AVwebFlash Complete Issue: Volume 17, Number 50b

December 15, 2011

By The AVweb Editorial Staff
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FAA AeroNav Meeting: Radically Higher Prices for Digital Charting Proposed (Updated)

The FAA's AeroNav charting division told vendors this week that it proposes to charge end users of digital charting producers about $150 a year to close a $5 million shortfall in its budget due to declining paper chart sales. The new fee, if adopted, would presumably more than double the cost of some popular iPad and Droid applications such as ForeFlight and WingX. Plus, vendors selling through Apple's application channels would face additional charges. "To me, it's pretty clear that these prices are a non-starter. I know pilots aren't going to pay $150 for these products without screaming about it," one vendor told us.

And because AeroNav's incremental pricing favors large-volume vendors over smaller ones, the pricing change may effectively kill smaller application writers and/or free sites that offer FAA charting products as a convenience for users. That might include DUATs contractors, which offer free charts on the two sites.

Moreover, the FAA told about 70 vendors that as paper sales continue to decline, the FAA charges for digital charting products are likely to increase in order to cover fixed overhead costs. The agency also assured the vendors that it would not be developing any apps or other products to compete with them.

Tuesday's meeting, which was closed to the public and press, had been billed as an information gathering session so the AeroNav group could reach pricing that worked for everyone. Based on conversations with several vendors, we would say reaction to the FAA's proposals were mixed at best. "The FAA did a remarkably good job in soliciting opinion," one vendor told us, "I'm actually fairly hopeful." Mark Spenser of Avilution, a newer aviation app for Android, says he's not sure he'll stay in the business if the FAA's proposed charges are adopted. "It's too early to tell," he said. The FAA also realizes there will have to be some other structure for websites that display charts, like FltPlan.com or RunwayFinder. Dave Parsons of RunwayFinder told us, "I won't be able to do it for even a dollar a user [per year]."

The assembled vendors were told that the FAA will announce a detailed proposal by mid-January and the new charges will go into effect in April, 2012. But one of the participants we spoke to on Wednesday said that timeline is "totally unrealistic." He expressed further skepticism that the FAA made its case the its economics justify such steep price increases. Several vendors we spoke to told us there wasn't much give and take and that AeroNav presented their price structure in a way that suggested little flexibility. Michael Wolf, president of Sporty's, told us Wednesday that he remained unconvinced that AeroNav had made a legitimate effort to close its budget shortfall by cutting its expenses.

As for the new prices, vendors questioned how the agency arrived at its numbers. The FAA seems to have grossly underestimated the number of potential users, vendors told us. They told the assembled vendors that the $150/year number was based on their estimated number of users divided into the $5 million shortfall. But that's only about 33,000 users. Vendors tell us the real number is more than 100,000. That may be good news for driving down the final price for subscriptions eventually, but for the short term, it means higher costs for vendors. It's also true that bigger companies will have the right to resell charts to start-ups, who might want only single-updates or charts for a specific area of the country to trim costs. However there might be an inherent conflict of interest in doing so.

Bigger companies also will have an edge as the proposed pricing is regressive: For example, a vendor with up to 100 customers would pay $250 per customer, while one with up to 1,500 might pay $120. There was also a flat-fee proposal where zero to 100 customers would be $25,000/year, 100 to 250 would be $50,000/year and so on. It's unclear which of those options might go into effect, but AeroNav told the vendors the prices proposed are in a general range.

When asked if AeroNav could make up the $5 million by reducing its expenses, FAA officials said no, although budget relief from Congress might be an option. FAA officials deflected several specific questions about AeroNav's budgeting and costs, which Sporty's Wolf told us he thinks they will need to do.

In addressing the group, Fred Anderson, AeroNav's director of products, told the vendors that the FAA has always charged user fees for charting products, dating to the 1920s, when the government was authorized by Congress to collect fees limited to paper and printing. The current law allows AeroNav to charge for printing and distribution, but also for management of databases used for chart preparation. It cannot charge for the acquisition or distribution of flight data required to make charts. Heretofore, AeroNav has charged a nominal fee for digital chart data it sold on DVDs. It has also allowed all comers to download the digital data at no charge, an arrangement that made attractive economics for some application writers. Vendor costs for the DVD have been on the order of $200 a year, but with no end user limitations, they amortize this over hundreds or thousands of customers.

AeroNav also proposed that vendors will be required to become chart sales agents and will be subject to audit by AeroNav to confirm they're charging customers correctly, which will cost vendors -- and customers -- yet more money. Vendors told us the FAA hopes to finalize its pricing, contractual agreement and other issues brought up in today's meeting by early January. We'll gauge pilot reaction after the numbers are finalized.

On Tuesday, the FAA did not return our request for comment by our deadline, but spokesman Laura Brown said Wednesday the agency would respond to detailed queries for follow-up stories later this week.

Related Content:

AVweb Insider Blog: Ahead This Week -- AeroNav Gets to 'Splain Itself

For reasons we find mystifying, the FAA steadfastly refuses to answer questions about budget and revenue plans for its AeroNav charting division. It's supposed to sort this out with vendors in a closed meeting this week, which the public and press are barred from attending. On the AVweb Insider blog, Paul Bertorelli runs downs the issues and options.

Read more and join the conversation.

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Wonder Gadgets: Separating the Good from the Bad back to top 

Latest Tests Show LightSquared Disrupts Most GPS

Federal officials Wednesday confirmed earlier reports that signals from a nationwide broadband system proposed by LightSquared will significantly disrupt existing GPS service. In separate statements, the National Coordination Office for Spaced-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT), the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation essentially said that under current circumstances, GPS cannot coexist with LightSquared's planned 40,000-tower network of high-speed wireless broadband transmitters. "LightSquared signals caused harmful interference to the majority of … general purpose GPS receivers," said Anthony Russo, director of PNT. The comments were based on recent test results that also showed the signals could affect TAWS. Cellphones are not affected significantly, according to the tests. LightSquared said it rejects the findings about the GPS receivers but is willing to work with the FAA on TAWS. The GPS interference, LightSquared claims, is the GPS industry's fault, which, regardless of the veracity of the claim, may be a moot point.

In a statement, LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja said the problem isn't that his company's signals invade GPS's territory, it's that GPS receivers "look into" LightSquared's spectrum. "LightSquared has had the legal and regulatory right to use its spectrum for eight years over two administrations," Ahuja said. "The testing further confirmed that the interference issues are not caused by LightSquared's spectrum, but by GPS devices looking into spectrum that is licensed to LightSquared. We have taken extraordinary measures -- and at extraordinary expense -- to solve a problem that is not of our making. We continue to believe that LightSquared and GPS can co-exist." However, the FCC waiver that would permit LightSquared to operate its system appears to place the onus on LightSquared to ensure its signals do not interrupt GPS service. LightSquared is expected to have more to say about the tests on Thursday.

Cockpit iPads Get FAA OK

American Airlines is the first U.S. airline to be officially approved by the FAA to use iPads as an electronic flight bag in all phases of flight, the FAA said this week. The airline received the approval on Dec. 1. The FAA said only two iPads are allowed to be operated in the cockpit at any one time, according to The New York Times. "This involves a significantly different scenario for potential interference than unlimited passenger use, which could involve dozens or even hundreds of devices at the same time," the FAA told the Times. American and Alaska Airlines previously have been using the tablets in the cockpit on an evaluation-only basis.

The issue of using consumer electronic devices in airline cabins made the news last week when actor Alec Baldwin was thrown off an American Airlines flight after he refused to turn off the phone he was using to play a game. The FAA seems to be in no hurry to extend its OK from the cockpit to the cabin. "The FAA is concerned about potential interference with aircraft navigation and communication systems primarily during takeoff, climb and landing, which are considered critical phases of flight," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. Gregg Overman, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, told The Wall Street Journal that the signals that travel to and from consumer devices "could be picked up by one of the many antennas you'll see attached to modern passenger aircraft." Because consumer devices are so varied and the electronic components frequently change, it's not possible for the FAA to verify that none of them can cause interference, thus the continuing ban.

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Inside the Beleaguered Fighter Jet Program back to top 

F-35 Woes Made Public

A 55-page report this weekend made public a laundry list of flaws currently dragging on the F-35 fighter program and is complicated by a production plan called "Concurrency" that allows Lockheed Martin to churn out the jets while testing continues. Structural cracks, electrical gremlins and a "classified" problem are among those mentioned in the report. The program, already projected to cost one trillion dollars over the next 50 years, could now face another billion dollars in fixes. And aging fighters waiting to be replaced by the F-35 may have to hold the line years longer than originally expected.

The F-35 schedule has been adjusted twice since 2010 and it appears current delays could push the jet's combat-ready date beyond 2018. Part of the problem appears to be a reliance on computer modeling that failed to predict problems found in testing. Those problems have produced more than 700 design changes even as jets begin rolling off the production line. And one version of the jet could be cancelled within two years if fixes aren't found and implemented before then. In the current economic climate, the dollars and sense (intentional) of the program are growing more complicated. Boeing has offered design improvements for its F-15 and F-18 fighters as a sort of competitive plan B, just in case the F-35's hurdles are hit with funding cuts that make some insurmountable. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has opted to cut F-35 orders this year and next year together by more than 20 percent.

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Law and Accountability back to top 

Court Orders U.S. To Pay Pilot's Family

A District Court Judge has ordered the United States to pay $4.4 million to the family of a pilot killed in a 2005 plane crash after finding that a controller (currently serving as a front line manager) "breached his duty of care." Judge Edwin G. Torres found that controller Harvey Pake failed to provide accurate, complete weather information pertinent to pilot Michael Zinn's route of flight. He also failed to provide navigational assistance when asked, according to the court. The NTSB's full narrative suggests it may not be that simple. Zinn was flying a Cessna P337H, IFR, out of Boca Raton for Myrtle Beach in the afternoon. Pake told him he was heading toward heavy precipitation and Zinn announced a heading change. Pake became involved with another aircraft as Zinn flew into a Level 5 storm. Zinn was heard on frequency by controllers and other pilots screaming for help for two minutes before his radio went silent.

The court found that the controller's station displayed Level 5 to 6 weather along Zinn's new heading. It resolved that Pake "failed to provide sufficient accurate weather information to allow Zinn to make informed decisions." In real time, when asked by Zinn, "Does my heading look clear to you at this point?" Pake replied "I cannot suggest any headings because my weather radar only picks up precipitation and is not as accurate as what you see out your window." The NTSB found Pake had cleared Zinn to deviate left and right along his new route of flight and asked Zinn to advise when he was back on course. In the interim, Pake became involved with another aircraft. When Pake returned, Zinn was in trouble, announcing he was "in difficult shape." Zinn then requested that Pake give him a heading. Pake replied that he could only suggest a heading, which he did. Twenty seconds later a voice presumed to be that of Zinn was heard on frequency saying, "Help." Other pilots relayed "Somebody's yelling for help and that they're going to die." Soon after, Zinn's aircraft crashed into a house. The judge found that Zinn was 60 percent responsible for his own death, with significant contributions made by the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center. But according to the judge, "Neither the air traffic controllers nor Michael Zinn were bad actors in this tragic accident."

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Tomorrow's Pilots Get a High-Tech Early Start back to top 

Kids Use X-Plane To Learn Science

A new program offered by Build A Plane and Fly To Learn aims to help kids learn about science, technology, engineering, and math by building and flying virtual aircraft using X-Plane flight simulator software. "Not every school can or wants to build a real airplane," said Lyn Freeman, founder of Build A Plane, "but now everybody can build an airplane virtually, thanks to our new partnership with Fly To Learn." Fly To Learn has developed a curriculum that uses X-Plane to teach kids the basics of aviation and help them design and fly their own simulated aircraft. The groups plan to develop a nationwide competition with a "virtual fly-off."

The X-Plane software and curriculum materials for up to 20 students are available to schools for about $400 per year. The program is designed to complement national STEM standards that are now in development. "X-Plane is a great learning experience because the software is sensitive to things like center of gravity, induced drag, angle of incidence and more," said Thomas Dubick, of Fly To Learn. "Students experience strong academic rigor by designing, flying, and analyzing the results of their modifications to virtual aircraft." The program is for middle schoolers, but versions for elementary and high school are also in the works.

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Remembering Lynn Helms back to top 

J. Lynn Helms, Former FAA Administrator, Dies

J. Lynn Helms, who served as FAA administrator from 1981 to 1984, died on Dec. 11, at his home in Westport, Conn., at age 86. Helms may be best remembered for his role during the 1981 strike by air traffic controllers. According to the Washington Post, Helms advised Reagan administration officials that air traffic safety would not be affected if more than 11,000 union controllers were fired. Helms kept ATC running with non-union workers, managers, members of the military, and new hires. Helms also served as a test pilot in the Navy, and was president of Piper Aircraft in the 1970s.

Helms was the first man to fly 1,000 mph, in a Navy F8U Crusader, in 1955. He had retired from a long career in the military and the private sector when Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis asked him to take on the FAA job. During his tenure, Helms helped initiate a $10 billion plan for modernizing the National Airspace System and helped to install new weather technology in response to several fatal airline accidents.

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What You Missed in AVwebBiz This Week back to top 

Hawker Beech Seeks Break From Lenders

Hawker Beechcraft is looking for a break from the holders of a $182 million revolving line of credit as it grapples with the rough economy. According to Bloomberg, the Wichita planemaker, jointly owned by Goldman Sachs and Onex Corp., is close to violating the terms of the loan agreement in which its cash flow must grow. Hawker Beech has been hard hit by the collapse of the light jet market. Although the lenders could theoretically call the loan if the cash flow issue isn't resolved, financial experts quoted by Bloomberg say that doesn't make any sense.

Sam Goodyear, an analyst at CreditSights, suggested the lenders will cut Hawker Beech some slack, given the circumstances. "There's a logical path to giving these guys a little more time," Goodyear told Bloomberg. "If it was forced to liquidate right now, given all the macro uncertainty related to Europe, they're probably not going to maximize their recoveries."

AVwebBiz: AVweb's Business Aviation Newsletter

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The Top Reporter on Our Crack Staff ... Is You! back to top 

Question of the Week: Is the FAA Right to Raise Prices for Digital Charts?

To cover its expenses, the FAA's AeroNav proposes to charge at least $150 per user for its digital databases, more than doubling the cost of apps like ForeFlight and WingX and probably eliminating free viewing of charts on services like DUATs and other no-charge sites.

Is the FAA right to raise prices for digital charts?
(click to answer)

Last Week's Question: Results

Want to see the current breakdown of responses? Take a moment to answer the question yourself, and then you can view real-time results.

What's On Your Mind?

Have an idea for a new "Question of the Week"?
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AVweb Media: Look, Listen, Laugh and Learn back to top 

Video: F-106 Corn Field Bomber, Convair Delta Dart

Original, Exclusive Videos from AVweb | Reader-Submitted & Viral Videos

This is an unusual story. The jet you're looking at is an F-106 Delta Dart. A storied interceptor in its day, it was built to exceed an Air Force requirement for 1.9 mach and continuous flight at 57,000 feet. It did both. And in December 1959, it set a speed record, of 1,525 mph, or about 2.3 mach, while flying at 40,000 feet. Its pilot at the time, Major Joseph Rogers, claimed the record might not be accurate. He was still accelerating, he said, at the time.

But this particular jet is famous for a different reason.

As the story goes, the aircraft you see here on February 2, 1970 flew itself into the ground -- a snowy field in Montana, where its engine continued to run for another hour and 45 minutes. Grounded, pilotless and still under power, with its radar still sweeping, the jet sometimes crept forward foot by foot through the snow as a small collection of onlookers watched. Its pilot, 1st Lieutenant Gary Foust, had ejected roughly two hours before that show was over. Foust's trip was just as interesting. He'd lost control of the jet while flying a mock engagement that led his and two other jets into harsh maneuvers in the thin, unforgiving air at 38,000 feet. Attempting to match a high-g reversal by another pilot, Foust's jet bucked. He entered a flat spin, and the jet fell, spinning slowly like a model on a turntable. The flight's two other pilots came to his aid, calling out recovery procedures. But by 15,000 feet the result seemed certain, and an instructor in one of the other jets ordered Foust to eject. Foust obeyed.

But for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and it could be it's that law that saved the jet. As Foust shot up, the jet's condition changed -- just enough for it to recover on its own and head off for the horizon. Legend has it that one of the observing pilots said on frequency, "Gary, you better get back in."

In the end, the jet was recovered, rebuilt and put back to work as tail number 80787. But it was forever known as the Corn Field bomber. Delta Darts were phased out in the 1980s.

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Your Favorite FBOs back to top 

FBO of the Week: Advanced Wings (Wings Field, KLOM, Pennsylvania)

Nominate an FBO | Rules | Tips | Questions | Winning FBOs

AVweb's "FBO of the Week" ribbon goes to Advanced Wings at Wings Field Airport (KLOM) in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.

AVweb reader Jeff Kircher told us about Advanced and called their team "the most helpful people I have come across."

Keep those nominations coming. For complete contest rules, click here.

AVweb is actively seeking out the best FBOs in the country and another one, submitted by you, will be spotlighted here next Monday!

Reader-Submitted Photos back to top 

Picture of the Week: AVweb's Flying Photography Showcase

This week's winning photo comes from Chuck Stickney of Honolulu, HI. Click here for the rest of this week's submissions.

Names Behind the News back to top 

Meet the AVwebFlash Team

AVwebFlash is a weekly summary of the latest news, articles, products, features, and events featured on AVweb, the internet's aviation magazine and news service.

The AVwebFlash team is:

Timothy Cole

Editorial Director, Aviation Publications
Paul Bertorelli

Russ Niles

Contributing Editors
Mary Grady
Glenn Pew

Features Editor
Kevin Lane-Cummings

Scott Simmons

Jeff van West
Mariano Rosales

Click here to send a letter to the editor. (Please let us know if your letter is not intended for publication.)

Comments or questions about the news should be sent here.

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If you're having trouble reading this newsletter in its HTML-rich format (or if you'd prefer a lighter, simpler format for your PDA or handheld device), there's also a text-only version of AVwebFlash. For complete instructions on making the switch, click here.

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