Future Flight: GA in 2005 and Beyond

A message from the future

December 1, 2000

Part 12 of 12

Thanks to a landing in the year 2000 that was so bad it ripped a hole in the time continuum, I have bounced into December 2005. The aircraft I was flying is still in good shape, but no one here wants to fly it. They call it an antique.

While trying to think of a way to get back to 2000 (another bad landing isn't a good idea), I decided to let you know what the general aviation aircraft of 2005 are like. Sixty months isn't a long time, but there has been a lot of progress. I was able to get this article back to your time by simply backdating an e-mail.

Before the big bounce, I had just interviewed officials of The New Piper Aircraft, Raytheon Aircraft, and Cessna Aircraft at the National Business Aviation Association convention in New Orleans in October 2000. Luckily, the notes from those interviews were in the plane. From what I see now, those executives were right. In a minute I will tell you about the future of those and other companies.

But the real revolution wasn't in the airframe—it was in the avionics. Just before my untimely departure from 2000 I also talked to Gerry Block, the forward-looking president of Sandel Avionics. I can still recall his words, mainly because I taped them: "I think that the GA cockpit is going to be more advanced than the airliner cockpit in five years," Block said. Boy, was he right. Today's GA cockpit is more modern than the advanced Lancair Columbia cockpits of your time. "If you have seen a Boeing 777 cockpit, GA avionics are going to look like that, because it is cheaper to build the cockpit that way than it is to build individual instruments," Block said. Here in my time, a glass cockpit that integrates every instrument in the cockpit costs about $20,000. Sandel screens are much larger now, by the way, than those seen in 2000 for the company's electronic HSI and terrain-warning products. But the screens remained smallish at first in order to be retrofitted into the available space on the older GA aircraft. Retrofitting was expensive, but the gains in safety overrode cost concerns.

As Piper officials predicted then, the Cherokee production line of aircraft ended after a successful 42-year run. After forming a committee in 2000 to evaluate all future technologies, Piper revamped its line of single-engine aircraft in 2003. Cabins are now six inches larger both vertically and horizontally. But the important change came in the way the aircraft are manufactured. They had too many parts, and that made them labor-intensive and thus expensive not only to manufacture, but to maintain. Use of new manufacturing techniques has dramatically reduced the parts count.

Cessna decided not to change the way its popular aircraft look, but announced in 2004 an enormous change in avionics for single-engine aircraft. Glass-cockpit technology previously seen only in business and airline jets is now in the Cessna single-engine line. The screens simply plug into the panel—there is no wiring. Gone are the engine instruments and separate navigation instruments. Everything is integrated into one display. If something goes wrong, such as oil pressure, you'll be told about it via a warning message. Otherwise, there's no need to worry.

Despite rumors in 1999 that Raytheon Aircraft would stop the Bonanza line, the popular A36 and Baron models continue to be manufactured in 2005. In fact, had you looked in 2000, you would have seen that the Raytheon strategic plan clearly called for continuation of the piston-engine models. Like Cessna's, however, the avionics have been upgraded.

Interestingly, we here in 2005 soon will be able to buy a new Toyota single-engine airplane. A Beech executive said in 2000 that "Toyota is in, and we all ought to be scared." He was right, but few heeded his warning. After all, Toyota tested the water throughout the mid-1990s with an engine manufacturing project, and decided that the water was too cold. The company chickened out. So it isn't surprising that many doubted Toyota would actually offer two single-engine aircraft to the market. Toyota was waiting on the NASA-sponsored general aviation research programs to produce some results, and then to take advantage of them. That plan appears to be on schedule, and the Japanese are already flying a prototype for one of the models.

Cirrus Design and Lancair, of course, already had futuristic aircraft in 2000. For them, leaping into the future still required making an avionics upgrade, but their panels already accommodated the large viewing screens that we have now.

I should have seen it coming. All the pieces of the modern puzzle were there in early 2000 when this "Future Flight" series began; the only thing misreported was the timing. In January 2000 I predicted technologies that seemed years if not decades off, but by April aviation manufacturers were already delivering most of the products predicted. The "Future Flight" series then became more of a monthly product review. A few futuristic products that were on the market were just overlooked in that first article. Sierra Flight Systems, for example, was already offering to the experimental aircraft community a multifunction screen that could show thousands of "highway in the sky" approaches. Of course, some thought in 2000 that highway in the sky was nothing more than a glorified flight director back then, and we in 2005 do not use the concept as originally planned. The future arrived faster than predicted, like the faster desktop computer that comes out while you are making credit card payments on the present one.

Many of the advances came from research supported by former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. He founded the AGATE, GAP, and SATS programs in the 1990s that, with industry partners, spurred general aviation's progress. AGATE, as many of you in 2000 know, stands for Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments. The program included the development of affordable composite airframes, quiet propellers, and integrated flight systems, among other goals.

GAP refers to the General Aviation Propulsion program, meaning the development of a Jet-A-fueled diesel engine. Its goals were to develop a two-stroke, 200-horsepower engine that costs half the price of a conventional piston engine and incorporates single-level engine controls with electronic diagnostics. While NASA's industry partners in the program—Continental Motors, Cirrus Design, Hartzell Propeller, Lancair and Mod Works—met their goals back in 2003 and can demonstrate improvements over conventional engines, the airframe companies have been slow to use diesels. Recertification costs are the main reason. There are no diesels flying on production aircraft here in 2005, except for the British-developed Wilksch Airmotive engine, but that could change in two to three years.

There's been no lag in the development of the NASA-supported mini-jet engines, however, and baby business jets are pouring off the production lines. The Eclipse is now flying, although certification cost more and took longer than expected.

Now we are looking forward to the results of the SATS program, standing for Small Aircraft Transportation System. SATS makes use of AGATE technology to develop automated and fast aircraft that can substitute for airline service for isolated communities. SATS aircraft are expected to make flying as simple as getting in, closing the door, and saying "Detroit" to the computer. The aircraft taxies, takes off, navigates, and makes a fully automated landing in Detroit. Even the airframe manufacturers agreed back in 2000 that the goal is achievable, but not before 2025. However, a NASA-designed prototype could fly as early as 2007.

By the way, all this technology has had two directly opposite effects on the pilot population. The average pilot, who in 2000 was 52 years of age, put a scare into avionics manufacturers by resisting some of the new computer-driven gadgets, such as electronic engine diagnostics. They wanted the details on oil temperature and pressure, for example, to appear constantly before them on separate steam gauges. But the younger pilots, knowing only the glass cockpits of today, have flooded the pilot schools. The pilot population of more than 600,000 in 2000 is now headed for an estimated one million pilots. AOPA's membership has grown to 500,000, and the average pilot age is now 40 and dropping. Flying is now taught at some of the larger high schools, and the prediction is that pilot training will become as common as driver's education in 25 years.

None of this addresses my personal problem, that unlike Michael J. Fox—who could easily pass from present to past to future aboard a DeLorean car built in the 1980s—I am stuck in the future. I tried shipping myself back to 2000 in a backdated UPS box, but it didn't work. Here in 2005 I fly aircraft with cockpit screens that overlay weather along my route, show other traffic around me, automatically fly GPS approaches, and even deliver my e-mail. Come to think of it, why would I ever want to leave? Send me an e-mail, but remember to forward-date it.

Links to additional information about future technology may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links0012.shtml ). E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org .