The FAA has issued its final rule on the controversial airworthiness directive that will require the replacement of cylinders on 6,200 high-displacement Continental engines. It takes effect on Sept. 15. The AD, which scraps thousands of aftermarket cylinders made by ECi, was initially proposed in 2013 for 520, 550 and some 470 model Continentals that had ECi cylinders installed. The agency said there were too many reports of cracks and cylinder head separations involving the cylinders and wanted all of them sold between September of 2002 and June of 2009 replaced.
The AD caused a storm of protest from owners, engine shops and manufacturers and prompted a long consultation process by the FAA. Even the NTSB opposed the scope and breadth of the AD. In the end, after several modifications, the agency has determined that the 6,200 engines will need all their cylinders replaced at a total cost of $88.5 million for U.S. owners, or about $11,520 per engine. It determined that a manufacturing defect is the root cause of the issues and that adding engine monitors or schooling pilots in correct operation of the engines won't be enough. There are also thousands of affected engines in other countries and normal practice is for other jurisdictions to adopt ADs like this.
There is a range of application for the AD, but in general no one with the cylinders will be able to fly more than 320 hours before they have to be replaced and no one will be able get more than 1,160 hours out of them. The cylinders cannot be overhauled or installed in other engines. They have to be scrapped. AOPA, which has fought the AD on the grounds that the number of failures (82) is not enough to warrant such widespread pain, says that now that the rule has been finalized, it will concentrate on pressing alternative means of compliance.
Continental Motors had a beef with the wording in the AD. Continental bought the parent company of ECi (Danbury Aerospace) last year, six years after the last affected cylinder was made, but the FAA references Continental in the AD. “Continental Motors was never involved in the design, production, or distribution of the cylinders affected by this AD,” Continental said in a news release. “After the acquisition of the assets of Danbury Aerospace, Continental Motors terminated the production of ECi style cylinders for Continental Motors engines, offering its customers genuine Continental Motors Cylinders from its Mobile factory."
Mooney International has appointed Dr. Vivek Saxena as CEO of the company, replacing Jerry Chen, who has led the firm for the last three years. The change at the top, confirmed by AVweb on Monday, was officially announced by the company in a news release on Tuesday. Chen, who is from Taiwan, is the head of Soaring America Corporation, which bought Mooney in 2013. Chen will remain with Mooney, the company said on Tuesday, moving to a senior advisory role, reporting to the new CEO.
Saxena has worked in the aerospace industry for 25 years, Mooney said in their news release, and most recently was vice president at ICF International, a global aviation consultancy, where he led their aerospace operations practice. Prior to ICF, Saxena served in senior roles at Pratt & Whitney for 16 years. He holds a PhD in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Cambridge, and has taught engineering at Cornell University. Saxena will divide his time between the company’s Kerrville and Chino facilities.
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The FAA has established 12 Centers of Excellence to pursue research into safety, alternative fuels, airport operations and other aviation topics, and now the agency has announced its next COE will focus on training the next generation of aviation professionals. Teams from the University of Oklahoma and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University will lead the new Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Technical Training and Human Performance. “This world-class, public-private partnership will help us focus on the challenges and opportunities of this cutting-edge field of research,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We expect this team will help us educate and train aviation professionals well into the future.”
The two lead universities will draw on faculty and students from other schools with aviation programs to form partnerships and complete research projects. The projects will focus on developing technical training for air traffic controllers, aviation safety inspectors, engineers, pilots and technicians. The COE will examine issues that affect training and learning, such as changes in learner expectations, and also will develop innovative practices for training a new generation of learners. This includes new technologies such as mobile learning as well as new ways of collecting and managing training data. The COE will be fully operational and engaged in a robust research agenda within a few months, the FAA said.
Two unique aircraft now ready to start flight tests are waiting on the ground as crews deal with various glitches. Doc, the B-29 that has been under restoration for years, finally flew last month, but the flight lasted just 15 minutes, shorter than was planned. The flight was cut short after a chip detector device, which monitors the presence of metal debris in the engine, lit up. “The chip detector did its job, but it’s overly sensitive,” said Jim Murphy, Doc’s Friends restoration manager. “The new radial engines on Doc take about 50 hours of flight to break in, and during that time, you’re going to see tiny particles of metal … it’s just the way it is. The biggest particle we found during our inspection was about one-fourth the size of a pinhead.” Murphy said inspections completed since the flight show that all the airplane’s systems and control surfaces are “rock-solid,” and a second flight could happen later this month. Also, the Airlander, the huge lighter-than-air vehicle under development in the UK by Hybrid Air Vehicles, exited its hangar last week, but the first flight, expected on Sunday, was delayed at the last minute.
The company blamed a “technical issue” found during preflight checks for the delay, according to their Twitter account. At the time the glitch was found, not enough daylight remained to complete the required inspections and the test flight. Yesterday, the team said they are “hard at work” on the airship and waiting for a safe “weather window” for another try. The huge aircraft, about 300 feet long, will have a top cruise speed of about 80 knots and can remain aloft for up to two weeks. About 60 percent of the ship's lift is provided by helium, and the other 40 percent is driven by the ship's aerodynamic shape and thrust from its rotating engines.
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At least once a year, I try to take the temperature of the emerging aircraft diesel engine market. What’s selling? Who’s buying it? How are they doing with it? A recent sweep through this topic revealed that in new airplanes, not much is selling at all, diesel or otherwise. (See the most recent GAMA production and shipment figures.)
With that established, shouldn’t the diesel conversions be doing a brisk business, especially since Continental recently raised the TBR on its CD line of engines to 2100 hours? Yes, but that’s not what’s happening. Conversions remain a lukewarm, low-volume market, despite demonstrated data that they deliver about 15 percent lower operating costs against avgas engines.
When I asked people involved with the conversions why this is so, the answer I heard consistently was that avgas is cheap. It is? At the moment, the average national price of avgas in the U.S. is $4.68, more than twice the average cost of autogas. Have you noticed? Do you care?
Irrespective of why diesels aren’t gaining more ground, I’m not so sure owners and pilots care that much about gas prices, with the exception of flight schools that use a lot of it. You can answer that for yourself in this week’s poll, but the overarching question is, do you consider avgas cheap? My answer is hell no, I don’t consider it cheap. But I do consider autogas to be cheap and, in fact, it is. In inflation-adjusted current dollars, the price of regular autogas costs about what it did in 1972 and is cheaper than at any time during the 1950s or earlier. The lowest adjusted rate occurred in 1998, at $1.48.
With gas so cheap, are you driving more? Personally, I’m not, because I’m not sensitive to autogas prices. Nationally, we are driving more, by about 2 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration, confirming what you’d expect from standard supply and demand theory.
What about flying? With avgas so “cheap,” are you flying more? Do you care? I can find good data for avgas prices going back to the early 1980s, when it cost about $1.20. Adjusted for 2016 dollars, that’s about $2.60. The current U.S. national average is $4.68, according to airnav.com. So as with everything else in aviation, avgas prices have far outstripped inflation. Sometimes it makes me feel so special I could just weep.
But then I realized something. For much of the last decade, avgas has been in the high $5 range and $6 wasn’t unusual. Now it’s below that and has been for a while. Perhaps a certain psychological sense of “cheap” took time to seep in. If that’s so, wouldn’t we see increasing flight activity? Yes, maybe. But such that data is available to tell this story, it’s mixed. At AirVenture in July, the number of fly-in show planes, homebuilts, vintage and warbird airplanes all increased substantially over the previous year, despite worse weather. Whether a fluke or not, the numbers were as much as 11 percent higher. Fuel prices may or may not have been a factor. That these numbers didn’t decline serves as a victory of sorts, whatever the reason.
I’d like to correlate this with increasing fuel sales, but the data is murky at best. According to the Energy Information Administration, avgas sales plummeted sharply (after an equally sharp rise) in 2013, leveled off in 2014 and showed only slight decline in 2015. But a decline doesn’t support higher activity, unless piston airplanes have suddenly become more efficient, which we know they haven’t, Cirrus lean-of-peak notwithstanding. It’s possible that fuel sales have ticked up for 2016, but I’m not holding my breath that the data will confirm this. The data itself is iffy. There appears to be consolidation or retraction going on in the avgas refining business and for reasons related to proprietary considerations, avgas data is being withheld.
One anecdotal story: When I was interviewing sources for this, one owner told me he had flown his Cessna to AirVenture and back with a side trip out west. When I observed that the gas bill must have been substantial, he said something interesting. “You know, I really don’t want to know what the gas cost. I’m at a point in my life where I just wanted to make the trip, so I did.”
Because I’m an inveterate, dues-paying POW of the general aviation industry, I’m just self-delusional enough to weave that observation into a trend: pent-up demand! But seriously, if one guy feels that, others might too and it could account for increased flight activity. If the EIA gets it data collection together, we’ll know more.
Ample crude oil and refined product in the autogas markets appear to be tamping down prices and that’s likely to remain the trend for a while. Avgas has its own pricing psychology, but it’s sometimes linked—with an add-on margin—to the price of premium autogas. Its price is not strongly linked to the cost of production and thus crude oil prices.
Unknown is how the downward tend in fuel prices, however modest it has proven to be, will sustain itself when the replacement for 100LL surfaces two years from now. I was once confident that a market-competitive replacement would just naturally emerge because there’s money to be made in selling 250 million gallons of fuel a year. But with possible erosion underway in the avgas refinery business, I’m less confident of that now. It doesn’t help that the FAA’s cumbersome PAFI process is utterly opaque to progress. That may be the break diesel needs to become more attractive because one thing is certain: The world is swimming in Jet A.
The International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (IAOPA) will be lobbying the International Civil Aviation Organization to amend its medical standards for private pilots. IAOPA Director General Craig Spence spoke with AVweb's Russ Niles about the initiative.
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