Icarus Series #1: Innovate or Die

Icarus wings of wax

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This series will draw metaphors from the famous Greek mythological story of Icarus.  

If you are unfamiliar; Icarus’ father (Daedalus) was an amazing craftsman who built his son a pair of wings made of wax and feathers. Against his father’s guidance he flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, crashing to his death in the ocean. This ancient story holds a lot of wisdom for general aviation that this series will explore. 



Lack of innovation in general aviation is our wings of wax. Aerospace over the last 110 years has prolifically innovated. It has gone from rickety kites to space ships. The general aviation sector – not so much.

Oh sure we have composites now versus fabric, pretty screens instead of steam gauges in the cockpit, and the little wheel in the back got moved to the front, but can we really say we have seen a century worth of true innovation in GA? Of course not. 


The word innovation comes from the latin word innovates – to renew or restore.



1) We still deal with the same safety issues we had since the beginning:

– Loss of control in flight
– Controlled flight into terrain
– Running out of fuel
– VFR into IMC

2) Our main powerplant technology comes from the 1940s:

– Air cooled horizontally opposed engines (1930s technology)

3) The materials we use to build airplanes is going on 40 years since the last innovation:

– Composites came in the 1970s, I will concede that we continue to refine that one

– Riveted aluminum came on the scene between the world wars

– Fabric and wood (Wright flyer)


In fact we are actually going backwards. Flying is more expensive than ever before. This has spurred some innovation, like Light Sport, but it’s far from a breakthrough. The Ultralight movement of the 1980s was innovative and during it’s time it captured the imagination of may wouldbe flyers, but has waned in recent years.


If we fail to innovate we can expect to continue to decline. Is it too dramatic to say that if we don’t have a true breakthrough within the next 30 years, GA as we know it will cease to exist? Draw your own conclusions.


Ok I glossed over the whole revolution we have had in avionics within the last decade. This is an incredible development and certainly has proven its worth. It is less expensive, more flexible, more reliable, and infinitely more capable than the equipment it replaces. The ability to have this level of situational awareness is insane. Traffic, terrain, and airspace are visually depicted and our position is never in doubt.  Our forefathers could never have dreamed of such capability. This is true innovation. Creating something that most couldn’t even imagine.


What does the future hold? You have heard this from me before, but electric propulsion will most likely be the next breakthrough innovation. <click here to see related article for all the goodness of E-flight>


What else could we potentially innovate? If I knew that I would be out in my garage giving it a go and filing for patents.


At a high level the obvious categories are:

Structures: maybe structures that sense cracks that could alert us before something goes hideously wrong. How’s that for a safety enhancement system wide?

Construction materials: How about inexpensive materials that are so light and strong as to be beyond current comprehensive. How would that change the game?

Propulsion: Electric or maybe other more cosmic methods could be adopted to provide the necessary impulse for our aerial vehicles.

Aerodynamics: Just because there’s been a stasis in aerodynamic breakthroughs doesn’t mean we know it all. Look at what Rutan did in his hangar with his aerodynamic feathering re-entry system within the last 10 years. 

Training: What if training could be turned on its ear and completely shift the paradigm of the average GA pilot?

Procedures: New procedures, yet to be theorized, might change the way we approach light aircraft flight.

Affordability: That’s a novel concept. How about figuring out a way to make flying cheaper. That’s innovation.


I feel that we are just too comfortable to with the status quo and we have lost our desire or courage to innovate. Companies need to think outside the box and get a little crazy. That’s where the magic happens. Don’t believe me, look at innovators like Jobs (apple), Bezos (amazon) and Musk (paypal) those guys are the real deal. They took on monolithic industries and re-wrote the rules. Musk is going to do it twice more with SpaceX and Tesla.  I haven’t seen anyone do this within GA in the last 20 years (if you are thinking of an example – please post it below).


I purposely wrote this from a slightly cynical perspective, but I wanted to trigger some thinking. What do you believe is the next breakthrough innovation for GA? Who do you think is currently innovating out there? Throw your thoughts in the comments below.



Icarus Series #2: The Hubris of Flight

Icarus Series #3: Fly For Life

Icarus Series #4: Structural Weaknesses

Icarus Series #5: When We Should Fly Close To The Sun

Icarus Series #6: Icarus On Airmenship


BONUS: The first person to comment below on what rock band used the image of Icarus for its record label will get a free copy of The Pilot’s Guide To Flying On a Budget (a $21.25 value). 


By Brent Owens <click my name to email me>

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