The future of GA in New Zealand
Modern GA flying, with its emphasis on conforming to bureaucratic and financial requirements, appears to have left behind its grass-roots origins.
While digging through old files recently I discovered one of my old logbooks and, browsing through it, noticed that I first flew in New Zealand 48 years ago. This got me reminiscing about flying back then and thinking to myself: was it less safe, was flying easier, were procedures simpler than today?
I remembered vividly some of the fantastic flights and many of the pilots, but especially the way things were at the time compared with today. Flying was affordable, regulations were realistic and logical, Civil Aviation people were friendly and helpful, flight plans and weather briefings were all free and landing charges were non-existent.
Ardmore had a fully manned control tower, as did nearly every airfield in the country where we could get weather briefings and file flight plans, and we weren’t charged for what today are Airways services.
We didn’t fly around monitored on radar as aircraft were not equipped with transponders and alticoders. Navigation for the VFR pilot was dead reckoning with the chart on your knees and the Kane dead reckoning computer alongside, yet very few of us got lost. We weren’t able to fly along a pre-programmed track on our GPS warning us of high ground ahead or knowing our transponder was identifying us to ATC.
Other than the air force, the aero clubs were the training ground for nearly all the future commercial and airline pilots, and instructors were flat out as clubs all over the country were bursting with members and flying was affordable to anyone wanting a licence.
Flying was not a sport or activity for a privileged few or for the wealthy and their rich kids. I was one of the average everyday Kiwis earning a low wage at the time, yet I could afford to fly most weekends. As a taxpayer you really had the impression the government was using your hard-earned tax dollar efficiently and in ways to make your life enjoyable.
Why then am I writing about the “good old days” and comparing them to today?
Flying wasn’t more risky then. We didn’t hear about higher accident rates, more airspace incidents or mid-airs than today, yet the airspace around some aerodromes such as Ardmore was equally congested with aircraft of all descriptions, including glider operations.
The aero clubs were the centre of our social lives for many of us aviation enthusiasts, and the club bar was the source of advice and knowledge passed down from the instructors and experienced pilots over a post-flying beer. The clubs had a wide range of aircraft in their fleets, all well maintained, and the aero clubs were financially stable.
In what ways does it differ today? At present many aero clubs are suffering from a lack of members and are struggling to cover operational costs—and some have ceased altogether, after decades of service. For many of those in the smaller centres that are still operating, the fleets are tired and aged, as are the members, and flying has become almost unaffordable. The young pilots who desire a career in aviation are faced with unbearable student loans, and those of us still flying are encumbered with invoices for landing charges and Airways charges every month in addition to the costs of the actual flying.
One thing which has changed for the better is the aircraft. With the advent of carbon fibre and other composite materials, better alloys and better aeronautical engineering, aircraft are becoming lighter, more fuel efficient and capable of landing more slowly and in shorter distances. In the two-seater category, aircraft in the LSA and class 2 advanced microlight categories are more manoeuvrable, stall at lower speeds, land shorter and take off in less runway, cost less to maintain and burn much less fuel, all while cruising at similar airspeeds.
When I complained a few years ago to Airways Corporation, which announced it was increasing its rates as well as charging for every circuit at a controlled airfield, the answer was that the average pilot would expect only around $20 extra Airways charges. But what really got me going was how Airways considered anyone who was a pilot was in the upper financial stratosphere and was able to afford it.
I wrote to Airways Corporation, stating that its increased fees, especially for student pilots, would increase the costs for the student by over $1700 just for a basic licence. I was especially concerned that existing pilots would fly less and become less current.
This all adds up to a significant safety factor. However, Airways with the positive feedback from the CAA went ahead regardless of my comments which were not even taken into consideration.
The CAANZ publishes three or four times a year a document “Aviation Safety Summary” which provides some very interesting statistics confirming my concerns. The current edition, 1 January to 31 March 2015, states there were 30 accidents, of which nine were fatal and leaving 25 persons injured. In the aircraft/sports categories there were six fatalities, 12 injured and six aircraft destroyed in only three months. That’s quite a few affected families.
Other statistics are also interesting. The number of private pilot licences in New Zealand has decreased by 12 percent to 2587 pilots, and the number of recreational (RPL) licences has increased by 17 percent to 337. Surely the CAA medical costs have had an effect? However, the total number of hours flown is 7 percent lower.
The most interesting statistic of all is that the total annual number of aircraft movements from certificated aerodromes has decreased by 9 percent to the year ending March 2015, amounting to 10,142 fewer movements. This downward trend has existed for some years now.
One of the justifications Airways Corporation stated for increasing its charges was an increase in workload caused by GA which, when based on the published statistics, is quite the opposite. The Airways controllers have 10,142 fewer aircraft movements to handle every year—far from what could logically be called “an increased workload”.
The only way we can make flying safer and reduce accidents is through better training, improved instruction techniques and, especially, by promoting existing licensed pilots to become more current.
They need to improve their flying techniques and get flying practice. We can be certain that many pilots, due to the current cost increases, have not practised emergency landings, engine failures, crosswind landing techniques and fully developed stalls in the last 12 months.
Increasing the costs of flying the circuit as Airways has done is without a doubt a financial hindrance to remaining current and becoming safer pilots.
With Treasury help the CAA has reinstated free use of MetFlight GA, which is a fantastic step towards safer flying and obtaining accurate weather information, and this is commendable. Further steps in following the examples of the FAA and the UK CAA to promote and facilitate GA activity would be seen by the GA community as significant steps towards simplifying and promoting safer flying in New Zealand.
Our CAA has made the first move. Let’s hope Airways Corporation follows suit and ceases using GA as a revenue stream to top up its coffers. Airways Corp is after all a state owned enterprise and monopoly owned by the taxpayer and needs to streamline its operation and manage expenditure and costs as would any commercial enterprise.
Airways business has had a 9 percent drop off. All of us in the aviation community need to do our part and make our voice heard loud and clear by the Wellington bureaucracy in order to guarantee realistic charges and services and a degree of public service required from an SOE in the interests of aviation safety.
For many pilots, operating from airstrips and uncontrolled airfields or operating in uncontrolled airspace, many of the Airways charges won’t apply, yet that is not a reason for you to not support your fellow pilots of the GA community who are affected. You can do this by lending your support to the GAA (General Aviation Advocacy Group) and following their actions and joining in their programmes at: http://www.caa.gen.nz/ or by writing to your local MP.
If the aviation community as a whole fails to react, the future of flying for our children and grandchildren will be short-lived.
- Report by Steve Walker, photograph by John King.
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