Thirty years ago this month I began covering general aviation. A private pilot certificate earned in high school got me a foot in the door as an associate editor for an aviation magazine I had never heard of. Murray Smith still runs Professional Pilot magazine. Thanks, Murray, for taking a chance on a kid only a couple of years out of college.
In my first bylined story, I wrote about how FAA Administrator Donald Engen reported to Congress that aviation safety would not be harmed by a 4.3-percent budget cut forced on the agency by the newly implemented Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-cutting bill.
That bill was the first use of sequestration as a means of controlling the federal budget; the term still hangs over government spending, threatening various spending priorities—including those at the FAA. I would get to know Engen well a few years later when he would serve as head of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and I would become an associate editor at AOPA.
While budget deficits were nothing new, even in 1986, the Beech Starship was. Its unique shape and composite construction held great promise. Pratt & Whitney, Rockwell Collins, and Raytheon ads carried images of the pusher twin turboprop with its canard out front and no horizontal stabilizer in the back. Beechcraft owner Raytheon declared it “the shape of things to come.” The company announced plans for two more similar programs: a design with a T-tail that could be powered by piston, turboprop, or turbofan engines; and a piston-powered single that would “share Starship technology.”
Well, not so much.
Although cutting edge in some ways, the Starship was a colossal market failure, with only 50 built. Beechcraft bought back and destroyed as many of them as it could. None of the other proposed models ever flew.
Meanwhile, Gulfstream soared with the announcement of the G-IV business jet, a model that went on to be the foundation for a whole series of successful large jets.
In news that will sound familiar, sales of piston-powered airplanes struggled. Cessna would stop all piston production later in the year, blaming the languishing sales on high product liability costs. Piper owner Lear Siegler Inc. agreed with that assessment and early in 1986 stopped production of all models except the best-selling Malibu and the Cheyenne IIIA and 400LS turboprops.
The companies held out hope for pending legislation from U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas: the General Aviation Tort Reform Act of 1986. Glickman said rising liability insurance rates had added $70,000 to the cost of GA aircraft, leading to reduced sales. His bill included a statute of repose, limiting liability for manufacturing defects to the first 12 years of an airplane’s life.
Alas, things moved slowly in Washington even in those heady days. Tort reform wouldn’t come until 1994 with the General Aviation Revitalization Act, which included an 18-year statute of repose. The result was Cessna getting back into the piston production business and Piper emerging from bankruptcy.
While the new law was helpful, it was not enough to dramatically spur new piston-aircraft sales, an issue that continues today.
One place where there has been much progress is in avionics. Traffic alert and collision avoidance systems were in development in 1986. TCAS would become standard equipment on airliners, and today similar technology is available to even light airplanes via ADS-B In and Out.
Elsewhere on the panel, electronic flight instrument systems were all the rage for business jets. An article in Professional Pilot explored how designers freed of the constraints of electromechanical displays could substantially reduce the amount of interpretation left to pilots. An illustration of a Rockwell Collins concept for an “advanced ILS” showed a series of windows in the sky through which the pilot would drive the airplane: “So simple and intuitive that…it should be possible for a nonpilot video game champ to fly an approach successfully.” Garmin today offers such course guidance on the G1000. Today’s cockpit screens show a blend of traditional attitude and directional displays and swinging needles overlaid on synthetic vision across wide horizons. The displays are enhanced by many trajectory cues to help orient the pilot—all driven by GPS and solid-state gyros, mostly just dreams in 1986.
The Bonanza I own today was a teenager in 1986. Back then it had just a basic six-pack and no weather gear. Today its panel exceeds the capability that even Rockwell Collins, Sperry, Honeywell, Universal, and Bendix envisioned then. It’s fun to reminisce about the Reagan years, but I think I will take flying in the twenty-first century, thank you very much.
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Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA as an associate editor in 1988.