No turn on red

December 1, 1994

If the residents of Palm Springs, California, thought it a strange sight to see some 60 airplanes taxiing and being tugged through the streets of their city, they should have been on the inside looking out. A novel sensation indeed, this motoring down boulevards in winged craft.

The AOPA Expo caravan made it safely from Palm Springs Regional to the static display site across from the convention center and back to the airport after the show, but not without a Maalox moment or two on the part of Dean Torgerson and the other AOPA staffers who organized the parade.

I taxied N172B, AOPA's Better Than New 172 sweepstakes airplane, from the airport to the static display on Thursday afternoon before the Friday morning start of the convention; _Pilot_ Associate Editor Pete Bedell made the return trip Sunday afternoon. In the right seat with me was Lois Boyer, a soon-to-be private pilot and wife of AOPA President Phil Boyer.

The bizarreness of the event struck me as I walked up to the airplane. How do you preflight an airplane for a street taxi? Is it even called a "preflight?" Do you care whether the flaps go up and down? How much fuel does it take to taxi two miles out and two miles back? Do I need the strobes and the beacon?

As the lead airplane in Thursday's spectacle, N172B was the first airplane to greet the mobs of people lining the streets hoping to glimpse this most uncommon scene. Ahead was a follow-me truck — good thing, because neither Lois nor I knew the route to the convention center. Chugging along at a mind-numbing 3 knots (groundspeed, of course) as registered by the GPS, we pondered the possibility that we might lose sight of the follow- me, make a wrong turn, and lead the whole cavalcade out into the desert somewhere. Because of traffic concerns (auto, not airplane), the police wanted the airplanes to stay in a group. Thus, we stopped whenever anyone behind us had a problem. As a result, the 2-mile trip took about 90 minutes to complete.

While the smaller airplanes taxied, the larger aircraft were tugged. The tug drivers had trouble threading the Cessna Caravan's 52-foot wingspan between the lampposts and among the palm trees lining the streets, often requiring a stop and some repositioning. To save themselves the concern, the Pilatus crew removed one of the PC XII's wingtips, reducing its nearly 53-foot span. For those of us taxiing aircraft with a third less span and little to worry about, it was a most enjoyable way to spend part of an afternoon.

Eeriest was the moment we first left the airport. We taxied through an open security gate and onto the street, made a right turn, and were on our way. It seemed so simple, yet foreign. Sitting at a stop light (itself a novelty as viewed from a cockpit), we wondered how the police report might read if there were an incident: "The pilot of the 1978 Cessna Skyhawk failed to give way to the driver of the 1980 Chevy Citation. Meanwhile, the Cessna Citation was struck from behind by a Caravan" [was that a Dodge or a Cessna?]. In the event of such an incident, is a pilot required to notify the NTSB?

Would my AAA membership apply if we needed a tow? And would that tow be to the nearest service station or to the nearest FBO? Airplanes carry tow bars, but do tow trucks?

The scene sent economic boundaries a-crashing. Palm Springs' ultra wealthy threw open their gated driveways in order to witness the event. There they stood on manicured lawns next to their dungaree-wearing gardeners, all waving cheerfully as we passed by. Wide-eyed kids tugged on parents' sleeves while grandpa captured the whole episode on videotape. Windows open and arms hanging out in the propwash, we obliged, trying out both the Queen Elizabeth window-washing circular wave and the Miss America forearm wave. For that moment, at least, any concerns about the viability and acceptance of general aviation were cast aside. The airplanes were the stars of the show, and our public called, er, well, waved.

In fact, the entire Expo proved to be a respite from the doom and gloom those of us in the aviation industry hear ad nauseam. People — members and exhibitors alike — actually had a good time and no one seemed to need to feel guilty about it. Record crowds packed the seminars and the exhibit hall. At times the crowds in the static display made it tough to weave among the airplanes. This upswing in mood seems to permeate the membership, an observation based not just on the Expo experience.

In our never-ending attempt to know what's important to the membership, we often conduct surveys. Some are formal, conducted by professionals, and accurate to the nth percentage; others are less scientific, but enlightening nonetheless.

Based on some recent surveys, individuals attending several recent AOPA events are definitely more optimistic about the future of general aviation than AOPA members have been in the past. The surveys were conducted early this fall at three AOPA Pilot Town Meetings in California and Nevada. The meetings occurred several weeks after Congress passed and the president signed the statute of repose legislation.

According to the "AOPA...Listening to You" surveys at the meetings, 69 percent of attendees are generally optimistic about the future of general aviation. That's 23 percentage points higher than the number of members optimistic in April 1994, before the legislation had passed. Then, only 46 percent of all AOPA members were generally optimistic about the future of GA. In addition, only 44 percent of the members in August 1993 were optimistic and only 41 percent were optimistic in March 1992.

The surveys show that 98 percent of the members and pilots who attended the meetings are in favor of an 18-year statute of repose for general aviation aircraft to help alleviate the aircraft product liability problem. This is up 10 points from the 88 percent of members who supported the concept in April.

Last April, about 41 percent of members thought product liability reform was the most important issue facing the industry and 26 percent thought the cost of flying was the most important issue. With the liability issue at least partly remedied (we hope), about half of those attending the AOPA Pilot Town Meetings now say the biggest problem facing the industry is the cost of flying. At the same meetings, only 17 percent of attendees believed product liability was the biggest problem, about the same number who listed the declining pilot population as the outstanding issue. Almost one-fifth of the respondents listed corporatization of air traffic control as the biggest problem.

Concerns about ATC corporatization have grown significantly in the last few months. In April, about 60 percent of members thought the cost to operate the ATC system would increase if the ATC portion of the FAA were run by a private corporation. At the recent meetings, 89 percent said they do not think that a government-owned corporation could run the system for less money than the current system.

The surveys also show that concerns about safety and airline domination of an ATC corporation have grown dramatically throughout the year.

In fact, 87 percent of members and pilots attending the meetings opposed the ATC corporation even if the government guaranteed that current GA fees would not change or increase. In April, 75 percent of the membership did not think the ATC system should be run by a private corporation.

On the positive side, 72 percent of the survey respondents think the FAA is "generally" doing a good job of promoting GA. Last April and in March 1992, only about 10 percent of the membership thought the FAA was doing enough to promote GA. Almost two-thirds of the attendees thought the FAA is doing a good job of regulating general aviation.

A more positive mood also exists among the manufacturers. Cessna will have an excellent 1994 in terms of both revenue and shipments. Gulfstream reported recently that the year will probably be its best sales year ever. According to Art Wegner, CEO of Raytheon Aircraft, Beech is headed for its third record revenue year in a row. Volume-wise it will be the best in the 1990s. Mooney is going great guns with its new Ovation. Piper will deliver one-third more airplanes in 1994 than in 1993, about 135 versus 99. The company is expected to emerge from bankruptcy in early 1995.

There's plenty to do in 1995, with the rising cost of flying, slumping student starts, and a declining pilot population, but 1994 has been a good and positive year. The crowds lining the streets in Palm Springs show that the public is still curious about aviation. Our resolution for 1995 must be to stop cowering behind this thing called product liability and get on with enjoying — and sharing — flying.