The Dream Delayed

January 14th, 2014 by Jack Olcott

Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump as well as many other best sellers, released last year a factual account of three famous pilots; Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh.  Titled The Aviators, Groom’s book is a fascinating read, especially for those of us who enjoy flight and participate in the adventure of being aloft.  As well as most of us know the stories of those famous flyers, there is more to learn and much to admire.  I am impresses by the discipline exhibited by each of Groom’s subjects.  Each believed strongly in the value of aviation and the role this form of transportation would play in the development of our nation.

While Groom offers many interesting vignettes of those three famous men, one involving Eddie Rickenbacker in particular resonated with me.  Emerging from World War I as the leading US “ace” with 26 enemy aircraft downed, he continued in aviation and eventually became an unstoppable force within the emerging airline industry as long-time head of Eastern Airlines.  Rickenbacker was too old to be a military aviator when the US entered WWI, however.  He obtained his chance to fly through the intervention of aviation pioneer Colonel (soon to be General) Billy Mitchell, the officer Eddie served as an enlisted man assigned to be Mitchell’s personal driver during the initial US efforts in war.  Those who wish to fly do not take no for an answer.

The initial exploits of Rickenbacker, Doolittle and Lindbergh took place during a dozen or so years when the world seemed fascinated with flight.  Prior to Lindbergh’s New York to Paris nonstop crossing of the Atlantic in 1927, the public looked on aviation as the stuff of thrill seekers and daredevils—fun to watch, but of little practical value.   Post Lindbergh’s historic feat, the public’s attitude transitioned from awed observer to anxious participant.  People wanted to be pilots, and the press wrote about airplanes becoming almost commonplace.  Everyone, it seemed, wanted to fly.

In the 1930s, reality and the Great Depression combined to inhibit the dream of everyman becoming a pilot. Post World War II, when thousands of servicemen returned home with belief in the importance of air power, the dream of a robust private aviation movement was renewed.   During the first two years following WWII, well over 30,000 light aircraft were produced.  By 1950, the production of small GA aircraft was down to a few thousand, and they were not selling.

Realizing the dream—and the potential—of private flying is still within our grasp.  Being able to fly from A to B in a straight line and at two to four times the speed of today’s automobiles is a capability of great value, whether the trip is for business or pleasure.  As a community of private aviators, however, we need to address the factors that prevent the dream from being a reality.

Costs will come down only if the number of people participating in General Aviation increases.  Even the most basic automobile would cost considerably more than a new Bonanza if they were sold to as few people as purchase light aircraft today. 

Learning to fly can be made simpler and more effective through innovative use of simulators and computerized training aids.   Perhaps talented organizers can apply their insights to create club programs were costs can be shared and participants can enjoy the comradeship of likeminded aviators.

Through training that provides competence and justifiable confidence, private pilots can use GA aircraft safely and efficiently for personal business and pleasure.  Pioneers such as those described in The Aviators demonstrated the value of believing in the value of aviation and living their convictions.

Jack Olcott

Jack Olcott is president of General Aero Co. and past president of the National Business Aviation Association. Olcott has a rich history in aviation, including working as a flight instructor and flight research specialist, leading aviation media properties for McGraw-Hill, and serving on various advisory boards and councils. His current activities involve advocating the advantages of business aviation domestically as well as internationally. Olcott has more than 8,500 hours of flight time and type ratings in a Learjet, Citation I and II, Dassault Falcon 50/900, and Beech Model 300/1900.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Don

    There is a big push in the development of the driverless car by 2020. The New Yorker had a big article and Sunday CBS will air a segment at 9am. The insurance companies are on board, they know the statistics. Pilotless aircraft, with no side streets, dogs, and idiots is a much simpler problem. A four seat drone could be built tomorrow. All the pieces are there except a warm and fuzzy user interface. Aviation needs this more than we need driverless cars. It would get our numbers up, and bring costs down. Once people get used to riding in driverless cars, aviation will explode, but we’ll have to wait and ride those psychological coattails.

  • Jack Olcott

    Your comments resonate with available technology and a pressing need for innovation in General Aviation. A GA aircraft that incorporates the capabilities used in cruise missiles and remotely piloted vehicle but enables the onboard pilot to be the operator would greatly simplify flying as well as increase safety. In effect, cruise missile and RPV technology would maintain the aircraft within a safe flight envelope, nudging the onboard pilot to keep the aircraft on course and on speed if he or she were unable to achieve safe flight. One might think of the advanced avionics package that enables such “Piloted RPV” capability as being a “smart” autopilot. Coupled with advances in a NextGen ATC system, such a “Piloted RPV” would fly a flight path defined by position and time, precisely positioned via GPS and protected from colliding with other aircraft operating in a 4D air traffic control environment.

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