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In a Throw-Away Culture, What Lasts?

Airplanes

airspacemag.com

Airplanes.

They are exceptionally durable machines, built of aluminum or, increasingly, composites. When properly maintained, they can provide decades of service. Commercial aircraft operated by airlines can last for hundreds of thousands of hours. Your car may give you 10 years, but after that it’s time to recycle it or ship it to Cuba.

The durable Beech Bonanza (flickr/Phil Ostroff)

Even the smallest airframes serve as reusable containers for new engines and electronics, upgrading as each new wave of technology washes over the stubborn structure. Wooden aircraft can rot, and aluminum can corrode, but both forms of decay can be kept at bay by care and maintenance. If that doesn’t work, there’s restoration and refurbishment. A Beech Bonanza, to cite one popular general-aviation airplane that typically is used heavily by its owners, will need an engine overhaul roughly every 2,000 hours. A smart owner will divide the dollar cost of an overhaul by 2,000 and salt away that many dollars in the bank for each hour flown as an “engine reserve” to pay for a new or zero-time engine when the inevitable replacement day draws nigh.

The virtuous durability of airframes became a vice when product liability lawsuits took off during the 1970s and ’80s. Manufacturers suddenly woke up to the fact that every long-lasting airplane represented long-term exposure to corporate liability in the event of a malfunction. After a long struggle, airplane makers were able to secure passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, which limited their liability to personal aircraft not more than 18 years old.

Although engines need regular attention, avionics are the best deal in the world. An owner can add them piecemeal or just yank out the whole instrument panel and replace it with technology such as that offered by Aspen Avionics: That company makes “glass cockpit” displays and systems that fit right in the old holes where the steam gauges used to sit, and it’s the very latest technology at an affordable price. Instant new airplane. And you don’t have to buy a new operating system every three years.

At small airports across the country, airplanes are handed down from one generation to another, not just as heirlooms but as real, live working modes of transportation.  We’ve all complained about the programmed obsolescence of our cars, our appliances, our computers.  Here’s one possession designed to last.

About George C. Larson

George C. Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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