CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new era of general aviation is about to dawn in the United States, experts say, that will provide a viable alternative to crowded freeways and tap into a vast potential for air travel to remote locations that today's commercial airlines largely ignore.

Less expensive aircraft, advances in easy-to-use instrument technology and a trend towards part-ownership of airplanes may be some of the changes that will make a huge growth in aviation possible.

And proponents of these trends say Oregon is in a prime position to lead this national movement.

To explore this issue, a conference titled "The Revolution in General Aviation" will be held June 14-16 at Oregon State University, with more than 30 speakers from industry, government and academia who will explore a wide range of topics. Designed for a professional audience, it's sponsored by the Oregon Department of Aviation, OSU Transportation Research Institute and Oregon Space Grant.

"Aviation is getting simpler, safer and more accessible," said Bill Wilkins, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts at OSU, a former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and a conference organizer. "The original promise of using the air for our routine transportation needs may finally come to pass.

"And we think Oregon is in a perfect position to help lead this growing industry," Wilkins said. "We have business with expertise in composite materials, a strong engineering base, and a lot of interest by a number of private companies who are already involved in aircraft development and manufacture."

General aviation, Wilkins said, is not confined to people who own or fly their own plane. It's commercial aviation in which pilots can be hired, ownership of planes shared, with infrastructure and technology to make the whole process cost-effective and convenient, and literally thousands of airports in every remote hamlet just waiting for this business to take off.

Experts say that there are 5,400 airports in the United States, but only about one in 10 have airline service. The thousands of under-used airport facilities could play a major role in meeting the transportation needs of the 21st century, they say, while helping smaller communities to attract business.

"Right now you're at the mercy of large airlines who serve only a few cities from congested airports, which may or may not get you anywhere near where you want to go in a timely fashion," Wilkins said. "Our road traffic is tied in knots, airlines have frequent delays, work time is lost and travel is far more difficult than it needs to be."

There are better alternatives, Wilkins said.

Wilkins says one of the major changes that will revolutionize air travel is the Global Positioning System, which for the first time can provide comparatively easy, inexpensive instrument landing capabilities at virtually any airport. In addition, fast, lightweight aircraft made with new composite materials are less expensive to operate. NASA has made a major commitment to addressing some of the needs in general aviation. And businesses are finally catching on, Wilkins pointed out, that they can dramatically reduce costs by "sharing" the ownership and use of an airplane, much like different families own time-shares in a vacation house or condominium.

When lost time and personal convenience are factored in, Wilkins said, general aviation can easily be cost effective by comparison to large, more restrictive airlines.

"Put these factors together and there are only a few things holding back an enormous growth in general aviation," Wilkins said. "We need to improve the infrastructure at our smaller airports. We need more pilot and support service training programs in our colleges and universities, and awareness of these fields as good careers. And we need government officials to consider these issues in their economic development and zoning plans."

The conference at OSU, Wilkins said, will draw participants from around the country to address exactly those issues. Topics include:

  • New developments in aircraft design and manufacturing;
  • Airport and heliport infrastructure needs;
  • Economic development opportunities;
  • Advances in airport pavement design;
  • Air travel and the Global Positioning System;
  • What corporate flight departments look for in a community airport.

More information on the conference, fees and registration can be obtained at its web site. The conference is open to the public but there is a $125 registration fee that includes meals. The conference is designed for airport and city managers, city planners and administrative officials, the economic development community, people interested in careers in aviation, pilots, port managers, engineers, educators and agency administrators.

Speakers will be present from NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, OSU, other universities and several private companies.

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Bill Wilkins, 541-737-7487