Laissez-faire SCUBA (Part 3): Coming Up for Air

 

You can read Part 1 of the Laissez-faire SCUBA series here and Part 2 here.

shutterstock_226671082We’ve already seen how SCUBA diving developed an astonishing record of safety and success free of governmental involvement. But what if government had regulated the industry from the beginning? Let’s contrast it with one where the government took on the role of safety guarantor: the recreational aircraft industry.

In that industry, the government forced manufacturers of recreational aircraft to meet very high regulatory standards. Not only do the aircraft themselves have to go through millions of dollars in design reviews and tests, but the manufacturing lines they are built on must be documented and certified. This makes changes to production methods and aircraft designs extremely expensive. Aircraft that eventually meet these stringent requirements and pass the government tests are given “type certificates” — very rare and valuable things.

This regulatory lock-in of manufacturing processes and aircraft design killed innovation in light aircraft. It was too expensive to make wholesale changes to aircraft designs as new materials and better production processes were developed.

After a boom in private aircraft sales from the 1950s to the 1970s, stagnation set in. A 1970 Cessna 172 looked and flew pretty much like a 1960 Cessna 172. The engines in these planes remained almost entirely unchanged since their original designs in the first half of the 20th century. It was just too expensive to attempt to certify a new engine for marginal improvements. But over time, marginal improvements add up, and that’s what keeps other industries fresh and innovative. That didn’t happen in civil aviation. As a result, the market for new aircraft had to compete with the growing number of virtually identical used aircraft. As sales dropped, a death spiral set in; lower quantities of scale drove up the unit cost of new aircraft, making them even less competitive.

CessnaIn the auto industry, the way to avoid competing against older models is to innovate and produce new models regularly. The aviation industry couldn’t do that because government regulations froze the designs in place.

To the left is a 1963 Cessna 172. The company made 1,146 of them that year. New, it cost $9,895, or $77,063 in 2015 dollars. Then, as now, it was about the price of a high-end luxury car, or perhaps a year’s salary for an average professional. Premium used models sell for less than that today.

Cessna_172S_Skyhawk_at_Bristol_Airport_(England)_23Aug2014_arpThe lower photo is a 2014 Cessna 172. It costs about $400,000. Only the very well-off can afford one, and Cessna only made 155 of them.

The performance specifications of both models are almost identical despite a half century of technological explosion between them. They both use Lycoming engines with only minor tweaks over the decades (by 1968, the 172 had virtually the same engine that’s in the modern 172). That engine was first used in an aircraft in 1955. Only a real enthusiast can spot the differences between the 1963 and 2015 models — they are virtually the same.

4103f6b452c9d0416301cb159ac6c30fIn contrast, here’s what the well-dressed SCUBA diver wore in 1963. The “Aquamaster” regulator he’s wearing cost $90, or the equivalent of $700 in 2015 dollars. (Note: Even if you’d swim a mile for a Camel, don’t smoke while doing it…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s what a modern diver looks like. This diver is wearing the standard setup – a single-hose regulator much superior to the original double-hose regulator Camel guy is wearing, plus an “octopus” rig (a backup regulator for safety), a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), several dive computers (one is all you need), and other modern gear. All of it much, much better than what was available in 1963 – and much less expensive. A regulator can be had for under $200, and entire dive setups including regulator, mask, fins, BCD, and other accessories can be had for under $1000. And of course, there is a worldwide network of dive shops that will rent all of this to you for less than $100 per day.

Back to aviation for a moment. Surely all that regulation was necessary? Airplanes are just way too complicated and inherently dangerous to be allowed to fly without government regulating their quality, aren’t they?

As it turns out, we have another good comparison. At the same time government was killing the commercial manufacturers with regulations, they allowed for an “experimental” aircraft category for homebuilt aircraft which required that the owner build at least 51 percent of the aircraft himself. Such aircraft are exempt from type certification, production rules, and the like.

So we have two parallel aircraft development economies: one in which the design and production is rigidly controlled by the government, and one in which anyone can build an airplane of any type in their garage and attempt to fly it. Surely, such airplanes must be horribly dangerous! Well… Here’s what the data shows:

Studies by FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) show that Amateur-Built/Homebuilt aircraft have an accident rate less than one percentage point higher than the general aviation fleet. In fact, the accident rate for Amateur-Built/homebuilt aircraft is dropping. The total number of registered homebuilt aircraft is increasing by about 1,000 per year, while the total number of accidents has stayed virtually the same. Another good barometer of safety is insurance rates. Companies that insure both homebuilts and production aircraft charge about the same rates for owners of either type of airplane. That indicates a similar level of risk.

The regulated industry is stagnant and dying. The unregulated homebuilt industry is thriving and growing, and is the source of many innovations such as composite aircraft structures and ballistic parachutes. Belatedly, the government responded by creating new “recreational” certification categories for aircraft and pilot licenses, but it may be too late.

Remember that 2014 Cessna 172 with its 50-year-old airframe? Here’s what modern aircraft in the unregulated homebuilt industry look like:

Rutan-Long-EZ

Rutan Long-EZE


GlasairIIIoutsideturn

Stoddard-Hamilton Glasair III

Both of those are much faster than the Cessna, more fuel efficient, have longer ranges, and are a fraction of the Cessna’s cost. Burt Rutan took the experience from building composite homebuilt aircraft and created the first private spaceship. Other employees have gone on to build rocket planes and other space companies.

The SCUBA and homebuilt aircraft industries provide excellent examples of the difference between government regulation and the free market. One leads to stagnation and higher costs, while the other is driven by innovation which drives down prices, increases safety, and grows markets. Oh, and it leaves people free to make their own choices.

Laissez-faire SCUBA (Part 1): How an Unregulated Industry Triumphed

Laissez-faire SCUBA (Part 2): Regulators Without Regulations

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  1. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Amen amen amen!  The government (as well as trial lawyers) almost completely killed the general aviation industry when it should have been expanding exponentially.  Another result today is it’s almost impossible to afford to fly recreationally, let alone buy a plane.  Back when I was an active pilot and AOPA member most pilots dreamed of owning a Glasair or other “kit” planes with new technology, not an old style expensive traditional aircraft.  It’s the difference between a 2 stroke, 18hp East German Trabant vs a modern Cadillac CTS.

    The parallel with Scuba diving is a good one I had never thought of!

    • #1
  2. Chris Gregerson Member
    Chris Gregerson
    @ChrisGregerson

    My favorite contrast in the light aircraft category is the 172 vs. the Lancair 4P. They cost about the same, the new 172 about $400K the experimental Lancair 4P, which you buy second hand but essentially new, about the same price, or a little less. The Lancair 4P is twice as fast, can fly twice as high, and is pressurized for maximum high altitude flying comfort.

    • #2
  3. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa
    @RayKujawa

    Stoddard-Hamilton Glasair III is homebuilt? That’s impressive looking.

    I’ve flown mid-late 70’s and early 80’s Cessna 172’s around 1999-2002. The airplanes were well maintained by a reputable flight school. The longevity of those airplanes and the high costs of flying, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, would definitely have an impact on growth of sales of new aircraft. New aircraft would have more advanced cockpit electronics (more of a “glass cockpit” look), each system of which would have its own costs associated with certification. It’s much more than the airframe and engine, but considering little difference in performance, it seems too high a price to pay for improving the efficiency to navigate of an aircraft that was already all-weather capable depending on the pilot rating (IFR).

    What is next? Homebuilt spacecraft?

    • #3
  4. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    Great! I tried explaining this to some friends once but I didn’t know about SCUBA and home-built planes to use them as examples. Instead, I used computer software and Silicon Valley as my unregulated, government-free example. But SCUBA and home-builds are much better examples.

    Anyway, I advocated for the drug industry to go this way. It would bring down the cost and speed up product development. Boy, did I get some crazy looks.

    UL, SAE, IEEE and other industry groups are similar to PADI and other groups Dan talks about. We just need them to be the norm, not the exception.

    Thanks Dan.

    • #4
  5. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    The amazing thing about the light aircraft industry is that the regulated industry is so screwed up that homebuilt aircraft are now entering service almost as fast as certificated aircraft,  despite the fact that they take years to build.

    This is not a small industry.  In 2010, for example,  there were 21,270 homebuilts actively registered and flying.   One company,  Van’s Aircraft,  has sold so many kits that as of today 9,215 of them are flying, making them one of the larger aircraft manufacturers in history.  Given that it generally takes years and more than 1,000 hours of labor to build a homebuilt,  their total sales are undoubtedly much higher.  Obviously the demand for new aircraft is extremely high,  and equally obviously the regulated light aircraft industry is no longer capable of meeting that demand.  Regulations have made their airplanes non-competitive and crazy expensive. 

    For example,  here’s a Van’s RV-10,  a four seat, fixed gear airplane:

    10 syracuse

    A close factory analogue to this plane would be a Piper Archer.  They are both four seats,  fixed gear light aircraft.

    gallery_archer051

    How do their Specs compare?  Let’s have a look:

    RV-10:

    • Engine: 235 HP
    • Cruise Speed @ 75% power:  169 KTAS
    • Stall Speed: 49 kts
    • Takeoff Distance: 415 ft
    • Rate of Climb: 1,221 fpm
    • Range @ 75% power: 767 nm
    • Service Ceiling: 20,538 ft
    • COST:  $115,065 to $127,670, depending on options

    Piper Archer:

    • Engine: 180 HP
    • Cruise Speed @ 75% power:  128 KTAS
    • Stall Speed: 45 kts
    • Takeoff Distance: 1135 ft
    • Rate of Climb: 667 fpm
    • Range @ 75% power: 522 nm
    • Service Ceiling: 14,100 ft
    • COST: $345,000 to $358,700, depending on options

    These differences are not small!  The RV flies 40 kts faster,  has a ceiling 6,000 ft higher,  climbs twice as fast, has 250nm more range, and needs half the runway to take off and land.  And it’s less than 1/3 the price of the Archer,  plus labor.

    In fact,  to get the kind of performance an RV-10 gives you,  you’d have to move up to a twin Piper Seneca,  which costs a million dollars and costs way, way more to operate.

    Cessna has a modern light aircraft that competes well with the RV-10,  the TTX.  Of course,  they bought the design from a homebuilt manufacturer  who decided to enter the certificated aircraft market – and then went bankrupt because certification with the government cost so much money.  Cessna finished the job.   Unfortunately,   by the time Cessna was able to market it as a regulated, certificated aircraft,  the base price climbed to about $800,000.

    • #5
  6. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Ray Kujawa:Stoddard-Hamilton Glasair III is homebuilt? That’s impressive looking.

    Yep.  In fact,  I’ve flown the very Glasair III shown in that picture above (N540RG).  A friend wanted to build one but didn’t have his license yet,  so he took me along to the factory to test-fly the factory demo plane, the one in the picture.  The thing is crazy good.  270 mph cruise,  3,000 fpm climb rate.  Great handling.

    I’ve flown mid-late 70′s and early 80′s Cessna 172′s around 1999-2002. The airplanes were well maintained by a reputable flight school. The longevity of those airplanes and the high costs of flying, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, would definitely have an impact on growth of sales of new aircraft.

    You hit on something I might have mentioned in the article:  Maintenance standards for aircraft prevent them from degrading – parts must be replaced as they show wear.   So generally,  a 10 year old airframe will be just as good as a new one,  or the airplane wouldn’t be allowed to fly.  That makes the competition from used aircraft that much worse.

    New aircraft would have more advanced cockpit electronics (more of a “glass cockpit” look), each system of which would have its own costs associated with certification. It’s much more than the airframe and engine, but considering little difference in performance, it seems too high a price to pay for improving the efficiency to navigate of an aircraft that was already all-weather capable depending on the pilot rating (IFR).

    You can put a glass cockpit in any aircraft.  Old ones,  new ones,  homebuilts… I’ve seen homebuilt aircraft decked out like spaceships inside.

    What is next? Homebuilt spacecraft?

    Um…

    SpaceShip-2-lors-de-son-premier-vol-supersonique-en-avril-2013.1

    That would be SpaceShip One,  the first private craft to reach the boundary of space.  The builder?  Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites company,  which got its start in the homebuilt aircraft industry.  The Long-EZE in the post above is one of his designs.

    His brother,  Dick Rutan,  is the guy who flew around the world non-stop,  in another of Burt’s aircraft.  Dick’s company is now in the space industry making rocket engines and a rocket-powered version of that Long-EZE for racing.

    That’s another thing that happens with free markets – serendipity.  When people are free to innovate without government approval,  you never know where their imaginations will take them.

    • #6
  7. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    So what are the limitations of a home-build airplane?

    • #7
  8. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Dan – I like the points you bring out about the differences between Flying and Scuba. But the standard engine in the 1963 Cessna 172 was a 145HP 6 cylinder Continental O-300, which is significantly different than the 4 cylinder 180 HP O-360 Lycoming of the recent model.

    • #8
  9. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Dan Hanson:RV-10:

    • Engine: 235 HP
    • Cruise Speed @ 75% power: 169 KTAS
    • Stall Speed: 49 kts
    • Takeoff Distance: 415 ft
    • Rate of Climb: 1,221 fpm
    • Range @ 75% power: 767 nm:
    • COST: $115,065 to $127,670, depending on options

    A better match would be a Piper Dakota that uses the same O-540 Engine:

    • Engine: 235 HP (same as RV-10)
    • Cruise Speed @ 75% power: 143 KTAS
    • Stall Speed: 56 kts
    • Range @ 75% power: 650 nm
    • Ground Roll: 886 feet

    The RV-10 is still better, but my former 1979 Dakota cost less than $100K.

    • #9
  10. mildlyo Member
    mildlyo
    @mildlyo

    Great series. This is a point that cannot be made too often.

    • #10
  11. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Vectorman:Dan – I like the points you bring out about the differences between Flying and Scuba. But the standard engine in the 1963 Cessna 172 was a 145HP 6 cylinder Continental O-300, which is significantly different than the 4 cylinder 180 HP O-360 Lycoming of the recent model.

    Huh.  I thought it had an O-360 by 1963.  I just looked for the first O-360 Cessna 172,  and it looks like it was in 1968.  That hardly makes a difference to the point, though.  They still look the same,  and relatively speaking the 1968 172 was still the price of a luxury car, rather than the supercar pricing of the current 172.  But thanks for the correction!  I edited the article to correct the mistake.

    • #11
  12. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    JimGoneWild:So what are the limitations of a home-build airplane?

    The Experimental category does not allow commercial passenger or cargo operations.   Some countries also have other limitations.

    • #12
  13. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Vectorman:

    A better match would be a Piper Dakota that uses the same O-540 Engine:

    The RV-10 is still better, but my former 1979 Dakota cost less than $100K.

    I was trying to compare new airplanes against new homebuilts,  and the Dakota hasn’t been in production for what,  something like 10 years?  I couldn’t find a last production date for the aircraft.  But you’re right – it would be the closest match it were still in production – and it would probably be over $500,000.

    To be honest,  even though it has less horsepower I think a better comparison to the RV might be a Grumman Tiger.  It’s very fast for the horsepower and has a bit of a ‘homebuilt’ feel to it.  I owned a Grumman AA1, and flew the Tiger and Cheetah as well.  Great airplanes.  But they couldn’t survive in the regulated marketplace either.  Four different companies since American Aviation have purchased the Type Certificate and the tooling for the Tiger, but none have managed to build and sell them profitably.  A 2004 Tiger is currently in Trade-A-Plane for $150,000.

    • #13
  14. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    JimGoneWild:So what are the limitations of a home-build airplane?

    Aside from what Vectorman said,  the main limitation is that you have to build at least 51% of the aircraft yourself, although ‘build it yourself’ has become a pretty fuzzy concept in the past few years.  The field is also not totally unregulated – you are still required to do annual inspections (either the owner or a licensed aircraft mechanic), and if the government issues airworthiness directives against a component in the airplane, you must comply.   So for example, if the government sends out a notice that all airplanes equipped with engine model xxx must inspect the crankshaft within 100 hours,  that’s what you have to do.  That’ll cost you a few thousand dollars.  Surprise!

    Aircraft engines are crazy expensive to buy and maintain,  and most homebuilts still use standard aircraft engines (some of the smaller ones use Rotax engines,  which are cheaper).  The O-235 engine in my old Grumman is a very simple air-cooled engine that makes 115 HP.   It uses magnetos and is simpler than an old four-banger out of a Pinto.  The new price on one of those is $60,000.  (!!).   That’s how screwed up the aviation market is.  Even a rebuild on mine would have been over $20,000.   That’s what happens when your market has shrunk to the point where only a couple hundred new aircraft are made each year.  Everything becomes expensive.

    • #14
  15. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Another distinction for many homebuilts is the use of regular gas instead of super expensive avgas because you can actually have engine options instead of the standard Lycoming or Continental design that has been around longer than I have been alive. Look at the power, performance, fuel efficiency, and reliability the auto industry has developed in combustion engines.  You can’t just drop a car motor in a plane but the point is there is very little advancement in general aviation engines for the most part.  It’s a wonder we ever got past radials!  (which are awesome)

    • #15
  16. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Dan Hanson:

    Vectorman:Dan – I like the points you bring out about the differences between Flying and Scuba. But the standard engine in the 1963 Cessna 172 was a 145HP 6 cylinder Continental O-300, which is significantly different than the 4 cylinder 180 HP O-360 Lycoming of the recent model.

    Huh. I thought it had an O-360 by 1963. I just looked for the first O-360 Cessna 172, and it looks like it was in 1968. That hardly makes a difference to the point, though. They still look the same, and relatively speaking the 1968 172 was still the price of a luxury car, rather than the supercar pricing of the current 172. But thanks for the correction.

    You’re not that far off.  As shown in the Cessna 172 wiki entry, the 1968 C-172 used the 4 cylinder Lycoming O-320, originally 150 HP, but most have been converted to 160 HP with increased compression for 90+ octane gas.

    The O-360 was actually de-rated from 180 HP to 160 HP when the production line was restarted in 1996.  This proves your point about how backwards aircraft type certification can be!

    • #16
  17. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Concretevol:Another distinction for many homebuilts is the use of regular gas instead of super expensive avgas because you can actually have engine options instead of the standard Lycoming or Continental design that has been around longer than I have been alive. Look at the power, performance, fuel efficiency, and reliability the auto industry has developed in combustion engines. You can’t just drop a car motor in a plane but the point is there is very little advancement in general aviation engines for the most part. It’s a wonder we ever got past radials! (which are awesome)

    The aircraft you see in my avatar is certified for auto gas usage, and I flew with it regularly until about 2010.  The state of Indiana effectively mandates 10% ethanol, so I end up using regular aviation gas.

    There are many successful  automotive engine conversions (Corvair, Subaru, Mazda Rotary, Honda Fit, Volkswagen) for homebuilts, but all end up costing significant money ($7,000 +) after conversion.  Airplanes run at 75% power for hours, whereas an auto can cruise the highway at a much lower (~20%) power. In addition, the propeller limits the  engine about 2500 RPM, which is below the torque peak in many engines, thereby needing a gear reduction unit.

    I plan on using either the Corvair or Honda in my experimental.

    • #17
  18. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    When I was into homebuilts I considered using an auto engine.  One concern I had was precession loads – airplanes pitch up and down a lot and roll from side to side a lot,  while an auto engine in a car remains fairly level or with very gradual angle changes.

    Are there any issues with precession loads?  Main engine bearings and crankshaft issues?

    In the end I shied away from auto engines because of the unknowns,  and because I wasn’t thrilled about the engine quitting if the ignition system failed.  Has there been improvements in the last 20 years?  I remember back then the Rotax engines were considered fairly unreliable in light aircraft usage,  but now I see them in LSA planes so I assume there has been some advancement in these engines as well.

    I remember when Porsche tried to build an aircraft engine.  They spent millions and got it certified and flying in a Mooney,  but eventually gave up.  Too expensive,  not enough market.

    I was a director of a flying club in the 80’s, and we spent a lot of time getting a Mogas (auto gas) certification on our Cessna 150’s.  Unleaded car gas was thought to be better in the O-200 engine than the 100LL we had to use when 80/87 became unavailable.  We got an STC for Mogas for one of our planes and took part in the early trials for mogas use in the O-200.  We ran into problems with carb icing as I recall,  but amended our procedures to avoid it.

    • #18
  19. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Dan Hanson:Are there any issues with precession loads? Main engine bearings and crankshaft issues?

    ……

    I was a director of a flying club in the 80′s, and we spent a lot of time getting a Mogas (auto gas) certification on our Cessna 150′s. Unleaded car gas was thought to be better in the O-200 engine than the 100LL we had to use when 80/87 became unavailable. We got an STC for Mogas for one of our planes and took part in the early trials for mogas use in the O-200. We ran into problems with carb icing as I recall, but amended our procedures to avoid it.

    Yes, the Corvair Conversion has added a 5th Bearing for prop loads, etc.  For the Honda Fit, the Propeller Speed Reduction Unit (PSRU) handles these problems.

    My engine in the Aeronca 7BCM avatar is a Continental C-85, which is a precursor to the C-100 / O-200 used in the Cessna 150.  It does tend to have more carburetor icing with auto fuel than with avgas.  There are newer fuel rail type systems that reduce icing.

    I’m hoping to test the new Swift Fuels unleaded avgas replacement soon to reduce sparkplug fouling caused by 100LL avgas.  It’s also cheaper, but it takes two hours of flying to try it out!

    • #19
  20. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Vectorman: The aircraft you see in my avatar is certified for auto gas usage, and I flew with it regularly until about 2010.  The state of Indiana effectively mandates 10% ethanol, so I end up using regular aviation gas. There are many successful  automotive engine conversions (Corvair, Subaru, Mazda Rotary, Honda Fit, Volkswagen) for homebuilts, but all end up costing significant money ($7,000 +) after conversion.  Airplanes run at 75% power for hours, whereas an auto can cruise the highway at a much lower (~20%) power. In addition, the propeller limits the  engine about 2500 RPM, which is below the torque peak in many engines, thereby needing a gear reduction unit. I plan on using either the Corvair or Honda in my experimental.

    Good stuff!  I guess my point is, along with the OP, the tight regulation on the aviation industry has strangled a lot of innovation.  There is something to be said for not changing something that works but if it weren’t for the liability/licensing issues I bet Lycoming and Continental would have made advancements in their engines on par with what has been done in the auto industry.

    • #20
  21. Pony Convertible Inactive
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    I work for a medical device company that started making devices before the FDA started regulating devices.  The company grew due to innovation.  The first multi-lumen catheter, and the first angioplasty balloon were developed by us.  We made one of a kind custom devices for doctors to help them deal with difficult and unique cases.  These devices improved healthcare, saved millions of lives, and millions of dollars due to procedures being mush less invasive and expensive.

    Now that we are under FDA regulation, new products take years, or even decades to get to market. Once approved, even a small change may take years and millions of dollars to implement.   Devices for unique, low occurrence, situations,….forget it.

    • #21
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