Pilots love to learn from the mistakes of other pilots, so it was not unusual that our coverage of a midair collision became our most popular story of 2021, and worth noting that nobody was hurt in that accident. Then, the FAA threw a big wrench in flight training as we have known it for decades, and threw the book at Martha Lunken for flying under a highway bridge.
We noticed quite a spike in reader engagement in May related to our coverage of a remarkable mishap near Denver involving a Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner that was struck by a Cirrus SR22 while approaching Centennial Airport. Thanks to the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System and a cool-headed crew aboard the turboprop (managing what they first thought was an engine failure), there were no injuries in the air or on the ground.
The FAA did not limit itself to enforcing regulations on the books, however. Faced with an obscure ruling in a federal court, the agency also innovated, turning a decades-old tradition of training students in experimental, primary, or limited category aircraft without fanfare or fuss into a sticky wicket that quickly became one of AOPA’s top advocacy priorities of the year. Our general counsel’s detailed briefing on the issue in July was the most-read of a series of high-profile stories on this topic, followed closely by the glimmer of hope raised in the U.S. House of Representatives in September that promised relief and a reversal of the disruptive directive. Sad to say, any celebration on that score proved premature, but rest assured AOPA and other advocates will continue working on this in 2022.
We continue to mourn the death of husband, father, friend, and colleague Mike Collins, who died February 25 after spending his final weeks fighting COVID-19 in intensive care. Collins was well-known in the aviation industry, and many pilots shared the loss.
A popular light sport amphibian wound up at the center of a court battle unrelated to flight training. Intellectual property is the central issue that prompted minority shareholders to file suit against Icon Aircraft, alleging that the California-based aircraft maker’s majority owners (a holding company based in China) are setting up illegal transfers of technology to China.
Another high-profile name in general aviation, Van’s Aircraft, is innovating once again in Oregon, and we can’t wait to see this one: Van’s did not release a photo or a drawing when announcing the forthcoming RV–15 in July, though the absence of illustration did not diminish reader enthusiasm. Backcountry-capable with conventional gear (a tricycle gear variant is promised to follow), the stick-and-rudder design stands to be the first from Van's with a high wing, and this news was the most popular of several stories about new and forthcoming aircraft arrivals that we covered during the year.
Further evidence that pilots are by and large a future-focused flock is found in their interest in our October coverage of the FAA expanding approval to include hundreds of engines able to run on a lead-free, 100-octane aviation fuel developed by General Aviation Modifications Inc. GAMI’s avgas notched its first FAA approvals during EAA AirVenture, and while it may not work for the entire fleet, AOPA and other aviation advocates recognize the urgent need to reduce the pollution that, increasingly, makes aviation a target of environmental concern, and government action.
The NTSB report on the 2020 helicopter crash that killed nine people including NBA legend Kobe Bryant was a case study in decisions gone wrong, and the peril posed by pressing ahead into lowering ceilings.
Pilots recovering from COVID-19 infection got welcome news in March that the FAA would allow aviation medical examiners to approve certificate applications from pilots who had recovered, usually with minimal fuss.
Perhaps no story that we told in 2021 better sums up a bounce-back year, fueled by perseverance in the face of adversity, than Mike Patey’s return to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with a brand-new star of his own online YouTube shows: a backcountry, short-takeoff-and-landing beast named Scrappy. (EAA AirVenture, along with just about every other event, similarly made a triumphant return after being sidelined in 2020 by the pandemic.)
Patey built much of his impressive social media following with another STOL monster, Draco, that was destroyed in a takeoff accident in 2019. Scrappy, finished in time for the return of EAA AirVenture, began as a CubCrafters Carbon Cub EX3. Patey returned to the sky having made a “few modifications” (including an eight-cylinder Lycoming engine that directs 600 horsepower into a four-blade composite propeller) that moved Scrappy into Patey’s desired performance envelope.
Patey also supplied our favorite quote of the year:
“For all you young aviators, get into aviation. It is so fun, and it’s one giant, happy family. It’s a wonderful place and I promise you the first time you get your aircraft two inches off the ground—it’s going to be fun that time—and 10,000 hours later, too,” Patey said. “Flying is unreal. Go do it.”