September 8, 2004
By The AVweb Editorial Staff
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The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is emphatically declining comment on an anonymous letter sent to AVweb from an air traffic controller, challenging the union's contention that air safety is being jeopardized by a staff shortage throughout the system. AVweb sent a copy of the detailed missive to NATCA but the union refused to comment ... sort of. We can't tell you why it chose not to comment because the normally forthcoming union officials we contacted insisted that all communications regarding the letter be considered "off the record." So, with the objections raised by the union and the defensible rationale it used in choosing not to comment observed, in all fairness, so too shall be the original letter. Enter "Jane Doe," a veteran air traffic controller whose experience within the day-to-day environment of the ATC system is at once illuminating and troubling. (Note: Although Jane's identity and the tower she works at won't be revealed, AVweb has collected evidence to confirm that she is who she says she is.)
In her letter, Jane alleges that ample staff members are available to handle the workload at her tower considering the number who are on breaks at any given time. She alleges that in an eight-hour shift most controllers will put in no more than four hours "on position." She also claims that management has virtually no authority over the unionized staff, some of whom ridicule and berate supervisors in front of co-workers. "FAA managers have bargained away a lot of their management rights and the union isn't about to give them back," Jane charges. Jane says controllers routinely use sick days (they are entitled to two and a half weeks a year) as extra vacation time and are unchallenged by supervisors. She said the union vigorously defends controllers who test positive for drug use and those who do spend a year doing other work until they can retake their medicals. "If they worked for practically anyone else, they'd be fired," Jane opined in an interview with AVweb.
FAA chief spokesman Greg Martin said the letter contained "troubling charges" but declined to comment on specific allegations. He did say many of the more general observations are well-known to the agency. He noted that in House testimony in June, the agency reported that air traffic controllers used more than 100 percent of their sick leave and the FAA has set a goal of reducing sick time by 8 percent (air purifiers, maybe). Martin said that's all part of the emphasis on productivity and performance that is in effect at the agency. "Our intent is to keep our system the safest in the world but also to invest taxpayers' money in the best ways possible," he said. Martin hinted there could be some fireworks ahead as the agency demands more productivity from employees. "We're being asked to do more and do it more smartly," he said. "When those tough decisions are made, our organization has to believe it has support at the highest level." Among the controversial programs being proposed is a computer system called CRU-X that monitors just how much time each controller spends working aircraft.
The following is the text of the anonymous letter sent to AVweb. It has been edited only to further protect the identity of its author:
I am a Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Controller assigned to a moderately busy, international air traffic control tower. I read your report on FAA controller staffing. I feel I must comment on the accuracy of the report.
I have been an air traffic controller for more than 20 years. I have worked at several control towers.
I disagree that air traffic control staffing is too low. At my present facility, my last facility and the facility before that, no air traffic controller was being overworked. In reality, air traffic controllers spend about four hours of an eight-hour shift actually working position. The other four hours are spent on break. Not a bad deal for someone making $40.00 an hour. You could ask the FAA for the "time on position" records for the air traffic controller workforce. I think what you will find is the en route centers and the really busy airports are the only facilities with any situation that resembles a staffing shortage. At the small facilities and most large facilities, there isn't any staffing shortage. When you read about the controllers' union being against the software program CRU-X, it is because CRU-X will document how much an air traffic controller actually spent working and how much he/she spent on break.
At my facility, all air traffic controllers are able to use every bit of the annual vacation time (5 1/2 weeks yearly). At my facility, air traffic controllers are allowed to "call in sick" any time they feel the need and are never asked to provide a doctor's note saying they were actually sick. Each controller is provided 2 1/2 weeks of sick leave yearly. It would be common for a controller to call in sick after he/she was not granted a vacation day. And the FAA doesn't do anything about it.
My facility has almost 20 different control positions. Yet, even on the busiest day, only 11 positions are opened. There are many times when there are more air traffic controllers on break than air traffic controllers working. Instead of opening positions, lowering controller workload and providing quality service, control positions are combined so controllers can get more break time. You should ask the FAA how many control positions are combined daily and why they were not opened.
In addition, most facilities allow the union's principal facility representative administrative time to conduct union business. The taxpayer/FAA pays the union representative's salary even though he/she doesn't have to work air traffic. If you consider how many union representatives there are, at least one at every FAA air traffic control facility, the total money spent paying controllers for not working is huge.
The controllers' union is staffed with very smart individuals. But these individuals do not have the best interest of the FAA in mind when they negotiate work rules. FAA managers have bargained away a lot of their management rights and the union isn't about to give them back.
It takes a lot of time to train air traffic controllers but not necessarily because of the complexity of the job. We have a student that has been in training for six years. Between the union and the student's lawyers, the controller has been given another chance. The union is almost always successful in the defense of controllers who fail the training program. The union will build a compelling case how the FAA failed to properly train a controller and get the student reinstated in training. Now, it is union members that actually train controllers. FAA management doesn't provide any of the on-the-job training. Plus, student controllers can call in sick without risk of disciplinary action and are also entitled to their vacation time. At my facility, the highest-paid personnel are student controllers. We have one student controller who, while working live traffic, has had two near misses/losses of separation. These incidents occurred within a few months. Instead of firing the individual or assigning him to a slower facility, he is retained and given another chance.
Drug Use. At my facility alone, three air traffic controllers have, over the recent years, tested positive for illegal drug use. Now any other employer would fire them. Not the FAA. At the FAA, when you test positive for drug use, you are protected. The FAA will not tell anyone that you are using illegal drugs. You will be retained. They will not fire you. You will get all the pay raises you would have otherwise gotten. And, instead of working air traffic, the FAA will find some "no brainer" task for you to do over the year your medical clearance is suspended.
At my airport, the FAA controllers are the only employees not in jeopardy of losing their jobs or having their pay cut. While this nation's airlines are going bankrupt, air traffic controllers are enjoying large salaries, pay raises, lots of vacation time and few demands at work.
My facility has a higher than average number of near misses due to controller error. When local FAA management tried to correct the problem by opening more control positions, the controllers' union successfully prevented that action. My facility has an award program that gives each controller a four-hour time-off award when the facility goes six months without a near miss. We have not received that award in a couple of years because we have so many errors. The only safety step the controllers' union allowed local FAA management to implement was banning the use of cellphones while controllers are working live traffic. In reality, that order isn't even enforced. Controllers will often answer their cellphones while working air traffic. In fact, it is common for air controllers to read books and magazines while working position and to tackle the crossword puzzle while working live traffic. Most of the near misses we have are when controllers are performing controller-in-charge duties.
We had a near miss once when the weather was so bad, no planes could land at the airport. There where 14 controllers on duty but only four were working. The controller who had the near miss was busy putting planes in holding patterns and issuing new clearances to divert airports. The controller in charge was not paying attention. This error could have been prevented by putting to work all the controllers on duty. Instead, 10 controllers are watching television while four controllers are busy.
The controllers' union negotiated schedule changes/swaps that allow controllers to ask to work a different shift than assigned. This policy, no matter how well-intentioned, creates shift staffing imbalances. Most controllers do not like working night shifts. My facility allows controllers to change from the night shift to a day shift as long as the basic minimum staff remains behind to work the night shift. Then, like clockwork, a few people will call in sick on the night shift. The result is, twice the required staffing on the day shift and the night shift is understaffed. This happens so much that FAA management will not pay overtime to build up staffing on the now short night shift. This is common.
Controllers are arrogant. I have witnessed controllers demeaning supervisors, managers and staff specialists with no disciplinary action results. Present-day working conditions, the rude and arrogant attitudes of the controller workforce remind me how it was on the eve of the PATCO controller strike. Today, only FAA management treats employees with kindness. Controllers generally dislike authority and with the union protecting them, show little respect for management or other controllers.
I think you would be shocked how controllers dress for work. Flip flops, shorts, and tee-shirts are the dress of most days.
I think the union does a great job of projecting an image of caring air traffic controllers worried only about air safety. In reality, I don't think safety is a huge concern. The union is opposed to opening control positions even when people are sitting around with nothing to do. I think the unions is more about protecting the rights of controllers that use drugs, protecting controllers that call in sick when the cannot get the day off, and getting every controller more money.
At my facility, controller base pay is between $87,000.00 and $106,000.00. Controllers are paid extra if they have to work after 6 p.m. to train another controller or perform controller-in-charge duties. On average, controllers can boost their annual salaries 15 percent by training other controllers, working after 6 p.m. and working on Sunday and holidays.
I will respond to any e-mail request from you or your organization. I cannot tell you my name because if the controller's union found out, I would be in big trouble. I think it is about time the pubic and the taxpayers learned what is happening to their air traffic control system.
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Since Sept. 1, it's been legal to fly as a Sport Pilot, but if you do, are you insured? "Don't assume that because you have coverage to fly as a Private Pilot, you'll be insured if you fly as a Sport Pilot," Bob Mackey, a vice president with Falcon Insurance Agency, in Oshkosh, Wis., told AVweb on Tuesday. "Check with your agent first." For example, if you let your medical expire, that might be OK with the FAA (with regard to Sport Pilots) but some insurers won't like it -- nor will they like the lack of Sport Pilot history. "There are going to be some adjustments to be made," Mackey said. "It's all still evolving." Mackey, whose company provides insurance for EAA members and others, said Falcon already has policies available for Sport Pilots, for fixed-wing Light Sport Aircraft (LSA), and for Sport Pilots who rent airplanes. Also, Avemco Insurance Company announced yesterday that it is ready to insure Sport Pilots in "Standard Certificated" and "Experimental Amateur-Built" aircraft that meet the definition of Light Sport Aircraft. Avemco expects it will also insure both the Special LSA and Experimental LSA airplanes as they become available to Sport Pilots, said Jim Lauerman, executive vice president and chief underwriting officer, in a news release. In addition, Avemco's non-owner policies will be available to Sport Pilots. "We will have an endorsement to permit non-owner coverage for the Special and Experimental Light Sport Aircraft as well," Lauerman said.
Although Sport Pilots can fly with reduced medical examination requirements and fewer hours of instruction than Recreational or Private Pilots, they also must operate under restrictions regarding aircraft weight, speed, seating capacity and more that other pilots do not face. "These factors should balance out," said Lauerman. He is optimistic that the differences in premiums in the early years of LSA coverage will diminish as data are collected, so eventually there will be little difference in price for the pilot who obtains LSA insurance. Right now, he stressed, Avemco is prepared to insure pilots who will be joining today's pilot ranks as new Sport Pilots. Avemco is based in Frederick, Md.
Gregory Sterling, general manager at AOPA Insurance Agency, told AVwebyesterday that most Sport Pilots will be able to obtain coverage on Light Sport Aircraft through his agency, as well. "Most underwriters have indicated that they will offer limits up to $1 million, limited to $100,000 per passenger on liability, and hull values commensurate with the current market value of the aircraft," he wrote in an e-mail. "As the underwriters have not yet seen many of these come through yet, we don't have much specific information on rates." Mackey, at Falcon, said he would hazard a guess that to insure a $50,000 Light Sport Aircraft would cost $2800 to $3400 a year, for hull coverage and liability, but there are many factors that could affect that bottom line -- such as the pilot's experience, the type of aircraft and the airport where it is based. Falcon's renter package, which is available now and covers Sport Pilots and Light Sport Aircraft, costs $180 to $240 annually for liability only, he said, with hull coverage available for an additional premium. That policy makes no distinction between a Sport Pilot or Light Sport Aircraft and any other covered category, he said. Falcon also has new policies in the works for powered parachutes and trikes that should be available by October, Mackey said.
Dawne Faye, program manager for First Flight Insurance Group, which covers many ultralight flyers through the U.S. Ultralight Association, told AVweb yesterday that the company is "examining" the Sport Pilot situation. "Since the guidelines were just recently released, we are still assessing how we may accommodate this new classification with proper policy coverages, limits, premium and guidelines," Faye wrote in an e-mail.
"Product liability is going to be a huge issue for Light Sport Aircraft manufacturers," Mathieu Heintz, president of Aircraft Manufacturing and Development (AMD), in Georgia, told AVweb yesterday. "We've been looking at it for a long time." Heintz said his company has worked out a deal to obtain product liability coverage by agreeing to assemble LSA aircraft to the same standards as FAA-certified aircraft (which seems somehow to miss the points). AMD plans to build Zenith Air's CH601 and CH701 models in the manufacturing plant where he now builds Alarus certified airplanes. "We will be selling only factory-finished Special-Light Sport Aircraft," he said. AMD has decided against selling owner-finished Experimental-LSA kits because of the potential liability issues, he said.
Mackey, of Falcon, agreed that insurance issues are likely to have a major impact on the development of the LSA market. If manufacturers want to have product liability coverage, which they might need to satisfy investors or to take the company public, he said, they will probably need to keep their product as mainstream as possible, using well-tested, standard aviation components and designs. For flight schools, affording coverage on a sport plane that isn't covered by product liability could be a challenge as well. "One way around that, is that dealerships may offer owner-instruction deals, where students buy their own airplane or quick-build kit, and then the dealer provides builder assistance and flight training. That way the flight school avoids the ownership issues," he said. How it will all play out will be determined as the market develops, he said. "Insurance coverage has always been a concern for recreational aviation," Mackey said. "And it's going to be a concern, forever."
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The Federal Labor Relations Authority has ruled that the FAA must immediately bring systems specialist staffing to a minimum of 6,100 nationwide, upholding an arbitrator's decision in a labor grievance filed by Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS). PASS President Tom Brantley said the FAA agreed in 2000 that 6,100 workers were the minimum required to safely certify and maintain the air traffic control system, but numbers have not met that level for two years. There are "serious safety issues" in operating without enough systems staff, said Brantley. The FAA disagreed that staffing was inadequate. (Don't worry, we're waiting on the anonymous letter...) "We will make sure that we have the right number of people in the right place at the right time," Greg Martin, an FAA spokesman, told Federal Computer Week. Part of the problem was related to the FAA's implementation of the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, or STARS, without a transition period or proper staff, PASS Vice President Mike Perrone told Federal Computer Week. STARS "was not as mature as advertised," making staff cuts a mistake, he said. The union said it believed staffing was about 200 people short. "PASS urges the FAA to immediately begin hiring systems specialists in order to comply with the arbitrator's decision," said Brantley.
GA pilots in Australia are fed up with the way their airspace system is being run, and some of them are planning to demonstrate their viewpoint in a "National Day of Action" on Nov. 27 -- the day new airspace rules take effect. "A handful of union pilots in the airlines, flying less than 200 Australian aircraft, are intent on closing the skies to over 12,000 Australian aircraft owners -- this is unacceptable," said Ron Bertram, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Australia. A Web site, bindook.com, is credited with spreading the plan for the Day of Action, in which GA pilots would refuse to turn on their transponders or communicate with air traffic control while flying in airspace in which positive control is required. Yeeha. The rule changes, which will roll back reforms that opened the airspace to GA aircraft, are "tantamount to being told you can't pull out of your driveway because a bus is expected to pass by in the next few hours," Bertram said.
ATTENTION, AIRCRAFT CLUB MEMBERS! GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR CLUB?
After Tiger Aircraft pulled out of a deal to acquire Commander Aircraft Co. in July, things were looking pretty bleak for the bankrupt Bethany, Okla., company. But last week, Pilot General Aviation LLC offered to pay $2.8 million for an 80 percent share of the company, the Oklahoman reported on Saturday. The bankruptcy court has given Commander's parent company, Aviation General, until the end of the month to complete the deal. If the deal falls through, the court will order liquidation of the company on Oct. 1. The company said in a statement on Tuesday that it plans to restart production of the Commander 115 and turbocharged Commander 115TC, with deliveries scheduled for the first quarter of 2005, according to the Oklahoman. About $2 million of the cash influx will go to repay creditors, and the rest will serve as capital for the company to emerge from bankruptcy and resume aircraft production. The production line has been idle for the last two years. The agreement stipulates that the directors of Commander and Aviation General would step down, but would retain Wirt Walker, Aviation General chief executive officer, as a consultant for one year. The Commander 115 is a high-performance, single-engine, four-place aircraft.
For some high-school seniors starting school in Madison, Wis., this month, learning about aviation will involve something more memorable than reading a book. Teacher Ben Senson has secured a $20,000 grant to start building a Challenger Iultralight and a Sonex. "The motivational part is working already," Senson told the Wisconsin State Journal. "Students are begging to find out what they should be taking so they can take this when they are seniors." Senson, 38, has never built an airplane before, but he did win an aviation-education award from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation this summer. "Students are fascinated by flight and space exploration . . . It's an easy way to sneak in a lot of biology, chemistry, physics and earth science concepts," he said. Senson also takes his students to the airport, where they get a chance to pilot an airplane. He will need to find $30,000 more in donations to build the engines and instruments for the two aircraft. Once the aircraft are finished, he plans to sell them and use the money to buy more kits. His ultimate goal is "to engage students in their current mathematics, scientific and technology education to inspire them to take additional course work and encourage them to pursue possible careers in those fields or in engineering."
OREGON AERO ASKS "ARE YOU PREPARED TO SURVIVE?"
A South African microlight flyer, Martin Walker, 50, was killed in Belize on Aug. 27 while taking part in the round-the-world Freedom Flight tour. He had joined the trip this summer in San Francisco after one of the original flyers, Alan Honeyborne, died in a crash in China. Walker continued the flight with Ricky de Agrela, touring the Western states and stopping at Oshkosh during AirVenture before heading to Central America. Walker was reportedly one of the most experienced microlight pilots in South Africa. He was giving a ride to a passenger on the resort island of Ambergris Caye, off the coast of Belize, when the aircraft crashed on the runway. The passenger reportedly suffered minor injuries. The trip, which began in December, was meant to celebrate the centennial of flight and commemorate 10 years since the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. The flyers also raised funds for the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town. At his last posting on the group's Web site, on Saturday, de Agrela said he has "mixed thoughts" about continuing the tour, and will make decisions and update the Web pages soon.
As Florida begins to wring itself out from the sopping wet Hurricane Frances -- while keeping an anxious eye on Ivan, spinning away to the south -- aviators across the state are sorting through drenched hangars to see what remains. Despite the downgrading of the storm as it crept across the state, damage has been widespread. "I expected a lot less damage than we had," St. Lucie County Airport Director Paul Phillips told the Palm Beach Post. "I'm very shocked at the amount of damage we sustained." Katherine and Jack Russell of Palm Bay lost the three-quarter-scale Dornier Wal flying boat they were building. The airplane was 80 percent complete, and uninsured, Jack Russell told AVweb yesterday. "There isn't much left of her ... Part of the empennage is about it ... Her 220 hp Mercedes and engine mount are somewhere at the bottom of the Indian River A total loss, I'm afraid." As of yesterday morning, three airports were still being reported as closed: Airport Manatee (48X) in Palmetto, Manatee County; George T. Lewis Airport (CDK) in Cedar Key; and Valkaria Airport (X59). Organizers of the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo, scheduled for Oct. 28-31 in Sebring, Fla., reported yesterday that the Sebring airport escaped the brunt of Frances, even though the eye passed right over the field. Damage was limited and should have no impact on the event, EAA said.
During the cleanup, GA airports are vital to the recovery, AOPA said. Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, home of the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, has opened its food facilities to the Salvation Army relief efforts. In Vero Beach, New Piper Aircraft has closed down for a week due to roof damage, but the National Guard is using their ramp to stage helicopter relief flights. In many areas, runway and obstruction lights remain unlit, and towers and navaids are offline. Many aircraft were damaged at Pan Am International Flight Academy in St. Lucie County, and Lanshe Aerospace also was damaged. Mirabella Aviation, which renovates antique airplanes at St. Lucie, was a total loss, as were eight airplanes trapped under the collapsed hangar, the Palm Beach Post reported on Monday. Hurricane Ivan is currently at Category 4 and expected to reach Florida by next Monday.
AEROSHELL KNOWS WHAT PILOTS WANT TO PROTECT & SHINE THEIR AIRCRAFT
A British air ambulance crew stripped for a fundraising calendar shoot...
A Florida couple circled the world in 90 days in their Beechcraft Baron. "We proved Columbus right, the world is round," said Larry Sietsma, returning to Melbourne on Aug. 28, said to the laughter from a crowd of about 50 people. "We disproved Disney. It's not a small world after all."...
Flight instructors John and Martha King landed in San Diego on Tuesday, completing a 13-day flight around the world in a Falcon 10...
A passenger's suitcase fell 12,000 feet into the North Sea when a baggage door opened in flight on a Jetstream 32 turboprop after hitting turbulence. The Eastern Airways flight was bound for Aberdeen, Scotland, on Aug. 18...
Plans to build an International Fighter Pilots Museum in Scottsdale, Ariz., have been abandoned, after fundraising efforts fell short...
New book argues that King Air crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others was foul play.
Drop us a line. If it caught your attention, it will probably interest someone else, too. Submit news tips via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Quiz #85 --Got Speed? Got 'Chute?
Airspeed control is essential to safe flight. Without it, a good parachute might be advisable. Let's see what you know about good airspeed and good parachute management. Cirrus pilots may wonder what the difference is.
ATTENTION, PROSPECTIVE OR CURRENT STUDENT PILOTS!
Last week's question about VFR above an overcast layer (submitted by AVweb reader Steve Biddle) proved very popular with readers. We received over 1,200 responses, mostly from readers who thought our hypothetical pilot was in the clear (er, so to speak).
55% of you (689 respondents) thought it was poor judgement to attempt flying VFR over an overcast, but not necessarily illegal. Another 34% (424 of you) said the flight was legal only as long as there was no emergency. The final 11% of respondents (138 people) said there was no loophole to excuse our reckless pilot: For all practical purposes (and FAA enforcement purposes), he was breaking the law.
So what's the real answer? AVweb posed this question to FAA staffer William Shumann, who says most of our readers made the wrong call! You can read Shumann's comments (and other AVweb readers' comments) in this week's AVmail.
This week, AVweb asks the simplest (or hardest?) question of them all:
Why do you fly?
Have an idea for a new QOTW? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This address is only for suggested QOTW questions, and not for QOTW answers.
IMPROVE AND STRENGTHEN YOUR VISION NATURALLY WITHOUT THE RISK OR EXPENSE OF LASER SURGERY
Submit a Photo | Rules | Tips | Questions
Current POTW Winner | Past POTW Winners
Normally, we like to vary up the "Picture of the Week." If the winning photo features an amphib, we'll look for something completely different next week maybe a helicopter or jet, or an amazing landscape shot. This week, however, we're forced to throw tradition to the wind and run a "lightning picture" back-to-back with last week's winning photo. In light of the back-to-back assault of Hurricanes Charley and Frances, it just seemed appropriate. Don't blame us blame this week's winning photographer, Tom Albers. You'll be able to spot him in his new AVweb baseball cap, which is winging its way to him right now ... .
(Submitters, take note: If your entry is similar to this week's winners, hold off on submitting for a week or two, and you'll increase your chances of making it to the final round! Maybe you'll force us to run an "all-lightning" edition of "POTW.")
Due to privacy issues, AVweb does not publish e-mail addresses of readers who submit photos.
Used with permission of Tom Albers
Tom Albers of Vacaville, California forces us to run two
similar "POTW"s back-to-back with this incredible shot taken
from the flight deck of a C-5 "while we waited for a TS to blow over."
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.
"Navy TH-57s Hunkered Down in Anticipation of Hurricane Frances"
David Black of Milton, Florida writes, "This is about half the Navy's fleet
of training helos at NAS Whiting Field. The have been flown to other fields.
Normally they are packed tighter than this!"
Used with permission of Harrison Smith
"Mark, Set, Go!"
We had to suppress a chuckle when we saw this photo
from Harrison Smith of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Maybe we just spend too much time at the air races ... .
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.
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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