By Howard Deevers
(This article was inspired by my mechanic, Pete Stogsdill, who owns, maintains, and flies a 1975 Cessna 172 that he has had for 18 years.)
We have all heard of the “Roaring 20’s,” that period of time about 100 years ago before the great depression. Life was good and there was not a care in the world. Then the Great Depression came. General Aviation has had such a time, also.
After the end of WWII there was a lot more interest in aviation. Major advancements in technology ushered in air travel as planes were bigger, faster, and more comfortable. The major airlines were competing for routes, newer and bigger aircraft, and services such as meals, and even sleepers, to attract more customers. Many of those airlines are not around any longer: TWA, Braniff, Pan Am, Eastern, Ozark, and more that I’m sure you can name.
But, what about General Aviation? The returning service men that were pilots wanted to keep flying. Most of the major airlines hired their pilots from the ranks of ex-military pilots, and that trend continued for quite some time. The general feeling was that there would be an airplane in every household. That didn’t happen, but there was a lot more interest in learning to fly. That interest led General Aviation suppliers to start producing more and better airplanes for the public. Those companies that had their roots going back before WWII were supplying airplanes for the GA pilot. Names like Cessna, Piper, Beech, Mooney, Rockwell, Grumman, and more.
In the 50’s and 60’s aircraft production was on the rise. The major companies were competing for the business of the public by introducing new models and upgrades to existing models. By the 70’s, General Aviation aircraft production was at its peak. In 1970 there were 7,292 GA airplanes delivered. In 1978 there were 17,811 GA airplanes delivered, and almost 100,000 delivered for the decade from 1970 to 1980. And in 1970 there were 19 million control tower operations. By 1979 control tower operations increased to about 40 million. (Naturally that does not include non-towered operations.) By 1980 there were 208,000 active GA airplanes on the FAA registry. Another note of interest, in 1970 the EAA moved its fly-in to Oshkosh and by 1980 more than 1 million people would attend during the week long fly-in experience.
The most successful GA aircraft in history has to be the Cessna 172. First flown in 1955, more Cessna 172’s have been produced than any other aircraft (about 44,000 by my research). However, in 1985 Cessna halted production of all piston aircraft due to the high number of court cases and settlements due to crashes of airplanes. It seemed that any airplane crash resulted in the manufacturers being sued, regardless of the cause of the crash. It was almost 10 years before tort reform was passed, and Cessna brought back the 172. The loss of the 172 was so stunning that there was a plan to “clone” the 172 by taking one apart and making a copy of each part and start producing “Clone 172’s.” Cessna never commented on that plan, and before that could happen, the 172 was back in production.
Another iconic airplane has to be mentioned, the Piper Cub. The Cub was actually produced before WWII, and first flew in 1937. Deliveries began in 1938. The J-3 Cub was the only name known to non-pilots; every small airplane was “a Cub.” A brand new Cub could be purchased for $1300.00. That may sound cheap to us today, but in 1937 an average new car cost only $760.00, a gallon of gas was 10 cents, and the average household annual income was just over $4000.00. It is safe to say that thousands of pilots got their license, or at least did their first solo, in a Cub. I still run across pilots that have been flying much longer than I have, and they tell me that they soloed in 6 or 8 hours. When I hear that, I have to say, “Let me guess… It was in a J-3 Cub, on a grass field, somewhere in the Mid West.” Most of them say, “You’re right!” Flying was different in those days. Now you will take much longer to solo, and you DO have to know regulations, radio use, and pass a written test given by your instructor.
By the 70’s, people were not very interested in airplanes that had no electrical system, no radios, and had to be hand propped to start. A new Cessna 172 with one radio and a basic electrical system sold for $13,425.00 in 1971. Instrument equipped planes were a bit more. During the 70’s, the major suppliers were competing with new models and experimenting with new engine horsepower and features. By the end of the 70’s, a new Cessna 172P would cost $33,950.00. The competition from Piper was similar; Beech aircraft were always a little more expensive than Piper or Cessna. All companies had made some modification to the basic airframe, but improvements in engine and avionics were more significant.
In 1981 the flying club that I belonged to in Pittsburgh upgraded from a 1969 Piper Cherokee 180 (PA28-180) to a 1978 Piper Archer (PA28-181). We sold the 180 that had about 3000 hours total time for $10,000.00, and paid about $20,000.00 for the Archer with 1000 hours total time. With 2 King digital radios, ADF, full IFR ability, and an autopilot, that was quickly the pride of the fleet.
It was not just single engine and multi engine piston airplanes that made their marks in the 70’s. Gliders, also known as Sailplanes, were becoming more popular as well. One manufacturer, with a German sounding name, Schweitzer, but built in the U S, made an impression on the soaring community. Not as many gliders were produced as piston airplanes, but the “Roaring 70’s” saw interest in all aspects of aviation. The Schweitzer Company, located in Elmira, NY, produced sailplanes that are still in use today. The Schweitzer SGS 2-33 first flew in 1965 and almost 580 were delivered until production ended in 1981. Schweitzer and partner, Hughes Aircraft, also built helicopters used mostly for utilities and basic training.
What was it about the 70’s that made General Aviation so popular and grow so much? The economy was doing well, and people had more expendable money. Was it advertising? That might have been a contributing factor. The interest in learning to fly had peaked, and both the Korean War and Vietnam were over. The Interstate Highway system was mostly completed by the mid 70’s, and people were more interested in quicker long distance travel, and airplanes offered that solution. Whatever combination of factors that caused the aviation “Roaring 70’s,” we have never seen such a record since. Another amazing fact is that so many of those planes are still flying!
Updates to those 70’s airplanes are readily available from many suppliers. You can increase the horse power, add new radios, and now we have GPS. New paint and interiors make those older airplanes look like new. Sitting side by side, a new Cessna 172, and a 40 year old updated Cessna 172 would be hard to tell apart. There are upgrades available for Piper, Mooney, and Beech, as well as other models.
Aircraft alone were not the only improvements to aviation in the “Roaring 70’s.” The FAA was busy improving navigation systems, upgrading Control towers and airport infrastructures, and FBO’s were finding new markets and competing for business from pilots that flew for business and, or, pleasure. We did not have GPS yet, but it was on the horizon as more and more satellites were put into orbit around the Earth.
We may never see that kind of production of general aviation aircraft again. The cost of a new Piper Archer is 4 – 5 times the price it sold for in 1980, but with modern electronics, better autopilots, ADS-B, and GPS technology that we did not have in 1980. Let’s go fly!
Your ARIZONA PILOTS ASSICIATION holds safety seminars in locations all over the state every month. Be sure to check the web site for locations, times and subjects. Sign up for WINGS credit as well. And, don’t forget to bring your wingman.