AVwebFlash - Volume 20, Number 20b

November 20, 2013

EAA, AOPA Demand Sleep Apnea Rule Be Suspended

EAA (link) and AOPA (PDF) each wrote strongly worded letters to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta "demanding" that a new policy regarding sleep apnea in pilots and controllers be suspended (and ultimately killed) because it addresses a problem that hasn't been proven to exist, exceeds the Federal Flight Surgeon's mandate and could cost the pilot community as much as $374 million in compliance costs. The two groups also noted that the policy was announced without notice or comment period. As we reported exclusively on Monday, the new policy was announced in Flight Surgeon Dr. Fred Tilton's monthly newsletter to Aviation Medical Examiners (PDF). Under it, any pilot or controller with a body mass index of 40 or higher will automatically be referred to the sleep specialist. A BMI of 30 and higher is considered obese. After all those pilots have been screened, the BMI number will be progressively ratcheted back until Tilton is satisfied that every pilot suffering from the disorder is being treated. Treatment usually involves the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device worn at night. Medically approved CPAP machines cost as much as $5,000 and can cause a variety of uncomfortable side effects.

In its missive, AOPA says the FAA's own data estimates about 20 percent of pilots (127,000) are considered obese and obesity is common marker of sleep apnea. A night in a sleep clinic, necessary to determine a diagnosis of sleep apnea, costs anywhere from $800 to $3,500. However EAA says there's little evidence that sleep apnea is a primary or even contributory cause of pilots falling asleep in the cockpit, much less causing accidents. It's especially angry that the rule includes recreational pilots. Sleep apnea testing is being mandated in the trucking and marine industries but EAA says "no one would dare require that all overweight drivers of personal motor vehicles or water undergo thousands of dollars worth of testing and evaluation, even though the risk of a sleepy driver injuring or killing innocent bystanders vastly exceeds the risk for a sleepy recreational pilot. Why are recreational airmen being singled out?" The policy seems to come from NTSB recommendations made regarding an incident in which both pilots of an Go! Airlines flight fell asleep and overflew their destination. The captain was later diagnosed with sleep apnea.

This story was corrected to remove the reference to neck circumference as a trigger for referral to a sleep specialist based on a reader observation and confirmation from the FAA.

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Embraer Evacuation Slide Inflates In Flight

Passengers aboard JetBlue Flight 1266, an Embraer ERJ-190 out of Fort Myers, Fla., for Boston's Logan Wednesday afternoon, heard a large bang and looked to see that an emergency slide had deployed in flight, inside the cabin. The inflation pinned a flight attendant to his seat and led the cockpit crew to declare an emergency and divert to Orlando. The slide “filled up the whole front part of the cabin where the flight attendants sit,” one passenger told ABC News affiliate WCVB. It took other cabin crew three or four minutes to deflate the slide, the passenger estimated. But it may not be a crewmember who deflated the slide.

The slide did not enter the area of the cabin where more than 70 passengers were seated and the emergency was declared “out of an abundance of caution,” a JetBlue spokesman said. At least one early report stated that a passenger assisted in deflating the slide. The aircraft landed safely at Orlando International Airport before 4 p.m. After landing, passengers were directed to exit from the back of the plane. Passengers were moved to another aircraft scheduled to depart later Wednesday evening. The forward cabin flight attendant was reportedly treated at a local hospital and released without serious injury. The incident aircraft was taken out of service for inspection.

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MIT Researchers Develop Anti-Icing Technology

Photo: NASA

A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a simple technology that could help to prevent icing on aircraft wings, the university announced on Wednesday. The team experimented with ridged surfaces to see if they could reduce the time it takes for a water droplet to hit a surface and then recoil. The quicker the water is repelled from the surface, the less time it has to freeze. "We've demonstrated that we can use surface texture to reshape a drop as it recoils, in such a way that the overall contact time is significantly reduced," said James Bird, the team's lead researcher. "The upshot is that the surface stays drier longer … which has the potential to be useful for a variety of applications." But won't ridged surfaces reduce aerodynamic efficiency? Not necessarily, one of the researchers told AVweb.

"It is known that adding features in certain ways helps reduce drag and improves aerodynamic efficiency," said Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering. "For example, blade surfaces in some turbines are dimpled to reduce drag and also increase cooling. The goal would be to be optimize for both deicing/water repellency and aerodynamic efficiency." Varanasi said he expects further experiments will show the contact time between the water and the surface can be reduced even further, through optimization of the texture. "I hope we can manage to get a 70 to 80 percent reduction," he said. The textures are easy to create on aluminum surfaces using standard tools, Varanasi said, so the process could easily be adopted for industrial production.

Ten Aviation Nonprofits Win Funding

Ten grants to aviation charities, totaling $60,000, have been awarded by the Lightspeed Aviation Foundation. The recipients were chosen through an open online voting process at the Foundation's website. "With twice as many votes as last year, the awards are having a meaningful impact on expanding awareness and appreciation for aviation," said Allan Schrader, president of Lightspeed. Any registered nonprofit group that is committed to growing the pilot community and using their grant to provide service to others is eligible to apply for the program, the Foundation said. Anyone can nominate a group at the Foundation website. The nominated groups are announced in the spring at Sun 'n Fun, and then the online voting begins.

"Since its inception [in 2010], the Pilot's Choice voting and awards have introduced us all to dozens of worthy charities and amazing people that are making a significant impact around the world," Schrader said. This year's grant recipients are: Pilots & Paws, New Tribes Mission, Civil Air Patrol, the Ninety-Nines, Recreational Aviation Foundation, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Angel Flight West, Missionary Flights International, JAARS, and Air Race Classic.

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First Flight For Two-Seat Electric Rotorcraft

The two-seat e-volo Volocopter rotorcraft flew for the first time, on Sunday, inside an arena in Karlsruhe, Germany, the company announced Wednesday morning. The aircraft flew multiple times, with several flights almost reaching the 70-foot-high ceiling of the arena. The takeoffs and landings were smooth, the company said, and flight was vibration-free. Eighteen small, quiet electric motors independently powered the rotors. The company said the Volocopter is easy to fly, the design is highly redundant, and the distributed energy supply is virtually fail-proof. "Nearly all problems of normal helicopters are thereby solved," according to the news release. No pilot was on board for the flight; the aircraft was flown remotely.

E-volo managing director Stephan Wolf said that due to the complex structure of the rotorcraft and its lightweight carbon structure, it was not possible to accurately simulate how the first flight would go, and if it would be vibration-free. "The result of the first flight created a euphoria among the entire project team," he said. "Not even the HD video cameras secured to the exterior carbon ring of the rotor plane captured the least vibrations." Development so far has been covered mainly by research grants, but the company now is taking on a new partner -- Ascending Technologies, a UAV manufacturer -- and seeking crowdfunding through the Seedmatch website. The company says it plans to start deliveries of the aircraft in 2016.

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A New Flying Car -- From Google?

Photo: Greg Espiritu via SFChronicle

A blogger in the San Francisco Bay area who published patent drawings on Wednesday that show designs for a battery-powered "personal aircraft" with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, has now updated the story with a photo. The patents were filed by Zee.Aero, a somewhat mysterious company based in Mountain View. Caleb Garling, writing for the SFGate Tech Chronicles, found the patent drawings and published a link to them. Garling had postulated that the company might be financed by Google, but Ilan Kroo, a Stanford aeronautics professor who has been CEO of Zee.Aero since 2011, told AVweb in an email this week that's not the case. "I am working on some interesting transportation ideas at a start-up company in Mt. View (near Google and other tech companies, but not affiliated with them)," he wrote. 

Kroo added that "the company is in its early stages -- still in stealth mode -- and we have not been talking to people about our plans quite yet. I’ll look forward to talking with you when things are a bit further along." This week, the company also updated its bare-bones website to a more elegant format -- although still with minimal information. "We're creating an entirely new aircraft," the website now states. "In the heart of Silicon Valley, at the intersection of aerodynamics, autonomy, and electric propulsion  -- we’re changing personal aviation. With simulations and prototypes, CAD and carbon fiber, we’re designing, building, and testing better ways to get from A to B." The site also features job postings for engineers and composites manufacturing technicians. Garling said the photo published this week was taken from a helicopter above the former Navy airfield in Alameda, a little less than a year ago.

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Medevac Learjet Down Off Fort Lauderdale

Two people are confirmed dead and two others are missing after a Learjet headed for Mexico from Fort Lauderdale went down off the coast of Florida late Tuesday. According to the Miami Herald, the aircraft was on a medevac flight from Cozumel to Fort Lauderdale and was on the return flight after dropping off a patient. There were two pilots, a nurse and a doctor on board when the aircraft crashed about three miles off the coast.

At least 10 boats and numerous personnel were involved in the search for the other two aircraft occupants. The pilot reportedly called a Mayday and asked to return to Fort Lauderdale shortly after takeoff. The Herald said he told controllers he'd turn 180 degrees to turn back to the field.

Russian Officials Blame Crew In Fatal Crash

Just three days after 50 people died in the crash of a Boeing 737 in Russia, a government panel said the pilots climbed too steeply after their first missed landing attempt, then lowered the nose to try to gain speed, but they overcompensated and sent the airplane into a near-vertical dive. The Interstate Aviation Committee said there were no problems with the airplane or any of its systems, according to The Associated Press. The report was based on an analysis of the flight data recorder. The cockpit voice recorder's tape has not been found, the AP said, although the box itself was recovered.

An official from Tartarstan Airlines said in a news conference on Tuesday that the two pilots had undergone all the required instruction, and their total time was 1,900 and 2,500 hours. Neither of the pilots had any known prior experience with executing a second landing attempt in the 737, the official said. The airplane, which was 23 years old, had undergone regularly scheduled maintenance last week, just two days before the crash. The FDR showed the airplane's engines and other systems all were working fine up to the moment of impact, according to the AP. The report also said the climb and subsequent dive lasted about one minute, and the aircraft hit the ground at about 280 mph, according to the AP.

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Space Thrill Rides: Shuttle or Gemini?

That faint humming sound you hear is the media-industrial complex gearing up for the first commercial space tourism flights, which Virgin Galactic seems likely to pull off next year, if not sooner. On NBC news Friday, I saw an advance story on Virgin Galactic with an interview with Richard Branson. It’s pre-promo; NBC has signed a deal to broadcast the first flight live on the Today show. It promises to be quite the spectacle.

Right behind Virgin is another company, XCOR, which also intends to compete in the space tourism business, but its longer term goal is a reusable orbital vehicle. The two companies are offering very different rides indeed. XCOR, you might remember, is the company that developed the engines for the Rocket Racing League, one of those terrific, holy-cow-cool ideas that just never seemed to jell, although they did some spectacular demo flights at AirVenture.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say Virgin Galactic is offering the Space Shuttle to XCOR’s Gemini. Virgin’s space craft is a Burt Rutan-conceived eight-person design—six passengers and two pilots—that’s air launched from 50,000 feet from a purpose-built aircraft. XCOR has the Lynx, a two-person spacecraft that’s not much larger than a Cirrus SR22. It’s uncompromisingly optimized for altitude, not payload, and it’s ground launched from a runway, not an aircraft in flight. Virgin’s Space Ship Two has a hybrid solid-fuel/oxidizer engine while the Lynx uses four liquid fuel rockets.

Quite a difference in ticket prices, too. Virgin Galactic, which claims to have 600 passengers signed up, is charging $250,000 compared to $95,000 for the XCOR ride, at least as of now. The Lynx hasn’t flown yet, while Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two is well into testing.

Reading about these two approaches to space rides—Michael Belfiore wrote an insightful article on Lynx in the November Air&Space magazine—got me to thinking which one I’d pick if I had that kind of money to toss away on an afternoon joyride. A quarter of a million bucks is a lot of money, but you and I both know people who can afford it. Question is, would they decide to?

Money aside, the Virgin ride sounds more bus like, promising the group dynamic of training together for a couple of days, a longer overall flight because of the air launch phase and, best of all, the opportunity to unstrap and float around the cabin for a bit in zero G. That sounds like fun, but you could do it for a lot less through Zero G Corporation’s parabolic flights. Of course, the view’s not nearly as spectacular.

In the Lynx, it’s just you and the pilot. No air launch claw for altitude and maybe not the same anticipation of what’s about to happen, either. The thing is towed out to the runway, cleared for takeoff and it’s one eyeball-squashing, ears-pinned-back grand swoop from rotation to the top of the arc at 330,000 feet. You get the zero G, but you have to stay strapped in the seat. Like Virgin’s Space Ship, Lynx returns to the departure runway as a glider.

So which would it be? Tough call. Since I’m basically an anti-social grump, I have no overwhelming desire to “share” this experience with five other people. I’d just as soon sit next to Rick Searfoss and beg for some Lynx stick time. I’d exchange floating off the seat in zero G for the raw sensation of pointing straight up and reaching Mach 1 and 2.5 Gs in about a minute, all from the front seat. Not bad. You could do two of those flights and have change left over for a small yacht.

Either way, it’ll be great to have a choice in space thrill rides, even if I never get to make one. How about you? Shuttle or Gemini?

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

Video: BendixKing's KT74 Mode S Transponder

Responding to the growing demand for ADS-B-capable equipment, BendixKing is rolling out a new Mode-S transponder called the KT-74.  AVweb got a tour of it at AirVenture last July.

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Video: Pilatus PC-12NG Flight Review

With a cruise speed of around 270 knots and a price tag of nearly $5 million, the 2013 Pilatus PC-12NG isn't the fastest or the least expensive single-engine turboprop on the market.  It is, however, arguably in a class of its own.  That's because it has a cabin that can carry 1,200 lbs. of payload while carrying over 400 gallons of fuel, the ability to operate from unpaved runways, and a huge 53x52-inch cargo door.  In this video, Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano takes a look at the airplane.

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