In the mid-1990s NASA created a program to revive general aviation and transform piston airplanes into reliable transportation machines that could be safely operated by pilots without thousands of hours of experience. The hope was to create a small aircraft transportation system (SATS) that would allow people to travel with convenience and predictability between the thousands of airports in the country that are not served by scheduled airlines.
The general aviation industry applauded. Richard Collins and I scratched our heads. We, and many thousands of other pilots, had been SATS participants for decades and didn’t even know it. We used our airplanes for transportation and essentially matched the schedule reliability of the major airlines, which was a bit of a challenge then, but not that difficult now. What would SATS do that we didn’t?
The answer to that question is that SATS would skip over the hundreds, and even thousands of hours pilots like Richard and I had spent slogging through the weather with only basic avionics and hard-earned experience to keep us alive and on time. If SATS were to succeed new pilots needed to move quickly into routine IFR flying in order to use their airplanes for reliable transportation.
To make SATS a reality NASA created Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE), which would lead to new aircraft systems that would make the airplane easier and safer to fly in almost any weather. Most of the AGATE focus was on autopilots and cockpit displays, including Highway in the Sky (HITS), that NASA believed could make controlling an airplane under IFR easier.
I won’t say that AGATE contributed nothing, but as is often the case, technology zoomed ahead of the groups meeting to discuss what is possible. Flat glass technology made the PFD available at piston airplane prices before AGATE believed that would be possible. MEMs sensors developed mostly for auto industry skid control systems quickly found their way into aviation in the form of low cost attitude heading reference systems (AHRS) replacing the vacuum pumps and spinning metal gyros.
WAAS GPS made precision type approaches to thousands of runways not served by ILS. And perhaps most useful, extremely powerful satellites were put in orbit that could send down real-time weather to a receiver using nothing more than a GPS-sized antenna. AGATE didn’t see XM coming, and neither did I, nor many others. We were all focused on a ground-based network that would transmit weather up to airplanes, not down from space.
The one company that whole heartedly embraced SATS was Cirrus. Alan and Dale Klapmeier from the beginning intended for their Cirrus airplanes to be traveling machines. The standard equipment autopilot, advanced avionics, and, yes, the parachute, would all make it possible for a pilot to learn to fly and very shortly be using their Cirruses for on-purpose and on-schedule transportation.
They also designed a dedicated training system for Cirrus pilots, and continuously emphasized the need for standardized procedures to aid safety. And it worked. After getting past early production and funding challenges, Cirrus built 5,000 piston singles in very few years.
When Cirrus got rolling I started to hear about relatively new Cirrus pilots flying their airplanes 400, 500, or even more hours per year. I found that hard to believe. I have flown more than 400 hours for several years in my life, but that was part of my job. And that is a lot of flying. But it was true. SATS was coming to life for many Cirrus owners.
As general aviation went into its current decline the frequency got awfully quiet out there when I was flying on bad weather days, but when I heard other pilots, they were most often in a Cirrus. Like me, they were going someplace on purpose, using their airplanes for transportation.