Archive for the ‘John Petersen’ Category

The Future of Aviation

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Most of us have a hard time thinking effectively about the future of something like aviation. The problem is one of both context and chronology. First of all, if we’re personally involved with aviation we almost always think about its future possibilities in terms that are presently understood. We extrapolate from the past and what we now understand, always relating our sense of the future to a narrow perspective of how the present system works.

For example, it’s unlikely that if asked about the aviation industry a decade from now you would factor in the potential effect of a radical global shift in climate . . . or a forecast collapse of the global financial system . . . or picture the beginning of an age of electric airliners. That’s a problem, because aviation – and every other aspect of our lives – exists as a component of a system . . . a very complicated system that includes a host of things like the state of the global climate that can fundamentally change the context, and future, of aviation.

The problem of perspicacity is also related to our larger understanding of where we are in the giant sweep of history. As it happens, we are all living in a period of exponential change unprecedented in human history. Throughout science and technology – and most other sectors – amazing new capabilities are manifesting themselves daily. Furthermore, the time for these new inventions to become commercialized is also decreasing at an exponential rate. They are inserting themselves into our lives at a faster and faster pace.

This means, among other things, that in order to support the exponential increase in invention and discovery there must necessarily be major breakthroughs in our understanding and the technologies that are available for building and operating air transport systems. The exponential curve is not smooth; it is a series of rather dramatic breakthroughs, one following another at an increasingly rapid pace that result in seemingly vertical change.

Just recently, for example, it was announced that a new version of the material graphene has been developed that is 300 times stronger than steel and lighter than current carbon fiber materials. The potential implications of this material clearly could revolutionize the way we build current aircraft. But add that to advances being made in battery technology, superconductivity in polymers, and electric power trains developed for automobiles, among many other things, and suddenly you have the converging of the components for a large electric aircraft – something that is generally discounted by most people in the business today.

So, not only are there many more disruptive factors coming into the aviation space, but the rate of change is accelerating.

GA Needs a New Story

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

If you’ve ever worked in the White House and near national politics, as I have, you know immediately and intuitively why political leaders pick on GA in general and business jets in particular – because it works. Senators and presidents don’t single out jets as examples of “tax loopholes”, etc., without knowing, with great certainty, that there is nothing that is iconic of fat cats and the 1% as corporate jets. The research and surveys are unambiguous: it’s the big hot button that generates popular negative reaction.

Even young people, competing for jobs with aircraft manufacturers in Wichita, admit that the product that they want to be a part of producing is antithetical to their basic sense of general equity and benefit a very small number of people – but they need a job, please.

There’s more to the story than that, but as long as we let others define who we are, they will continue to magnify the differences between those who own and fly aircraft . . . and the rest of the world.

Few automobile owners, for example, realize that there is no way (unless you own a taxi cab company), that you can directly justify the economics of owning a car. Easily the second most expensive purchase after a home, we continue to buy these vehicles (how many dozen have you owned?), not because they generate more income, but because they allow us to do other things that are economically and socially beneficial.

The same can be said about aircraft. Just as your Chevy gets you to more places (like your job) much faster than walking or taking the bus, airplanes provide the same benefits for individuals and companies that effectively utilize them to increase the efficient use of the available time and leverage their ability (like cars do) to access locations that otherwise would be hard to get to. They increase productivity. They are tools. They allow us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. And the benefits are much broader than for just the individuals riding in the front or back.

Try thinking about what kind of world this would be without aircraft in general and GA in particular. What kind of things wouldn’t work? How many injured people would die? How would the whole system slow down?

That’s a story that needs to be the framework for a great movie . . . and needs to show up on the news (juxtaposed to the story about the airplane crash that producers rush to air) . . . and needs to be explained to young people so that they have a context for assessing the value of private aircraft.

We need an industry-wide campaign that speaks about the benefits of aircraft, in very sophisticated and effective terms, to multiple segments of the larger population, rather than talk inwardly to the aviation community about the gains (primarily economic) that aircraft enable.
This is not necessarily an easy sell, particularly in light of the well-established fact that income disparity is growing larger in this country. But like many other activities that are embedded within much larger trends, the benefits of general aviation are a story waiting to be told. We need to enable the storytellers.

John Petersen is a former naval aviator, a professional futurist and the chairman of The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation.

It’s Time to Change Our Image (part 2)

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

The perception disparity between aviators and the rest of our society is serious business. To start with, it’s serious for our business, because all of the things mentioned last month have largely eliminated the opportunity to easily engender the joy and wonder of aviation in young people – and right now, at least, we need people who like airplanes to pilot them. In its great wisdom, our government has built fences around even small airports which completely eliminates the ability of kids to hang around the places and learn about flying and airplanes. (I always thought there was a bit of irony in the commendable programs out there to give airplane rides to kids . . . who then are kept locked out of airports and away from airplanes by the government.)

And if you fight your way through the fence, you should bring a wad of bills. Ask the first person you meet on the street about what they think about flying small airplanes. A hundred bucks says that they respond: it’s hard and expensive to learn how to fly, it’s dangerous (you could kill yourself), and to own an airplane really costs a lot.
We in the airplane business really need to work on all of this. Our future is tied up in our being able to change this general perspective. In some kind of systematic, strategic way, the industry must come together around a set of common images, messages and communications that begin to offset the almost universally corrosive image we have with the public at large. Understand that this is not about slogans on lapel pins that are handed out at aviation conventions to the already converted.

This is about changing our image with the outside world.

This issue needs to be engaged at two levels:

• We need to work on the current image. We’re not talking about a magic act here – companies and industries do this all of the time. It’s about coming up with a new, very carefully considered concept that can be translated into easy-to-understand words and graphics that quickly and effectively offset the commonly perceived problems. Well placed, the new ideas begin to show up in movies, articles, on TV, in computer games . . . and, in time, people begin to see GA flying in quite a different way.

• We also need to change airplanes and flying. Our industry needs to come up with innovative solutions that give lie to the common perceptions. We should take away the noise (electric airplanes}, make flying easier (people friendly software on top of fly-by-wire systems), eliminate our pollution (new propulsion systems), find ways to make learning to fly affordable (computer games that teach the skills and count towards license requirements), and figure out how kids can play inside of the fence (find a homeland security leader who isn’t myopic). There are numerous ways that these things can be done and already some initiatives, like the Lindbergh Foundation’s Aviation Green Alliance, which provides a place where the industry’s environmental leaders can work on common problems, are beginning to sprout up.

We really should have been hard engaged in this repositioning when things were good and there was a lot of money around – but we didn’t. Now, we don’t have any alternative. I think the future of general aviation is at stake. We need to remake ourselves . . . soon.

It’s Time To Change Our Image (part 1)

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Let me try this on you: I’d guess that most people – obviously not including you, since you’re reading this magazine – have a generally negative view of aircraft and flying.


Think about it: the closest most people get to airplanes is riding the airlines to go visit someone . . . and we know what kind of experience that is. Apart from those who are scared to death that the flight is the last bit of transportation they’ll ever take in this life and that what’s left of their body after the crash will never be found, I’ve never heard any of the people in the back of the bus carrying on about how cool it was to get irradiated and frisked by the TSA and then crammed into knee-knocking seats that are so tight that you can’t get into your pocket to get the money out to pay for the “food” that they want to sell you.
It gets worse, of course if they have ever been stuck on the ramp for multiple hours with the lavatories overflowing for reasons the company chose not to tell them about. The whole experience is pretty de-humanizing.

The other times when most people get near an aircraft is when one flies overhead. Although you and I probably look up and admire the machine, there are a whole lot of folks who just hear the noise and don’t think that they should have to. Some see the plane (or the contrails) and think of the pollution that is coming out of the exhaust of the engines and how aviation is contributing toward the destruction of the planet and the opportunities for their kids. (They’re generally wrong, by the way, about the relative contribution that aviation – particularly GA – contributes to the total air pollution, but for this discussion, that is moot.)

Then there’s the general attitude that just about everyone has about business aviation. I was impressed when talking to a senior executive of a Wichita-area airframe company recently about the kids coming out of college who were looking for jobs with his company. They desperately wanted to get a job with this jet manufacturer but when asked what they thought about the product that they might be working on, the almost universal reaction was that private jets were for “fat cats” and that they polluted and made too much noise.

There’s a reason why Barack Obama picks on business aviation when he’s trying to make a point about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. I used to be in politics. I can tell you with great certainty that the political guys in the White House have very good polling data that says that private jets are the go-to, symbolic hot button to use if you want to get an immediate, predictable response from the public about the inequity of it all.

If you like airplanes and flying like I do, then all of this hurts a bit. You feel sad that these folks don’t appreciate the beauty, the productivity, the freedom and even the spiritual nature of driving a plane through the sun striped, strato-cu clouds or marveling at the light art painted across the surface of the planet during a CAVU, twilight approach to someplace like LAX.

This perception disparity is serious business. I’ll talk about that next month.

Flying Silently (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

The GA industry has been treating noise like the automobile industry has been reacting to calls for better fuel economy.  Even though it is reported that every automobile sold in China must get at least 35 miles per gallon in fuel economy, major American manufacturers launch all of their lobbyists on Congress every time the hill wants to raise the average CAFÉ standards to something like 28 miles per gallon . . . by 2025!  They say they can’t do it and it would cost jobs, etc., etc.  Can you believe that if American and Japanese and German engineers suddenly were required to build more fuel efficient engines they couldn’t equal the efforts of Chinese engineers?  (Well, the fact probably is that some of those cars manufactured in China are engineered by GM engineers and other folks a little closer to home, so maybe it’s not just an engineering issue after all.)

The same certainly is the case with engine and propeller noise in aircraft.  If we wanted to do it, we could certainly find solutions.  We just don’t think that it is important.  I once suggested to an aviation association VP that aircraft noise had the potential to be a major issue threatening the future of GA and got not much more than a shrug in response.  Regardless of the reality, the public already thinks that we’re a bunch of rich guys who either own or operate airplanes.  Why do you think they’ll cut us some slack downstream when they finally get really mad about all of this when most every other polluting industry is working on eliminating their effluent and we’re not.

Once it seemed that it might just be possible to convince my wife that flying an ultralight out of one of the fields of our farm in West Virginia would be a reasonable idea.  So, I went to Oshkosh and checked it out — but I didn’t want to hassle the neighbors with the noise from the Rotaxes that they all use.  Remember, people like the country in part because it is quiet.  The manufacturer’s rep said that there was nothing they could do to make the engines quieter (something about them being 2-cycle, or something), but I knew friends who were doing exotic aircraft design for spooky government agencies who were producing little lawn chair construction aircraft (and helicopters, for that matter) for sneaking into dangerous places around the world that made almost no noise . . . so I knew it is possible.  The incentives are just not in place. Commercial aircraft have certainly gotten much quieter.  Why can’t we?

Airplanes are not just noisy, they’re more expensive to operate because they’re noisy.  We have to burn gas to make that noise.  It costs more and doesn’t do anything for us.  It’s like waste heat, or sulphur dioxide coming out of the stack of a coal-fired power plant. If engine and prop manufacturers put their heads to it , they could produce more fuel efficiency and less noise at the same time.  That’s a particularly good idea in the face of an almost certain global decrease in the production of petroleum in the coming years (which is another piece of this puzzle).

So every time you look up with interest to the sky (as I always do) when I hear an aircraft two or three miles away, think about the future of aviation, the pollution of the environment, citizens who want to live in peace, the cost to operate an aircraft, and the decreasing availability (and therefore increasing cost) of fuel. Just think about quality of life.  That might convince you that it’s high time that we in the aviation business began to seriously work on silently pursuing our wonderful profession.

Flying Silently (Part 1)

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

Some years ago I went down the hall in the E-ring in the Pentagon to see the then 3-star admiral friend of mine who ran all of naval aviation.  At one point I got around to asking him what his biggest problem was at that time.  I was surprised at his answer: neighborhood encroachment at his naval air stations.  What he was telling me was that as civilians built houses closer to his airfields the noise from the aircraft were causing a problem with the homeowners and they were raising a ruckus with their politician friends . . . and that was causing a significant issue for the Navy all over the world.

It reminded me of when I was a nugget junior officer living on base at the Alameda Naval Air Station in the middle of San Francisco Bay.  Every time the repair facility would do an engine test on the J57 engines for the A-3 aircraft that I then flew, even though they had the test stand sticking as far out in the bay as they could, it rattled the windows in the bachelor officer quarters such that all conversation would stop for the 3-5 minutes while they ran the engine through its high-power run-up test.

I was young then and didn’t think much about it.  If I had, I may have had the bumper sticker opinion that all that noise was just the “sound of freedom” as I’ve heard some old soldiers referring to the disruption produced by helicopter operations near residential areas. Maybe it’s just my problem, but I’ve never equated patriotism with pollution, although I guess some people do.

It’s interesting that we in the GA business have such a low sensitivity to the noise that our machines produce.  What other job can you think of where a goodly number of the profession puts on a coat and tie and goes to work in an environment where the ambient noise level is so loud that they have to use headphones to muffle the outside noise and amplify the normal speaking voice of the folks that they are communicating with – some just a couple of feet away.  Ours is not a steel mill or an aircraft carrier deck.  We’re not stamping metal with giant presses that shake the ground.  Think about it, we’ve got engines the size of those in every car and truck in the country, but ours make far more noise.

In my profession of looking at future trends it is clear that people all over the world are becoming increasingly concerned about their environment.  It’s certainly the case with smoking in public places, tail pipe pollution pumped into the air, industrial and agricultural run-off finding its way into streams and rivers, and sound levels in neighborhoods.  There have been mini-revolts in the spiffy suburbs around Hollywood generated by the disruption produced by weedeaters and leaf blowers wielded by foreign workers who were impervious to the noise because they were wearing Mickey Mouse ears (that’s what we called noise suppression devices in the Navy).

Of course, the AOPA has full-time people fighting the neighbors all around the country who want to close local airports.  San Jose, San Mateo, Naples, and any of a number of other places where GA flies close to the people. Why?  Mostly because of the noise.  Can you imagine what the problem might be if there wasn’t any noise – or if it was the level of an automobile or a pickup?  I don’t think there would be a problem.  People aren’t concerned about low flying aircraft – they don’t want to be disrupted.

(More on this subject next month.)

The next and biggest threat to GA (part 2)

Monday, August 26th, 2013

We may already be seeing the beginning of the government’s plan to eliminate VFR flying. 

Following the initial reporting by Ken Mead of AOPA, FLYING’s Robert Goyer, (among others) have been relaying the growing numbers of random, unfounded stops by heavily armed, threatening teams from CBP, Homeland Security, and local authorities of aircraft that were flying under VFR rules.   

Pilots should consider the following:

1.       The government has identified VFR flying as an area that they do not control in the way that they do most other areas of transportation.  They will work to eliminate that ambiguity.

2.       The government is being influenced by a concept described in a book, read and promoted by President Obama, named Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, by American academics Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.  One interviewer, reported, “When I talked to Thaler earlier this year about Nudge and asked him what was the core theme of the book, he said: “The central question is really whether by understanding human nature you can use what we call “choice architecture” to devise policies and institutions that make it more likely that individuals will make decisions that are good for them.””  Thaler has just come off of a stint working in the Executive Office of the President at the White House where his job was to devise situations where people were put in situations where the choices they were given were biased toward decisions that the government had determined beforehand were beneficial.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the probing, increasing visible stops of pilots by authorities could be the initial attempts to “nudge” the aviation system in a direction that they desire (or to test to see what kind of response they get). 

3.       Federal and local agencies now use massive, overwhelming, intimidating force in unthreatening situations.  For example, John and Martha King were confronted as though they were known drug runners when they were stopped by four cars worth of gun drawn officers because of an N-number confusion.  The point is that there is a clear, new, nation-wide attempt by law enforcement agencies to default to force and intimidation as the de facto approach in increasing numbers of situations.  There is a clear trend toward intimidation.

4.       The most likely scenario – one used in many other situations – is to capitalize on an upcoming event, either contrived or not, to try to make the point that this lack of control presents the country with a vulnerability that must be eliminated. 

5.       There are a number of defensive strategies that could mounted to fend off this trend.  One is to begin to raise the awareness of the importance of VFR flying by reminding the pilot community of the unique, beneficial value of coming and going as we wish.  A clear community-wide commitment to the values of VFR flight would be useful if there were a future run at visual flying.  

Another would be to become increasing vocal, as AOPA and FLYING, and other publications have been, about the efforts of the government to stop pilots without probable cause. 

There could also be defensive legislative remedies as well.

It would be very sad to lose the last real example of freedom that aviators in the U. S. (and not many other countries) have — to take to the sky without a reason or necessary destination, only because of the joy and wonder of it all.

The next and biggest threat to GA (part 1)

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I’m a pilot.  I flew aircraft carrier-based airplanes in Vietnam and spent many years building my own airplane.  But my day job is that of a professional futurist.  I’ve written three books, worked with governments about how to anticipate surprises, designed national surprise anticipation systems, etc.  I track trends, early indicators and weak signals and develop scenarios about what those inputs might mean

In the mid-2000s I saw the beginning of what is blossoming into a significant threat to flying in the U.S.  During a high-level planning meeting with representatives of DOD the White House, DHS and others who were considering how to set up the airspace around Washington, DC to eliminate the likelihood of another 9/11.  I was the self-appointed representative for general aviation in the room.

It was illuminating.  The arrogance and ignorance about GA of the group that would affect so many private pilots was rather amazing.  Their position essentially was, “We don’t care what the implications are to pilots – or the economy, for that matter – we are the government and we’ll decide.”

Since then I have watched and chronicled how our government, in the name of “fighting terrorism”, has systematically eliminated our ability to do things that common sense tells us are protected by the Constitution. (See this, this, and this, three articles from The Austin Chronicle by Michael Ventura that catalog the effective negation of most of the major amendments to the Constitution.)  What this means, by the way, is that under the present rules of operation, government agencies like DHS and CBP believe that they can stop and search anyone, anytime for any reason that they want, which why they are sending heavily armed and SWATed-up teams into train and bus stations and highways to randomly stop and search individuals with clearly no probable cause.

The systematic intrusion into tracking in real time and collecting every bit of information on all communications and commercial transactions is ubiquitous and comprehensive in terms that the vast majority of citizens do not understand.  For example, the NSA data center that is being built south of Salt Lake City is literally designed to hold 100 years’ worth of all of the transactions, movements and communications of the complete lives of all Americans, organized in such a way that at will, an analyst can chronologically array a complete lifetime of a selected individual – where they went, what they said, what they purchased and what they read and watched.

This trend has grown very rapidly at an unprecedented rate and there has been a clear attempt to widen the information capturing net to encompass every area of each of our lives.

That brings us to GA.

At a time when individuals, automobiles and trucks, ships and every other form of transportation are being tracked, one mode of transportation stands out as not being within the surveillance net: VFR flying, especially without a VFR flight plan.  In ways that are significantly not the same with other modes of transportation, an aircraft squawking 1200 says nothing about where it came from, where it is going and who and what is onboard.  It is hard to believe, in light of the extraordinary, broad based trends that dominate every other area of our lives that the government will not try to remedy that.

(My next posting will address this trend and what we can do about it.)