AVwebBiz - Volume 13, Number 2
January 7, 2014
Mooney Back In The Airplane Business
Mooney is officially back in the aircraft production business thanks to a cash infusion from its new Chinese owners. Mooney International, as it is now called, hopes to begin delivery of new Acclaims and Ovations by the third quarter of 2014. "The last time we restarted the line, it took a year but I want to do it in six months," Bill Eldred, director of engineering, told AVweb in an exclusive interview at the Kerrville, Texas, plant on Jan. 3. The assembly line stopped in 2008 and everything was left in place, including all the partly built aircraft, the certifications and production certificate. The company went from 460 employees to nine and stayed in business by supplying parts for the existing fleet and keeping the plant and its inventory safely mothballed. Those careful preparations paid off last year when Chinese interests represented in the U.S. by Soaring America Corporation bought the company and pledged to resume operations by January of this year. There are currently 46 people working to get the line moving again and Eldred said he expects that to double by year's end as production resumes
As we reported in a video produced in China by AVweb's Tim Cole, the new owners expect China to be a big market for the fast and efficient Mooneys as airspace and other regulations are liberalized to allow for general aviation operations. Back in Kerrville, Eldred said there were plenty of potential American investors through the plant during the lean years but only Soaring America and its Chinese backers were ready to write the checks necessary to bring Mooney back. "I don't care where the money comes from," he said. "These aircraft will be built in America." Mooney will start with a modest production rate of one aircraft per month and expects to be at two a month by the end of the year. From there, demand will dictate the rate.
Video: Mooney Gears for Aircraft Production
There are cars in the parking lot and 46 employees working at the Mooney International plant in Kerrville, Texas as of Jan. 3, thanks to fresh investment from its new Chinese owners. AVweb's Russ Niles was there and talked to Director of Engineering Bill Eldred about getting the production line going again.
JetBlue Blames New FAA Rules For Delays
While most airlines blamed winter weather for delays and tie-ups over the weekend, JetBlue also cited the FAA's new pilot rest rules as a factor. The carrier took the unusual step of canceling all flights at New York and Boston airports Monday afternoon through Tuesday morning. At the JetBlue website, the airline posted its litany of woes: "The new year began with the winter storm some called Hercules, shutting down the heaviest trafficked air corridor in the world during one of the heaviest travel periods of the year. Mother Nature then followed that up with icing conditions over the weekend, causing even more issues and ground stops at the airports. Even as airports began to reopen though, newly launched FAA regulations on pilot duty times caused delayed flights to quickly turn into canceled ones." Jet Blue operations at New York and Boston were canceled from 1 p.m. Monday through 10 a.m. local time Tuesday.
The cancellations aimed to allow 17 hours of rest for crews, and time for aircraft servicing, the airline said. Monday's rainy weather followed by a blast of polar air would "turn airports in the Northeast into ice rinks once again," said JetBlue. More than 3,000 flights were cancelled across the U.S. on Monday, and 300 of those were JetBlue's. The new pilot rest rules, which took effect on Saturday, require airlines to give pilots at least 10 hours off between flights, including time for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Cockpit time also is limited to eight or nine hours, depending on the time of day.
On Tuesday, JetBlue backed off a bit on blaming the rest rules for its problems, according to Politico. An airline spokeswoman told Politico in an email that the new rule "was not the main factor" in the cancellations. "Crewmember safety and aircraft operability/safety were the primary factors in our decision to reduce our schedule in the Northeast, with crew rest coming into place as well." JetBlue was the only airline to cite the FAA rules as a factor in this week's flight cancellations, according to CNN. They also were the only airline to request an extension to the implementation deadline, the FAA told CNN.
Bombardier To Furlough Workers
Bombardier will furlough about 300 of its Learjet workers in Wichita, Kan., for six weeks during the first half of this year, according to the Wichita Eagle. Bombardier cited challenges in the jet market as the impetus for the change. A memo sent to workers last week said the layoffs would affect Learjet 70 and 75 production, but not the Learjet 85. "Market conditions remain quite difficult, especially in that lighter aircraft segment," Bombardier spokeswoman Annie Cossette told the Montreal Gazette. "There are encouraging signs for the U.S. economy but the recovery is not taking hold as fast as we had hoped. So these are measures we're taking to protect our aircraft programs over the long term." The workers will be laid off for two-week blocks, on a rotating basis. About 3,000 people work for Bombardier in Wichita.
The company has done better in the market recently with its larger jets. Last month, the company announced a $2.2 billion order for 38 jets from the Global and Challenger lines. Two other orders were announced in December, each for 10 Challenger jets, valued at about $259 million and $280 million, according to Bloomberg News. The Learjet 70 and 75, introduced in 2012, are updated versions of earlier jets, with seating for six passengers in the 70 and eight in the 75. The all-new clean-sheet 85, which also seats eight but in a larger cabin, is expected to enter service later this year.
AOPA Sets Dates, Sites For Regional Fly-Ins
AOPA on Monday announced the dates and locations of the regional fly-ins that will replace its annual Summit event. Each fly-in will feature a pancake breakfast and pilot town hall hosted by AOPA President Mark Baker, exhibits, static aircraft displays, flying activities, safety clinics, a "Learn to Fly" area, and a chance to visit with AOPA staff and program specialists. The events are open to all. The regional events will be held in Texas, Indiana, Massachusetts, Washington, California, Maryland, and Georgia, between April and November.
The announcement about the new fly-ins at last year's Summit event drew mixed reactions, with some vendors expressing a preference for one annual central event. Some shoppers also said they liked the concentration of vendors at one indoor site. AOPA said on Monday exhibitors "will be welcome" at the regional fly-ins. At the Summit, Baker said the fly-ins will enable AOPA staff to interact with more of the association's members and also to recruit new members. "There are still thousands of pilots who are not members of AOPA," he said. "These fly-ins will take our message out to where people fly."
The Maryland "Homecoming" fly-in at AOPA's headquarters on Oct. 4 celebrates AOPA's 75th anniversary. "It’s our intention to make the Frederick Fly-In an annual event again," AOPA spokesman Steve Hedges told AVweb. He added that there will be no charge to attend the regional fly-ins. "A reasonable price will be charged for breakfast, and lunch will be free to all AOPA members," he said. Baker said the new fly-in plan was "inspired by our members," who wanted a way to connect with one another and with AOPA. "This is going to be a great way for our members to tell us what they care about most when it comes to aviation and to share the aviation experience with family and friends in a fun, relaxed setting," Baker said. "Plus, it’s a great excuse to get out and do some flying that supports airports and aviation businesses close to home."
The dates for each event are:
San Marcos Municipal Airport, Texas (HYI) – April 26
A Note to AVweb Readers
Beginning next Monday, AVweb will transition to three-times-a-week publication, with a news e-letter on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Each issue will contain the breaking and spot news readers have come to rely on from AVweb and on Wednesday, we'll continue to offer our business coverage, albeit in expanded format with additional video segments and commentary.
Our Friday issue will also have expanded news coverage and the features, columns and the Refurb Aircraft of the Month will appear throughout the week, rather than just on Friday. Let us know what you think of the new format and if you have any coverage, feature or newstip ideas, send them along. We're always happy to hear from readers.
Finding a New Avgas May Be the Easy Part
I’ve been covering the aviation piston fuel story intensely for four years now and off and on for a lot longer than that. And honestly, the more we bump along toward an eventual replacement for 100LL, the more confusing and confounding the process appears to be. Not that I’m discouraged, for there will be a replacement. It’s just that getting there is going to be a bureaucratic grind that will be even more eye glazing than most of us might have imagined.
Here’s where we are now: Loving as it does acronyms, the FAA’s Unleaded Avgas Transition rulemaking committee (UAT-ARC) came up with something called the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative or PAFI. This isn’t really an entity, but a process overseen by the FAA and industry to accept potential candidate fuels, screen them and then test them before they’re approved for fielding. PAFI is set up to receive up to 10 fuels, but only two will emerge from that process. The FAA insists that it’s not picking winners or losers, but it clearly is. If 10 are submitted, only two will go through the final testing process. That’s a function of FAA budget limitations and the fact that the industry and government decided that the fuel testing would be centralized and done by the FAA, which front-loaded the process to be incapable of conducting complete testing on all comers. They just don’t have the money.
And judging by last month’s ASTM meeting in Tampa, there might not be that many comers anyway. Right now, there are three: the recently announced Shell project and fuels from General Aviation Modifications, Inc. and Swift Fuel. The deadline for further submissions is July, so time is short. Asking around at ASTM, I didn’t get the impression that everyone—and maybe anyone—assumes there will be more candidate fuels. No one seems to know. It’s also not clear if more candidate fuels are a good thing.
Normally, the more products there are, the more the competition and that’s good. But it could very well be that there are only so many ways to produce a 100-octane, unleaded fuel and the clear trend seems to be an aviation alkylate-based fuel with aromatic additives. Swift Fuel is the outlier, with a binary blend of mesitylene and isopentane. Given the economics, I’d be surprised if anyone submits a fuel far outside this paradigm, but we’ll know by July. One source told me he expects to see a submission by the French refiner, Total, and it’s hard to believe that ConocoPhillips, a major avgas producer, won’t throw a candidate on the table.
On the other hand, I can’t even begin to guess how refinery executives view the PAFI process and how eager they are to get tangled up in it. As I see it, it has two significant flaws. First, the call for fuel candidates follows the federal contract process, which is great for buying bombers and tanks, but an imperfect fit for fuel to be developed for a consumer market. This came to light at the FAA’s presentation at ASTM when several company representatives asked, hypothetically, if they submitted a fuel that failed to make it through the screening, could they learn why. The initial answer was no, because government contract rules preclude that sort of thing. But the FAA’s Peter White said the process is still a work in progress and may have flexibility. The screening and testing is designed to be a data-generation process and the data is supposed to be shared.
But the basic idea is flawed, in my view. It’s the equivalent of the airline industry deciding it needs a new 250-passenger aircraft and submitting the designs to the FAA. The government then does the testing and picks which one goes to market and it can’t test them all because it doesn’t have the money. This works in the defense industry because the government is the customer, but it doesn’t work as well when the government intervenes to do what free markets normally do: pick winners and losers based on price and merits.
Another aspect of the PAFI process I don’t agree with is that one checklist item is to evaluate the fuel submitter’s business plan—in other words, is the company’s fuel realistically producible and can it make a profit producing it? Again, that’s for the market to sort out after the fact, and not for the FAA to predetermine based on its standards. This puts smaller companies like GAMI and Swift at a disadvantage against a Shell or a ConocoPhillips who will quite naturally have more mature and impressive business plans. It’s a testament to how perverse this entire fuel replacement problem has become that the industry sat around a table and agreed to the process they’re stuck with. But no one could come up with anything better and I’m not sure I could, either, although I don’t understand why the submission process came to be governed by contract rules.
The FAA explained that each submitted fuel will be judged by a complex matrix designed to make the evaluations as objective as possible. There will be two stages, an initial screening and, for the two that make it through that process, detailed testing. The details of the matrices haven’t been worked out yet, which may be another cause for pause for any companies thinking about submitting a fuel. Even though the FAA appears to have made a bona fide effort to make the evaluation process neutral and unbiased, Lars Hjelmberg, who has been making fuel for 30-plus years in Europe, told me after the meeting that there’s always some risk of what he calls a “political fuel.”
By that he means an evaluation process tilted in favor of one fuel or another for other than strictly technical reasons. The ASTM is supposed to be a consensus organization, but it has competing and conflicting member interests, as all organizations inevitably do. The same applies to the FAA. To minimize the effects of that, the PAFI process will use a pair of committees with industry representative to review the fuel data and check off the boxes on the yet-to-be-developed evaluation matrices. But conflicts of interest are always a danger.
While this entire construct doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies, I think it has a reasonable chance of succeeding and I’m actually quite confident a workable 100-octane fuel will emerge one way or another. The largest worry seems to be that whatever fuels get the nod won’t match the ASTM D-910 leaded avgas spec closely enough to drop right into the distribution and regulatory structure. If that does turn out to be the case—and no one can say at this point whether if it will or it won’t—then someone may need to do some additional certification work. But who? And who will pay for it? The engine manufacturers and airframers are hoping to avoid this scenario for obvious reasons. And to do that, they’re depending on an approval process I’d generously describe as less than perfect.
It’s going to be an interesting three or four years.
Video: Cub Theatre -- The-Not-That-Impossible Turn
In this week's Cub Theatre installment, AVweb's Paul Bertorelli provides a video examination of the runway turnback or the so-called "impossible turn." Well, it's not impossible at all, although it's not necessarily easy. If you want to try it, you'll need to practice it first. And think about making the turnback decision before you take off, not when the engine crumps at 500 feet.
Video: Borescoping the Cub
With the average age of the light aircraft fleet north of 40 years, it's a challenge to keep older aircraft maintained. In this video, Cub owner Paul Bertorelli shows how the shop uses a borescope to see deep inside the aircraft to detect any issues before they become serious.