprecedented transportation capability. Journeys that 50 years before would have taken weeks could be done in part of a day.

Personal aviation, a niche aviation segment, also flourished. It existed before, but technological limitations kept the activity too expensive for nearly everyone and/or with limited usefulness.

Post-war light aviation was a different animal, thanks to the rise of modern light planes. It became an activity that literally gave regular humans powers restricted before to supernatural beings and imbuing them with a sense at once of direct participation in the American Experience and perspective that was special because, in some ways, it literally was.

The Invention of Aviation

In popular culture, many assume that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. It’s an easy story to peddle. The only trouble is, it’s literally not true. The invention of aviation wasn’t the creation of the technologies behind airplanes—almost all of them existed pre-Kitty Hawk—but, rather, the combining of those scientific advances, such as light internal combustion engines, propellers (used in boats for a century before aviation took off), light, stiff structures and modern metallurgy, to create a machine that could fly. Granted, the translation of these different components into service of heavier-than-air flight imposed a decades-long process of failure and solution based solely on the nature of flight compared to travel on the surface of the land or water.

And it’s no coincidence that one of those modes, bicycling, would have provided such insight and technological leverage to the Wright brothers, who used their insights about bikes and motorbikes to make their first airplane. They used their understanding of modern technologies sampled from a variety of disciplines, from the ability to create stiff, light structures to the invention of light, powerful engines and a growing understanding of the nature of airfoils and aerodynamic stability. All of these, coupled with an understanding of the central importance of the user interface, were critical to the creation of the Wright Flyer.

The invention of the aircraft user interface, again, can be directly traced back to bikes, which employed a system of easily operated controls that allowed near-instantaneous corrections, something the Wrights knew was critical in a machine as unforgiving of gross errors as aircraft would be. And they were right about that, though the way they approached it was wrong.

Regardless, the Wrights’ mission was clear to them. They needed to create a machine light enough and with enough lift and thrust to be able to fly on the handful of horses a low-power-output engine of the day might offer. Airfoils were largely existing art (one the Wrights did little to advance), as were aircraft controls, though neither had achieved anything resembling a mature stage.

Everybody Fly Now

Jump ahead four decades, and thanks to the technological progress wrought by 40 years of war, by the mid-1940s, designers had come up with what we still know today as the modern airplane, a reinforced sheet-metal four-seater with a stabilizing tail in back and a propeller in front, the wing sporting a forgiving airfoil and graced with effective flaps and powered by a slow-turning, four- to six-cylinder opposed, air-cooled internal combustion engine.

In creating that perfect machine for personal flight—well, perfect in broad terms—we painted ourselves into a corner, as often happens with technology. What becomes popular becomes standard, and that standard enforces infrastructure choices, like what fuel you have at the airport, not to mention airports and how they’re designed to begin with. Success breeds limitations.

What this all meant is that, yes, we had a lot of great airplanes produced over a roughly 35-year period ending in 1980 or so, but it also meant that during that time, alternative visions of the small airplane never gained any traction. There were outliers, Burt Rutan and Leo Windecker, to name a couple, but the marketplace enforced a conformity to existing standards that was hard, if not impossible, to buck. Novel configurations, diesel power, advanced lift devices and innovative fuels are all innovations that got left by the wayside.

To be fair, there are some remarkably innovative airplanes that have emerged over the past couple of decades. Shoutouts to the designers at companies like Diamond Aircraft, the most innovative plane maker in Part 23 aviation, and Cirrus, a company that popularized a number of innovative approaches to light airplanes. And there are a handful of great airplanes still being produced, though selection is limited and prices are eye-watering.

Plus, it’s critical to understand that all of these light planes produced over the past 70 years fit into a pre-existing structure. Where we fly, where we keep our airplanes, how we train and how we dovetail into the National Airspace System (itself an invention of necessity) are all pre-determined before a new pilot climbs on board for their first flying lesson.

The momentum of it all was overwhelming, and the shape of light flying was swept along with that current. With generations of pilots mostly happy to participate in the American Aviation Experiment as handed down to them—I was and am—if anything was going to slow the train, the obstacles needed to be substantial, forces too powerful to overcome with even major adjustments. I’d argue that today, they are just that.

Those big rocks are the aging out of the large, existing fleet of classic-gen aircraft, the youngest of which are 40 years old, the depletion of potential pilots based on demographics beyond our control (our grandparents had way more kids than our parents did), and economic factors that are far larger than our little, small-plane niche. We are also remarkably just beginning to admit that the literal engines of light GA are running up against environmental restrictions that manufacturers and regulators alike failed to head off 50 years ago, when we first knew there was a problem.

So take each of those factors—fewer pilots, aircraft aging out and an unsustainable fuel—and then figure out how to overcome each hurdle. It’s not hard to name the answers. Modern light aviation will be more affordable; safer and cleaner airplanes will help create the next gen of light aviation.

Making them happen is the hard, though not impossible, part. Like for the Wrights, almost all the tech we need to get there exists, though, as was the case at Kitty Hawk, some of it is immature. But all of it is doable, and there is already big money at work trying to get it done, with the air mobility innovators of the world spending more money than any light aviation innovator ever has before.

And make no mistake: these companies are not only trying to build the next kind of aircraft, one that goes beyond the prop-in-front, tail-in-back cookie-cutter template; they’re also creating an entirely new physical and regulatory infrastructure to support this vision. It’s a hugely risky venture, but one that stands a chance of changing everything we know about personal flying.

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