A Pilot’s Santa Claus List

With an unusually cold and snowy air mass hanging around much of the country, including here at home on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, I can’t help thinking about what gifts for pilots I want Santa to fly in with.

Third Class Medical Reform: I don’t think anything could make more pilots happy than sensible reform of the FAA third class medical procedures. At the top of my wish list would be to allow private flying in airplanes weighing up to 6,000 pounds under both VFR and IFR using a driver’s license for medical certification. That is what the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act of 2013 that was recently introduced into the House of Representatives would do.

The third class medical never made sense to me. There is no solid evidence the third class enhances safety. Sure, there are pilots incapacitated in flight every year. But they almost always have a medical certificate. Predicting our health over the next few weeks or months is nearly impossible, and for an AME to forecast how we will be doing in two years is ludicrous.

The hassle of the third class has risen to crisis stage because of aging of the pilots flying for personal reasons. Almost every common health issue of aging is initially disqualifying for a third class. The pilot, who is probably in better than average shape for his age, is forced to jump through FAA hoops going beyond tests normally recommended by the medical profession to get a special issuance medical. And then he must repeat the tests again in a year or two to renew the certificate. A total waste of money and hugely stressful in every other way.

Flying an airplane is more demanding than driving a vehicle but pilots asses their fitness to fly before every takeoff. And the essential concept of private flying is that we assume our own level of risk without endangering the public. Please Santa, bring relief from the third class medical hassle.

Streamlined Avionics Approvals: Electronic technology continues to race far ahead of the FAA’s ability to approve new developments, particularly in autopilots and other systems that can enhance safety.

We can continue to say that better pilot training will improve safety, and it can. But no matter how well trained any of us are we can still make a mistake. We need to live through our worst day at the controls, not our best day, or even average day. And electronics can help. Capable autopilots can save the day when a pilot becomes disoriented. And autopilots can also provide envelope protection, or at least warning, to help reduce the number low speed accidents.

It’s ironic that many cars now have more advanced electronic safety systems than are available for us in personal airplanes. The technology is there, all it takes is rational certification procedures to make it available.

An Affordable Jet: Turbine engines are complex and require exotic metals and manufacturing techniques to be fuel efficient. That means the cost gap between reciprocating engines and turbines hasn’t closed as we have seen happen in many other technologies. The jet engine is wonderful, a perfect power plant for a fast airplane, but cost keeps the turbine engine out of reach for most of us.

The people at Sonex are making some progress with their tiny Subsonex jet that costs no more than a typical piston powered LSA. I’m sure the Subsonex will be a blast to fly and is a step in the right direction. Cirrus continues work on its single-engine jet which should be more affordable than the light twin jets. And there are several twin jets at price points we didn’t expect 10 years ago. But jets, or turboprops, are still considerably more expensive than piston power.

I’m afraid I’ve been around too long and know too many people who work in the field to believe a big cost breakthrough in turbine technology will happen soon, or even in my lifetime. But that’s why this made the list. Santa, we need your help to get a jet for the price of a piston.

Rejuvenation of Personal Flying: I started flying before the pilot population peaked in the 1980s, and was there for the glory days of building 18,000 general aviation airplanes a year. The boom lasted long enough to take on the feel of normalcy. But it wasn’t. We have seen the pilot numbers down by a third and airplane production not even a 10th of what it was during the late 1970s.

I have heard, read and even written about every possible reason for the decline in interest in personal aviation. Probably every reason you can think of contributes at least some to the change. And I don’t believe there is any single factor causing the decline other than that broad catchall of “societal change.”

We can all do our part by introducing friends and family to the joy of personal aviation, and that helps. But since this is a wish list, I’m asking Santa to pitch in. He has logged a lot of time and kids who apparently don’t care about little airplanes still are in love with flying sleighs.

Oshkosh Weather Redux: I know Santa focuses on early winter weather, but I’m begging him to stuff our stockings with the very same weather conditions that prevailed at Oshkosh last summer. We all love the annual EAA gathering, and will show up no matter what, but what a joy last year was.

Santa, I’ve been good since Oshkosh and deserve another year like the last. And if payment is required, well, I’ve got the snow shovel and am headed for the hangar to do my penance for having such a good time last summer.

Merry Christmas from what at least feels like the North Pole.

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6 Responses to A Pilot’s Santa Claus List

  1. John Iozia says:

    Hi Mac, And, the same to you, A very Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2014 !!!
    Thank you for keeping my ” flame ” alive. I have never experienced a boring a moment
    in my 92+ years. Thanks to my passion for aviation.
    John Iozia EAA 102431…..92 and still @ it !!

  2. Sarah A says:

    Since the list starts out so practical I would say that a fleet wide unrestricted unleaded replacement for 100LL would be a better candidate then an inexpensive jet engine. Yes there are candidates out there “in the bush” to replace 100LL but none that represent the elusive “Bird in Hand”. The materials and tolerances required of a jet engine will almost certinly keep it from ever being a viable powerplant for anyone other then the deep pocket crowd, at least fopr the forseeable future. Yes there is the occasional one-off seen at Oshkosh but none that represent a mass produced solution.

    • Harold Bickford says:

      An affordable jet; now there is wish Sarah! The 100LL puzzle is probably more easily solved. Then too there is the rejuvenation of flying. Looks like Christmas visions still dance.

  3. Alex Kovnat says:

    @ J. Iozia: If you have any interesting stories to tell from the WWII era, I’ll be glad to read whatever you might have to share.

    @Mac: I agree with what you say regarding the 3rd class medical. I can’t hear out of my left ear but, as long as I can hear out of my right ear, I’d like to think I could handle the challenges of flight. So best wishes in arguing the case for medical reform.

    An item to add to the above wish list: An end to airport closures! Even better: Not only an end to airport closings, but also the restoration of Meigs Field in Chicago. I’m sure other participants in this thread will come up with other airports that ought to be reopened.

  4. tbinva says:

    What a gift! This pilot is finally seeing the gleam of hope that he might fly again as PIC — let’s hope that 2014 is the year that happens. My best to you and yours, Mac — you provide us all a valuable service and food for thought, whether we are in agreement with you or not. Happy holidays — and an excellent new year!

  5. Thomas Boyle says:

    It’s not just the FAA’s disdainful response (“PFO”) to the 3rd Class Medical proposal. As we read about the prospect of the FAA grounding aircraft because it has not processed the wholly unnecessary 3-year registration updates (created as make-work for its employees) but refuses to issue an extension; and as we watch the arrogance of the aeromedical part of the FAA in the recent BMI debate, I propose that we have reached the point where we need to start agitating for wholesale deregulation of private aviation. The FAA is simply more of a barrier than a help, and it’s time for the FAA to be taken out of the equation altogether: it is a monopoly provider of certification services that has abused its monopoly powers for too long, and displays all the arrogance one would expect from a monopolist (remember “we’re the phone company – we don’t care”?). Let’s start a serious conversation about how to get the FAA out of our lives; even if we never succeed, the mere existence of a realistic threat could really change the agency’s behavior.

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