The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on general aviation, as well as pilots’ humanitarian actions, dominated aviation news. Since March, AOPA has published nearly 300 stories and briefs related to COVID-19 on its breaking news page, ranging from the FAA’s special federal aviation regulations granting pilots some extensions to expiring medicals and certificates to tips for disinfecting cockpits, safely carrying passengers, air traffic service impacts, humanitarian missions to produce and deliver personal protective equipment, to socially distanced activities and eateries near airports. Aviation events throughout the year were either scrubbed or switched to virtual. The Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, EAA AirVenture, and AOPA’s regional fly-ins were all canceled, and the National Business Aviation Association changed its annual in-person conference to a virtual event. Later in the year, some smaller events continued, including the Antique Airplane Association’s annual fly-in in Iowa and Sun ‘n Fun’s Holiday Flying Festival and Car Show.
Threats to GPS navigation grabbed pilots’ attention. The year started off with a threat to GPS in the form of large-scale jamming in the Southeast during a military exercise. Threats to GPS intensified once the Federal Communications Commission approved the proposed Ligado Networks 5G wireless network in April. AOPA and the aviation community have fought back because of concerns that the network could interfere with GPS signals.
Pilots reached out to AOPA throughout the year, alarmed by substantial increases of 10 to 100 percent in their hull and liability insurance premiums. AOPA President Mark Baker has worked to educate insurers about pilots’ safety and training, and has spoken out on behalf of pilots during online conferences and webinars. In December, AOPA’s strategic insurance partner AssuredPartners Aerospace announced that it had teamed with an aviation insurer to explore options for pilots up to age 79.
High-profile accidents claimed lives and tarnished GA’s image. In January, basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others died in a helicopter accident in California. In April, the National Transportation Safety Board released its factual report in the 2017 fatal accident of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Roy Halladay. The report revealed that Halladay, who was flying his Icon Aircraft A5, was “heavily impaired by a noxious variety of drugs, operating without full appreciation for the risks of low-altitude flying,” wrote AOPA Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden in an analysis of the data. Meanwhile, a 74-year-old pilot was lauded after making a safe emergency landing on a busy freeway without damaging any vehicles on the road or putting a scratch on the airplane. The dramatic event was caught on camera.
Capt. Tammie Jo Shults talked with AOPA in September to detail the multiple emergencies she faced captaining a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 on April 17, 2018, after the left engine destructed, killing one passenger and damaging the airliner. She and first officer Darren Ellisor flew the jet with one good engine, wing damage, a depressurized cabin, and multiple system failures to a safe landing in Philadelphia.
Mother Nature threw tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes. GA rallied, participating in firefighing and other missions. AOPA highlighted 19-year-old Ashli Blain, who flies the Boeing CH–47D Chinook and Sikorsky UH–60 Black Hawk to fight fires during her summers off from Rocky Mountain College in Montana.
There were some bright spots throughout the year as manufacturers continued producing avionics and aircraft. Garmin received certification of its Autoland system in May. The Piper M600/SLS was the first aircraft certified with the system designed to land the airplane on its own if the pilot becomes incapacitated. The TBM 940 and Cirrus Vision Jet were also certified with the system. Pilots and aircraft owners bought Mooney International to keep it afloat, Extra rolled out the Extra NG model, CubCrafters announced it would produce its backcountry nosewheel NXCub, American Legend unveiled the “Mother of All Cubs,” Diamond announced the DA50RG retractable-gear single, Textron debuted the King Air 260 and King Air 360 and 360ER, Embraer rolled out an enhanced Phenom 300e (though it did experience a setback when Boeing backed out of a deal to buy 80 percent of the company’s commercial aircraft business), Piper certified the Pilot 100, and Dassault Aviation unveiled the Falcon 6X.