First Word


When I was a high school freshman, I failed French I, largely because I never studied and I sat in the back of the class hurling spitballs instead of taking notes. I could have squeaked by with a weak D except for one unfortunate incident when the teacher, a tortured old soul named Mr. Nicholson, turned away from the blackboard to catch me in mid-windup with a particularly disgusting wad of sodden notebook paper.

This led to my second or third expulsion-Ive long since lost the ability to keep them straight-and led my weary father to observe that the only way I would ever get out of high school was to have it burned down. Little did he-or I-know that I was actually in training to become an aviation journalist, because I have learned that if you do this job right, the accurate targeting of editorial spitballs is a must-have occupational skill. The trick is to exercise just that degree of restraint so that youre not perceived as-God forbid!-being negative.

This is not easy to do. For one thing, people attracted to aviation tend toward the Pollyannaish and they arent happy to have reality rudely barge in on those magic interludes of slipping the surly bonds. Readers of this magazine tend to self-select away from that attitude, but everyone has only so much appetite for the unvarnished truth. Second, in this job, one has to summon otherworldly discipline to avoid collapsing in laughter upon hearing some of the ludicrous business plans and proposed products some companies announce with the full expectation that theyll be taken seriously.

All of this came to mind as I was preparing this months report comparing datalink with sferics equipment. Everyone in the field predicted a shakeout in this market, but upon adding up the carnage, I realized that four respected companies-Garmin, Bendix/King, Avidyne and WSI-all fielded datalink products that, in the space of three or four years-have proven technically flawed or had poor enough performance to merit the products being discontinued or radically redesigned. In other words, for as good as the technology is now, embryonic datalink has been a train wreck.  This has yielded a trickle of anguished reader calls and e-mails wondering just why the hell we didnt warn them.

Good point. Frankly, our early trials of datalink showed some anomalies, but without extensive reports from the field, making too much of these too soon in a products life isn’t fair to companies or buyers. Sometimes, one has to pause and reflect before launching the next spitball. If I had learned that earlier, I might have graduated with a GPA north of the atomic weight of helium. On the other hand, Ive made it this far without speaking French.


Some years ago, I interviewed the then-CEO of Lycoming, Phil Boob, a plain-speaking guy who came up through the aircraft sales ranks. At the time, Cessna was just returning to production and predicting sales of 2000 units a year within a couple of years. No way, said Boob. He said he would be happy to sell Cessna as many engines as it wanted, but sales would be more like 700 airplanes and it would take five years to get there. Even his estimate proved generous, but it was closer than Cessnas. The company delivered just over 800 airplanes in 2006, nine years into its piston-engine resurrection.

I thought of his comments when I left Oshkosh last month…all those very light jets and all those marketing people convinced there will be sales headroom for all of them. Well, there wont be. The situation is somewhat analogous to the datalink market four years ago, but on a far grander scale and when the market corrects, the simple fix wont be wiring in another $5000 box. I think some people are going to get stuck. Big time.

At this stage, its impossible to say which of these companies will make it and which wont. Most of the reporting on VLJs in the aviation press is wet-kiss glad-handing; there’s been little discussion or analysis of how the market is supposed to absorb all of these airplanes.  The wise buyer will look less at the airplanes and more closely at the companies financials. I suspect that the real volatility hasnt even emerged yet. Im holding a few spitballs in reserve. I am dolefully confident I wont lack for targets.


Paul Bertorelli is Aviation Consumer’s Editor at Large. In addition to his valued contributions to Aviation Consumer, his in-depth video productions on sister publication AVweb cover a wide variety of topics that greatly contribute to safety, operation and aircraft ownership. When Paul isn’t writing or filming, he’s out flying his J3 Cub.