Why Returning To The “Golden Age of Aviation” Is A Terrible Future


Here’s a Private Pilot, circa 1930. (photo credit: James Crookall)

I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. Here’s why:

The Golden Age of Aviation” was a time when the only people who flew themselves in an airplane were titans of industry, movie stars, or crazy people.

The aviation industry is on course to revert back to the 1930’s. This is bad, bad, news, because if you look at what aviation was like back between the world wars, it was a terrible time.

Folks in our community complain about how private aviation is circling the drain, that it’s a lost cause. I refuse to believe that. We just have too many things going for us. I believe the future of private aviation is viable, as long as we stop trying to relive the past.

The first few chapters of the book, “Free Flight,” by James Fallows, pretty much lit my brain on fire. It remains one of the best, most objective, primers on the state of aviation in America. The rest of the book focuses on the trajectory of both Cirrus and Eclipse and their attempts to disrupt and reinvent air travel in the last decade.

Fallows nails it when he explains that there are two kinds of people. There are “the Enthusiasts,” (You, me, and most anyone reading this.) and “the Civilians.” (everyone else.)

On Enthusiasts
“…The typical gathering of pilots is like a RV or hot rod–enthusiasts’s club. People have grease under their fingernails. The aircraft business is littered with stories of start-up companies that failed. One important reason is that, as with wineries or small country inns or literary magazines, people have tried to start businesses because they loved the activity, not because they necessarily had a good business plan.”

On Civilians
“Civilians–mean most of the rest of us– view airplanes not as fascinating objects but as transportation. Planes are better than cars, buses, or trains to the extent that they are faster. Over the last generation, most civilians have learned to assume that large airliners nearly always take off and land safely. …From the civilian perspective, the bigger the plane, the better. Most civilians view people who fly small planes the way I view people who bungee-jump or climb Mount Everest; they are nuts.”

James Fallows, “Free Flight, Inventing the future of Travel

Fallows calmly explains how travel for most of us has gotten worse, not better in the last 30 years. He stresses that the hub and spoke system adopted by the airlines post deregulation has contributed to the misery. He cites former NASA administrator Daniel Golden, who noted in 1998 that the average speed door to door traveling on commercial airlines had sunk to only around fifty or sixty miles an hour.

The book concisely charts how we got into this fine mess. He compares how air travel works today to that of the world before automobiles. In the last generation, the airlines have benefited the most from investment in development and infrastructure. Today we pack most people onto what may as well be very fast train lines that go from major metro to major metro. Cornelius Vanderbilt would be so proud.

The other side of the coin is what General Aviation has evolved to for the folks who have the means to fly private jets. The industry has done a fabulous job of responding to the needs of the very small percentage of us who can afford to operate or charter turbine aircraft. This equipment flies higher and faster than most airliners, and can get people to small airports much closer to almost any destination. Fallows shows how this is analogous to travel by limousine. Remember, when cars first appeared on the road, they were considered too complicated and too dangerous for mere mortals to operate. Anyone who could afford one, hired a professional driver. I’m sure Andrew Carnegie was chauffeured from point to point too.

So for the most part, we have trains and limousines. It’s like some bizarre alternate history world where Henry Ford never brought us the automobile.

I refuse to believe that we’re simply on the wrong side of history here.

It’s actually a pretty great time to be a pilot. The equipment has never been more reliable, the tools keep making it easier, and the value proposition keeps getting more compelling compared to other modes of travel when you note that moving about the country on the airlines or the highways keeps slowing down due to congestion. For the first time in history, for most of us the country is no longer growing smaller. It’s getting bigger.

A few examples of what excites me about the future of aviation, and what I hope can prove to be disrupters looking forward…

  • ICON A5 – A 2 seat jet ski with wings that you can tow behind your pickup.
  • Cirrus Vision SF50 – 5 Seats, single jet engine, it’s going to define a completely new category for very light jets. I imagine it to be like a Tesla and an iPad mashed together in one 300 knot machine.
  • Whatever it is that Elon Musk builds next – please, please, please, let it be a flying car.

The future is bright, as long as we don’t go backwards.


  1. Jamie Beckett

    June 17, 2014 at 2:35 am

    Great piece, Rod. Well reasoned and well stated opinions, both yours and those of Mr. Fallows. I’m glad you took the time to put these thoughts down and distribute them.

  2. Oliver Twisted

    June 18, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    The Golden Age of Aviation was in the 1960s and 1970s, before I was old enough to fly. It was a time when anyone making a middle class salary could aspire to own a four-seat ‘family plane’.

    In 1982 the Federal Minimum Wage was $3.35 per hour (U.S. Dept of Labor, 2012) and the price of a new Cessna Skyhawk was $33,950. Thus in 1982, an aspiring aircraft owner making minimum wage would have to work 10,134.33 hours (before taxes) to buy a new, 1982 Cessna 172. In 2011, the Federal Minimum Wage was $7.25 per hour, and the price of a new Cessna 172 Skyhawk SP was $307, 500. The hypothetical minimum-wage pilot would have to work 39, 677.42 hours – nearly four times as many hours as his 1982 counterpart had to work – to afford the same model aircraft. Indeed, a person today who is making a middle-class salary of $20 per hour would have to work 15,375 hours for his or her new plane. That’s right: Today, someone making more than twice the highest minimum wage in the country would have to work half-again as many hours to buy a new Skyhawk, as a minimum-wage worker did in 1982.

    It can be said that a new Cessna was more affordable for a person making minimum wage in 1982, than it is for a person making a middle-class salary today.
    The only way to get back to where average people can buy and fly airplanes is to bring the prices down. The only way to do that is to build thousands of them. Only there are a lot of distractions we have today that we didn’t have in the ’60s through ’80s. Forty years ago, nobody had a computer. There was no Internet. Cable TV was relatively uncommon. (And most people had 19″ or 20″ TVs. Only posh people had 24″ screens.) It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Textron won’t invest in the future because they’d rather keep the money themselves, and they’re afraid no one will want to become a pilot. But people won’t become pilots if they can’t afford to fly.
    I wonder who will fly Textron’s Cessnas and Beechcraft when there are no more pilots? Customer bases don’t go on forever. You need to nurture them and bring new customers in as older ones retire. But building customer bases, investing in the future, is expensive. Better to grab the cash now and let your successor worry about the industry.

  3. Not to mention the cost of fuel was relatively cheap up to the 1970’s when the oil embargo occurred and the environmentalists started telling us we were going to run out of oil by 2000. In 1978 I could rent a Grumman Cheetah for 10 hours, fuel included for what it costs to put 40 gallons of fuel in my Arrow today!

    • Hi

      From 1972 to the middle 80s I owned a Cessna 172, it was in excellent condition, with a low time engine and I payed $6,500 for it.

      After a little detailing it looked like a brand new airplane, inside and out.

      My insurance cost about $450 a year, and it cost me about $100 every year to get an annual at the local airport, as long as I did all the work.

      I kept it at a local field for free, I did some stuff around the field like mowing and plowing occasionally, or flying deliveries, in exchange for a hanger.

      Every weekend the field was filled with people and their airplanes.
      People coming and going, headed to fly ins or lunch someplace, or just taking friends sight seeing.

      We used to fly to Mackinaw Island have lunch and buy fudge for everyone at the airport.

      Gas was in the 60 cents a gallon range.

      Prior to that renting aircraft, I got my pilots license for under $1,000 flying both a Cessna 150 and a Piper Cherokee. The 150 cost $13 an hour wet.

      Now even if I really wanted to, I just couldn’t afford to have my own airplane.

      A couple of years ago, on a Saturday I stopped at the airport, (I hadn’t been there for years) it was a different world.

      One guy in the administration building, no one else at all, I asked if it was always like this and he said, yeah, this is pretty much it.

      No repair services, just one guy pumping gas if someone happened to show up.

      He said that they occasionally got a few corporate planes flying in to local businesses but not much else.

      We talked about the old days, which were probably when he was in grade school.

      There were only a few airplanes tied down, and they looked like they hadn’t moved in years.

      It was really a pretty sad sight.

      I’d been around airports since I was a kid in the 40s, my father was a private pilot when I was a kid.

      My first airplane ride was in a Ryan P22.

      I’d never seen it like this, I think the only people flying for fun from now on are the home builders and a few people for whom flying is their only and all consuming hobby.

      But I don’t think it’s ever going to be like it was then, with dozens of planes at a small town airport, and people just sitting around enjoying the gas fumes.

      Those days are gong forever.


  4. Only very rich people can afford to operate even a used aircraft today, unlike the golden age in the 1970’s through the 1980’s. You could get a two seat aircraft an annual inspection for a couple hundred dollars if you did the work. Now it costs thousands of dollars. The standard of living even for professional people such as PhD university faculty has gone down dramatically compared to the cost of living.

    In short, the economy has destroyed all opportunities for the vast majority of people to participate in general aviation which is now a rich man’s recreation for a minuscule number of economically elite. Small airports are closing everywhere because so few people can afford to fly anymore. As aviation jobs disappear and the economy gets worse we can only conclude that general aviation has no future. The freedom to fly is gone forever.

  5. Rod, I agree. This is the greatest time to fly. The technology just keeps getting better and better, and I truly believe that we could see a tremendous renascence as a host of new technologies and designs enter the marketplace.
    I’m particularly excited about electric planes. I know, there are mostly nay sayers who keep trying to convince me that its going to be generations before we are flying in an electric aircraft, but i’m certain they are wrong. Battery technology is improving and we now have many Light Sport designs in production, as well as two companies working on certified trainers, and Airbus putting a fair amount of R&D into it as well. Holy smokes, we just saw Sunseeker Duo, a solar powered motor glider carry 2 aloft. Amazing. Nothing against ICEs – Amazing tech in its own right, but the idea of redundant motors, no oil or Avgas, vibration free and quiet add up to a day not too long from now where the cost, safety and enjoyment of flying could reach a whole new level of performance and accessibility.
    For anyone interested in flying on a budget, there are lots of ways to fulfill your flying desires and get in at least 3-4 hours or more on less than $500/month. Plenty of middle income folks spend that or more on golf, or motorcycles and other motor sports. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices too – being thrifty or giving up just small amounts of other items like driving an older car or paying attention to sales and deals can pay for a little monthly aviation delight. Light Sport is making flying more affordable, and there are some great Experimentals that make for great, affordable flyers.

    Folks that need some excitement, flying aerobatics is a great way to really get a major injection of fun flying, a couple of times a month, for no more than $400-$500. I did this for a couple of years when i was younger and my priorities where at home. You only fly day VFR, no cross country – just go to the practice area with the instructor in back and start pulling some Gs! You’ll be exhausted after 45 minutes and landing tailwheels is all the challenge you’ll want at the end of the flight. You are constantly climbing a learning curve, you build rapport with your instructor, and the gratification of learning new and more complex maneuvers is awesome. Plus, you will be a much better overall pilot for it, and you will feel like stud around all those common cross country flyers. Wearing a chute is pretty cool too!
    Keep up the great work Rod. We will build a great GA future together.

  6. Nice Article Rod. Good thinking too.

    But I cannot share your optimism. I see a constant decline in what can be achieved within general aviation. I live in Europe now and here we are facing a Europe that lost it’s steam when it comes to unified simple applied rules for GA flying. Currently almost all states require flight plans when flying over their state lines. Some need you go through customs, which often rules out spontaneous flying.
    It also erodes any time advantage against the use of cars.

    But worse though is the over regulation by the EASA and the subsequent interpretation by the member states. It makes just holding a pilot license an expensive and time consuming endeavor. Imagine renewing your medical every six month, your license to talk on the radio every few years. The costs for staying current in IFR is over the budget of any average income. Aircraft ownership is getting more complicated with EASA ruling as well. The ruling mandates to put your plane under a repair plan with a certified repair station, and very often forces you to follow any manufacturer bulletin, as if it would be an AD.

    The trend I see here is that young pilots become glider pilots, outside of any EASA regulations. They may step up to Ultralights, which are also not regulated by the EASA and where costs are manageable.

    The other trend I see is that people with more income own Cirrus aircraft that are estimated to cost €1000 a month in upkeep and I would not be astounded if an owner hires a pilot, just because the owner is not up to date on all license aspects. In the long run it is cheaper to hire a pilot than trying to stay current yourself.

    I don’t see how that is different to the Golden Age of Aviation.

    My outlook is that ownership of small GA planes will be cost prohibitive. GA flying will be done by a bunch of IFR pilots that you hire for your private jet or turbo prop that you can fly to the few remaining airports. The rest will fly in sail planes and Ultralights locally.
    And a few enthusiast keep a handful historic relics out of museums in flying condition, sacrificing the value of a middle class car each year.

  7. The fuel price is what’s going to kill GA and that’s never going backwards. The big-engined (even small-engined) pistons are dinosaurs now with fuel in Europe at $15 or more a gallon. This is not a golden age. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

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