I was watching an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage where he was showing the progress he’d made on some of his ongoing projects during the pandemic. He began by running a massive steam engine he has mounted in his shop. It weighs 12 tons and was built out of a single casting during the Lincoln administration (Abraham, not McConaughey). It still worked, but it’s a dinosaur.
You could describe a piston aviation engine the same way. They work, but they are far too heavy and inefficient for the technologically advanced era we live in. When I change the oil on my Ram diesel after hundreds of hours of use, the used oil’s color can still be described as amberhued. My Bonanza’s oil looks like it came from the La Brea tar pits after only 20 hours of use. Imagine telling a new car buyer they must change their oil every 50 hours and that air conditioning is a $25,000 option. Good luck.
After running the steam engine for a few minutes, Leno moved over to his restoration of a 1962 Maserati 3500 GTI. He changed out the original transmission for a modern five-speed Tremec. No more missed shifts or grinding gears, and now he can actually use reverse. In this context, “original” is an overrated concept. I am the kind of pilot who feels an aesthetic loyalty to the past, but not a mechanical one. Leno’s sensibility resonates with me. Keep the beautiful, toss the unreliable. The romantic notion of working on unreliable ’60s-era Lucas electronics on the side of the road does not translate to aviation—a failure of any component in flight is the least romantic thing I can imagine. Let the purists scream in protest; Leno and I rejoice.
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