A Century in Review: The 1980s

 - August 6, 2008, 6:53 AM

No offense intended to its participants, but aviation progress by the 1980s had become rather mundane by comparison with the incessant leaps and bounds of previous decades. Maybe it was a matter of butting up against the realities of aviation’s maturity, or maybe it was simply a product of the funk enveloping the west at the start of the 1980s. Whatever it was, opening the new edition of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft, that hotly awaited annual catalog of the latest and greatest in aircraft design, somehow just didn’t hold the same sense of anticipation that it once did. With the 747, Concorde and SR-71, production airplanes had apparently got as big and fast as they ever would (at least until the 1989 surprise of Antonov’s six-engine behemoth, the 1.2-million-pound An-225).

New business jets, while undoubtedly ever more capable and with a few exceptions–such as the widebody Challenger and supercritical-wing Citation III of the late 1970s–were for the most part improvements on familiar hardware. Giant leaps had morphed into fancy footwork.

What was not immediately apparent to the eye, however, was the revolution that was taking place beneath the skins of familiar airplane shapes. Above all, the 1980s marked the ascendancy of electronics in aviation. Although the spirited performance leaps and bounds of previous decades had dwindled in the 1980s to a shuffle befitting an octogenarian, advances in avionics compensated by simplifying the pilots’ task and, through such innovations as ground-proximity warning systems, reducing the likelihood of crashes. For engines and airframes, the focus was on reliability and on squeezing more mileage or weight-lifting out of each gallon of fuel.

The automation that took hold in the 1980s spelled the end for the airline flight engineer. Even the mighty 747, in its -400 version (which entered service in 1989), was able to dispense with the traditional third flight crewmember thanks to the monitoring and alerting capabilities of the electronics it incorporated.

The dissolution of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1978, which set in motion airline deregulation, helped shape the mold for the 1980s, as did the appointment of
a strong-willed and aviation-industry-schooled pilot by the name of Lynn Helms as President Ronald Reagan’s FAA Administrator in 1980. While shipments of all GA aircraft peaked in 1978 at nearly 18,000, business jets managed to keep the momentum going until 1981, after which they too slid, victim of the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s and the onset of a recession.

A major event that shaped the mold for the 1980s in the U.S. was the Aug. 3, 1981 strike by 13,000 of the nation’s 17,000 air traffic controllers. Following through on his threat, too, Reagan had Helms fire the strikers, and as the ATC system limped along in the aftermath, the FAA considered banning all but scheduled airline flights.

Although GA’s alphabet groups persuaded Helms to allow non-airline flying, for the first 72 hours after the controllers deserted their scopes, business aircraft operators were asked to fly only essential missions–and some were denied access. A GAR (general aviation reservation) controlled access, and aircraft were not allowed to take off until the working controllers were fairly certain the airplane could be expected to reach its destination without undue delay.

In 1982 Helms unveiled the national airspace system plan, a blueprint for overhauling the ATC system that defined the R&D, facilities and equipment that would be needed through 2000. Unbeknownst to Helms and his colleagues, however, was that just beyond the horizon lay a technology that would drastically change the way air traffic navigated. In the late 1980s, the constellation of satellites for the global positioning system (GPS) would provide guidance for navigation down to a few feet, dimming the prospects of such rising stars as MLS (microwave landing system) and loran (long-range nav). Now, 21 years later, that plan is still evolving, thanks in part to the time it has taken to fine-tune the capabilities provided by GPS. The central thrust of Helms’s NASP continues, however, to shift more of the ATC load to computers and to consolidate the ATC infrastructure into fewer facilities.

In the early 1980s aviation interests were dismayed to find that the money collected from them to fill the coffers of the “trust fund,” officially known as the AIP or airport improvement program, was actually being used to reduce the federal deficit (and to pay for the FAA’s day-to-day operations) rather than for its intended  purpose–funding airport and ATC improvements.

The late 1970s and early 1980s also marked the onset of the general public’s diminishing enthusiasm for aviation as it built to a volume (measured by both movements and by decibels) that was seen to be adding unacceptably to the ever more intrusive hubbub of modern life. Aircraft noise became the lightning rod, and for business aviation the airport in Santa Monica, Calif., was ground zero. Ever since the introduction of business jets at the airport in the 1960s, local residents’ intolerance had been festering, and in the late 1970s it bust out in the form of a curfew and a move to ban all jet operations round the clock.

Santa Monica’s problem, as with many other airfields in urban locales, was that the open surrounding countryside (which in Santa Monica’s case had cocooned the airport when it first opened in the 1920s as a major Douglas Aircraft facility) had since been developed for residential use. Over the years, Santa Monica Airport became an island of aviation in a sea of housing, to whose residents it mattered not one whit that “the airport was here first.” It was a battleground that would become familiar from coast to coast, and although the Santa Monica jet ban was overturned in 1979 (following legal action by NBAA and GAMA), the war continues to this day at other fields, notably Naples, Fla., and Teterboro, N.J.

Apart from the general public’s increasingly intolerant attitude toward airplanes, business aviation was also under assault in the early 1980s from the hardships of a sick economy. As corporations explored every avenue of cost-cutting, innovators in business aviation found ways of helping those companies have their cake and eat it too. Aircraft management companies such as Executive Air Fleet and Aviation Methods took over the operation of corporations’ aircraft by assuming all the infrastructure headaches that come with running a flight department, such as crewing, scheduling, hangarage and so on. Flight-department personnel tended to view aircraft management companies as the enemy, out to deprive them of their livelihoods.

Another alternative to full ownership of a business airplane, and one viewed with an equal measure of suspicion by flight departments, emerged in 1986 when Richard Santulli, who had bought Executive Jet Aviation in 1984, offered something new called fractional ownership. Now, nearly 20 years later, the concept hardly requires any explanation. NetJets got off to a slow start, but by the mid-1990s it caught on in a big way and spawned competitors as companies and individuals discovered that by buying a fraction of a jet and leaving all the duties of full ownership and the hassles of running a flight department to EJA they could still have a business jet at their beck and call with none of the worries–other than writing the necessary checks for initial share purchase, monthly fees and occupied hourly charges.

The 1980s saw a large number of mergers in general aviation manufacturing: Beech was absorbed by Raytheon, to become Raytheon Aircraft; General Dynamics bought Cessna; Chrysler bought Gulfstream; Lear Siegler bought Piper; McDonnell Douglas snapped up Hughes Helicopters; and in the avionics industry Bendix and King merged, as did Honeywell and Sperry.

GD bought Cessna at a difficult time for the titan of small-airplane manufacturing. In 1986, one year after the buyout and illustrating the depths of aviation’s funk, Cessna drastically addressed the realities of a stagnant market by shutting down production of piston-powered aircraft for what turned out to be a 10-year hiatus.

In 1982, Collins introduced EFIS (electronic flight instrument system) to airline service aboard United Airlines’ 767s, and business aviation promptly followed suit. The first application of Collins’ Pro Line 4 electronic avionics suite was the Beech Starship twin turboprop, an appropriately futuristic platform for the new technology with its carbon-fiber construction and canard pusher configuration. The EFIS instruments were a bigger hit than the airframe (only 50 production Starships were built, and this year Raytheon Aircraft, which had absorbed Beech in 1980, set about destroying the entire fleet, citing support difficulties), and today virtually every new airplane costing more than a few hundred thousand dollars comes with screens. The beauty of screens versus needles on dials is that they allow anything to be displayed, from checklists and primary flight guidance to routes, waypoints, weather, terrain and the location of nearby traffic for collision avoidance.

Just as software (the computer variety) became as important a part of aviation as the hardware in which it ran, aviation training organizations turned their attention to flight-deck software–the human kind. Cockpit resource management (CRM) emphasized the importance of teaching a crew how to operate as a team, while recognizing that the captain still ultimately runs the ship. The era of “gear up, shut up,” in which the copilot played a subservient role to the authoritarian captain, waned as studies revealed that the valuable resources sitting in seats other than the left front were not being used, sometimes with disastrous results.

Training also benefited from the same computing power that was transforming cockpits: simulators became so realistic that for the first time pilots could earn a type rating without flying the real airplane.

As can be seen from this less than cheerful chronicling of a trying decade, aviation struggled during the 1980s, but one flight revived the awe that aviation had generated in every decade past when an airplane called Voyager, at once both graceful and ungainly, flew around the world on a single tank of gas (well, 17 tanks actually, holding 7,011 pounds of fuel and representing 72.3 percent of the airplane’s circumglobal takeoff weight).

Designed by Burt Rutan, one of the most fertile minds ever to direct its neurons to conceiving airplanes, Voyager was a masterpiece, a triumph of human ingenuity over a goal (the “last big plum”) that appeared impossible. Crewed by Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother, and Dick’s companion Jeana Yeager, the flight of Voyager was a testament to human endurance and to the reliability of a machine. It was unfortunate that an aviation hero of the 1940s damaged his reputation when Chuck Yeager declared the attempt to be no big deal, likening it to putting a big enough gas tank in a car and driving it from Los Angeles to New York.

To the contrary, the flight was anything but humdrum, with many moments of sheer terror to shatter any stretches of boredom for Rutan and Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck) during the nine days the airplane stayed aloft. In addition to battling monster storms in the intertropical convergence zone over Africa and handling an engine failure on the final morning when the goal was within reach, the pilots had to endure the relentless claustrophobia of being confined to quarters barely big enough for one, let alone two people.

Rutan made the takeoff from Edwards AFB in California at 8:01:44 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1986. It was a tense process that lasted two minutes, six seconds and consumed all but 800 feet of the 15,000-foot runway. The fuel-laden wings drooped so much that their tips dragged on the ground for most of the takeoff roll, scraping the base of the winglets enough that, before mission control approved the attempt to continue, they were deliberately shed by pilot-induced air loads. It was a suitably dramatic beginning to a supremely challenging flight that would last 216 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds and cover 24,986 miles at an official average speed of 116 mph. Voyager had consumed all but 106 pounds of the 3.5 tons of fuel on board when it touched down again at Edwards.