AVweb AVFlash - Volume 20, Number 2b
July 17, 2013
Small Aircraft Get Senate's Attention
New legislation passed through the House Tuesday (by a 411-0 vote) calling for a restructuring of the FAA's Part 23 certification requirements for the purpose of expediting approvals for safety improvements. The Small Airplane Revitalization Act aims to remove bureaucratic barriers to evolutionary progress within the industry (for the introduction of new designs and the addition of improvements to old ones); to cut certification costs for manufacturers; and to give manufacturers more responsibility in the certification process. Industry trade groups spanning from GAMA to NBAA, EAA, AOPA and NATA have all expressed a range of support for the legislation, which now heads to the Senate. If it's approved there, new certification standards could go into effect within the next two years.
In its current form, the measure would force the FAA to develop new certification standards by a Dec 31, 2015 deadline. The standards are to be based on recommendations form the industry delivered to the FAA through an aviation rulemaking committee. According to AOPA president Craig Fuller, the regulations "have been eclipsed by technological and design advances. They are holding back important safety features from pilots and aircraft owners." It is hoped that revising the rules will not only improve safety for pilots but also facilitate avionics upgrades and reduce costs. The bill's lead sponsor, Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said the new regulations should remove barriers to investment in new aircraft design and make upgrading older aircraft easier and less costly. The bill's summary says in part that it will create outcome-driven objectives that spur small plane innovation. Find the full text of the House Bill, here.
NTSB Releases First GA Safety Video
The NTSB Thursday released the first in a series of videos highlighting circumstances and decision-making that have led to GA accidents with fatal outcomes and seeks to identify and reduce risks for GA pilots. Four more videos will follow. The videos, dubbed Video Safety Alerts, by the NTSB all run less than 5 minutes in duration. Each is based on one of five safety bulletins issued by the NTSB in March and each video features an investigator discussing specific aspects of general aviation safety that have been associated with a high volume of GA accidents. The videos are intended to provide strategies and resources to help pilots better identify risks and improve safety within the GA community. The first video "Is Your Aircraft Talking to You? Listen!" is available on YouTube and also here.
The NTSB's first Video Safety Alert features NTSB investigator Catherine Gagne and focuses on maintenance issues as they may affect pilots, mechanics and safety of flight. Later videos will cover topics like risk management and decision-making, flight in reduced-visibility, and low-altitude stalls. The remaining four videos will be released this month, announced on Twitter and placed on the NTSB's YouTube channel. Find the NTSB's written safety alerts, here. The NTSB investigates about 1,500 GA accidents that it deems "preventable" each year. And each year those accidents kill more than 450 people, on average. The NTSB says most accidents involve a similar set of circumstances that lead to fatal outcomes and this video series seeks to address and alter those conditions.
Hybrid Engine Aims For Mach 5, Plus
British inventor Alan Bond will reportedly receive more than $90 million from the British government to further develop technology for a hybrid jet-rocket engine that he expects will be capable of more than 3,500 mph in flight. Bond runs Reaction Engines, which seeks to develop a reusable space plane dubbed Skylon. The vehicle's performance hinges on its synergistic air-breathing rocket engine (SABRE) and new highly efficient and lightweight heat exchanger technology. At speeds near Mach 5, Bond says the SABRE engine would see intake air temperatures near 1000 degrees Celsius. According to Reaction Engines, testing has shown that the engine's recently tested heat exchanger is capable of cooling air by more than 1,000 degrees Celsius in less than the 1/100th of a second that it takes to pass through the engine -- and without producing frost. The cooling is essential for the engine's operation.
The SABRE's heat exchanger uses tiny helium-filled tubes made from a nickel alloy called Inconel. The tubes' manufacturer, Fine Tubes, produced more than 2000 km of highly specialized tubing for the SABRE engine and Skylon aircraft project. According to the company, the heat exchangers produced from its tubing are 100 times lighter than conventional technologies allow. Reaction says tests have now shown the heat exchanger system is up to the task of the near-instant frost-free cooling of intake air that will be essential for operation of the SABRE engine. Unlike conventional engines, SABRE switches in flight from an air-breathing engine to a rocket capable of speeds beyond Mach 5. Bond believes the technology will allow for huge reductions in cost for reaching low-orbit and orbital flight.
Too Heavy For Rescue But Not For Profit
According to the CDC, the weight of the average American has significantly increased since 1960 and that may be starting to have an impact on air medical transport providers, especially those that operate helicopters. The average weight for men aged 20-74 rose nearly 30 pounds over four decades ending in 2002, according a CDC report. And while some medical service providers are reporting that they're being forced to deny service to some passengers due to their weight, the percentage remains relatively small. Meanwhile, one commercial airline has been able to apply a different, more profitable, approach to accommodating plus-sized passengers.
In a recent report by NBCnews.com, Air Methods, a leading medical flight provider, revealed it has denied service at least three times this year due to a patient's girth. The overall number of patients denied service due to their weight is large (estimated at 5,000 per year), according to the report, but the percentage of flights canceled due to heavy patients remains relatively small. More than 500,000 medical flights are conducted each year in the U.S. and only about 1 percent of those are cancelled due to the excessive weight or size of a patient, NBC said. Of course, the main issue is with equipment -- some helicopters simply don't have a large enough opening to safely accept large bodies. That is less often of an issue for commercial airlines. And this April Samoa Airlines announced its plan to address heavier fliers. It began charging passengers based on their weight. Nearly one month later, the airline reported it had seen a 20-percent increase in profits since its pay-by-weight program was implemented.
German-Certified Light Electric Plane To Visit Osh
GreenWing International Monday announced that German certification of its single-seat eSpyder may mark the aircraft as the first electric airplane to be certified by a national authority, and the company expects to bring details and pricing information to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2013. The eSpyder, which resembles a more conventional ultralight with tube and fabric construction, will be offered as a complete aircraft in countries that recognize the DULV certification applied by Germany (the U.S. does not). In this country, GreenWing plans to release an Experimental Amateur Built kit and hopes to bring a Light Sport version of the eSpyder to market pending the creation of regulations for electric aircraft. GreenWing says the eSpyder has regularly achieved one-hour flight times during testing, and can be fully charged in 90 minutes following a shorter 45-minute flight. GreenWing is a new company, but the products it sells are not new -- and neither is the German certification.
The eSpyder is a former product of Yuneec International, a Chinese company that first exhibited its electric planes at AirVenture in 2009. In 2011, Yuneec suffered a crash when the tail separated from the electric E1000 aircraft that was being developed for NASA's CAFE Green Flight Challenge. The crash killed aeronautical engineer Martin Wezel, who worked as a technical adviser for Yuneec. While German DULV certification of the eSpyder was achieved in February, the company did not move forward until June. It was then that GreenWing International announced it would produce and sell two of Yuneec's designs -- the eSpyder and the two-seat e430 (which more closely resembles a traditional light aircraft). The eSpyder is expected to fly daily in the ultralight area at AirVenture. It spans just over 19 feet and weighs 262 pounds, empty (without batteries), and 402 pounds with its lithium ion battery pack on board. It cruises at 37 mph and achieves a climb rate of 380 fpm. The aircraft's motor (32 hp), power controller, batteries and charger are all Yuneec-designed. The company says that a full charge, which amounts to 13 KWh and as much as a one-hour flight, takes two hours.
Volunteer Pilots Wanted For Cognitive Study
Healthy GA pilot volunteers are needed this year at AirVenture for computer-administered confidential testing to help the FAA determine when previously injured pilots are safe to return to flying. The FAA requires cognitive screening tests to help determine when a pilot who has suffered a stroke, head, or brain injury can be considered safe to return to the cockpit. The testing project aims to create a set of normative data from a group of healthy pilots that can be adapted and used for comparison against the functionality of previously injured individual pilots. General aviation pilots who participate in the project will receive benefits.
To sign up as a volunteer, pilots will need to stop in at the FAA Safety Center at Oskhosh and look for a "CogSreen-AE" booth where they will be able to sign up. The researchers tell us the FAA will not have access to any individual scores, but "only to the resulting group norms." Participants will receive "immediate feedback" on their test scores ... and also a free CogSreen-AE travel mug. They'll also be have a chance to win a $25, $50, or $100 Amazon Gift Card, which will be awarded to the holders of the three highest scores achieved during the week. Finally, say researchers, volunteer pilots who participate in the study will gain the benefit of having established a personal cognitive baseline against which can be used for comparison should they ever seek neurocognitive evaluation due to head trauma or other reasons. AVweb was made aware of the project through Dr. Chris M. Font, clinical psychologist, FAA office of aerospace medicine.
Town Considers Drone Hunting
Deer Trail, Colorado, is expected to vote August 6 on an ordinance that would sell hunting licenses and provide rewards to its citizens for destroying federal property if it appears overhead in the form of an unmanned aerial drone. The ordinance was drafted by town resident Phillip Steel. It states that Deer Trail will offer $100 rewards to shooters licensed (at the cost of $25) if they produce specific identifiable parts from an unmanned aerial vehicle "known to be owned or operated by the United States federal government." There may be some complications due to the fact that it's against the law to destroy federal property.
Federal law aside, the proposed ordinance offers outlines for weaponry, ammunition, hunting techniques and rules of engagement. According to a local ABC news affiliate, Steel has never seen a drone flying over his town. However, he does not believe "in the idea of a surveillance society" and said, "I believe we are heading that way." Steel stipulates that the ordinance is "very symbolic" and expects that drone licenses will "sell like hot cakes." They would be valid for one year and "could be a huge moneymaker for the town." According to town board member David Boyd, "Even if a tiny percentage of people" apply for a drone license, "that's a lot of money to a small town like us." (The population of Deer Trail has been below 600 for the past 20 years ending in 2011, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.) Boyd considered that there may be other considerations: "Could be known for it as well, which probably might be a mixed blessing, but what the heck?"
ELT May Have Caused 787 Fire
Investigators are now looking at the ELT aboard the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 as a possible cause for the fire that heavily damaged the airliner at Heathrow Airport last week. The ELT is located in the area that was scorched by the fire. The ELT has a non-rechargeable lithium manganese battery made by Honeywell. The ELTs are in widespread use on airliners. On Monday, the U.K.'s Air Accidents Investigations Branch confirmed it had invited Honeywell to take part in the investigation, noting it's far too early in the investigation to determine the cause.
Honeywell echoed that sentiment in a statement and noted its ELTs have a flawless record. "Our ELT products have been certified by the FAA since 2005, are used on a number of aircraft models, and we've not seen nor experienced a single reported issue on this product line," the company said. The British investigators have ruled out any involvement of the large lithium ion rechargeable batteries. Two fires involving those batteries resulted in the grounding of the Boeing 787 fleet earlier this year while Boeing worked out a fix.
GA Crash Leads To Safety Product
John Guimond, an airport manager in Maine, and Ron Cote have responded to a fatal aircraft accident by working to develop a fixed-base audio recorder for the purpose of capturing radio transmissions at small airports. Inspiration for the unit that they call the General Audio Recording Device (GARD) came from the November 16, 2012, collision of a landing Cessna 172 and an airport service vehicle at Knox County Regional Airport, Maine. In that incident, all three aboard the aircraft were killed. Both vehicles carried radios but in the aftermath of the crash, which was relatively local to Guimond's airport (Augusta State), there were no audio records to review. Guimond and Cote's solution is designed to capture those transmissions at any given airport without recording lengthy silent gaps. The pair has set a (perhaps surprising) price for their device and may have already earned support from Maine's DOT and the FAA. Safety isn't the only angle they're playing and several airports are already testing units.
The two men say they can sell the units for between $2,000 and $3,200, depending on how each unit is equipped. And a spokesman for Maine's Department of Transportation told local news that the agency would pick up half the cost of installation at any of the 42 public airports in the state. Cote and Guimond have successfully installed the product at five airports there. They plan to next branch out to New Hampshire and Massachusetts and say that the FAA has also expressed interest in the device. Aside from allowing for review of transmissions relevant to an accident near or on a small airport, Cote and Guimond believe their recorder could also prove useful for training. Guimond says he's already used the device for that purpose at Augusta State -- specifically, to review an airport worker's transmissions and help him learn how to more precisely convey his position on the airport. The two say they are looking into patents and are pursuing grant money to fund future development.
WingX Pro7 Product Tour
Aviation Consumer's Paul Bertorelli walks through the features of Hilton Software's latest release of WingX Pro on the iPad.
Build A Plane Projects -- At Oshkosh And Beyond
Katrina Bradshaw, executive director of Build A Plane, unveils a new program from the nonprofit group and talks about plans for EAA AirVenture, including a free program for teachers at the show. Bradshaw also explains how teachers anywhere in the U.S. can get their classes involved in building an airplane.
A Visit to Zulu
On a swing through Continental Motors’ factory in Mobile this week, I spent a couple of hours touring the company’s new Zulu Flight Training center in nearby Spanish Fort, Alabama. We first reported on Zulu a year ago and my visit coincided with its one-year anniversary.
Zulu, you may recall, juxtaposes an intimate little flight school—simulators only—in an urban store front, the theory being that it will draw would-be pilots who wouldn’t necessarily trot out to the airport. The training, even for the private certificate, is sim heavy, using three Redbird motion machines and a couple of tabletop ATDs. The students learn and practice the maneuvers in the virtual world before trying them in the airplane.
So how’s it working? So far, so good, says Zulu’s general manager, Gloria Liu. We’re not talking huge numbers here, with a client load of under 40 customers in various stages of progess. But if Continental posited that professional customer service and a bright, clean facility will encourage students to stick around, they seem to be on to something. Liu said the retention rate is about 90 percent, which is another way of saying that only one in 10 customers who sign up for a program or a flight lesson of some kind doesn’t come back. Not many conventional flight schools can make the same claim. Continental CEO Rhett Ross says the business is growing sufficiently fast to consider opening centers elsewhere.
While it may seem odd for an engine company to get into front-end flight training, Ross seems to be acting in enlightened self interest. If there aren’t more pilots, Continental isn’t going to be selling many engines, visions of global business strategies not withstanding. As I said of Redbird’s efforts in the same direction, I see these programs as creative, effective ways to get customers in the door, train them and retain them until the training completes. Treating them like actual customers rather than voice-controlled wallets is unique to all of aviation. We’ll just have to see if such business models can be profitable enough to sustain over the long haul.
For a private certificate, Zulu quotes a flat rate of about $8500. That’s competitive with conventional flight schools, so what Zulu is clearly selling is a friendly, fulfilling customer experience that extends from the moment you walk in the door until you leave the airport after a flight lesson. Stipulating that they’re doing that, I’m less worried about what kinds of legs the concept has than I am what comes next, specifically keeping new pilots engaged by making aircraft access affordable. I noticed on the price sheet that Zulu’s airplanes—new, G1000 Cessna 172s—rent for $155 an hour. Surveying around the country a bit, I find that rate is on the low side of competitive. These airplanes rent for as much as $185 in some locations.
That’s a hit for the freshly minted private pilot who might want to fly a modest 50 hours a year in a rental airplane with a glass cockpit. When new pilots see those numbers, I wonder if a little timer goes off in their heads suggesting they can do this flying thing for awhile, but not a very long while. So to me, what’s more important than how well they’re trained or at what cost than how many of them stick around as active pilots for two years, five years or 10 years. That’s the most important retention rate.
We’ve pulped the deceased horse to a red puree on discussing how much the cost of airplanes and fuel affects retention. It’s certainly a factor, although how big a factor, no one really knows. As Zulu (and Redbird) progress in an age when we track everything from your pulse rate to the brand of yogurt you bought at Safeway last week, we ought to have some meaningful data in a few years for this subgroup of new-age pilots who are, after all, the future of aviation.
If the cost of flying doesn’t at least moderate, they’ll have to be made of stern stuff to stay in the game or, as seems to be increasingly true, be limited to high income earners. There are efforts to arrest the spiraling cost of getting airborne and Continental is involved in two of them: its newly certified TD300 diesel has proven economics and while it may not be cheap to operate, it’s certainly less expensive than a gasoline engine. (I’m basing this on economic analysis of limited experience with the SMA SR305, which served as a technological base for the TD300. )
Second, Continental recently raised TBOs on some of its popular engines by 200 to 400 hours. Of course, Part 91 operators can do that on their own, but having an engine company get behind it is another step in the right direction. In the larger world, we’re told that the revision of FAR Part 23 will reduce certification costs and thus aircraft costs, too. We’ll see how that plays out. Right now, it’s too nebulous to judge.
But the fact that these developments are afoot is encouragement enough to be hopeful.