Goodbye to one tough year

December 23, 2008

Looking back over 2008 you might think it’s mostly bad news. And you’d be right! But there are bits of good news among the torrent of terrible.

For you “glass half full” people, user fees, which is undoubtedly the big political story of the year with ramifications for every segment of aviation, ended the year on a positive note: We have new no user fees. And, as you’ll read elsewhere by AOPA’s government affairs team, the prospects are good for keeping it that way for now, but it’s not a sure thing by any means. So that’s one to continue watching in the new year.

Eclipse 500From an industry standpoint, there’s plenty of bad news to draw our attention away from our 401k balances. Eclipse Aviation, which has teetered on the edge of financial stability and credibility for years, finally went over the cliff. At the end of July, founder and CEO Vern Raburn was shown the door, supposedly in exchange for promises for a new round of funding that was to be forthcoming quickly. It didn’t come, at least in part because of the collapse of the worldwide credit market in the fall. Meanwhile, the company went through a much-watched special certification review by the FAA in anticipation of Congressional hearings that the agency was too lax in its oversight. The airplane emerged with a mostly clean record, but the FAA received a grilling by members of Congress nonetheless.

Although the 260-some Eclipse 500s delivered continue to perform well, the company is in bankruptcy with the possibility that it may emerge in 2009 under complete control of a subsidiary of its European primary investor. Meanwhile, position holders and current customers with warranty claims are currently swinging in the wind.

PiperJetThe credit crunch and its extreme fallout took its toll on most GA companies. Cessna, Piper, Hawker-Beechcraft, Mooney, Cirrus and others have scaled back production and in most cases laid off workers because of declining orders and outright cancelations in some cases. As Cessna CEO Jack Pelton said recently, “After NBAA [in October], it was like someone turned off a switch.” Orders and credit for customers to take delivery of airplanes simply stopped.

While Eclipse hung on until late in the year, other weaker companies faltered even before the credit situation got so bad. Adam Aircraft dramatically cut back operations a year ago, revived briefly starting in the spring when a Russian group bought the assets out of bankruptcy for reportedly $10 million, and then mostly shut down again in the fall.

Meanwhile, one element of the Grob SPn light jet partnership filed for bankruptcy in August after a major investor suddenly withdrew its support, resulting in the shuttering of that operation later in the fall. Adam’s failure with the A700 very light jet, Grob’s struggles, and Eclipse’s trouble called into question the viability of the very light and light jet market.

Enforcing the doubt was the decline and ultimate collapse of DayJet, a much-watched air taxi operator that had been touted as the launch of a new paradigm in travel—you buy a seat on an Eclipse 500 whenever you needed it. Your schedule flexibility affected the fare. The operation had some successes, but, once again, a needed round of funding was not forthcoming, forcing the company to shut down and ultimately liquidate most of its assets.

Undoubtedly affecting DayJet’s bottom line were record high fuel prices last summer. When jet fuel and avgas prices in some markets topped $8 a gallon, it impacted even operators of the fuel thrifty Eclipse 500. While fuel prices have begun to decline, albeit at a slower rate than gasoline, the spike has affected the number of GA flight hours this year at both the turbine and piston levels. Clouding the air around avgas is recent attention from the EPA noting that avgas is one of the few remaining fuels containing lead. The threat of additional regulations has focused attention on the need for a replacement fuel, something AOPA has been actively involved in for decades. Industry and government forces seem to finally be getting serious about finding a solution.

Some pilots felt that ubiquitously available jet fuel would be a good solution so they bought Thielert-powered airplanes or converted their airplanes to Thielert diesel engines. However, bankruptcy raised its ugly head again when the German company was forced into reorganization after accounting scandals brought in the regulators and forced out founder Frank Thielert. Meanwhile, Diamond Aircraft, the largest user of Thielert engines announced that it is hard at work on its own diesel design.

Cessna MustangIt can’t all be bad news. Surely, you’re thinking, there must be a pony in there somewhere. And you’d be right. It’s a Mustang. The Cessna Mustang has weathered the downturn and emerged as the light jet to beat. The company expects to deliver about 100 of the twinjets this year. However, Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, another proven brand in aviation, in December received Brazilian and FAA certification of the Phenom 100, a light jet that is competitive with the Mustang. Next up for Embraer is the Phenom 300, a larger version of the 100 that will compete with Cessna’s CJ line.

Speaking of those with Cessna in their sights, Honda is hard at work in Greensboro, N.C., working on its CJ2-sized HondaJet. Honda recently completed its research and development facility and is about to start on its manufacturing plant. Their first conforming airplane is scheduled to fly next summer. The proof-of-concept model has been flying for five years.

Cessna, however, didn’t get to be a market leader by continually looking over its shoulder. It has moved forward on its own with the CJ4, which flew for the first time in May—just a few days after the first flight of the first production SkyCatcher light sport aircraft. While the CJ4 flight test program is progressing without incident, the SkyCatcher hit a snag during the summer when a flight control problem forced the test pilot to bail out. While the pilot parachuted to safety, the airplane crashed and was destroyed.

At the other end of the Cessna product line, the company named an airplane that it announced in late 2007. The Columbus will be the largest Cessna ever built when it emerges from the design phase in a few years. Don’t confuse Columbus with Columbia, which Cessna acquired in early 2008. Columbia Aircraft, maker of the high-performance 350 and 400 single-engine piston composite airplanes, filed for bankruptcy in late 2007 after years of struggling to stay afloat. Cessna bought the airplane at a competitive auction and renamed the products simply Cessna 350 and 400.

With a strong brand behind them, the 350 and 400 are set to challenge industry leader Cirrus for the high-performance composite market. But like Cessna, Cirrus has been full-speed ahead with its own projects, introducing the SR22 Perspective panel by Garmin in the spring. The Cirrus version of the popular Garmin G1000 panel features a number of enhancements to the already capable Garmin products, including synthetic vision displayed on eye-catching 12-inch displays and the compelling “blue button” on the autopilot that will right the airplane from mildly unusual attitudes. Not surprisingly, Cirrus late in 2008 began offering the Perspective panel on the SR20 as well. In addition, Cirrus unveiled an enhanced vision system that displays an infrared image of the outside world on the multifunction display.

AOPA's Get Your Glass Sweepstakes ArcherFrom an avionics standpoint, if you wanted to encapsulate 2008 in an abbreviation, it would be SVS, for synthetic vision system. Garmin first announced the addition of SVS to the G1000 panel in late winter. Cirrus snapped it up shortly thereafter. SVS showed up later in the year on Avidyne’s Entegra and L-3’s SmartDeck offerings. Meanwhile, Avidyne also introduced a flight management system as an upgrade to the many Entegra-equipped Cirrus aircraft in the field and offered a number of aftermarket upgrades to various aircraft models. Garmin brought out the G600 as a lower-cost option to the G1000. But much of the low-cost attention went to Aspen Avionics, which certified its EFD1000 primary flight display. The solid-state unit fits in the holes once occupied by the traditional attitude and heading indicators, providing a great deal more reliability and capability for about $10,000 installed. The EFD1000 is the centerpiece of the 2008 AOPA Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Archer project airplane.

Further up the food chain, Socata announced the upgrading of its TBM850 panel with the G1000. The G1000 version of the Cessna Caravan single-engine turboprop breathed new life into that model, upping the production rate considerably. Pilatus took a different tack with the PC-12, choosing the Honeywell Apex panel.

Honeywell's Bendix/King AV8OR GPSNot all of the avionics news was in the panel, though. At AOPA Expo in November, Garmin unveiled the 696, a knee-board sized flight computer chock-a-block with clever features. Honeywell’s Bendix/King fired back with the small and clever AV80R handheld GPS that seems as at home on the road as on the airway.

While most manufacturers tend to continually strive to go up market, Piper went down market with the Matrix, a “de-contented” version of the popular Mirage single-engine pressurized piston airplane. The Matrix strips out the pressurization, radar pod, and some other Mirage staples in an effort to lower cost and boost useful load. It worked, with the Matrix garnering more than 100 orders and leading the sale numbers for Piper in 2008.

Mooney, meanwhile, laid claim to the title of fastest production single-engine airplane with the certification of its 242-knot Acclaim Type S.

When it comes to performance, though, it’s hard to beat a jet. And while the VLJ market seems to be struggling, the PJ—personal jet—market holds promise. In that category, Cirrus had the first flight of its Vision single-engine jet in early summer, and Piper followed suit in mid-summer with the first flight of the PiperJet, its larger single-engine jet. Diamond, whose single-engine D-Jet was first in category to fly, decided it needed a bit more umph and upgraded the development airplane to a larger Williams International engine.

In other news, a hiker found the body of adventurer Steve Fossett in October 2008, 13 months after he crashed in California’s Sierra Nevada, allowing his family to close the year at least knowing his fate.

Fate of another kind brought the focus of Congress and the media to business aviation in late November when the CEOs of the Big Three automakers made the colossal PR mistake of individually flying business jets from Detroit to Washington to plead for a bailout. The backlash from the flights forced Ford and GM to sell their corporate airplanes and close their flight departments. The fallout is still underway at the end of the year as companies that had solidly defendable reasons to use business aviation have shunned their fleets, at least for now.

Looking inward for a moment, 2008 caused us at AOPA to spend a little time looking back. In March, AOPA Pilot magazine celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a special theme issue that highlighted how different aviation in the 1950s is from aviation in the twenty-first century—and, really, how much hasn’t changed. You can read the special issue as well as the very first issue of Pilot through a special digital edition we prepared.

AOPA President Phil Boyer Phil Boyer, AOPA President for 18 years.

Finally, we looked back fondly over 18 years of leadership by AOPA’s third president, Phil Boyer, as he was feted by government, industry, and members upon his retirement at the end of 2008.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.