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One Big, Honking Airplane

Tom PattonDid you miss me?  No, I guess not, because The Jacksonville Observer mined my personal blog “Life’s a Beach” (shameless plug alert … http://tcpatton.com) for some new material for “Ocean View”. Which is fine. I hope you enjoyed it.

I spent the week working for my primary client, Aero-News.net at the big annual EAA shindig at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And while I could spend a week talking about the things at the show, there were a couple things that stood out to me.

One is the pace at which aviation is changing. The new concepts and designs for airplanes and the gadgets that go in them are breathtaking. The new(ish) LSA (Light Sport Aircraft) category is exploding, and while the price of admission is still high, it’s not AS high, and the smaller airplanes require less training and no medical certificate to fly. Whether that’s a good idea is a debate for another day, but it could open up aviation to people for whom there were significant barriers … present company included. My love for aviation is long-standing, and we can talk about it in another column, perhaps.

tom1Where you used to sit in a cockpit and see a dizzying array of dials and switches and boxes and such, you now in many cases see two 14” LCD screens. It’s all electronic. The legacy cockpits are now referred to as “steam gauges”, which is almost as anachronistic as a gyro compass and pressure altimeter. Most still have a group of three steam gauges as backup should all the fancy electronics fail, but that’s a rare occurrence.

The video game designers are now working for avionics companies, and some of the higher end models can actually show a digital representation of the terrain underneath the airplane. Huge databases of information can allow you to see what’s below, and some even will draw a “highway in the sky” for the pilot to follow. It is very flight-sim looking, very sophisticated, and a real enhancement to safety. I flew a Cirrus SR22 simulator for a bit, getting a first-hand feel for some of the new electronics. It’s been a long time since I was at the controls of anything resembling an actual airplane, but I could see how it could be very useful once you became accustomed to it. I really want to start flying again.

But perhaps the biggest attraction at Oshkosh this year, and I mean that literally, was one of the test-flight models of the new Airbus A380. That is one big, honking airplane.

tom2There is no way a few small pictures can convey how large this aircraft really is. When it landed at Oshkosh, it seemed like it was flying way too slow, which is just a function of the size of the aircraft. But imagine if you will trying to board an airplane with 700 of your closest friends. The A380 has two decks of seats, and then there has to be room for all the baggage underneath. That is, if anyone checks bags any more. I don’t know if it comes with proportionately larger overhead bins. I can just hear the gate agent saying “now boarding zones 1 through 30.” The engine intakes could swallow a minivan and have room left over for a Volkswagon. It made quite an impression on those attending the show, and on the ramp for the few days it was there, the vertical stabilizer towered easily 5 or 6 stories over the tarmac. I don’t know if I’ll ever have an opportunity to fly on one. And in fact, the way airlines are going right now, it might be a while before any are actually in service.

Overall, there is some glimmer of good news. While airplane and ancillary manufacturers are taking their hits like everyone else in this economy, there is no lack of interest in aviation. Oshkosh tracked a national trend with a 12 percent increase in attendance over last year. Over a half-million people went through the Wittman Field gate last week. Airshows are a great value, there’s lots to see, and a family of four can usually get in for under $50, and people have been flocking to them across the county all summer. Aviation is one of those almost universal dreams. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to fly a little airplane. But it is also vitally important to the economy, allowing business people to be more productive, as well as providing jobs across manufacturing and service sectors and extending to pilots, mechanics, and the teenage “ramp rat” pumping the gas at the local airport. That kid was me, a long time ago, and instead of a paycheck, I got to learn to fly.

It was good to be at Oshkosh, but it’s good to be home too.

I’ll see you on the radio a little later this afternoon.

1 Responses »

  1. Very interesting story. I have always wanted to fly a plane. I can't imagine a plane that could hold 700 people. Will these be able to fly in regular airports like Jacksonville or would it be necessary to extend the runway? I enjoyed your radio show. Keep up the good work. How did you get involved blogging for the Aero-News? Did you do this before you left your last job?