The FCC's proposal to scrap its ban on cellphone use in aircraft has prompted the Department of Transportation to consider a ban of its own. It's now the FCC that technically keeps us all from using a cell phone while in an aircraft of any type but the focus of the current action is for passengers aboard airliners. The issue used to be that using a cell phone high above the ground would screw up the ground-based transmitter system but that hasn't been a real issue for some time. That's the anachronism the FCC wants to tackle with its repeal of the current ban. The prospect of cellphones ringing and people talking in the cabins of the nation's airliners has become the new issue and one that DOT is uncharacteristically addressing. Even so, there appears to be common ground between the two bodies on the potential cacophany. "I'm the last person in the world who wants to listen to somebody talking" while on an airplane, FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler told a House subcommittee last Thursday. But he also said there's no practical reason to ban cellphone use on aircraft anymore so the FCC has voted 3-2 to start the public comment period on removing the law. "There is a need to recognize that there is a new technology," said Wheeler. "This is a technical rule. It is a rule about technology. It is not a rule of usage." The DOT, which is usually technically oriented in matters like this, announced it might invoke its "consumer protection role" in considering its own rule against cellphone use.
In a statement, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said a variety of stakeholders have raised concerns about cellphone use in the air. "Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight — and I am concerned about this possibility as well," Foxx said in a statement. Since using a cellphone in the air no longer causes issues with networks on the ground Wheeler said airlines, not the government, should have the final say on the cabin environment they want to sell.
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The FAA is moving ahead with implementation of mandatory screening and tests (apparently regardless of widely reported objections) for obstructive sleep apnea in pilots with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher, the agency said Thursday. Individuals are typically categorized as obese by current BMI charts if they score a number higher than 30. AOPA, EAA, the Civil Aviation Medical Association and members of the U.S. House of Representatives are among those who have requested the FAA make substantive changes to lessen the impact of its new sleep apnea policy. The FAA would require additional medical evaluations for those pilots determined to be outside of the FAA’s safe (under 40 BMI) range. Pilots scoring 40 or higher would have 60 days to receive an evaluation or have their medical certificate disqualified.
The FAA categorizes more than 120,000 pilots with a BMI of greater than 30 as obese, according to AOPA, and 5,000 pilots have a BMI of 40 or greater. Some objections to the FAA’s new policy say it forces AMEs to employ predictive medicine. Others are concerned with the potential backlog it will add to an existing backlog for special issuance medicals. Many objections, including recommendations from the House, aim to push the FAA’s policy change through the normal rulemaking process, to allow for public input. The FAA has stated that its new approach to sleep apnea screening is a “process enhancement,” not a policy change, and therefore does not need to be subjected to the normal rulemaking process. AOPA has already followed up with further objections. The Civil Aviation Medical Association, which represents FAA aviation medical examiners, wrote in a formal letter to the FAA sent earlier this month, “Education of the many would have far greater public health impact than regulation of the few.”
Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), testified before a House subcommittee Thursday to promote industry growth through cooperation. Bunce told the subcommittee that the FAA should partner with the industry to streamline the certification process, cutting costs for both the government and manufacturers “while increasing safety.” Actions should prioritize NextGen resources, he said, and ensure that taxes and fees paid to the FAA are protected from any future government shutdowns or other disruptions. Bunce stressed the need for “clear and consistent leadership” from the FAA in the international marketplace by defending “the robustness and efficiency of its safety certification globally” and offered other specific advice.
Collaborative efforts, he said, could collect data to advance technologies safely. Bunce suggests that the restrictions of federal budget constraints could be eased by “leveraging public and private expertise.” He also urged members of the House to more clearly define the role played by the Department of Transportation in “advocating for the aviation community within the government and internationally.” And Bunce called for delivery of a consolidation report as directed by Congress by way of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
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Prison officials in Quebec say they have to beef up air defenses around their facilities after a remotely piloted aircraft dropped a package that likely contained drugs into the Hull Prison near Ottawa, Ontario. "We have to adjust," Stephane Lemaire, president of the union representing prison guards, told the Ottawa Citizen. “If they are able to deliver drugs then they can deliver other small objects — small cellphones, weapons.” The package was never recovered and neither was the aircraft. Lemaire said the rapidly advancing technology and the dropping prices for the aircraft make the delivery method ever more enticing, especially for drug drops. “If you can deliver a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of drugs, it pays for itself.”
The possible solutions include putting nets over the prisons or giving guards the authority to shoot the drones down, a difficult proposition since many prisons are in built-up areas. There have been other incidents and in one case the aircraft was recovered. However, the cardboard box, likely full of drugs, that it dropped into the prison yard was never found.
Fifty-eight-year-old Kansas man Terry Lee Loewen has been charged with attempting to explode a car bomb Friday morning at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport where he worked as an avionics technician for Hawker Beechcraft. Authorities allege that Loewen intended to detonate the explosives and die in the explosion, having been radicalized by fundamentalist Islam. Authorities say Loewen studied passenger traffic and planned his attack to take place just prior to Christmas to result in the most casualties and have the greatest economic impact. Through much of his planning, Loewen was observed by, and worked with, undercover FBI agents who provided him with fake explosives, rendering his final attempted act completely ineffective, the FBI said.
The FBI says their case includes correspondence with Loewen in which he stated that he was happy to be carry out the bombing, soon. And that, acting as co-conspirators, agents told Loewen he could “back out at any time.” Loewen had an appearance in court Friday afternoon, where he requested a court-appointed public defender. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 20. The FBI says that Loewen expressed concern prior to his alleged bombing attempt, saying that he didn’t fully trust his co-conspirators and that his greatest fear was to be unable to complete his planned Dec. 13 operation, because it was a set-up.
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Textron AirLand has announced the first flight of its Scorpion Intelligence, Surveillance Reconnaissance/Strike aircraft took place at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita early Thursday. The twinjet took off just after 9 a.m. and landed 1.4 hours later and "met all expectations" according to Textron CEO Scott Donnelly. “When the design phase began less than two years ago, we were confident that we would deliver a uniquely affordable, versatile tactical aircraft by taking advantage of commercial aviation technologies and best practices," Donnelly said in a statement.
Test pilot Dan Hinson said the aircraft performed as expected and will do well in its assigned role. "It showed impressive stability and responsiveness closely matching all of the predicted parameters for today’s maneuvers – it’s going to be a highly capable aircraft for the ISR and homeland security mission set,” Hinson said in the release. The aircraft program was announced two months ago. The first aircraft was built at a Cessna facility in Wichita using Cessna engineering and production staff but it's not a Cessna project. Textron has teamed with a group of investors called AirLand LLC to develop the aircraft. It will be marketed to the Air Force and domestic security agencies but is also planned for export.
Textron AirLand flew its Scorpion light tactical jet last week and by all accounts it went well. AVweb's Russ Niles spoke with Dale Tutt, chief engineer on the project, a day after the flight about the airplane and its potential market.
Textron AirLand says response from military and paramilitary organizations to the first flight of its Scorpion tactical jet has been overwhelmingly positive and the twin jet may appear at airshows this coming season. Dale Tutt, the chief engineer on the project, told AVwebin a podcast interview the Scorpion, which will cost "somewhere south of $20 million" and about $3,000 an hour to operate, fills a performance and price gap in the military aircraft market that no one else is filling. "Having an airplane that's affordable in those lower threat environments really makes a lot of sense," he said. He noted the Air Force and other military powers around the world are currently using supersonic fighters at great expense in places like Afghanistan where there is no real airborne threat and the Scorpion's 450-knot "dash," five hours of loitering endurance and the ability to carry a wide variety of weapons give it the mix of capabilities needed for that environment at much lower cost.
Tutt said the aircraft was designed to incorporate as much "off the shelf" and "mature" technologies as possible to reduce development time and cost. Some of the systems are borrowed from Cessna's Citation line of business jets. The aircraft is built around a pod that can be adapted to hold everything from surveillance cameras to laser-guided bombs and is the heart of the aircraft's mission profile flexibility.
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If you were paying attention to the news last week, you may have noticed that the otherwise chronically broken Congress actually proposed a bi-partisan budget package. Now let’s not delude ourselves into thinking strains of Kumbaya will soon be pealing from the Capitol and the members will be caroling on Pennsylvania Avenue, but this little outbreak of cooperation may have positive consequences for aviation.
Specifically and without undue prodding, Congress got busy pushing back on two critical issues, the FAA’s plan to require sleep apnea diagnosis for medical certification and the very idea that the Third Class medical requirement is still viable. It’s not unusual for Congress to dip deeply into the affairs of government agencies; that’s what they do, after all. But I can’t recall a confluence of Congressional involvement in two important aviation issues occurring so quickly.
First, the proposed sleep apnea diagnosis. I’m surprised that FAA air surgeon Fred Tilton stumbled into this mess. Mid-level agency executives are usually a lot smarter about what’s going to stir up the masses enough to invoke the wrath of Congress. They like to avoid that sort of thing. Yet, by administrative fiat, Tilton decreed in early November that all pilots over a body mass index of 40 would have to be tested for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and that eventually, the agency wants to extend that to lower BMIs. Here’s Tilton’s announcement. (PDF) It’s breathtaking in its potential scope, cost to airmen and utter lack of supporting data demonstrating how aviation safety will be improved or even anything showing that OSA is a threat to aviation safety. Earlier this month, the House introduced a bill to require the FAA to follow standard rulemaking procedures for this proposed new requirement.
What stuns me is that Tilton didn’t have his ducks in a row on this, attaching links to convincingly show how OSA is causal in aviation accidents to the extent that it’s worth the enormous expense he is proposing to address this issue. Could it be there are no ducks to line up? My guess is the convincing data doesn’t exist. Yes, the NTSB has opined (PDF) on this subject, but largely in the context of fatigue in general, with apnea as but one factor. In other words, Tilton may be proposing an expensive fishing trip, to be paid by pilots seeking medicals.
If you break through the crust of all the coverage on sleep apnea, you soon see that it has become the condition du jour, the suddenly discovered silent killer of the masses. How could civilization have endured so long with the scourge of sleep apnea? An entire industry to treat it has emerged and doctors are being shown how they can make lots of money in the burgeoning field of “sleep medicine.” In this story, NPR reported that Medicare payments for sleep testing increased nearly four fold between 2001 and 2009, from $62 million to $235 million. According to the report, a company called Aviisha specializes in sleep testing and lures physicians with a picture of a doctor with a stack of cash in his lab coat pocket. Not to say the sleep medicine business is entirely a racket, but you can see the potential for abuse. I suspect Tilton’s proposal will be seen as playing into this. If Congress forces rulemaking, perhaps we’ll get a look at what data is supposed to support how OSA treatment will materially improve aviation safety.
Of course, if there weren’t a requirement for medicals, expensive OSA treatments wouldn’t be a requirement, either. And that’s the idea behind a bill introduced last week by Rep. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican who’s also a pilot. The bill would expand the use of the driver’s license medical certification to allow pilots to fly aircraft up to 6000 pounds, VFR in non-commercial operations. It doesn’t eliminate the Third Class, but rather reduces the scope of operations where it's required. If passed, it’s a huge step forward, but there’s one thing about it I don’t like: it doesn’t allow IFR operations. This makes no sense to me, for instrument skills and operations have always been seen as a means of improving safety. It’s counter-logical to say that it’s medically stressful or that it should require a higher degree of medical screening. My guess is it’s thrown into the bill as a bone and I’m not really complaining. We have to start somewhere on eliminating the Third Class and this is a positive development.
But it’s not without negatives. While I don’t think the elimination or curtailment of the Third Class will kill the light sport industry, it will put a dent it, especially for some manufacturers. Many LSA buyers are older pilots who have the wherewithal to pay cash for $130,000 airplanes. Some are doing that because they’re selling their Bonanzas or Skyhawks out of medical-loss fear. They see LSAs as lifeboats to extend their flying career. If fear of medical loss no longer propels them, light sport will lose some sales. So be it. It’s unreasonable to expect light sport to sustain on the back of a medical requirement that has long since outlived its usefulness, if it was ever useful.
How these two issues play out will be interesting to watch and will likely be another case study in how bureaucracies protect their castles by maneuvering around Congress. It’s always amusing—or maybe infuriating—to attend public meetings where FAA mid-level or even administrator-level executives talk the talk about supporting GA and removing regulatory barriers. Yet here are two examples where they are doing just the opposite. Elimination of the Third Class medical won’t instantly stimulate GA growth, but it will surely reduce the erosion of the pilot population, which is the next best thing. Tilton’s sleep apnea proposal is just bizarre. I have little doubt that many pilots on the verge of bailing from GA will be encouraged to do just that when confronted with a requirement for $3000 worth of OSA testing and then living with a CPAP machine. Personally, I’d rather take up crack smoking than look and sound like Darth Vader when getting ready for bed. But that’s just me. Either way, it ought to be my choice, not the FAA’s.