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Sky´s the limit for general aviation, despite fuel prices, security concerns

Sky´s the limit for general aviation, despite fuel prices, security concerns

Dr. Mark Beaird loves flying his six-seat Cessna to places like Granbury, Llano and Stephenville, where he and his family may patronize a favorite restaurant or antique shop.

Two summers ago the Waco resident flew his wife and three children on a two-week trip that included stops at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Los Angeles; and San Francisco.

Beaird and other pilots like him are what “general aviation” is all about. They don’t fly on an airline’s schedule. They often fly simply on impulse, because they love the freedom of piloting their own craft whenever and wherever they please.

Some picture general aviation as small planes buzzing around airports. But it can include everything from business jets to flying ambulances to planes involved in offshore oil exploration.

“General aviation is in the healthiest state it’s been in since the Wright brothers,” says Steve Williams, president of a local company called FreeFlight Systems that makes GPS systems for planes.

Beaird describes Waco as “just an outstanding aviation community,” with pilots having access to three quality airports: Waco Regional, Texas State Technical College and McGregor Executive.

Bush’s ranch chills pilots

But factors such as the price of fuel and President Bush’s ranch home near Crawford are having an impact locally.

Beaird says he chose to buy his single-engine Cessna because it uses 14.5 gallons of fuel per hour, which is better than the 28 to 36 gallons that a twin-engine plane would consume. Beaird, an obstetrician/gynecologist, says his plane can hit 155 mph.

“I’d love it to be faster,” he says, “but everything is a trade-off.”

The price of aviation fuel varies greatly from airport to airport, with pilots seeing numbers from $ 3.50 to $ 6.25 a gallon within a 100-mile radius of Waco. Texas Aero, which sells fuel at Waco Regional Airport, is charging $4.99 a gallon this week.

Richard Howell, Waco’s aviation director, says general aviation traffic actually has decreased at Waco Regional in recent years.

“We had 61,775 aircraft operations in 2002, and that figure dropped to 36,011 in 2006. That includes everything: commuter flights, military traffic and general aviation, which typically makes up 50 percent of all traffic,” says Howell, adding he believes pilots who fly smaller planes simply don’t fly into Waco Regional because they’re intimidated by flight restrictions related to President Bush’s ranch home in nearby Crawford.

“Even when Bush is not in Crawford, you can’t fly over his ranch,” Howell says, adding, “When he is at his residence, flight restrictions bump right up against our airspace here at the airport.”

Those restrictions don’t ban flights altogether, but pilots must file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration. Howell says some pilots “simply had rather not be messing with that.”

McGregor, even closer to the president’s ranch, also feels the pinch when pilots choose to make their pit stops elsewhere, Howell says, but TSTC “is not affected quite so much because it is located outside the (flight-restriction) envelope.”

Waco Regional covets general aviation traffic, Howell says, because companies that serve private fliers are clustered there. The city also receives a fee of 9 cents per gallon on fuel sold by Texas Aero, the only fixed base operator at Waco’s municipal airport.

With a change in White House leadership, Howell says, the airport hopes for a “renaissance” in general aviation beginning in 2009.

Mike Majors works locally for an aerospace-related company called Science Applications International Corp. He also volunteers at Wings for Christ, which trains missionaries to fly planes.

He owns no airplane but loves flying so much that he occasionally rents a Cessna by the hour from Aurora Aviation.

“I do it just for fun,” says Majors, who occasionally takes a weekend trip with his wife and children if he can borrow a craft.

He pays about $ 120 an hour, including fuel charges, to indulge his love of flying. He used to pay $ 100 or less.

Majors says he would much rather do his own flying than going commercial, “which really stinks.” During a recent trip to California by commercial flight, he was “so crammed in a middle seat between two fat guys that I couldn’t get up.”

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association paints a picture of general aviation that is something of a study in contrasts:

* The number of general aviation aircraft nationwide has increased from 211,244 in 2001 to 224,352 in 2005.

* But the number of active U.S. pilots has decreased from 612,581 in 2001 to 597,109 in 2006. In fact, 2006 was the first year in decades that the number of pilots fell below 600,000.

* The number of hours flown by general aviation aircraft has dropped from 29.1 million in 2001 to 26.9 million in 2005.

“I think those figures reflect that the expense of owning and flying an airplane has increased, largely because of the price of fuel,” says Carey Hobbs, chairman of the Waco Aviation Alliance.

Majors also says he doesn’t see the passion for flying among young people that Americans have shown for decades.

Hobbs says he still flies his King Air 90 turboprop six to 10 times a month, visiting clients of his Waco-based Hobbs Bonded Fibers in Chicago; Detroit; Washington, D.C.; and Louisville. He also flies to a second Hobbs plant in Tennessee.

Williams, as FreeFlight Systems’ top executive, says he flies his single-engine Cessna Centurion to Albuquerque, N.M., at least once a month to visit with customers.

Calculating the expenses associated with owning and operating a plane, Williams says, those flights cost about $ 600 round-trip.

That may sound steep if he makes that trip alone — but he doesn’t. He typically carries with him at least three engineers, who have plenty of legroom in the six-passenger Centurion.

“We can fly out there, have a productive four-hour meeting and be back in Waco in time for dinner,” Williams says.

Flying commercial, he says, probably would require staying overnight in a hotel and eating dinner and breakfast in restaurants.

“People are starting to realize time is money, so an airplane pays off pretty quickly,” Williams says, adding: “Most people would prefer to be at home at night with their families.”

A little help from law

General aviation in Texas created 62,000 jobs and had an $ 8.7 billion impact on the state’s economy in 2005, according to the latest figures provided by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, all aviation-related activity created 783,700 jobs and generated $48.8 billion in economic activity.

Statistics show that aircraft production is rising — and that’s due in part to the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994.

Production of planes had dropped 90 percent from 1979 to 1989, while product liability costs rose from $24 million to $200 million annually. Cessna quit making piston-power general aviation aircraft for a time, and Piper was in bankruptcy.

Industry officials say the GARA saved the industry. It bars tort claims based on any design or manufacturing defect in a general aviation aircraft that is more than 18 years old. The theory is that any defects would have become known during that many years of use, considering the FAA’s rigorous inspection requirements.

Williams moved FreeFlight Systems from Austin to Waco, and he constantly promotes Waco’s quality of life and educational opportunities while he travels worldwide. He believes Waco could become a player in the “robust” industry of making airplanes and equipment for them.

“People locally are very enthusiastic and supportive and believe in this initiative, but I don’t think we have our economic development and marketing machine hitting on all cylinders,” he says.

More than 30 aviation-related companies formed the Waco Aviation Alliance two years ago to promote themselves to each other and possibly collaborate to win government contracts. A top priority was to attract even more companies, possibly one that builds airplanes.

“We have not yet brought in a new company, but we feel we are making progress and are sure not giving up,” says Hobbs, alliance chairman.

Discussing the biggest threats to general aviation, Beaird cites fuel costs and user fees. The airlines for years have paid the lion’s share of fees that support airports and aviation, he says, adding that sentiment is building among some airline executives to shift this burden.

Beaird says some proposals he’s heard would even impose fees on general aviation pilots and aircraft owners for weather briefings and assistance from air traffic controllers.

“That would have a negative impact on general aviation,” he says.

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