By Jay Wischkaemper
When you start saying, “I remember when,” it’s probably a sign of old age.
This afternoon, I started remembering when.
That catalyst was a visit to the airport wheresitting on the ramp was a pristine Piper Navajo. Pristine Navajo’s aren’t uncommon, but this one boasted the paint scheme that Piper popularized on the airplane during its early years. You don’t see that very often. It turned out the plane in question is a 1978 model, so the paint may have been put on by an equally nostalgic owner, but however it got there, it screamed vintage 60’s. The top and bottom where white with the middle of the plane painted Piper red. I’m sure Piper had a more technical name for it than that. On the tail were the classic Piper arrow designs.
As I looked at the plane, my mind was flooded with memories of the time when Navajos, as well as cabin class Cessnas and Beech Queen Airs were selling like hotcakes. I remembered the brand new one a couple bought when they discovered the Beech 18 they had just purchased had been in a hangar fire and the entire plane had been red tagged. No problem. They just wrote out a check for $125,000 for a new Navajo. A freight company operated two new Navajo’s carrying overnight freight between Dallas and Lubbock. FedEx was unheard of in those days. I was working in the parts room at Horton Aero service at the time, and we were the warranty service center for Piper. We saw a lot of Piper airplanes.
It was a different time in aviation. The Narco Mark 12 was the latest in radio technology. A well-equipped plane had two of them, plus an ADF. Transponders? What are those? Maybe somebody had them, but nothing I flew or saw had one. Radar, if it existed, was shades of green. VORs were the only navigation aids available other than a good AM radio station. RNAV didn’t exist. DME was rare in anything under a cabin class twin. The KX170b was still on the drawing board. You had to wait a couple of minutes for the tubes of the Narcos to warm up. Airplanes had yokes in front of the pilot, not sticks on the side. If a plane did have a stick, it was at least between your legs. Fuel injection was a luxury for the big boys. I still had to remember carb heat. GPS? This was only 10 years or so after Sputnik. Even communication satellites were primitive, and satellite navigation had hardly been thought of, much less perfected. Man had just landed on the moon. Electronic calculators were in their infancy. Personal computers were over a decade away, and the computers that existed had five figure price tags when that was still a lot of money.
Flight schools always bought new planes, later selling the old ones to individuals. Cherokee 140s and Cessna 150s. A 140 rented for $14.00 an hour. The 150 was $12.00. There were always several of them on the flight line, and they always stayed busy. An instructor was $4.00 an hour in the Piper, and $5.00 in the 150. I usually flew the Piper because with an instructor, it was only a dollar an hour more. Of course, with a salary of $1.65 per hour at the time, that was still a lot of money. The planes themselves sold for about $12,000 for the Cherokee and probably $10,000 for the Cessna. To put that in perspective, a decent new car sold for about $2,500. Ad a zero to those prices and you can buy a car for that today, but not an airplane. Avgas cost fifty cents a gallon, which was roughly twice what we paid to fuel the car.
Over in the maintenance stop, labor rates were $8.00 per hour for an A&P, and $6.00 per hour for a helper. Most of the work was done by helpers and signed off by the A&P, but since the billing scheme resembled that of a law firm, a creative A&P could bill out 20 hours a day if he wanted to. My job was to do the invoices, and even then, I felt sorry for the maintenance bills I was creating.
So it isn’t like it used to be. In some ways it’s worse, but in a lot of ways it’s better. I struggled just as much in those days to pay the $14.00 to rent a new plane as I would to pay the $70.00 to rent today’s 30-year-old specimen if I were having to rent. While pilot stupidity has kept the accident rate up, we have far more safety features than we had back then. Planes of that era didn’t even have shoulder harnesses. Headsets were unheard of, as were earplugs. You just yelled and went deaf early. My handheld GPS has more navigating power than the entire panel did in those days. The glass panels that are becoming standard in general aviation aircraft today would have been science fiction as little as 10 years ago, yet today they are the norm.
There were a lot of college kids such as myself who sacrificed a great deal to learn to fly. But we did it, not because there was any inherent need, but because there was a burning passion. And there are kids today looking up at the sky with dreams of flight who will find a way to do it, just like we did, and who will grow into successful businessmen and women who will raise new children who will have those same dreams.
The world in which they will fly is different. Acronyms like TFR and EFIS and FADEC will be part of their vocabulary. Narco is a shell of the powerhouse it once was, and odds of turning a knob with the Narco name beside it are slim. Even King, who set the standard in avionics for years is feeling the pressure of the new kids on the block. Pilots of the future will look at names like Garmin and Avidyne in the panel until some newer kid comes along to challenge them. If they are fortunate enough to fly a newer airplane, it may not be made of metal. Their life could some day be saved by a parachute lowering the entire plane to the ground. When they get their instrument ticket, they will learn WAAS instead of ADF approaches.
Yet in spite of all the changes, people will continue to fly for the same reason people have always flown. While they may find practical uses for their skills, the reason most people fly is not to get from point A to point B. Rather it is for the romance and the freedom and joy and thrill it brings them. No pilot ever started his career with the attitude, “Well, I have to do something in to make a living, so I might as well learn to fly airplanes.” People fly because they love to fly, and whatever changes there may be in technology and cost and systems, that is one fact that will never change.
Texas native Jay Wischkaemper is a successful MassMutual life insurance agent based in Lubbock, Texas. He is a long-time partner in a Bellanca Super Viking, which he uses for business and pleasure.