I recently traveled from outside Boston to Groton, CT-a popular trip in these parts, thanks to a nearby casino-and then on to Cape Cod, before returning home. It’s about a five-hour drive, if the traffic isn’t too bad. I did it in a little over two hours, by flying. Not a commercial flight: just driving to Boston’s Logan Airport, checking in and boarding takes two hours. I flew myself in a rented Cessna, for a total cost of $160-a cost I could have split up to four ways if I had gone with friends. Besides being quick and relatively cheap, the trip afforded stunning panoramas of explosively colored fall foliage and ragged shoreline inaccessible from the earthbound perspective of a car or through the plastic peephole of a 747.That’s the good news about flying a small plane. Here’s the bad news: before the flight, I had to pore over charts and airport directories, compile lists of radio navigation aids, digest a long weather briefing, and calculate wind correction angles and fuel consumption figures. Throughout the flight I had to engage in streams of aviationspeak (“Cessna one-eight-hotel, report left base following Warrior, confirm you have traffic in sight, winds three-three-zero at nine”) and actively monitor eight gauges.
To land, I had to adjust carburetor heat, lower wing flaps, and turn the plane askew to compensate for crosswind, among other tasks, all while remembering that an omission or error could have been fatal-the sort of error that plays a role in a third of the 700-odd non-commercial aircraft deaths that occur each year. And this was in clear skies; flying in clouds brings a quantum jump in complexity.
No wonder a mere 26,000 people or so earn pilot’s licenses each year, compared to some four million who get driver’s licenses. And this despite the fact that our increasingly mobile population is choking on clogged roadways and an often near-gridlocked commercial airline system-while the runways at some 4,500 small public airports mostly sit empty.
But this picture could change dramatically over the next decade if ambitious programs jointly undertaken by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, small-aircraft manufacturers and university researchers remain on track. The general goal of these programs: making small aircraft as easy and safe to operate as cars-maybe even easier and safer-and almost as inexpensive.
At the heart of this nascent transformation are new systems, components and designs aimed not so much at commercial airliners and corporate jets, the traditional beneficiaries of advances in aviation technology, but at some of the smallest and least costly aircraft made. Able to do everything from avoiding other aircraft to correcting for wind and assisting landing, these technologies are so heavily computerized and user-friendly that the cockpit in a leading-edge small plane is looking less like the console of a steam locomotive and more like the interior of a luxury sports sedan modified for Web surfing. What’s more, these systems are being built to take advantage of new weather radars, position sensors and airtraffic monitors that can convert the humblest of community airports into high-tech “smartports” able to automatically accommodate a stream of planes. The eventual result: even relatively unskilled pilots will be able to home in on runways, even in bad weather, with negligible chance of things going wrong. Sums up Keith McCrea, air service and policy coordinator for the Virginia Department of Aviation, “These improvements will make flying so intuitive that any dummy will be able to do it, and without a lot of training.”