New Fuel: Who Picks It?
By Paul Bertorelli
Now that the FAA is actively seeking proposed unleaded replacements for 100LL, the covers are about to be removed from what can generously be described as the hard way to solve a problem. Last week, the FAA called for the fuels industry to submit proposed unleaded replacements for avgas by July 1, 2014, after which they'll be asked to prepare larger volumes for more evaluation. After that, more testing, more meetings, more paper.
So over the next year, expect to see a slow motion calling of the cards as the oil companies reveal what they've got, assuming the likes of Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips intend to remain in the avgas game. It's generally assumed that they do because as a refinery product, avgas yields a tidy margin, even though the volumes involved are miniscule and not likely to grow much, if indeed they don't decline. Long term, Jet A-burning engines will displace avgas, albeit at what appears to be a glacial pace. Mogas may or may not have a role in the U.S.
What the oil companies have in the works is largely unknown by the flying public. We've seen some patent activity during the past couple of years from Chevron and ExxonMobil and I wouldn't be surprised to see more filings before the FAA's July 1, 2014 deadline. I don't think it's possible to judge the viability of these fuels merely by patent claims. The FAA says it will accept up to 10 potential candidate fuels and after initial evaluation, it will winnow those down to one or two for further testing to develop detailed certification standards.
And that's the part of the process I don't particularly like. When I asked the FAA what the criteria for selecting those one or two fuels was, the agency replied that this hasn't been determined yet. It deflected follow-up questions for more information. On the one hand, the proposed processwhich came out of the Unleaded Avgas Transition ARChas a not-too-objectionable open-ended quality to it. The candidate fuels are submitted and tested and the cards fall where they might. On the other hand, with no selection criteria announced, what will influence the picking of a winner? Isn't this a little like a game of find the hat?
What keeps the selection process from being swayed by internal or industrial influences we don't know about? And what assurance do we have that the winning fuelnot really a fuel per se, but specswon not because it's the best choice, but because the developer of that fuel did the best politicking?
In a sense, isn't the FAA inserting itself into that which it shouldn't: making market choices and determining the best economic outcome? Why doesn't it make more sense to establish a performance criteria, certify those fuels which meet it and let the market sort out the options? As currently construed, the process is a little like asking Boeing, Airbus and Embraer to submit aircraft designs and having the FAA pick the one it likes so all three have to build the same thing. Strategies like that are producer centric; they favor companies, not customers.
This is further complicated by the long timeline, which extends into 2018, if not beyond. This allows the FAA, the industry and the alphabets plenty of time to further complicate that which is really not that difficult a thing to do: Figure out a performance spec for a workable 100LL replacement, then let the market shoot it out to determine the winner.
The counter argument, I'll concede, is that having too many fuel choices certified by the FAA would cause chaos in the market and would, in fact, makes things worse. While there's truth to that, I'm not convinced that a government agency is the best way to sort it out. In fact, I guess I'm convinced of the opposite.
You may logically wonder why the engine makers, the airframers and even the oil companies, all of whom are governed by the harsh realities of market dynamics where decisions have to be made quickly and products developed at the speed of heat, sign on to such plodding programs. In fact, they actually sought FAA involvement. The answer is: they don't have a choice. When your business is attached to the FAA at the hip, this is your world.
I'm glad I'm just livin' in it.
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FAA's AirVenture Gouge
By Paul Bertorelli
Let's say your airplane just came out of annual and the shop hands you a single-line invoice for $9,307 dollars. Nothing is itemized; no parts or labor breakout, no list of what was repaired. Would you pay it? Not just no, but hell no.
Yet that's about what happened when EAA decided last week to knuckle under to the FAA's demand to pay for controllers at AirVenture this year. Not that it had a choice. Following up on this story with EAA, I asked the association if the FAA presented them with an itemized summary of expenses. Nope. For the princely sum of about $450,000, the FAA demand to EAA says the money will pay for air traffic control services and technical operational support. In addition, EAA is expected to pay for controller travel, per diem, overtime to backfill slots at towers from where the controllers are based and, I love this one, "administrative supplies." Paper clips, paper and pink shirts, one supposes.
What's especially galling about this is that if you have to pay for something, you should at least know precisely where the costs are and what you're paying for. I'll further generalize this by noting that the FAA does a terrible job of explaining its costs to the GA flying public and elucidating why it has to charge users for what it has heretofore provided as part of its general charter.
Why is this too much to ask? In the blog last week, we had a good back-of-the-envelope calculation that suggests the FAA is overcharging for its incremental ATC services. But over the weekend, I checked with a friend whose a former controller and still involved in providing ATC services at airshows and events. Based on upper tier controllers being paid about $70 an hour, plus overtime costs back at the home field and per diem, he thinks it costs about $1000 a day to keep an FAA controller on duty at Wittman, times 50 or 60, plus the travel and you can reach a total of over $400,000.
But that's the FAA gilded lilly cost. Does the operation really need 50 or 60 controllers for the entire week and why can't EAA get an itemized invoice to whittle down what it has to pay? Increasingly, companies like AirBoss Inc., a private firm offering ATC services, look attractive. I spoke to the company's George Cline about this and he said AirBoss can find the insurance, although it's expensive, and has the staff--all AirVenture and Sun 'n Fun veterans--to run ATC at OSH. He says they could do it for half the price of the FAA's bid or less. The would use about 22 controllers compared to the FAA's 50 or 60.
I'm not sure it matters if EAA is making money on AirVenture or not. If the FAA can justify the need for the additional funds, it should be requiredby Congressional fiat, if necessaryto show why. And it should have given EAA a lot more warning to work out alternatives, although the association should have known what was coming given that Sun 'n Fun had to pay its own way.Obviously, six weeks out from the event, that's not a realistic option. But it may be next year. Events like AirVenture and Sun 'n Fun will just have to wean themselves off of the FAA's heavy hand.
Under that scenario, as participants, we might have to learn a lesson we simply did not learn during the tower closure fiasco of last spring: more bodies in a control tower doesn't directly equate with safety. More money spent in our behalf doesn't necessarily prime the GA pump nor pave the way to a better, safer system. And increasingly, services we may think we want or need are better provided by means other than the federal government. Or not provided at all. Lately, I'm warming to the idea of not provided at all, which is why I favored the tower closures.
By the way, I continue to be philosophically agnostic on the principle of these marginal fees. If they're justified for a critical service, so be it. But show me the P&L. I so detest being a member of the knee-jerk tribe that opposes such things on ideological grounds. I'll pay my way, but I want to see the balance sheet, the very one that the FAA seems incapable of producing.
Next year, I hope EAA has more time to sort this out and come up with an air traffic control plan of its own. The rest of us are having to do more with less, why shouldn't the tower cab at Wittman? Are we at the point where we should thank the FAA for their efforts, but decline their over-priced proposal to provide same? I think we all know the answer.
A late addition over the weekend, Columbia Airport in California cancelled its father's day fly-in because it couldn't afford what the FAA was demanding for air traffic control services.
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Eeek? My Chart App Tanked
By Paul Bertorelli
Now that the iPad and tablet-type computers have become all but standard equipment in the cockpit, so are reports of their failures trickling in. I got a note from a former airplane partner last week reporting that a primary app on his tablet failed and wouldn't restart, killing access to charts and approach plates.
How often is this happening? Often enough, but I wouldn't call it commonplace. I've had one app fail and refuse to restart and many others just quit but come back with a restart or a reboot of the iPad. I haven't experienced the heat-related failures many owners have reported with iPads, but this was a known problem with earlier versions.
If you're a tablet user, none of this should be the least bit surprising and you should plan accordingly. Tablets were never intended for cockpit use and they probably have a mathematical fraction of the reliability of certified avionics. Think about that next time you start figuring that an iPad could easily substitute for a Garmin GTN 650. Although tablet hardware isn't exactly tender, it's not nearly as robust as panel-mount gear, but it's the apps themselves and the peripherals that may cause the most trouble.
What to do about all this? I doubt if I have to explain that if you're using an iPad for primary navigation in IFR, you're flying a fool's errand. That may even be true VFR, if you're venturing far enough afield to require actual navigation. In that case, you'd be well advised to carry along a sectional, unless you have a proper GPS aboard, meaning aviation specific.
And what about IFR? We used to suggest taking along paper as a backup, but that now seems so 2011. If you're paying for full chart coverage on an app, why would you continue to pay for paper and, worse, have it lard up the airplane for little purpose? If you're an obsessive belt-and-suspenders type, the paper is good backup, yes, but then the only advantage of the app is ready access and chart management and that might not be of such benefit as to be worth the cost of two chart libraries. You could go with expired charts, but you still have all the paper to haul around. Which way you go depends on how paranoid you are, I suppose.
So my current thinking is just forget the paper and rely on the tablet, whose current reliability is somewhere between might fail and probably won't. Backup? Carry a separate device with critical nav data on it. This could be a smartphonemy choiceor another tablet. The cheapest Android tablets are under $200 now and even an iPad mini, although overpriced at $329, is certainly not a bank breaker. Just make sure that your backup device is not using wireless or running some Bluetooth link; these are the things that may increase the likelihood of failure.
I arrived at this conclusion, by the way, by analyzing the consequences of suddenly having no chart access in the midst of a stratus deck. It's not a huge deal. Presumably, you've got database GPS aboard with all the fixes and navaids and probably approaches, too. You'd lack the vertical informationDA, MDAs and so forthbut in a pinch, you can get that from ATC. The probability of actually needing it, however, is small enough to justify not hauling around five pounds of newsprint in the backseat.
Of course, when IOS 7 arrives this fall, I may be singing a different tune. In the meantime, I'd be interested in hearing others' experience with tablet failures.
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AirVenture Controllers: To Pay or Not to Pay
By Paul Bertorelli
Over the weekend, I spent some time reviewing our poll last week asking, in a time of budget cutbacks, whether EAA should be expected to cover the FAA's costs of staffing the tower and arrivals during AirVenture this year. A strong majority, almost 60 percent, think the FAA should shoulder the bill, while 22 percent think it should be on EAA's dime. Our poll found mild support for splitting the cost or phasing it into EAA's budget over a few years.
As consumers of the news, most of us lack even the most basic information to form an intelligent opinion on this, I'm afraid. We don't have a refined sense of budget choices the FAA makes. So we judge it either emotionally or ideologically. As a friend of mine pointed out, we don't have the first clue how and why the FAA actually decided to stick EAA with the bill. Is it an honest budgeting decision and a bona fide effort to save money? Or is it just another opaque attempt to screw the flying public for political gain and future budget leverage? I'm assuming it's a little of both.
But I do notice one thing: As a group, aviation interests are reading line-for-line from the larger American script where it has become not just acceptable but expected that we'll demand services and no diminution thereof without any increase in taxes or service fees. Yes, I've heard the argument that we have paid for and are already paying for services like additional staffing at AirVenture. Maybe. But I haven't seen a convincing P&L to support this claim.
Consider where we are six months into the year. The FAA's attempt to save money by closing some towers was summarily shutdown by the Congress and given the low traffic counts at some of these towers, we can reasonably assume that pork not safety animated that outcome. And now the AirVenture issue is on the block, we're insistingat least about two thirds of us arethat the FAA can't save money that way, either. And still, the alphabets agitate against user fees and argue that the FAA backcharging for controllers at AirVenture opens the door to that. I don't buy it.
So that puts me in, if not in the 22 percent, perhaps the 9 percent calling for phased in costs or cost splitting in the coming years. I agree that it's unfair for the FAA to spring this on EAA within a few months of AirVenture. To me, that stinks of pure politics and it's just poor stewardship of public resources. In a time of reduced budgets, we shouldn't be too surprised.
Speaking of the public, why is AirVenture so damned important, anyway? It's because AirVenture is two things: it's a significant economic engine for the global aviation industry where deals are made, airplanes are sold and ideas baked. It's alsolet's face itaviation's big annual party. We can easily dismiss the party part, but the industry depends on the economic engine of AirVenture and in my view, that justifies some FAA expenditure on it. But all of it? That may be a hard sell and one of these days, everyoneincluding those of us in aviationwill face some hard choices that we seem incapable of making. This is just the first of many.
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FK's P-51: Innovation that Irritates?
By Paul Bertorelli
When I was at Aero in Germany in April, one of the head-turner airplanes there was a scale P-51 Mustang LSA proposed by FK Lightplanes. See a video about it here. The reaction to this was interesting to watch and once again demonstrates how pilots love to complain about lack of innovation and then bitch about it when somebody actually does toss out something creative.
Which is another way of saying the reaction to the P-51 seemed polarized. You either loved it or thought it was stupid and should never have been proposed. I say "proposed" because the airplane isn't fully developed and ready for market yet, but when it is, it will be a 70 percent scale replica of the P-51, right down to the rivet patterns in the wings and the belly scoop. No mini-Merlin, sorry. It's got a 100-HP Rotaxprobably the iS. Where it caught the ire of many show goers who talked to me is that it also has retractable gear and a constant-speed prop, which are verboten under U.S. LSA rules but may be allowed elsewhere. "Why," asked one Aero attendee "are they putting that stuff on there if they know it's not legal?"
A good point, although as noted, it may be legal in some countries. This is a sore point among some manufacturers who have trouble keeping straight what countries allow what under rules that vary considerably. But that's not the point. The real point is that this is an innovative airplane and my reaction to it is that I'd try to figure out how to make it legal for use in my country rather than getting irritated at FK for stretching the LSA idea envelope to the breaking point. To me, that's what innovation is all about, not lockstep adherence to restrictive rulemaking.
But why is it innovative? It is, after all, a 73-year-old-design. Scale Mustangs are nothing new; there are a couple of P-51 experimental designs out there. But in my view, what's innovative is that FK has used its Mustang to prove some sophisticated production techniques in carbon molding and building that could lead to interesting trends in aircraft production in general. FK gets that the Mustang is just a fantasy ride, which is why they added the smoke at startup and a sound system that mimics a Merlin. They're in on the joke.
But what I found intriguing is where this could go. If the Mustang project is successful, how about an entire line of LSA warbirds? Maybe the F4U Corsair, the Spitfire, the Hurricane or the F6F Hellcat, or Bf 109, all priced as $130,000 or so LSAs, which is where FK thinks the Mustang will sell. What's differentand innovativeis that these could be off-the-shelf products you don't have to build that are perfectly aimed at what LSA is supposed to be: fun sport flying, with a creative twist.
Frankly, I like that. And for my two cents, I'd just as soon like to see the restrictions against retractable gear and constant-speed props for LSAs eliminated. Let the market and insurers sort it out. This will make the safety nerds nuts, but then regulatory oversight is always a balancing act between what the wild-eyed flying public wants and what they're allowed to have to keep from hurting themselves.
Being on the wild-eyed side myself, I'd love to find a way to back that P-51 into my hangar, retractable gear and all.
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