AVwebFlash - Volume 20, Number 22b

December 3, 2013

Research Study: Aircraft Certification Rules Don't Necessarily Improve Safety

While it’s generally assumed that aircraft certification rules increase safety and reduce accidents, a recently completed research project by an Embry Riddle Aeronautical University professor reveals that for some types of accidents, that’s not the case. In fact, the research data suggests that for some segments of general aviation, burdensome certification rules actually decrease safety by making it more difficult for owners and operators to install relatively inexpensive equipment that might reduce the frequency of accidents.

The study was recently submitted as a doctoral dissertation at ERAU by Assistant Professor Carolina Lentz Anderson and was based on research into more than 3000 aircraft accidents between 2004 and the end of 2011. Anderson sought to determine if there were measurable differences in accident frequency and rates between CAR3/Part 23 aircraft, experimental aircraft and the more recently approved industry consensus standards used in the light sport aircraft category. Anderson notes in her research that certification costs have escalated sharply in recent years and neither the overall accident rate nor the fatal rate has budged in more than a decade, despite industry efforts to reduce accidents.

For her research, Anderson studied four types of accidents among certified, experimental and light sport aircraft: loss of control, controlled flight into terrain, engine failure and structural failures. In addition to statistical analysis, she used a word mining method to isolate patterns in accident reports that otherwise wouldn’t be detectable purely through statistical analysis.

Some conclusions: Certification rules had no statistical effect on CFIT accidents, but the number of these accidents have decreased by 60 percent between 2001 and 2010, which Anderson attributes to the wider use of portable equipment such as GPS equipped with terrain warnings.

On the other hand, certification rules do have a statistically significant effect on the frequency of loss of control accidents, but not on the rate. (Frequency is the raw number of accidents, rate is number of accidents expressed as function of flight-hour risk exposure.) Loss of control accounted for about half of all the accidents studied and Anderson’s research indicated that older aircraft certified under CAR3 had a much higher frequency of loss-of-control accident than did either Part 23, experimental amateur-built or LSAs. CAR3 loss-of-control accidents were heavily clustered around bad weather events, leading Anderson to surmise that less cumbersome certification rules would allow such older aircraft to be upgraded with affordable safety equipment.

Anderson’s study found that in the engine-failure category, CAR3 airplanes again had the highest frequency of accidents, followed by experimental amateur-built. Many of the experimental engine failures occurred early in the aircraft’s operational life, suggesting that engine and fuel system installation errors and the fact that the FAA signs EABs off with just an inspection, but no operational check, may be factors. The research revealed no statistical differences between the certification categories in frequency of structural breakups, but again, CAR3 and EAB aircraft had slightly higher frequencies than Part 23 or light sport aircraft.

Anderson told AVweb that her research adds statistical validity to what many in the industry already understand: over-regulation actually reduces safety. In her research report, she cites a certification process study by the FAA and the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee noting that less cumbersome procedures might reduce loss of control accidents by encouraging easier and cheaper installation of autopilots, angle of attack indicators and cockpit weather systems.

“It’s become so stringent. If you read the new act, the 2013 Aircraft Revitalization Act, that’s pretty much the whole purpose of it … people cannot modify their airplanes. Right now, my husband and I have a 1980 Cessna 180. If we want to put an autopilot in it, it will cost us something like $27,000. But you could buy an experimental Garmin autopilot for $1800,” Anderson told AVweb. She believes that equipping such older aircraft with affordable autopilots might have a measurable effect on loss of control accidents. Anderson’s study will be available through ERAU in a few weeks.

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Amazon Drone Delivery In Development

Doorstep delivery via drone for Amazon customers is just two to five years away, CEO Jeff Bezos told 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose on Sunday. Bezos showed Rose two experimental octocopters, autonomous drones that will be able to carry up to five pounds and deliver goods from fulfillment centers to buyers up to 10 miles away within 30 minutes. About 86 percent of items purchased from Amazon weigh less than five pounds, Bezos said. The CBS video shows the drone automatically picking up a delivery box from a conveyor belt and flying to a doorstep, where it lands, releases the package, and flies away. "I know this looks like science fiction," Bezos said. "It's not."

Bezos said the drones can't launch before 2015, "because that’s the earliest we could get the rules from the FAA." At most, he said, the system should be up and running within four to five years. It won't be easy, he said, because the system must be reliable, redundant, and safe. "This thing can't land on somebody's head while they're walking around their neighborhood," he said. But he concluded: "It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun." 

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Sleep Apnea Bill Makes Legislative Progress

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a bill that would force the FAA to follow the formal rulemaking process in adopting a controversial new sleep apnea detection initiative, It's the first legislative step to slow down implementation of a policy introduced by Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Fred Tilton in his November newsletter to AMEs that will direct them to send any pilot or air traffic controller with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher to be automatically referred to a sleep clinic to determine if he or she has obstructive sleep apnea, a disqualifying condition that can cause daytime sleepiness and increase the risk of sudden death. Alphabet groups complained the announcement, which caught them by surprise, doesn't allow for the comment period and financial impact study that the usual rulemaking process includes. They lobbied House members, who introduced the bill.

The bill won't stop the FAA from pursuing the policy, which has been sharply criticized by a cross section of aviation groups and even some AMEs. Rep. Frank Lobiodo, R-N.J., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, said in a statement that the bill is instead designed to ensure the agency has all the information needed to make a major policy decision like this. "While sleep apnea has never been identified as a primary cause or contributing factor of an aviation accident, health issues can arise unexpectedly which is why I have always supported reasonable, effective, and proactive efforts to improve aviation safety," LoBiondo said.

Scholarships Available For Aviation Careers

Helicopter Association International has extended the deadlines on several scholarships for those seeking aviation careers. Applicants now have until midnight, Dec. 31, to compete for 10 scholarships that provide up to $5,000 toward commercial helicopter ratings and maintenance technician certificates, as well as one Michelle North Scholarship that will fund attendance at the safety management course at next year's Heli-Expo. The deadline for eight more scholarships for helicopter maintenance technicians, worth up to $1,600 each, has been extended to Jan. 17.

Application details are posted at the HAI web site. Many other scholarships and grants are available for those seeking aviation education or career training; information and links are posted at the web site of the National Coalition for Aviation and Space Education.

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New Jet-Powered Biplane In The Works

Photo by Scott Russell

After a dismal airshow season this year, with many events canceled due to the grounding of military show teams, planning is already under way for a better year in 2014, and this week John Klatt Airshows unveiled a new aerobatic biplane that will debut in the spring with jet power. The 1929 Taperwing Waco, featured at the opening of the International Council of Air Shows convention in Las Vegas on Monday, will fly with a Pratt & Whitney 985 radial engine plus a GE CJ610 (J85) jet engine with 3,000 pounds of thrust. The combined power will produce a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1 to 1, which allows it to accelerate going straight up, according to Klatt.

Klatt is not the first airshow performer to strap a jet engine onto a biplane. The late Jimmy Franklin did it in 1999, with a 1940 Waco. That airplane was able to take off in less than 50 feet, pull vertical, and accelerate with a climb rate of more than 10,000 feet per minute, according to the Franklin Air Show website. The airplane flew for seven years, but was destroyed in the crash that took Franklin's life, in 2005. Klatt, a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, has served for more than 20 years, flying combat, air support and humanitarian missions throughout the world in the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the C-130 Hercules aircraft. The Waco also will be flown by Jeff Boerboon, a former U.S. Unlimited Aerobatics Champion.

Plans For “Nationwide” Warbird Flyover

Aviation heritage organizations are organizing to create a "nationwide flyover of WWII aircraft" Aug. 15-16, 2015, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, but the event may not be what you think. The Chennault Foundation describes the nationwide flyover as taking place in communities throughout America. Groups involved in the event include the History Channel, the Air Force Association, EAA Warbirds of America, the Commemorative Air Force and a host of other groups. It’s not precisely clear if “nationwide” will translate to many local events or one grand one but an official announcement on Dec. 20 will provide more details. The press conference will be hosted by the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum, which holds its own direct ties to aviation’s rich history. 

The executive director of Chennault Aviation & Military Museum is Nell Calloway, the granddaughter of Gen. Claire Chennault, whose Flying Tigers group entered World War II in the skies over China on Dec. 20, 1941. The group is credited as a first counterattack against Japan following Pearl Harbor. Said Calloway, “My grandfather and the Flying Tigers helped lay the foundations for what became the U.S. Air Force and are a fitting symbol for a movement to pay tribute to the achievements of American Airpower during WWII.” One goal of the planned flyover is to raise and maintain public awareness of historic aircraft with the hope of maintaining them in flyable condition.

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China Opens Up For Private Pilots

On the heels of recent announcements about easier access to airspace, China on Sunday made it easier for civilians to earn private pilot privileges. Any citizen age 17 with at least a junior-high education will be eligible to apply for the training, and they can take the required tests after 40 hours of flying and 40 hours of ground school. They also must pass a physical exam. Under the old regulations, issued in 1996, the standards for private pilots were essentially the same as for commercial pilots. The change is expected to drive an upsurge in demand for general aviation aircraft in China, a market that U.S. manufacturers have long been anxious to tap.

China's Civil Aviation Authority said it was making the changes "to enable more people to be able to realize their dream of flying." The change is expected to "promote the development of China's general aviation industry, increase the talent pool for professional pilots and play a positive role." As of June 30, there were only 1,610 general aviation aircraft registered in China, compared to more than 230,000 in the U.S., according to China Daily. That difference illustrates the "huge market potential in China," said Gao Yuanyang, director of a general aviation industry research center at Beihang University. However, he warned that "reckless" construction of industrial parks to accompany every new GA airfield could lead to an investment "bubble" with an "adverse impact on the industry."

Shell Announces Unleaded 100-Octane Fuel (Updated)

Shell Oil announced on Tuesday that it has developed an unleaded 100-octane piston-engine fuel to replace 100LL and hopes to achieve certification of the product within two to three years. Although the company has no hard numbers on pump price, it predicts that its new product will be comparable in price to 100LL.

Tim Shea, Shell’s VP for aviation fuels development, told AVweb on Tuesday that the fuel is the culmination of a 10-year internal research project to find an unleaded 100-octane fuel, a problem that has dogged the industry for more than three decades. Although Shell currently doesn’t directly refine piston avgas in North America, Shea said it intends to make the new fuel widely available, but he declined to describe any specific licensing terms. “Our plan is to make this fuel, once approved, widely available on a global basis. Whether that’s through Shell refineries or licensing, the plan is to make it available,” Shea said.

Traditional avgas is composed of what refiners call aviation alkylate, a blend of branched-chain hydrocarbons such as isomers of isooctane which, of themselves, have high octane and good anti-knock characteristics. Refiners add a small dose of tetraethyl lead to boost octane to a bit over 100 to meet the requirements of ASTM fuel spec D-910. Tetraethyl was banned from automotive fuels during the 1980s and there’s pressure to remove it from aviation fuels to achieve new, more stringent air quality standards. Shea explained that Shell is using an aviation alkylate base with a blend of aromatic compounds to deliver a fuel with performance characteristics almost identical to 100LL. 

“In our formulation direction, we started with what aviation gasoline looks like and then removed the lead. From there, the question was how do we maintain D-910’s physical properties while achieving the MON requirement for high-octane fuel? It’s fair to say it’s alkylate-based in its approach,” Shea said. If this approach sounds familiar, it should; General Aviation Modifications, Inc., one of two other companies proposing a 100LL replacement, is using similar formulation.

“A lot of the chemistry has been around, but what we’ve figured out is how to make the chemistry work in an aviation fuel. A lot of the existing molecules that people are well aware of struggle in aviation applications because when you use them, you really struggle with the low temperature properties of the fuel,” Shea explained.

To prove those properties, Shell will embark upon an intensive program that will include submission to ASTM International for a new piston-engine fuel spec. Shea said the new spec will be almost identical to D-910 in performance, but will vary slightly.

“In a physical property sense, we are extremely close. We meet every performance criteria and the two that we’re off, we’re off very slightly,” Shea said.

Following ASTM approval, Shell will submit its fuel to the FAA’s Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative program that emerged for the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee for unleaded fuel last year. Last summer, the FAA asked for fuel candidate submissions from the industry and Shell’s new product represents the first major oil company to announce a candidate fuel. GAMI and Swift Fuels are already well along in testing, but haven’t formally submitted to the FAA yet.

We were surprised to learn that Shell has been working the problem for a decade, but it now thinks the timing is right to move the fuel quickly through the certification process. “The FAA timelines are a little bit longer than ours. We think we can commercialize this fuel quicker than what the FAA has currently laid out,” Shea said. Shell will concentrate its testing on materials compatibility, which is always a concern with high-aromatic fuels because of potential seal and o-ring swelling caused by high concentrations of compounds such as toluene and xylene.                        

For its initial proving, Shell enlisted two OEMs, Lycoming Engines and Piper, both of whom have done basic testing on the new fuel. “From a performance perspective, it appears to be the equivalent of D-910 100LL fuel. From a materials compatibility perspective, we haven’t seen anything on the engine. But it’s beyond Lycoming’s expertise to judge that,“ said Michael Kraft, general manager of Lycoming. Kraft said Lycoming is contracted with Shell to examine and test the fuel. The company has tested the fuel in its most octane-demanding engine, the TIO-540-J2BD. Piper has flown the fuel in a Piper Saratoga.

Kraft said for Lycoming to certify fuel usage on its engines, it will need an ASTM spec for a basis. “We’re watching to see what Shell’s next step is with regard to ASTM. That will give us something to work with,” Kraft said. With an ASTM spec in hand, engine approvals are relatively straightforward for Lycoming, but the issue isn’t as simple as that. Hundreds of airframe models will also have to be approved and everyone in the industry is hoping for some kind of blanket approval.

Shea said configuring refineries to make the new fuel is essentially an overnight process. “Then the question becomes does FAA grant blanket, fleet-wide certification that would allow everyone to essentially switch overnight?,” he adds. To get as close to that as possible, Shea said Shell wants to make its replacement fuel look at much like a D-910 avgas as possible.

And what of price? “It’s a bit early stage, but our early estimates are that it will be comparable to the current leaded product,” Shea told us. “Historically, if you look where unleaded fuels have come to displace leaded fuel, the cost generally goes up a bit, but it should be within a very reasonable figure,” Shea added.

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Skycatcher's Demise: Barely a Ripple

Memes are ideas, accepted wisdom and cultural touchpoints that get handed from one person to another via, well, who knows how? By e-mail, television, blogs, word of mouth. They take on a life of their own. When I ask myself how some in aviation get started, maybe I only need look in the mirror. In December 2009, I wrote this little gem about the Cessna Skycatcher: “If there’s anything that passes for conventional wisdom in the world of light sport, it’s that Cessna would dominate when it entered the market. In our view, the Skycatcher more or less confirms this.”

Yet four years later, the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head and I find myself wondering why I wrote that. So I spent last week talking to more than a dozen people about their impression of Cessna’s decision to exit the light sport business. (Note please here that Cessna hasn’t plainly said the Skycatcher won’t be built anymore; just that it has no future.)

What about this notion that when it entered the business, Cessna would—or so many people said—validate the entire light sport thing as somehow legitimate? I’m sure people told me that, which is why I felt it worthy of repeating.

“I may have heard it enough times myself that I just parroted it back,” says Flight Design’s John Gilmore. “I think everybody was maybe hoping for the resurrection of the 150.” That didn’t happen, of course, and with about 200 airframes in the field, the Skycatcher never achieved the market dominance everyone assumed it would. There are a host of reasons for this, but the overarching one is probably price. When Cessna raised the price to nearly $150,000 for an entry level airplane that had weight issues and didn’t outperform its many competitors, it gave position holders an opportunity to bail, and they did. In droves.

What are the implications for LSA at large? Not much. No one I talked to told me that Cessna’s axing of the Skycatcher resets the market. “There’s not too much rumbling going on about this,” says Dan Johnson, chairman of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. “Within the industry, many had already dismissed Cessna sometime ago for the reason that the airplane never seemed to really meet what the market wanted. So I don’t think there’s any great rush to say, ‘oh great, now there’s an opportunity, or, oh dear, we don’t have the validation of Cessna being in the market anymore,” Johnson says.

A couple of dealers and Cessna Pilot Centers I contacted say they wish Cessna would have given the Skycatcher more time to mature, but none thought the $150,000 price was right; too much money for too little airplane. One dealer told me that selling the Skycatcher was tough, not so much because of the price, but because potential buyers required extensive education on the limitations of light sport, including not being able to install equipment some of them wanted in their Skycatchers. The fact that the Skycatcher sported Garmin equipment while many other LSAs don’t evidently wasn’t much of a strong selling point, say the people operating these airplanes in flight schools.

Despite its warts—and all LSAs have them—the Skycatcher gets good reviews from the people using it. It’s easy and fun to fly, economical and other than initial problems with door openings in flight and some strut beef-up work, the airplane seems to stand up to the rigors of flight training. But one operator, Jim Whitt at J.A. Air Center in Aurora, Illinois, doesn’t think the Skycatcher will prove as long-term durable as the 152 and 172. But he says it doesn’t really matter, since the airplane can be operated profitably and replaced as necessary. He’s one who thinks Cessna should have stayed with the program. In any case, he expects Cessna will continue to support the airplane and Cessna confirms this.

Cessna has traditionally owned the flight training market and for years it profitably built on the idea that if you taught people to fly with basic airplanes, they would eventually buy your bigger, high-margin models. Now that they’ve abandoned the LSA market, they’ve sent a clear message that the company is less committed to low-end training, except for those schools willing to do it in a $400,000-plus Skyhawk. And those schools are dwindling.

Frankly, I’m more worried about that segment of the market than the LSA slice. There are still plenty of companies building LSAs so buyers won’t lack for choice. And many of the schools I spoke with thought the Skycatcher wasn’t a good choice, anyway. “Nobody cares if Cessna is in the market. When Piper dropped the Piper Sport, the market didn’t hiccup and it won’t with Cessna,” says Paul Shuch, who operates a one-aircraft flight school with an Evektor on the hallowed ground of Lock Haven Airport in Pennsylvania. Even the CPCs don’t seem particularly worried, since they still have plenty of aircraft to choose from and Cessna has bunches of Skycatchers boxed up and ready to ship for anyone who wants them.

While the absence of Skycatchers might not dent the market in the slightest, I think there’s cause to worry about Cessna just losing interest in pilot training entirely. Other entities, namely Redbird, are stepping up to fill the void, but Cessna is still a big dog. All of the more than a dozen schools I talked to had either a Cessna 152 or 172, if not multiples, on the flight training and these remain popular choices. It would be a pity if Cessna prices the 172 out of the market entirely. Some say they already have, but I like to think they’ll be around for a while. At least until the next generation of light training aircraft emerge, whether from Cessna or someone else.

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

Video: A Visit to Hawker Pacific in Shanghai

AVweb visits Hawker Pacific in Shaghai.

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Video: How Sensenich Wooden Props Are Made

Composite props may be the latest shiny object to make airplanes go, but most of them have wood cores, and the basic wooden prop is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence.  AVweb's Paul Bertorelli took a tour of Sensenich's prop factory in Plant City, Florida to see how these products are made.

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Video: Garmin's Factory Avionics Pilot Training

Owners who are new to Garmin's GTN750/GTN650 and G500/G600 avionics systems may not realize that the company offers a training course at their Olathe, Kansas factory support center.  Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano recently took the class and reports on it in this AVweb video.

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