NewsWire Complete Issue

June 23, 2004
By The AVweb Editorial Staff

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Small Air Tankers Grounded Briefly

Crashes Spark Safety Stand-Down ...

While various federal agencies ponder the relative safety of 33 currently grounded large air tankers, the NTSB has pointed out that the single-engine air tankers (SEATs) that are to replace them have some safety issues of their own. In fact, the big tankers were essentially pulled from service because of two crashes in 2002 (albeit both of them from airframe failures) while there have already been three fatal crashes this year in PZL-Mielec M-18 Dromaders, all of them operated by Montana-based New Frontier Aviation. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grounded all 26 Dromaders under contract for a two-day "safety stand down" that ended last Monday. In the most recent accident, near St. George, Utah, the plane dove vertically into trees after dropping retardant on a fire in mountainous terrain. Last May 22, a Dromader went down in Idaho while being ferried to a firefighting base and on March 16 another crashed during a simulated retardant drop near Safford, Ariz.

...Pilots "Re-familiarized" With Dromader Operations...

During its investigations of the accidents, NTSB staff found that some Dromader pilots were "flying the drop run at an airspeed that was slower than the recommended airspeed for a fire retardant drop." The BLM's two-day stand down was intended to allow pilots to "re-familiarize themselves with the operational specifications of the airplane." The stand down ended Monday morning and all the planes are now available to fight fires. The Dromaders started life as Polish crop-dusters and have been modified to drop up to 400 gallons of retardant on fires. The BLM and Forest Service have increased the number of SEATs under contract to 79 because of the grounding of the large air tankers in early May. Federal officials have been widely quoted as saying the converted crop-dusters are more accurate, agile and able to operate from small fields and that those advantages compensate for the sheer size (3,000 gallons) of the drops made from the big planes.

...As Confusion Reigns Over Fate of Big Tankers

Meanwhile, at least two federal agencies appear to be at odds over whether the big tankers will be back in time for any part of this year's fire season. Last Sunday, Forest Service officials told a meeting of western governors what they wanted to hear, namely that the agency will consider putting at least some of the aircraft back in service. But at the same time U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton was telling Arizona residents the big tankers won't be back and the state was making other plans, including the addition of SEAT aircraft. The Forest Service is, however, going ahead with safety assessments of the large tankers. Texas-based DynCorp Technical Services has been hired to pull together the manufacturers, former users, current operators, the FAA, the NTSB and all available service, maintenance and repair records to determine the airworthiness of each aircraft. "By mid-July we may see some recommendations as to which tankers might be airworthy, which doesn't mean they will necessarily be flying," said Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

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Mojave Launch Successful, Far From Perfect

328,491 Feet, 2.9 Mach, and Awaiting Confirmation ...

Sixty-three-year-old Mike Melville's flight Monday in Burt Rutan's design, funded privately to the tune of roughly $20 million by Paul G. Allen, and built mainly by a group of no more than 30 individuals (though all of Scaled Composites' 120 or so employees had a hand in it) was a success — rocketing at "about" 2.9 Mach to "about" 328,491 feet. That mark (reported by "inertial nav data") is just 491 feet above the target altitude required for "space" flight, but 31,509 feet shy of the planned 360,000-foot apogee. It was enough to earn Melville astronaut wings from the government, and a handshake plus a "You've joined the club" from Buzz Aldrin (Melville said later of the encounter, "That was serious stuff, man."). However, the altitude deficit was similarly attributable to some serious stuff — including a control-system failure. The system that failed was described by Rutan in this way: "I can't think of anything more important on the vehicle itself." [See AVweb's pre-launch and launch day image galleries.]

One problem, failure (buckling) of a carbon-fiber fairing that covered the lower half of the rocket's new bell nozzle, was perhaps more obvious, but less critical; Rutan said, "It could have fallen off, and not been a problem." The nozzle itself was in no way compromised. But shortly after the rocket gave Melville 3 G's of forward acceleration plus the 4 G's of vertical acceleration as he guided the craft into its near-vertical climb (this is normal), the craft also rolled 90 degrees left (this is not normal) and experienced failure of a trim actuator. Fortunately, Melville recovered the craft — actually he "stomped the rudder" and it rolled back 90 degrees right. But he also immediately went to the backup trim system, later telling reporters, "It's never done that before." He continued, "That's what drove me about 20 miles away [from the intended flight path] in about five seconds ... it was amazing." After all, the actuators control the craft's direction of flight. The backup system worked as designed and "saved the day," said Melville. From the ground, a deviation (slight curve) of the rocket's otherwise-vertical-appearing contrail was visible early in the burn, but there is no confirmation that such a physical manifestation was representative of the actuator failure. Rutan would later say the trajectory error plus the fairing failure, which could have added some percent increase in drag (depending on exactly when it happened), could have contributed to the lower-than-expected reported altitude.

In a post-flight press conference Monday, Melville said he couldn't say he didn't do it (command the roll), but also noted that a trim actuator used to control the craft's pitch while supersonic had failed. Of the roll problem, Rutan said that upon review of the data, "we will know exactly what caused that." For now, there are two actuators, one left and one right, Rutan explained. If the actuators do not act in unison, they would not command pitch, but roll. Fortunately, Rutan's design incorporates backup systems, one of which (we understand) was used by Melville to trim the craft for landing while near the apogee phase of the flight. At that altitude, two bottles of compressed gas are used for control — Melville sad that system worked extremely well, and he only used half of one bottle. Melville noted that he had no intent of touching the primary system after the failure or troubleshooting while flying the flight profile, but had control response not been regained almost immediately, would have shut down the rocket and attempted to return home early.

..."I Was a Little Afraid on the Way Down"...

Not operating on a discreet frequency spurred some tense pre-launch moments, too, as organizers asked the crowd (some listening on handhelds) just 10 minutes before the expected drop time to check for a stuck mic. After the drop from White Knight and rocket ignition, the crowd was informed at 7:53 that they "just got the call, he's OK. Everything's OK." At 7:55 we heard, "270,000 and still climbing" ... seconds later ... "316,000." On the ground, two booms were heard at 7:58 local. Initially thought by the crowd to be sonic booms (we had been told we might expect them) the failed carbon-fiber fairing covering the larger rocket nozzle (neither of which had flown before) later fell suspect. Melville, who endured about 4.5 G's maximum on the way up, said it's more than a little unsettling, the noises the craft makes while plummeting down at 2.9 Mach during re-entry at about 5.5 G's. On the ground at 8:02 the crowd finally got its chance to settle a bit as glints just above and to the left of the sun became visible. It was the first naked-eye indication that the craft had returned to atmospheric controlled flight and was being followed by its high-altitude chase aircraft, an AlphaJet owned (but not flown) by Paul Allen. After an uneventful landing and some quick speeches for the press, the crew went two miles out of their way to tow SpaceShipOne past the public and RV parking areas. In the crowd, one man held a sign that read, "SpaceShipOne, Government Zero." Melville took the sign and hoisted it above his head as he rode atop the craft.

... Reveling in the Afterglow

Success in spite of failures is arguably a more significant success. And for those who can simply read the numbers and quotes, for those who were not there, we must convey that this event was truly epic. To be there, it seemed the emotion behind every eye that had strained into the sky was shared in Rutan and Melville's post-flight embrace. And the tears Rutan wiped away as Melville took the microphone to speak could not be misunderstood. It was more than statistics and records; it was a feeling so positive, and it was grandeur. It was, after all, just Monday that a group of private individuals — extraordinary for their dreams, talent and conviction — came together under a common goal, and reminded the world that "the impossible" ... isn't. Had the flight gone off without a hitch, subsequent flights to fill the requirements and win the X-PRIZE would have soon followed (within weeks). As it is, there is no schedule for a next flight of SpaceShipOne. The troubles encountered will first be addressed and corrected. But whenever and whatever happens next, Monday was an event of inspiration for generations to come. Patty Gray Smith presented FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings to Mike Melville Monday morning. She then gave both Melville and Rutan, "who made it all happen," certificates "in recognition of this tremendous achievement." "I hope you display it prominently," she told Melville. "You bet on it!" he replied, "I don't suppose there are too many of these around." Not yet, anyway. Rutan, surprised to receive his own plaque of recognition, said under his breath, "I wasn't expecting that" and later leaned in to kiss Smith on the cheek. He then bowed into the press center microphones and stated clearly, "Now don't you ever say that Burt Rutan doesn't kiss up to the FAA." If somehow we've failed to impress upon you the purely positive nature and emotions generated by this historic flight, let us assure you, there's something you don't see every day.

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"Ban Carb Heat," Says Safety Group

A British aviation safety group has determined that, as a group, pilots can't be trusted with a carburetor heat control. In fact, the General Aviation Safety Council (GASCo) has released a paper suggesting that the familiar knob be dispensed with entirely in favor of "more reliable" solutions to the problem of carb ice. Among them are fuel injection, permanently warm induction air, heated carburetors and the use of diesel engines. Now, understand it's not carb heat itself that GASCo has a problem with. It describes carb heat as "an adequate solution" to the problem. The problem is with who's pulling that knob. GASCo says "it is unreliable because it relies upon pilots to apply it in good time." Pilots apparently can't be relied upon to decide when that time is, or to remember what the knob is for in the first place, so why not let technology march on and relieve them of the burden, GASCo wonders. "[GASCo] proposes to make its dislike of this device known to engine suppliers and manufacturers and consistently to press home its view," said the release. GASCo claims to represent 29 of the "leading bodies in British General Aviation."

Formation Photo Shoot Panics Bostonians

In another time, Boston residents might have thrilled to the sight of Sean D. Tucker leading a formation of four aerobatic aircraft on a photo shoot overhead. But in the post-9/11 world, office workers stream outside not for a better view but because they think they might be under attack. Such was the case last Friday when the flight, all properly approved by the FAA, was launched to provide publicity photos for a local air show. At least 50 people fled the Prudential building's 23rd floor and about 100 gathered on the ground after the planes flew by. "Give me the name of the person who sanctioned this so I can become a crazy person and call them four times a day and demand an explanation," said one worker who asked that The Boston Globe not identify him. "We're all still on edge. We don't need this. Pilot Brian Norris, of Salinas, Calif., said he and the others were in constant contact with air traffic control. "We do this because we're aware of how sensitive things are since Sept. 11," Norris told the Globe. "But any time we do it, we know somebody's going to get a phone call." Local police stations got a rash of calls but because they hadn't been told about the flight in advance, couldn't reassure callers. Meanwhile, AOPA President Phil Boyer has called on the federal government to improve communications between air traffic control and security agencies. Last week, the FAA issued a NOTAM banning aircraft with non-functioning transponders from the Air Defense Identification Zone around Washington. The NOTAM came after a plane (with a malfunctioning transponder) carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher sparked a panicked evacuation of the Capitol building. Boyer says the NOTAM is another way to shift responsibility for the communications foul-up that caused the D.C. panic to GA.

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Cellphones Get Air-Friendly

Aviation and cellphones don't always mix well but there are some hopeful signs that's changing. As AVweb reported earlier, the FAA is doing its best (which isn't enough in some circumstances) to ensure pilots have the correct numbers for filing flight plans and getting information. Headset manufacturers are also incorporating cellphone jacks into their less-expensive models so that pilots can make use of their time on the ramp getting weather, making appointments or whatever. And the last bastion of cellphone silence, the cabin of an airliner, may soon echo to the rings, chirps and melodies of cellphone ringers. ARINC Inc. and Telenor ASA announced this week they will soon offer airlines a system that will allow passengers to use cellphones in flight. The system will integrate cellphone service into the satellite-based phone systems already installed on about 3,000 aircraft worldwide. A passenger's cellphone would "roam" into the airliner's system and be able to send and receive calls as well as text messaging. The phone's owner would then be billed for the high-altitude roaming charges. There was no mention of the effect of multiple cellphones on the aircraft's systems or whether there's a GA application for the new technology.

Four Drugs Found in Pilot

A pilot who died in a crash that also killed five others had taken a cocktail of powerful prescription drugs, according to an NTSB report released last week. The pilot, identified by the Sentinel & Enterprise as Robert A. Monaco, had the antidepressants imipramine and desipramine, the anti-seizure drug carbamazepine and the narcotic pain reliever morphine in his system when the Beech B200 went down in a sheet-metal shop near the Leominster, Mass. airport. The Sentinel & Enterprise, of Fitchburg, Mass., said that combination of drugs could cause drowsiness and a lack of coordination in a pilot. The plane was taking six people from New York to Leominster. Only a 13-year-old girl survived. Witnesses told the NTSB the plane made sharp turns as it approached the airport. The pilot was being treated for severe pain, episodes of disorientation, seizures and migraines, according to the report.

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"Radiation" NOTAM Confusing

Pilots planning a trip up the California coast might have been alarmed by a NOTAM issued by the FAA for the Point Mugu area, just north of Los Angeles, earlier this week. The NOTAM advised of a "radiation hazard" for a 1.5-mile radius up to 8,000 feet around Point Mugu Naval Air Station and said the area is "continuously hot." Since Point Mugu NAS is the Navy's missile and weapons test center, it might be assumed (not by anyone we know, of course) that the NOTAM referred to some kind of nuclear mishap. Fortunately that wasn't the case. A spokesman for the FAA's Los Angeles operations center said the NOTAM was issued to allow the Navy to test some type of radar (hence the term radiation) at the base. Despite the heavy military activity around the base, the area is also heavily used by civilian traffic.

Ercoupe Fulfills a Fantasy

It might not be everyone's idea of a dream flight, but for Broderick Nixon, an Ercoupe was his ticket to fulfilling a lifelong fantasy. arranged a day for 17-year-old Broderick, who uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, in the right seat of the Ercoupe piloted by John Trowbridge. With Broderick on the yoke and Trowbridge working the rudder pedals (this Ercoupe had the conversion) the pair flew between the Texas cities of Willis, Conroe, Brenham and Tomball last May 28. The civic governments of each of the cities also pitched in to make the flight memorable. At each stop, Broderick was greeted by local officials and declared the honorary mayor. He was treated to lunch and generally given the VIP treatment at each of the stops. His only complaint was the effect of a Texas sky on the bubble canopy of the Ercoupe. "The next time I fly, I'm gonna wear my bathing suit. It's hot in there," he said.

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On the Fly ...

A British mercenary will plead guilty to trying to kill a drug lord with a surplus military jet, according to lawyers in the case. David Tomkins is charged with trying to buy a Cessna A-37B Dragonfly from undercover agents to launch an air raid against the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar under a contract from Escobar's rivals...

There's some tragic irony in the death of an Australian woman in a plane crash in Indonesia. Priscilla Hall was about to take her first parachute jump when the aircraft lost power shortly after takeoff and ditched in Lake Lido, near Jakarta. All five people aboard died...

Eclipse Aviation has received a $45 million industrial revenue bond package from the city of Albuquerque as well as $777,000 in property tax breaks. The company promised to create 300 jobs in exchange for the financing and tax break. The deal was supported unanimously by city council...

A cyclist was killed by an airplane at Suben, Austria, last Saturday. Police say the man was riding a bicycle at the airport when a biplane drifted off the runway while landing and struck him on the head with its propeller…

A German World War II bomber pilot will apologize to a British town for almost wrecking a church. Willie Schludecker jettisoned bombs during a dogfight over Northumberland in 1942. One of them hit an ancient Saxon church. The bomb punched a hole in the building but didn't go off. Schludecker only recently found out about the incident and plans a trip to England to say he's sorry...

It's not just airspace congestion passengers using Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport had to worry about this week. Drivers hoping to make flights were turned away from the airport on Wednesday after the parking lots filled up. Officials hoped to have some room by today...

The Organization of Black Airline Pilots is having its annual convention at Disney World. The convention runs from Aug. 18 to Aug. 22.

AVweb's Newstips Address ...

If it caught your attention, it will probably interest someone else, too. Drop us a line. Submit news tips via email to

Special thanks to Tim Findlow for Monday's story "Hangar, Schmanger! Aussie Scientists Create Sun-Strengthened Aluminum" and to Richard Clark for "A Short Airport Joy Ride, A $1 Million Bill," also published in Monday's AVflash.

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New Articles and Features on AVweb


Say Again? #38: ATC 104 — VFR High Time
Student and low-time pilots are expected to stumble a bit on the radio. But if you're a high-time pilot flying VFR, your bad habits (perhaps learned by imitating a smooth-talking jet jock) might be causing trouble for controllers and other pilots. AVweb's Don Brown reminds you that there's the book way, and then there's the way that could get a book thrown at you.

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AVweb's Question of the Week ...


Not surprisingly, three out of four AVweb readers hate lawyers.  Maybe hate is too strong a word, but 75% of those who responded to last week's poll on aviation litigation said that frivolous lawsuits are mostly useless and serve only to drive up the already-expensive cost of flying.  The other 25% of you felt a swell of pity for lawyers, admitting that there's some value in aviation lawsuits.


This week, AVweb would like to hear your thoughts on Monday's successful launch of SpaceShipOne. Tauted as "historic" by the engineers at Scaled Aircraft (and by much of the media), the launch is being called "no big deal" by detractors.  In your opinion, did we witness history being made, or just masterful hype?

Have an idea for a new QOTW? Send your suggestions to

Note: This address is only for suggested QOTW questions, and not for QOTW answers.

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AVweb's Picture of the Week ...

Submit a Photo | Rules | Tips | Questions

Current POTW Winner | Past POTW Winners

Yes, Team POTW is very good at making predictions:  Following last week's winning photo of cars 'n' airplanes, we've been deluged with photos of classic cars and classic planes!  Many of them are quite good, but so were this week's many, many non-car-themed entries.  (Did we mention this was a huge week for POTW entries?)  So, in the interest of fairness, we're shifting gears away from plane and car photos this week.  But you won't be disappointed.  We certainly weren't — in fact, we were impressed enough to send Brian Matz of Ohio a complimentary AVweb baseball cap for this week's winning photo!

Keep 'em coming, folks — even though we can't run every "Picture of the Week" entry, we sure do enjoy looking at them!

Due to privacy issues, AVweb does not publish e-mail addresses of readers who submit photos.



Copyright © Aerial Aspect Photography
Used with permission of Brian W. Matz

"Flying History"
Brian W. Matz of University Heights, Ohio sends us this image
of Jim Hammond taxiing his 1931 Aeronca C-3 to the parking area at the
National Aeronca Association Convention.  The C-3, once owned by its designer
Jean Roche, won the Grand Champion Antique award at the show.

Click here to view a large version of this image
Click here for a medium-sized version

AVweb continues to receive a large number of excellent images for our POTW contest. Here are some of the runners-up. Click on the links below to view larger versions.

"Maybe When You're Older ..."
Blake Herling of Arvada, Colorado took this photo at the
home of the B-17 Sentimental Journey.  While we had to shorten his
caption, we laughed long and hard at his original suggestion:
"Try explaining to a five-year-old that just because a plane is his size,
that doesn't mean he can fly it!"

Copyright © Robert Grace
Used with permission of Robert Grace.

"The Fly-In Wakes Up"
Robert Grace of St. Francis, Kansas took this shot from
a hot-air balloon at the Stearman Fly-In.  On the ground
below, others prepare to join him in the air.

To enter next week's contest, click here.

A Reminder About Copyrights:  Please take a moment to consider the source of your image before submitting to our "Picture of the Week" contest.  If you did not take the photo yourself, ask yourself if you are indeed authorized to release publication rights to AVweb.  If you're uncertain, consult the POTW Rules or send us an e-mail.

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