Frugal Flier: The good old days weren't so great

Fond reminiscences overlook modern advances

March 1, 2013

ipad vs stormscope

An early Stormscope (left) provided far less weather information than a relatively inexpensive tablet computer today.

Pilots who pine for a return to a bygone era in which the world of general aviation was so much better can certainly point to today’s well-known woes of high fuel costs, astronomical new aircraft prices, and a waning pilot population.

But all the nostalgia overlooks some important advances that have made general aviation safer, more enjoyable, and—in some ways—a real bargain compared to the past.

Looking at an avionics story in a 1983 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine illustrates the point. Thirty years ago, King Radio had brought to market a wondrous new technology that seemed almost too good to be true. “Area Navigation” made user-defined waypoints a reality and promised vastly simpler and more precise IFR flying. King’s top-of-the-line KNS-80, at a price of $7,600 (in unadjusted dollars), let you be part of the revolution.

Of course, $7,600 then is more like $17,650 now—and for that you can get a Garmin GTN 750 that stores 1,000 user-defined waypoints (instead of four on the KNS 80). The GTN also shows them to you on a vibrant, color touch screen with terrific com and nav radios; a comprehensive database; and an intercom, audio panel, and transponder, too. If that isn’t enough, the GTN 750 also can show you weather and traffic, futuristic safety tools that would have seemed like the stuff of fantasy in the early 1980s.

Area navigation was beyond the means of many IFR pilots 30 years ago, but those who flew in the clouds and wanted to improve their situational awareness could buy a cutting-edge “horizontal situation indicator.” HSIs took the guesswork out of intercepting VOR radials and localizers, and dramatically increased flight accuracy—and who could say no to a KI-152A at a retail price of $5,035? In today’s dollars, that’s about $11,690, or enough to buy and install a top-of-the-line WAAS GPS/com, or a single-screen Aspen PFD glass panel with reliability and capabilities that could scarcely be imagined then.

So far I’ve only mentioned high-end IFR stuff, so what about VFR flying in the early 1980s? Surely pilots could get by with less fancy and costly equipment, right?

Absolutely! And since GPS hadn’t become available, you could buy a rugged King KX 175B nav/com for $2,500. That’s $5,800 today, more than enough to buy two of the best nav/com radios on the market. The only difference is that today’s solid-state models are smaller, lighter, and offer additional features (such as intercoms, the ability to monitor standby frequencies, and music inputs) that weren’t even on the drawing boards back then.

Another sometimes forgotten aspect of pre-GPS flying is that pilots used to get lost a lot, even when they were following stationary objects like roads and railroad tracks. And the idea of a terrain database such as those that have become commonplace in GPS units was unheard of in GA.

But what if you only wanted to fly VFR and just avoid dangerous weather? Well, pilots in the early 1980s had an amazing new tool for doing just that. It was called Stormscope and the WX-9 version could help keep you away from thunderstorms for just $6,175. That’s about $13,350 today, or enough to buy a decade of XM Weather service as well as a device to display it on—or a portable ADS-B weather receiver (such as the Garmin GDL 39 or Appareo Stratus) and about a dozen iPads.

Did I say iPad? Well, a long time ago, pilots had to carry with them paper charts, and approach plates, and Airport/Facility Directories, and none of them were downloadable and they weighed a lot. They all had to be mailed to you, or to your local flight school or FBO, and annual subscriptions cost far more than an iPad Mini and an EFB subscription.

The point in all this is that pilots have never been satisfied. We’re always pushing to do more, and to do it better, and sometimes we succeed. Things are far from perfect today. But let’s not let our idealized reminiscences of the past keep us from recognizing progress, or fairly evaluating our prospects for the future.

Email dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Netflix revolutionized the home movie business model when it offered consumers the ability to rent an unlimited amount of movies a month, but only hold a certain number at one time. Now Surf Air is hoping to do the same with private aviation.

The brainchild of Wade Eyerly—a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney—and his pilot brother David, Surf Air is an all-you-can-fly airline based in Los Angeles. The concept works much like Netflix. For an anticipated price of $1,000 a month, members will be able to fly between Los Angeles and San Francisco—and soon after, Monterey and Santa Barbara—an unlimited number of times, but only hold four boarding passes at a time.

Wade Eyerly says he thinks the business will bring private aviation to a group of people who have never experienced it before. He compared it to getting your first smartphone—an entire new world opens up. “We’ve created an entire airline for frequent flyers,” he said. “If you go to L.A. three or four times a month, this is a godsend for you.”

For that godsend to come, Surf Air must be granted a charter certificate from the FAA, which it is still waiting for. Initially it will be flying Pilatus PC–12s. Eyerly says the trip is only about seven minutes faster in a jet, but it’s a lot cheaper in the PC–12.

If initial membership applicants are any indication, Surf Air may be on to something. Eyerly said they have 3,500 applications for 500 initial membership slots. “The worst thing you can do in an all-you-can-eat buffet is send people home hungry,” he said. With that in mind, the membership will be capped and adjusted as they figure out the usage patterns.

If the company is successful and Surf Air branches out, any trip that equates to between a two-and-a-half and six-hour drive is a good route, Eyerly said. To that end, the Obama administration’s high-speed railway map pretty much approximates the perfect route map. And yes, the company is still hiring pilots. —Ian J. Twombly

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.