As the year draws to a close, pilot/pundits inevitably review what's happened and theorize about what's to come. Here are my picks for the top ten GA stories of 2011.
iPad Takes Off
Early in 2011 AOPA produced a iPad spoof video that made fun of the new-fangled device, but barely a month later several charter operators had received OpSpec approval for the iPad EFB. Hot on the heels of that news, the iPad 2 was released with a smaller form factor and an improved screen. By year's end, Apple made multi-tasking gestures standard, virtually every EFB app had introduced more and more features, and Sporty's declared 2011 "The year of the iPad." And that AOPA iPad spoof video? Funny, but it can no longer be found on-line.
Shrinking Pilot Population?
Speaking of AOPA, the powers that be in Fredrick, Maryland concluded that someone had to be blamed for the decline in the US pilot population and what better scapegoat than the lowly, overworked/underpaid flight instructor. Citing an alleged 75 to 85% dropout rate for new pilots, AOPA pledged to reverse the trend. What followed was 12 months of banging the drum without much change in what student pilots and certificated pilots alike have told me is the number one impediment to flying - The Cost. The folks in Frederick must have more disposable income than the rest of GA because they claimed that cost wasn't a factor. Aside from all the big talk, the world of professional flight instructors remains largely unchanged.
Block Aircraft Registration Request
AOPA and NBAA appeared to expend significant time and resources to lobby congress for the restoration of BARR - the Block Aircraft Registration Request program that was abandoned by the FAA in the face of legal challenges. Previously the program had allowed aircraft owners to prevent their aircraft from being tracked by the general public. Imagine how embarassing it is to have journalists and shareholders discover how often your G5 is being used to fly to Vail instead of to conduct business? Those efforts paid off and legislation was introduced and passed that mandated the reinstatement of BARR. The next time you go through a backscatter x-ray scanner at the airport, console yourself that at least the privacy of the wealthy and influential is being protected.
The new air traffic control system, NextGen, is slowly crawling toward implementation, though the only evidence of this seems to be the plethora of new ADS-B NOTAMs pilots must wade through before getting to the important NOTAMs. ERAM, the FAAs new en route management software, has been put into service in a couple of ARTCCs and appears to have received sitting ovations. Someday ...
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
The underreported GA news story of the last decade continues - the eventual integration of UAVs into the national airspace. It wasn't enough that in 2010 a Navy drone went AWOL for the better part of an hour and made its way toward the DCA area. This year we learned that military UAVs were (are?) infected with a virus and no one knows how it happened or what the virus does. Hopefully their transponders and anti-collisions lights stay on while in US airspace.
Kindler, Gentler Temporary Flight Restrictions
Those of us flying in larger metropolitan areas found that VIP flight restrictions put into place for presidential visits became a bit more manageable. Instead of a 30 mile no-fly zone, VIP TFRs are divided into an inner and outer area. GA aircraft are allowed to operate in the outer ring as long as they adhere to certain procedures. There's some progress!
Get the Lead Out
In 1975, unleaded gasoline was mandated for cars and by1986 tetraethyl lead was outlawed for use in automobile gasoline in the US. Aviation piston engine manufacturers have had at least three decades to solve the problem of reliance on low-lead gasoline, but perhaps they didn't have enough encouragement. In April of 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft. Then in May of 2011, producers and some retail suppliers of aviation low-lead fuel became the target of a class action lawsuit in California. It's unclear whether California law or federal regulations of aviation fuel take precedence and the case is still working its way through the courts.
Say what you will about class action lawsuits, it's clear that lead is dangerous in the air we breathe and in the water we drink. Many aircraft engines can and do run just fine on unleaded automobile gasoline. Lycoming, Continental, fuel refiners/retailers and other stakeholders need to come up with a replacement for 100LL fuel. It's not like they haven't had time or advance warning.
First, the FCC gave wireless broadband developer LightSquared permission to use part of the spectrum close to that used for GPS. Then testing showed that most any GPS equipment, including those used in aircraft, became unusable when operating anywhere near a LightSquared transmitter. With no other options other than shutting down, LightSquared's recent filing with the FCC claims "... commercial GPS receivers are not licensed, do not operate under any service rules, and thus are not entitled to any interference protection whatsoever ..." Riight!
Aeronav Chart Costs
Given the aggressive acceptance of EFBs, it's understandable that sales of Aeronav's paper chart products would plummet. But remember, a few years ago, Aeronav became a HPO - high-peforming organization? That means that they are dedicated to the proposition that they can recoup most, if not all, of their operating costs through the sale of their products. That's why they gave up supporting small-time paper chart retailers a few years ago and that's why they are now making noises about charging each user of their digital products about $150 per year. The dust hasn't settled yet on this one, but the days of free or low-cost digital aviation charts are numbered.
Saying he didn't want his DUI arrest to be a distraction for the FAA, administrator Randy Babbitt resigned on December 6, 2011. I, for one, think he should have been allowed to stick around. After all, we claim to be a nation that embraces a religion based on forgiveness, right? The irony is that Babbitt, who fought tooth and nail against nap breaks for air traffic controllers working the graveyard shift (in spite of research showing that it would improve their performance) is now leaving for allegedly driving while intoxicated. Perhaps time does wound all heels.
But Seriously ...
In spite of my sometimes snarky comments, 2011 was a very good year for me. I flew more hours than in years past, my health has been excellent, I've had the privilege of working with a bunch of sharp, dedicated student and certificated pilots, and as of December 2011 I'm no longer flying on a special issuance medical certificate. Not too shabby.
To my loyal readers (and even to those folks who post their own snarky comments), here's to a Happy and Prosperous 2012!