The "Golden Age" of Aviation is often considered to be, ironically, during the absolute depths of The Great Depression. Yes, that The Great Depression, the one where bread lines stretched like One Direction ticket campouts. The one that gets the capitalized definitive article in front of it, as if it's the only one, because it might as well be. Yet at the same time Duesenberg shuttered down its production lines and people raced the Dust Bowl to California, Piper Aircraft pumped out J-3 Cubs, the aircraft that would go on to be called "the Tin Lizzie of the skies;" Amelia Earhart undertook her ill-fated around-the-world flight and the DC-3 promised and delivered on flying hotel rooms. So many great achievements were made in civilian aviation at this time, and so many technological advances were either being demonstrated or just beyond the horizon, that both pilots and engineers became celebrities in their own right and gave hope and optimism not to an entire country but an entire world, right on the eve of when that world would go to war with itself. Aviation was to the 30s as the Space Race was to the 50s and 60s - credible scientists promoted air travel as the solution to everything. Hell, if you didn't promote air travel, then something must be wrong with your credibility in the first place.
In contrast, the absolute nadir of General Aviation is typically accepted as being the late 70s and early 80s. This, of course, was The Malaise Era, another infamous time period that gets to have its own definitive article, and one much closer to living memory. Unlike the Golden Age of Depression times, General Aviation couldn't escape the economic realities of stagflation. Being able to afford your own aircraft wasn't the only factor, or even the deciding factor - for one, it was much faster, more efficient, more comfortable, safer and not to mention cheaper to book tickets on an American Airlines Boeing 707 jetliner than it was to fly your own prop-powered "bug smasher," at least when flying the same route. What really killed GA at the time, however, was lawsuit after lawsuit as GA manufacturers were hammered constantly over crashes and attorneys pointing the finger back to the production line. A number of innovative and arguably risky design experiments - like Piper's switch to T-Tail configurations as demonstrated on their Seminole twin-engine trainer and automatic landing gear extension, also by Piper - were blamed for hindering safety even though these modifications only slightly changed aircraft flight characteristics, at best. Regardless of the truth (which, let's face it, isn't something personal injury lawyers are really interested in) GA manufacturers had enough, and the Big 2 (Piper and Cessna) both exited the GA market temporarily, with Cessna keeping the plants running by focusing on its Caravan million-dollar turboprops and Citation business jets exclusively, and Piper needing foreign investment to reopen.
Those dark days seem to be returning - or even worse. As I previously wrote, weird and bad things are happening in the GA market. Inflation and prices are skyrocketing, more Vaporware is being released than actual product, and production lines and even entire corporate entities are becoming history. For hundreds if not thousands of pilots, the act of getting back up in the air is itself questionable unless a new fuel solution is found.
The Impending Fuel Apocalypse
The vast majority of piston-powered GA aircraft use what's called 100 Low Lead (LL) fuel, which pretty much tells you what it is - low-lead content fuel with an octane rating of 100. Other than being artificially dyed blue (to avoid confusion with other types of aviation fuels with higher or lower lead content or octane ratings) it's hard to distinguish from what had been sitting in automotive gas tanks 40 to 50 years ago. Of course, automotive gas has evolved tremendously from that point on, including the complete removal of lead additives. Due to the high cost of safety and design (re-)certification, GA aircraft engines have pretty much been frozen since the 40s hence the 40s vintage fuel. GA can't stay stuck in the past forever as various regulatory and miscellaneous factors force aviation fuels to catch up with everybody else. Unfortunately, as it currently stands there isn't a lot of alternatives other than sticking with 100LL until it simply runs out.
Why? Unfortunately arrogance and the change-resistant static nature of GA has to shoulder most of the blame. It was more or less always assumed that GA would be exempt from using lead-free fuels, citing the small environmental impact of the GA market and the economic burden of having to change out the engines of thousands of light aircraft globally. Much of the push to change GA fuels to completely lead-free are as economically motivated as they are environmentally; the small environmental impact of GA comes from how it's just small to begin with, and it's making less and less economic sense every day to use a more expensive and frowned-upon process to satisfy an almost microscopic portion of the fuel market. But because the GA market poorly prepared for this inevitability, thousands of pilots are going to be left on the hook.
That said, for a good many pilots at least, the future is not a desolate picture painted in broad apocalyptic strokes. Quite a few of these piston engines can be converted to run on the same autogas pumped out of the local Shell or Conoco station at the nearest street corner. Most of these autogas conversions are associated with very light fabric-covered aircraft like Piper Cubs and Aeronca Champions that use engines in the 200 cubic inch displacement class, or even in the 100 c.i. or less range. Some studies optimistically pin the number of eligible powerplant conversions at covering at least 80% of all active airframes, including high-performance piston aircraft, vintage aircraft and helicopters. The airframe manufacturers themselves have already jumped on the alternative fuels train ("alternative" being a relative term here): Cessna now offers a diesel - yes, that's right Jalops, a diesel powered 182 Skylane as the sole new offering for that model line thanks to the French-built SR305 engine. Both Piper and Diamond Aircraft also offer diesel powered planes, coming courtesy of Mercedes-Benz no less (by way of conversion by Theilert).
It's easy for manufacturers to adopt new types of engines for aircraft still sitting on the assembly line, but for individual owner-operators flying 30+ year old frames it's a different story. The real question will be in how easy fuel conversion kits will be to install and whether or not it's economical to install such kits on older aircraft (especially higher-performance ones) or consign them to the boneyard.
The Shrinking Market and VLJ Vaporware
Ask who the Big Insert-Number-Here are of GA manufacturers and you'll probably come up with no less than five - Cessna/Textron, Piper, Beechcraft/Raytheon, and newcomers Diamond and Cirrus. Mooney and Columbia were very recognizable names up until this decade as well, and there were startups aplenty making headlines with spitfire as PR. As of 2014, Cessna, Piper, Raytheon and even 21st century darling Diamond have cut back on product lines, and many of the others including Mooney and Columbia only exist on paper anymore - at best.
Raytheon, for example, had an extremely heavy manufacturing portfolio which included at various points the Hawker 400 and Hawker 800 business jets and the all-composite Beechcraft Premier and Hawker 4000, the latter of which was particularly notable in its size. Look up Raytheon's website today and you'll only find Beechcraft's offerings in the form of the Bonanza piston single, Baron piston twin and King Air family of turboprop twins. Hawker's entire line-up and existence as a brand has been completely eliminated. Perhaps even more telling is the oddly proud announcement that Raytheon has divested itself of Beechcraft and merged it with competitor Textron/Cessna. Not that Cessna is any stranger to odd bedfellows, having also merged with the entire Columbia line and relabeling it "Corvalis." Back at Cessna, the 162 Skycatcher, a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) that premiered to much fanfare, was quietly removed from Cessna's lineup. Mooney barely continues to exist as any sort of entity at all - despite heavy Chinese investment and the usual proud PR proclamations of "it's always sunny in Kerrville, TX" along with still listing the Acclaim (which recaptured the single piston speed record from Columbia/Corvalis) for sale, all of Mooney's actual currently manufactured product lines have a lot more in common with the type of airplanes being thrown around in a 4th grade geometry class.
So what happened? The usual economic factors - the "bubble" late last decade took its toll, and GA had a few of its own bubbles at the same time. The absolute worst of these bubbles was the so-called Very Light Jet or VLJ Market. In 20/20 hindsight and especially with today's sensibilities it was nothing short of hair-brained, but in 2005 it was The Next Big Thing and everybody had to have one if you wanted to be taken seriously.
Like all insidious, soul-crushing things it started out with the best intentions, namely through a program called the Small Aircraft Transportation System or SATS, a joint research project between the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. All SATS was really doing was investigating new technologies to make GA safer and more efficient, but one of the real "brain bugs" that was born from the program was the idea of the air taxi - and not just small Cessnas bumbling around between Martha's Vineyard and New Jersey bedroom communities, but small and fast jets that would almost blanket the sky carrying the everyday person on everyday commutes. People actually got the wild idea that satellite navigation would make the flying car a reality, all you had to do was add some futuristic manufacturing and jet engine technology to make the plane itself cheap enough. The letters Vee-Ell-Jay became the industry buzzword of the last decade and predicted for the near future (i.e., by the time you're reading this) everybody was supposed to be flying around in the same kinds of luxury the big boys in the fancy Learjets and Gulfstreams had, just smaller. Nevermind where we're supposed to find fuel to keep our piston planes powered, piston planes were going to be totally obsolete anyway!
The "boom" of VLJ startups was positively ludicrous, from the largest manufacturers (including Cessna and Piper) to the myriad of exactly what you'd expect when the word "Vaporware" gets thrown around - dozens and dozens of brand-new manufacturers suddenly existing overnight making stupid, physically impossible claims to the point where you start wondering if their play wasn't a scam to begin with. If it sounds familiar, it should, because it's basically Super Replicas again - only multiplied by a factor of 100. The excitement generated by the nascent VLJ market kept the funding flowing until, years later, people finally started to throw in the towel and admit it was unsustainable. But not before investments utterly collapsed taking a huge chunk of GA with them.
Only the Cessna Mustang and Embraer Phenom 100 stand as truly successful examples of VLJs. I've already covered what happened to Raytheon's (near) VLJ entry, the Premier, and Piper's PiperJet/Altair nearly took the entire company down. Cirrus still heavily promotes their SF50 Vision, but it's now become the quintessential poster child for Vaporeware especially since they actually got around to making Duke Nukem Forever - perhaps it's only a matter of time before Cirrus decides to not repeat Gearbox's mistake and sheepishly punt the Vision off their website while no one's looking. This is very certainly the fate of Diamond's D-Jet, especially considering the cancellation of the more straightforward DA-52.
Not every manufacturer that dabbled in the VLJ market disappeared completely, and not every manufacturer that evaporated off the face of the Earth since committed to VLJ Vaporware. The market found all sorts of crazy ways to change - you go up to how they now price their products, it shows.
Out of Control Inflation
I pointed out in my last article the ridiculous inflation that happened with the Piper Seneca light twin with a price now north of a million dollars. Even without factoring in how this is nearly twice the plane's 2006 value (about $650,000), this is an unsustainable inflation rate for an aircraft of this class. Piper's own Mirage is barely more expensive - despite having only one engine it falls into a superior class coming equipped with weather radar and pressurization (so that you don't have to wear an oxygen mask all the time). Just about the most basic aircraft out there, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, is now almost $400,000, up to about $100,000 more than a decade ago. Or to put that in another perspective, almost enough to buy four Gallardos. For the aeronautical equivalent of a Camry, un-grounded to the ground.
Is the Future in LSAs?
Honestly, I think the answer is yes. With higher interest in high-speed rail and even things like the Hyperloop, and with GA becoming more expensive and, frankly, more antiquated compared to what's been happening with other modes of transportation, GA is no longer sustainable in its current form - or possibly any form beyond the LSA market, a market specifically aimed at hobby pilots who just want to hoon in the air. The type of pilot who used to buy a high-performance single or twin piston-engine aircraft to travel cross-country is getting financially squeezed out of the market - these airplanes aren't competing with other airplanes or even airline or rail tickets anymore, they're competing with staycations and cries from the significant other to find a cheaper hobby. The corporate flier now rethinks building up miles on bizjets, not just from a financial standpoint but from negative PR backlash, too. The point-to-point efficiency of turboprops and jets might completely disappear under pressure from high-speed rail, or especially if the Hyperloop becomes a reality.
This leaves only the people who want to fly because it's fun. The LSA market is ginormous, a veritable cornucopia of options with prices ranging from what you might find on Craigslist up to being worth its own mortgage. The LSA market is also inherently more adaptable to alternate and "green" propulsion technologies.
I for one will not mourn the passing of aviation as a mode of transportation, if that day ever comes. Much like the "car culture" vs. "commuter culture" debate, it will only leave the skies open to (responsible) sky hooning. Humankind has an innate desire to take to the high ground and beyond, and if we want to get to the stars, we need to take to the skies. We'll just be doing it for recreation instead of point-to-point travel.