If nature abhors a vacuum, vacuums do, nonetheless, occasionally represent opportunity. And give Continental Motors credit for recognizing that and stepping in to push 94UL as the most realistic and practical replacement for 100LL. I'll get to why Lycoming thinks that 94UL is the wrong way to go in a minute, but first a brief discussion of why this tempest is symptomatic of the whole, disjointed and bumbling effort to replace leaded avgas with a fuel that doesn't contain lead.
There simply isn't any leadership and the entire effort has drifted without an intellectual center to guide it. Yes, I know the Coordinating Research Council has spent years working the problem and we should all appreciate its efforts. I certainly do. But a committee's charge is to be, well, a committee. As Lycoming's Michael Kraft points out, the people with the largest stake in this issue are owners and operators and thus far they have not been kept well-informed enough on this issue to (a) understand the large and expensive ramifications of adopting a fuel lower than 100 octane and (b) there is correspondingly no perceived demand for a new fuel, thus no one is interested in investing in the means to make it. (Think about Swift fuel in this context.)
So here's Continental trying to operate in this sea of ambiguity where no one seems capable of a decision. What does it do? What any self-respecting company should do. It picks a direction and charges off, hoping to seize the issue so it at least can make long-term product decisions. That direction was 94UL, a decision made before G100UL appeared as an apparent option. (At Mobile two weeks ago, Continental's Johnny Doo said TCM wasn't biased toward 94UL; it simply wanted a quick, clear decision.)
Continental's current bet is that owners will be willing to modify their engines, buy new ones or settle for reduced performance to keep flying.
Kraft and Lycoming aren't willing to cover that bet. Kraft believes placing these kinds of burdens on the market is the surest way to shrink it. Owners will turn to turbines or, more likely, nothing at all. That has the potential to erode aviation fuel demand further, possibly igniting a downward spiraling feedback loop of higher prices and fewer pilots.
My guess is he's right. Based on responses to this blog, e-mail I get and our on-going avgas survey, owners are pissed. They're not seeing why this issue hasn't been handled more effectively, they're not seeing why they should expect to pay above market prices for fuel and I think a large enough percentage of them are angry enough to just junk their airplanes if the industry expects them to buy expensive mods. It won't take many to really tank GA. (Like it isn't already.)
An example? Here's one: "High compression IO-540 engines like on my PA32-300 are already so expensive to maintain that I will probably have to give up flying when my engine is ready for overhaul in 500 hours." Continental will need to heed this. And so will AOPA. The same reader has this to say: "I am a very long-time AOPA member. Every cent of their budget should be dedicated to trying to create a GA-friendly environment in government. They have failed miserably." I could fill this column with comments like that.
Speaking of AOPA, it, among the all the alphabets, should be the most potent in generating the demand Kraft sees as necessary to attract interest and investment in new 100-octane fuels. Yet the association's interest has been lukewarm at best. It should have a fuels technical representative parked outside GAMI's engine test cell in Ada, Oklahoma. It should know all there is to know about G100UL. But it doesn't. GAMA did send a rep and, interestingly, it has a developing proposal: Phase out 100LL first with 100 ultra low lead, then 100UL. The key thing is that it has taken a technical stand on octane. EAA should join in as well.
Like Kraft, I think the 94UL idea is chancy. If I had an airplane requiring mods at this point in my life, I'd sell out. And I'd sell now before the value erodes further. How's that for the overhang of uncertainty? I fear it will get worse if some leadership doesn't emerge.