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Newly installed AOPA President Mark Baker said Wednesday that the key to pilot recruitment and retention is protecting access to airports. “All things in aviation start with an airport. We’ve got to make that accessible and fun,” Baker told AVweb in an extended interview on Wednesday, which is available in today’s podcast. He added that it’s unrealistic to expect AOPA or any member organization to drive pilot starts in a significant way just through programs intended narrowly for that purpose. “As far as believing we can lead by ourselves in changing the pilot population, I think that’s probably a bridge too far at this point,” Baker said.

Since taking over the association last month, Baker has been educating himself on the organization and its membership, but he’s already steered AOPA toward a more airport-centric culture and he said this will continue. In announcing the cancellation of the annual Summit show for 2014, Baker said this will save member funds and allow the association to focus on regional events instead. 

“We want to make sure that the pilot population embraces the neighborhood and that the neighborhood embraces the pilot population. We’ve got to bring the message out there and that’s part of this whole regional kind of appeal that I’m working on, to be there on Saturday at the pancake breakfast or Tuesday night at the airport meeting,” Baker said.

When asked if this signals a tilt away from turbines and toward smaller aircraft, Baker replied, “Our members want us to expand all the way from a J-3, through an ultralight they may have built, to a turbine. A very small percentage of the market goes to turbines, but they still have the same airport needs.”

Baker concedes that there’s measurable dissatisfaction among the membership, ranging from disagreement over policy decisions to the association’s fundraising efforts, which some members say come too frequently. An AVweb survey done last March revealed that 53 percent of AOPA members surveyed gave the association high marks for effectiveness, but 17 percent rate it poor to mediocre.

“[That’s] not acceptable. I look at that as an opportunity. My initial response to that is give us a chance with this regional approach to make sure we’re hearing those members. You won’t be able to get to everyone, but I don’t see why this can’t be an opportunity to turn that around,” Baker said.

Baker said AOPA will devote some efforts to addressing the high cost of flying, but cautions that members shouldn’t expect too much. “The cost of flying is going to a challenge for a long time to come. Getting the FAA to move on the Part 23 revision could be a significant contributor to lowering the cost of aviation and having a better experience. Fuel is going to be what fuel is going to be. But if you look at used airplanes today, they’re actually a great value,” Baker said.

We also asked Baker about another member sore point: frequent fundraising efforts for reasons that aren’t always obvious. ”I don’t think we’ve always been as clear about what these things are and my perspective is to make sure these buckets are very clear. It’s my intent to try to maintain membership dues where they’re at,” Baker added. But Baker said everything is on the table for review, including another area that’s generated complaints: the number of aviation businesses AOPA has launched that compete with the owners and pilots who support the association. Baker told us that all of the association’s revenue streams and programs are subject to review. “We’re going to review them all. If they make sense, they’ll go forward, if they don’t, they won’t,” he said. He added that fundraising will be more targeted and “probably, overall, less traffic.” As for continuing competitive businesses or launching new ones, Baker says he’ll have more to say on that later.

In this exclusive AVweb podcast, AOPA's newly installed president, Mark Baker, says the association will adopt an airport-centric means of promoting aviation and will concentrate on a regional strategy to reach the membership.  Baker also told AVweb that all of the association's activities — from fund raising to member support to starting new business lines — will be under review during the coming months.

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A Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter crew has won two of the most prestigious search and rescue awards for a daring mission into the teeth of one of the biggest winter storms to hit North America earlier this year. The servicemen will pick up the Cormorant Trophy and the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award in London on Oct. 23. The five-man crew took off from Gander, Newfoundland, in the blizzard, which had winds gusting to 50 mph and had just dumped three feet of snow on Maine, on Feb. 3 to look for three hunters stranded on an ice floe in the Atlantic. The howling wind was squarely behind the AW101 Cormorant helicopter and that prompted pilot Capt. Aaron Noble to try an "out of the box" maneuver to accomplish the mission. He turned the big chopper 180 degrees to gain more stability and backed the aircraft two miles to the last known position of the hunters.

With his first officer Capt. Jonathon Groten plotting and looking after the instruments and the other three crew members looking out doors and windows to guide the pilot, the aircraft moved into position in time for the spotters to see flares from the hunters. Search and rescue technician Master Corp. Mark Vokey was lowered from the winch and got the three hypothermic but otherwise uninjured men aboard the helicopter. Also on the crew were Master Warrant Officer Jeffrey Warden and Sgt. Bradley Hiscock. The hunters were flown to hospital in Gander. The Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators, which sponsors the Prince Philip Award, lauded the crew for "remarkable professionalism and achievement that led to the saving of three lives.”

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The first FAA-approved commercial flight by an unmanned aircraft launched in the Chukchi Sea, above the Arctic Circle, on Sept. 12, the FAA said on Monday. The flight "went off safely and without a hitch," the FAA said. A ship chartered by ConocoPhillips carried four Insitu ScanEagle UAS to conduct marine-mammal and ice surveys required to meet rules that govern drilling on the sea floor. The ScanEagles weigh 44 pounds each and have a 10-foot wingspan. The first UAS launched and flew for 36 minutes, and landed safely back on the ship. The flight was "just the start of the FAA Arctic Plan," the FAA said. The FAA is working toward a goal of integrating UAS into the National Airspace, as mandated by Congress last year.

The Arctic Plan aims to create permanent areas in Arctic airspace where UAS can operate for research and commercial purposes. The FAA has established three blocks of airspace above international waters in the Arctic where UAS can fly 24 hours a day at heights up to 2,000 feet. The UAS are allowed to fly beyond the vision of the on-the-ground operator, which is a first for small UAS operations. "The project is giving the FAA and industry needed experience and a path forward to certify UAS for more commercial operations, both in the Arctic and elsewhere," the FAA said. The ScanEagle and the AeroVironment Puma both were approved by the FAA for commercial uses in July.

Photo: Coulson Flying Tankers

The last Martin Mars water bomber, the world's largest piston-powered prop plane, may have fought its last fire officials said this week. The British Columbia government has cancelled a standing contract to have the aircraft available to fight fires in the province. The airplane, which can skim a lake and pick up more than 7,000 gallons of water to help fight fires, will be replaced by "a more cost-effective, efficient option," said Steve Thomson, forests minister for British Columbia, where the aircraft has been operating for 53 years. The Mars hasn't been used in B.C. in two years but has fought fires in the U.S. and Mexico in that time. The province hasn't ruled out hiring the aircraft if it needs it in the future but Wayne Coulsen, who has owned two of the aircraft since 2007, told the Alberni Valley News he's looking for alternatives, including selling the aircraft. “We sent out e-mails...to some of the Red Bull folks and Virgin Air folks to see if there’s any interest. We may advertise it for a time to see if we get some interest," Coulson said. Four of the aircraft were built for the U.S. Navy as transports by Martin in the 1940s. 

Coulson, head of the Coulson Group told the Victoria Times Colonist the airplanes did their job effectively and economically. "The Mars became a tool that people depended on -- they felt comfort," he said. "The Mars has been around a long time; it has stood the test of time as far as effectiveness goes." Coulson operated two of the airplanes, which were originally built for the U.S. Navy. The airplanes are able to land on the water, scoot along "on the step" at 70 knots, and scoop up water at the rate of one ton per second, according to Coulson's website. One of the airplanes, the Hawaii Mars, has been upgraded with a glass cockpit and the ability to stream live data from on-board systems. The sister ship, Philippine Mars, has been repainted in Navy colors in anticipation of it being sent to the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. That deal is in limbo, however. The airplanes require a crew of four -- a captain, first officer and two flight engineers.  A Smithsonian Channel documentary about the airplanes can be watched online.

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Photo: American Airlines

An Aviation Rulemaking Committee is expected to tell the FAA this week that the use of certain electronic devices in airline cabins should be allowed, The New York Times reported on Monday. The new guidelines, which would likely take effect next year, according to the Times, would allow passengers to use their tablets to access downloaded content such as e-books, podcasts, and videos, anytime they are on the plane, but the ban on using wi-fi during take-off and landing will probably remain. The ban on cellphone use in flight also is expected to remain in place.

Sources from the ARC told the Times the new FAA policy, when it takes effect, will require the airlines to certify that their airplanes' systems can tolerate interference from electronic devices, rather than trying to test every individual device that comes on the market. The ban on using cellphones aloft is not enforced by the FAA, but by the Federal Communications Commission, on the grounds that such calls can interfere with transmissions between cellphone towers on the surface. The ARC, which began its work in January, was originally scheduled to complete its report in July, but asked for more time.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking to build a "reusable hypersonic aircraft" capable of speeds beyond Mach 10 to deliver payloads of up to 5,000 pounds into low earth orbit for less than $5 million per launch. DARPA will more fully explain the project in October, but for now is seeking to develop an Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) project. The primary vehicle would carry and deploy an upper stage responsible for inserting payload into low earth orbit and be capable of 10 flights in 10 days. DARPA says the airplane-like main vehicle would reach hypersonic speeds at suborbital altitudes and the agency hopes to explore that capability for passenger transport, too.

The aircraft would carry expendable upper stages and place satellites or other payload into orbit while the aircraft returned to earth for a landing. DARPA intends to achieve aircraft-like operations of the delivery vehicle. Integrated advances sought as main features of the design project include low-maintenance thermal protection systems for the vehicle and robust airframe construction. DARPA is aiming for a product with a long service life and affordable propulsion system that meets a requisite high thrust to weight ratio. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Virgin Galactic are so far working on a similar project that aims to deliver payloads of significantly less weight (100 pounds).

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What You Missed in AVwebBiz This Week

Are you subscribed to our weekly newsletter devoted to business aviation? Delivered mid-week on Wednesday mornings, AVwebBiz focuses on the companies, products, and industry leaders that make headlines in bizav world.

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Just in case you're not taking advantage of AVwebBiz, here are a couple of the stories you missed this week.

The first all-new Eclipse 550 twin-engine jet to roll off the production line in Albuquerque will be on display at the 2013 NBAA convention in Las Vegas next month, Eclipse Aerospace announced on Tuesday. CEO Mason Holland said the jet represents an "amazing accomplishment" for the company, which bought up the remnants of the original Eclipse just four years ago. The jet is based on the original Eclipse design, but with updated features such as dual WAAS (LPV) GPS receivers, XM weather, and a dual and redundant channel FMS. Available options include synthetic vision and auto-throttles.

The 550 is powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada P610F jet engines that enable it to fly up to 41,000 feet at a max cruise of 430 mph, while consuming 59 gallons of fuel per hour. The jet is designed to be flown by a single pilot, and can seat up to six. It sells for about $2.9 million, and deliveries are expected to begin before the end of this year. The NBAA event is set for Oct. 22 to 24. In May, AVweb editorial director Paul Bertorelli went flying in one of the refurbished Eclipse jets from the original fleet; click here for his video report.

With a new federal fiscal year about to launch on Oct. 1, FAA officials are facing a $700 million budget gap, according to Bloomberg News. A new round of automatic cuts will take effect in the new budget year and may have more impact than they did this year, sources told Bloomberg, citing briefings with FAA officials. The FAA also may revisit its proposal to close many contract towers, which was shelved last year, Bloomberg said. Bell Helicopter also blamed the federal budget cuts this week in announcing it cut 290 jobs in Fort Worth, Texas. "Sequestration is having an adverse impact on our industry, making the future for defense spending more uncertain than ever," Bell CEO Jim Garrison said on Monday. The recurring budget issues also have revived discussion about privatizing the air-traffic-control system.

"There are conversations taking place among the stakeholders [about privatizing ATC]," Gerald Dillingham, civil aviation director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told Bloomberg. Paul Rinaldi, president of NATCA, said he would be open to such a discussion. "I don't have the answers, but I do know the current system is broken," he said. Legislation now under consideration in Washington, however, could extend the current government budget levels through mid-December, delaying any new cuts until next year.

Question of the Week

Each week, we poll the savviest aviators on the World Wide Web (that's you) on a topic of interest to the flying community.

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For more than a year, Continental Motors has been experimenting with a new flight training center based in an upscale mall in Spanish Fort, Alabama.  AVweb recently visited the center and interviewed Gloria Liu for a briefing on the training works.

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When I was researching last week’s story on aircraft refurb business, I heard all kinds of comments, but everyone—well, almost everyone—agreed that new aircraft prices have made flying unreachable for all but the very wealthy. When someone of the stature of Jack Pelton flatout calls airplane prices exorbitant, you have a five-alarm fire.

And by the way, no one I talked to last week thought that the manufacturers can do much in the short term about escalating prices if they hope to remain solvent. If you believe that cutting prices would expand the market, they would have to discount so much that no manufacturer could survive long enough to enjoy the higher volume.

So we have this groundswell of refurb activity and it looks like it definitely has legs. There’s an ocean of low-cost, high-value airframes out there that basically perform as well as modern aircraft do. They go as fast, carry as much—and sometimes carry more given how portly modern airplanes have become—and burn the same amount of fuel. The only exceptions are the diesel conversions and that’s where Redbird is going with its Redhawk project. That’s still a tiny market.

So since these older airframes can be readily upgraded to nearly state-of-the-art status and perform for half the price of new, that’s a good thing, right? Evidently, the market thinks so, because refurb is hot. But is there a downside? Does an expanding refurb market potentially damage the development of new GA aircraft? John Armstrong, who’s had success putting together shared arrangements for access to new Diamond aircraft, thinks so. He told me the longer older airframes remain in the fleet—fixed up or not—the longer it will take to replace them with safer, newer aircraft that he likes to call “magic carpets.”

Basically, the DiamondShare program is a multiple access arrangement that has, at its core, a buyer who takes delivery on a new DA40XLS. DiamondShare  then does the legwork to recruit “members” who, for a fixed payment, share access to the aircraft at a price typically around $1000 a month. DiamondShare offers tax and insurance support, training and other services. It’s not a partnership, nor is it a club. Armstrong describes the program as leveraging the aircraft’s excess capacity—basically potential hours of availability the owner isn’t using—to offset costs the owner would otherwise bear entirely on his own. “Would you pay $1000 a month to have access to this magic carpet?” comes the sales pitch from Armstrong. (You pay for your own gas.)

The answer for me might very well be yes, if I had compelling need for a DA42 with a glass panel. But since I can’t justify that kind of money for just boring holes in the sky and it’s not practical for regular business travel, I have a position in CubShare instead. But when I used one of several Mooneys for regular business travel, the grand a month was about the cost, on an annualized basis. But that included the gas. Nonetheless, the value was there, in my view, and it would be for the Diamond, too.

But I’m skeptical that any amount of refurb activity would impact the likelihood of buyers opting for new instead. Buyers of new airplanes have to suppress the gag reflex when they see a $400,000 sticker and/or be creative enough to instantly realize how they can leverage that number to make it affordable while calculating how much depreciation they’re willing to eat. I think buyers of new piston airplanes—and there aren’t but about 500 of them a year in the U.S.—look at this from the top down while those of us seeing the value in used airplanes look from the bottom up. How high are we willing to go to hit the magic price/value point? I suspect it’s in the $70,000 to $100,000 range, which is where a lot of used aircraft transactions settle. And that’s why nicely executed refurbs up to, say, $150,000, are likely to be increasingly attractive.

Do buyers care that the airframe may in fact be 30 years old? Some do, says Premier Aircraft’s Jeff Owen. But for many, not enough to spend five or six times as much for an airplane that has only marginal additional capability and maybe not even that if the refurb has a nice Aspen glass panel. Yes, the OEMs may lose a few sales to spruced up recent models, more so in the TAA-type aircraft than a tarted up mid-1980s Saratoga. But they’ll live and die not selling against refurbs, but finding those lucky 500 who can write a check for a half mil.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

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On the morning of September 12, 2013, Jonathan Trappe ascended from a field in Caribou, Maine, in an attempt to be the first pilot to fly a cluster balloon system across the Atlantic.  Twelve hours later, he landed in Newfoundland.

Many round-the-world pilots are in a hurry to get the trip done, but Calle Hedberg of Capetown, South Africa is taking a different route.  He has eight months to do the trip in his kit-built Ravin 500, and he plans to savor every moment.  AVweb's Russ Niles flew with him after he got a float endorsement in Kelowna, British Columbia.