March 28, 2004
By The AVweb Editorial Staff
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The folks at the FAA were busy last week, creating a new safety office, filling a long-vacant executive post, and hosting the annual forecast conference. The common theme: Change is coming swift and sure, and the feds are racing to keep up with it. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta announced Thursday that the Department of Transportation will create a new Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service, an independent "second set of eyes" to ensure that changes in air traffic standards and procedures are safe. Also, more than a year after creating the post, the FAA has finally named its first chief financial officer, Ramesh Punwani. "We needed someone who could balance a $14 billion checkbook, and we found him," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. As CFO, Punwani will oversee the FAA's $14 billion budget and develop agency-wide financial systems. "Ramesh knows budgets and he knows aviation. It's just the right mix for the FAA." Punwani's background includes executive positions at Pan American World Airways, Tower Air and Trans World Airlines. He also was CFO of Travelocity.com. The position had been filled for the last 13 months on an interim basis by John Hennigan.
The Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service, which will be part of the FAA, will oversee the Air Traffic Organization, which was established three years ago to run the National Airspace System. "This is a new way of doing business," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. "This new organization is designed to give us independent analysis of our air traffic control operations. It will operate as a second set of eyes to bring us to a new level of excellence." Mineta named Dave Canoles, the FAA's director for emergency operations and communications, to head the new office. The establishment of the Oversight Service follows recommendations by the National Civil Aviation Review Commission in 1997 and the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2001 that safety oversight of the FAA's air traffic function should be provided by a separate part of the agency. Canada, the U.K. and Germany are among the ICAO states transitioning to similar systems.
At its annual forecast conference last week, the FAA unveiled its outlook for the next decade of general aviation and compiled its statistics for 2002-2003. Overall, the FAA expects a strong recovery to continue through 2005, with moderate sustained growth thereafter. The GA fleet will expand at a rate of 1.3 percent a year, adding more than 35,000 airplanes by 2015, the FAA said. The aging of the GA fleet is one factor preventing the growth of utilization rates for single-engine piston aircraft. Usage declines in aircraft more than 25 years old, the FAA says, and with each passing year a greater percentage of the single-engine fleet falls into that category. All categories of pilots continue to grow, the FAA says. About 58.7 percent of pilots today are instrument-rated, and that should grow to 61.6 percent by 2016. The turboprop/turbojet fleet, the fastest-growing segment, will increase 3.7 percent annually. GA hours flown are forecast to increase from 26.7 million today to 32.7 million in 2015, an average annual growth rate of 1.7 percent, with turbos sprinting ahead at a growth rate of 4.6 percent. Activity in the new Light-Sport Aircraft category is expected to total 315,000 hours by 2015, with some 20,800 new sport pilots in the air. The FAA also forecast a revival of the suborbital space market, spurred by an emerging public space-travel market and the competition for the X PRIZE.
The FAA's numbers show a few bright spots despite the inescapable fact that times have been tough. Fractional-ownership programs are spurring turboprop and jet sales, new avionics are making it easier and safer to fly and "learn-to-fly" promotions are helping to bring new pilots into the fold, the FAA said. Helicopter pilots grew by almost 2 percent in 2003 over 2002. The fastest-growing aircraft types were experimental, with a 7.4-percent growth spurt, and turbine aircraft, which grew by 5.7 percent. The 10 fastest-growing general aviation airports, as ranked by the percentage increase over fiscal year 2002, grew from a combined total of 211,941 GA operations in 2002 to 374,238 in 2003, an increase of 76.6 percent. The three airports with the largest percentage increase in 2003 were Victorville in California, Jacksonville/Cecil Field in Florida, and Stillwater Municipal in Oklahoma, each of which more than doubled its activity. Oceanic departures and overflights were up 10.9 and 5.7 percent, respectively, in 2003, which the FAA says suggests that international business travelers are increasingly turning from commercial aircraft to business/corporate jets for security reasons. "Promise for the future is evidenced by ... the development, production and introduction of new GA products and services," the FAA said.
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One factor that could crimp the FAA's cautiously rosy predictions for GA growth is the continuing rise in fuel prices. Prices at the pump last week hit an all-time high, the American Automobile Association reported, and aviation fuel prices are rising as well. If the climb continues, it could deflate aircraft sales, General Aviation Manufacturers Association President Ed Bolen told the FAA conference last week. "If fuel costs only go up 2 or 4 or 6 percent, that isn't make-or-break for a huge percentage of the population" that buys airplanes, Bolen said. "But if people say, 'I'm not as comfortable with the economy as I was six weeks ago because of fuel prices,' then [sales] could become a greater challenge." Bolen said he remains hopeful for an aviation recovery overall, The Wichita Eagle reported.
As gas prices creep toward $2 per gallon for drivers in many parts of the country, many pilots are seeing local prices for 100LL inch closer to $3. Jet fuel prices are climbing, too, up more than 30 percent since September. The airlines are feeling the pinch, and last week, four carriers tacked on $5 fuel surcharges to every passenger ticket -- an option not open to GA pilots. Air shows are being squeezed, too. The Florida International Airshow, held last weekend, uses about 100,000 gallons of fuel, the show director told the local NBC2 News. The Thunderbirds alone burn more than 10,000 gallons, which at current prices, even with a volume discount, costs over 19,000 tax dollars. (So be sure you enjoy the show.) Adding to the jitters, OPEC is scheduled to meet next week and may decide to cut production, which would drive prices up even higher. Down under, another problem with the fuel supply has surfaced, as airlines were put on alert last week to watch for black sludge that's been found in the fuel filters of aircraft burning Jet A1 fuel. Thousands of light aircraft in Australia and New Zealand were grounded for a month in 1999 due to problems with the fuel supply. But New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority says the recent sludge problem is more an "annoyance" than a safety issue.
Concerns over gas prices and the fuel supply are nothing new. Aviators have worried for years that their supply of 100LL will dry up, or become pricey beyond reason. The U.S. GA piston fleet is currently surviving on one remaining producer that provides tetra-ethyl lead (TEL), the critical ingredient in 100LL, and that producer may not be committed to producing TEL after 2010, AOPA says. An acceptable unleaded replacement fuel for 100LL is not available, AOPA says, and it would take years to develop and approve a new fuel and have the FAA certify aircraft to use that fuel.
DIAMOND ENGINEERS REDESIGN DA40 PANEL TO OPTIMIZE FORM AND FUNCTION
As the 90-day deadline loomed for the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to sign off on the FAA's Sport Pilot rule, the clock stopped last week when the FAA retracted the rule. "It's not unusual for us to go back and forth like this," the FAA's Sue Gardner told AVweb on Friday. "I'd expect this to take probably a couple of weeks." The OMB wanted answers to some concerns about the FAA's cost-benefit analysis, Gardner said. By retracting the rule and answering those questions, the FAA avoids letting the 90 days run out and then having the OMB reject it, in which case the FAA would have had to resubmit the rule and start over. Gardner said the FAA will post an update at its Web site soon, probably today. EAA described the move as an expeditious tactic that keeps the rule on track for final approval this spring. EAA President Tom Poberezny said FAA's decision was the best way for the agency to address the OMB's questions and secure a final rule as quickly as possible. "This is a temporary timing setback," he said. "EAA continues to champion and support the sport pilot/light-sport aircraft rule."
NASA's second X-43A hypersonic research aircraft flew successfully Saturday, the first time an air-breathing scramjet-powered aircraft has flown freely. The 12-foot-long unpiloted vehicle's scramjet -- a supersonic-combustion ramjet -- ignited and burned through its hydrogen fuel supply, which lasted about 10 seconds. The X-43A reached its test speed of Mach 7, and was ditched in the Pacific Ocean, as planned. "Today was a grand-slam in the bottom of the 12th," said Joel Sitz, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center's X-43A project manager. During NASA's first scramjet flight test, in June 2001, a rocket booster failed and the aircraft had to be destroyed. "It's been a great, record-breaking day," said Larry Huebner, of NASA's Langley Research Center. "We achieved positive acceleration of the vehicle while we were climbing, and maintained outstanding vehicle control. This was a world-record speed for air-breathing flight." The flight, originating from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, in Edwards, Calif., began at 12:40 p.m. PST, as NASA's B-52B launch aircraft carrying the X-43A lifted off the runway. The X-43A, mounted on a modified Pegasus booster rocket, was launched from the B-52B just before 2 p.m. The rocket boosted the X-43A up to its test altitude of about 95,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, where the X-43A separated from the booster and flew freely for several minutes following scramjet engine operation, in order to gather aerodynamic data.
NASA's seven-year, $230 million Hyper-X program is aimed at providing unique "first-time" data on hypersonic air-breathing engine technologies. A scramjet is a ramjet engine in which the airflow through the whole engine remains supersonic. A ramjet operates by subsonic combustion of fuel in a stream of air compressed by the forward speed of the aircraft itself, as opposed to a normal jet engine, in which the compressor section (the fan blades) compresses the air. Ramjets operate from about Mach 3 to Mach 6. Scramjet technology is challenging, NASA says, because only limited testing can be performed in ground facilities. NASA plans to launch a third hypersonic plane in the fall with the goal of flying the aircraft at Mach 10, or about 6,750 mph. Meanwhile, Pratt & Whitney is continuing work on its own version of a scramjet engine together with the Air Force.
OURPLANE ORDERS TEN NEW 2004 CIRRUS SR22 G2 AIRCRAFT FOR CUSTOMERS
Cessna CEO Russ Meyer told the FAA forecast conference in Washington last week that if the current "bonus depreciation" tax break, which expires at the end of this year, isn't at least partially extended, aircraft production schedules could be cut by 10 to 20 percent, and thousands of jobs could be lost, The Wichita Eagle reported Saturday. Meyer told the Eagle that he wasn't predicting definite cutbacks, though -- economic growth and new Cessna models could help maintain staff levels. But he'd be more comfortable if the tax break were extended, he said. Bonus depreciation has generated over $2 billion worth of new airplane orders since its enactment last May, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). The tax break allows businesses to deduct up to 60 percent of the cost of commercial vehicles and equipment -- like business jets -- in the first year after the purchase, rather than the standard 20 percent. New orders generated by the change have preserved or created more than 20,000 airplane manufacturing jobs in the United States, GAMA said. In order to qualify for this accelerated depreciation schedule, the new capital equipment must be purchased and placed in service before Jan. 1, 2005, which can be a problem for aircraft sales, because they take so long from sale to delivery. Unless bonus depreciation is promptly extended and/or the placed-in-service requirement eliminated, all of the momentum and jobs that have come about as a result of bonus depreciation will be lost, GAMA said. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island state legislature is considering a bill that would exempt GA aircraft from state sales taxes. The R.I. Airport Corp. said that if the tax were eliminated, more companies and individual owners would base their airplanes in Rhode Island instead of neighboring states, boosting the economy and creating jobs.
Garmin last week introduced its latest new gizmo, the GPSMAP 296 aviation handheld, which combines GPS position and altitude readouts with topographical maps. The color display gives pilots a clear depiction of potential terrain hazards, Garmin says. "Terrain awareness really sets the GPSMAP 296 apart from other aviation handheld devices," said Gary Kelley, Garmin's director of marketing, in a press release. The unit features a look-ahead warning function that alerts pilots to terrain or obstacle conflicts along the current flight path. The units go on sale next month at Sun 'n Fun, for $1,795. Topographic data is depicted as shaded contours in sectional-chart-like detail. An extensive Jeppesen database is overlaid on the topo maps to show the flight path in relation to navigation aids, special-use airspace and obstructions. Pilots can also use the portable unit in marine and automotive modes.
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A Navy pilot ejected from his F/A-18 Hornet on Friday about 2,000 feet into its takeoff roll at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, in North Carolina. The burning jet cartwheeled to a stop on the airfield. Emergency crews doused the flames, and nobody on the ground was hurt. The pilot suffered minor injuries. The jet was part of a two-aircraft flight on a routine cross-country training mission, and both jets had stopped at RDU to refuel. The other jet, which had taken off first, returned to the airport and landed safely. The Hornet was based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia. Another U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet aircraft crashed last Wednesday off the coast of South Carolina while on a routine training mission. The pilot was rescued unhurt. That aircraft was based at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C. Both accidents are under investigation.
Last week, we told you the spring bird migration is underway, and to prove it, last Sunday the first of this year's migrating whooping cranes flew into Wisconsin from Florida, after a flight of about two weeks. The bird is one of five that flew to Florida back in 2001, the first year that ultralight aircraft were used to guide young cranes on their 1,200-mile southward migration. Operation Migration led two more groups of cranes south via ultralight in the fall of 2002 and 2003, for a total of 36 whooping cranes. Prior to 2001, whooping cranes, an endangered species, had not migrated over the eastern portion of North America in more than a century. The juvenile cranes fly from Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge through Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, arriving at Florida's Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in late fall. The ultralight aircraft is only used during the cranes' first fall migration; they return to Wisconsin on their own in the spring. The effort is organized by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of nonprofit groups and government agencies.
WORLD'S BEST MOTION-SICKNESS RELIEF FROM AEROMEDIX
The NBAA has posted online its report on the cost of restricting GA access to airspace and airports, which it recently delivered to the House Aviation Subcommittee...
American Airlines cancelled a flight in Florida on Friday after a psychic called in a tip that a bomb might be on board. A search turned up nothing...
A study group last week named three possible sites for a new GA airport near Cincinnati...
Searchers on Saturday found the wreck of a MiG-17 in a remote area of New Mexico; the pilot had died on impact. The fighter plane was en route to an air show in Arizona and had been missing since Thursday...
On Friday, searchers located the wreckage of a Sikorsky S-76A that ditched Tuesday night en route to an oil drilling ship in the Gulf of Mexico; all 10 people on board were killed...
The new digital radar system at Palm Beach International airport failed for four minutes last Thursday. It was the sixth failure in four months for the state-of-the-art $4.5 million system, installed last year.
Pelican's Perch #79: The Air America Years (Part II)
AVweb's John Deakin did spend time in Southeast Asia as part of Air America, one of the "airlines" run by the CIA in the 1960s. Upon arriving in Asia, there was time for using old Link trainers, relaxing in hot springs, avoiding alcohol-pushers, and learning the reputation of The Compnay as John continues his story.
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Reader mail this week includes comments on the CVR at the U.N., birdstrike predictions, GPS orbits and more.
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MIKE BUSCH'S SAVVY SEMINAR COMING TO MEMPHIS, VAN NUYS, HARRISBURG, & OSHKOSH!
Overheard while awaiting clearance at Wellington Airport, NZ, in poor, gusty weather...
Tower: XXX be advised the previous aircraft reports reduced wind shear on final, and decreasing crosswind.
XXX: "Oh. Goody..."
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AVEMCO EXPANDS AVIATOR SERIES OF NON-OWNED INSURANCE PRODUCTS
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ARE YOU WEARING OUT AIRCRAFT TIRES FASTER THAN YOU THINK YOU SHOULD?
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AVflash is a twice-weekly summary of the latest aviation news, articles, products, features and events featured on AVweb, the Internet's Aviation Magazine and News Service. http://www.avweb.com
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