March 20, 2005
By The AVweb Editorial Staff
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It's a long way from Textron headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., to Anderson, Texas, both literally and figuratively, but corporate honchos from the company that brings you Cessna and Lycoming products are getting to know the place pretty well. For it's in that unlikely little city north of Houston that the fortunes of an aviation icon and industry dynasty could turn. As AVweb told you last month, a jury in Anderson laid the full blame for faulty crankshafts in high-powered Lycoming engines on Lycoming. The jury also found that Lycoming engaged in fraud when it negotiated a new supply contract with Intestate Southwest, the Navasota, Texas, contractor Lycoming had hired to forge crankshaft billets, without informing the company of crankshaft failures it knew about. Our sister publication, Aviation Consumer, will carry a story in its April edition that delves deeply into the technical and legal details of the case and what it could mean for individual owners and the industry as a whole. In February, the jury awarded Interstate a total of $96 million in actual and punitive damages, after Interstate's lawyers presented evidence they said proved that it was the Lycoming-ordered addition of vanadium to the steel mix in the crank forgings that was to blame for the failures, not overheating of the billets by Interstate. The jury also accepted Interstate's premise that the crankshafts are under-designed and don't have the structural margins that Lycoming intended for them to have in the higher horsepower engines.
Lycoming's legal team is now formulating its appeal and further action could revolve around the FAA's involvement in the case. During the massive recall of some 1800 crankshafts during 2002 and 2003, the FAA accepted Lycoming's contention that Interstate had overheated the forgings and weakened the metal in them. It included that finding in the Emergency Airworthiness Directive that grounded the affected aircraft. But the jury didn't get to hear about the FAA's investigation into the crank failures because the judge in the Anderson trial excluded the report from the agency's Special Certification Review Team as prejudicial and hearsay. Lycoming attorney Rich Bedell told Aviation Consumer that the FAA SCRT report supports Lycoming's view that overheating caused the crank failures and the company may appeal the exclusion of that evidence. Bedell also contends the "jury simply got it wrong" in its finding that Lycoming engaged in fraud when it failed to inform Interstate of known crankshaft failures before signing a supply contract with the company. Lycoming maintains that the addition of vanadium in the forging alloy recipe wasn't the cause of the failures. Bedell also said that Lycoming doesn't think the design of the crankshafts is fundamentally flawed nor is there any reason for the FAA to recertify them.
Aviation Consumer's report was based on lengthy detailed interviews with legal counsel for both sides. The final verdict has not yet been entered by Judge Jerry Sandel in Texas district court. A hearing is scheduled for March 22 -- tomorrow -- to consider that process and also to entertain possible motions from Lycoming to seal certain parts of the record relating to proprietary and competitive information. And while untold millions of dollars will rest on these and future legal wranglings, there could also be a major impact on engine owners and the industry as a whole if the FAA is sufficiently pressured to consider recertifying crankshafts for higher-horsepower Lycoming engines based on the jury's findings.
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Could the United States soon join the majority of countries in which pilots and/or aircraft owners are charged user fees to fund airspace, airport and navigation operation and infrastructure? From the way senior government officials were talking at the FAA's 30th Annual Forecast Conference in Washington, things could be moving in that direction. With the agency predicting a 45-percent increase in air travel in the next 10 years and the federal government in need of controlling its spiraling debt, the FAA would appear to be running out of palatable choices. "Our workload goes up, our revenue goes down," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey remarked. "We need a revenue stream based both on our costs and on our actual units of production." Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta also talked of the need for a "new revenue stream" (not increases in the old revenue streams, a new revenue stream). "Not on our watch," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. Boyer said Blakey seems to have softened here stance on the potential for user fees for GA since she declared, at last October's AOPA Expo, that "the FAA doesn't support a fee-based system." On Thursday, she said: "I'm not at this point advocating user fees." Boyer said user fees are a hot-button issue among AOPA members. "The members are very clear," he told reporters. "No user fees. We've heard them and you'll continue to hear from us."
According to FAA predictions, the number of passengers boarding airliners in the U.S. will top one billion by 2015 compared to about 550 million this year. Couple that with a trend toward smaller aircraft on more direct flights and declining air fares (which are taxed to fund the FAA) and it looks like trouble is brewing -- or is it? Blakey and Mineta were careful to point out that the government is working on resolving air traffic issues. "We are redesigning airspace, deploying new software that will help increase capacity and putting new procedures in place," Blakey said. "We will be ready." What that form of readiness will be is another question. The current budget calls for a $600 million reduction in the Airport Improvement Program, according to AOPA, and $77 million less on air traffic control modernization (after a $400 million cut this year). To some legislators, the administrator's statements and the figures don't add up. "All indications are that air traffic will continue to grow," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Yet the Bush administration has decided that now is the time to impose dramatic cuts in our investment at improving safety and expanding capacity at our airports."
One of the curiosities of FAA budget priorities may be expressed in the veritable building boom of control towers across the country. Multimillion-dollar towers, many of them 200 feet tall or more, are being built all over the country. In a lot of cases the towers are being built long before they are needed, according to the airport officials being quoted. And while there seems to be money (and apparently a perceived need) to build state-of-the-art new towers, the equipment being installed in some of them was created when bell bottoms were popular (... the first time). The new $12 million tower in Fort Wayne, Ind., will actually get used "refurbished" hardware supporting the Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS) that first went into service in 1974. Fort Wayne had been among 172 airports slated for the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) that went into service last year. However, the cost of the system went wildly out of control. The original estimate for equipping the 172 towers with STARS was $970 million. The FAA cut the deployment by 70 percent to just 47 of the country's busiest towers but the cost will still rise to $1.6 billion. "We're putting the money where the need is greatest," FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Ishman-Cory told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.
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Ron Tessier paid defunct Canadian airline Jetsgo $30,000 to be trained to fly its planes. With $29,000 still owing on the loan he took out, Tessier, a pilot for 18 years, is heading home to Sudbury, Ont., and to a possible job at the local Home Depot to pay off the debt, Tessier told the Toronto Globe and Mail. Jetsgo demanded the $30,000 payments up front from all its pilots as a repayable (over two years) "loyalty bond" to prevent them from jumping to another airline after they were qualified. However, it was Jetsgo that pulled the pin on the pilots and other employees by declaring bankruptcy last week. Newer pilots, like Tessier, have virtually no chance of recovering their bonds. "It's absolutely gone. It's going to bankrupt a lot of people," Tessier said. Meanwhile some passengers and employees are trying to get back what they can by auctioning off newly "rare "Jetsgo memorabilia on eBay. The online clearinghouse listed 89 items ranging from boarding passes for a penny to headphones (used only once) to a flight attendant's uniform for $68. Most of the vendors are pitching the items as collectors' items, including a "rare" mouse pad handed out free at the airline's launch. And some claim they're finding buyers. Amateur photographer Ryan Morgan snapped photos of the airline's grounded planes and told the Toronto Globe and Mail there has "been a lot of interest."
Remember when the fear was that we could cross paths with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)? Well, NASA is assuring us that it will someday be safe to "enable swarms of aircraft to move safely from one area to another as a flock or a group," according to NASA researcher John Melton. Melton was flushed with the success of a UAV experiment in which a pair of APV-3 UAVs (wingspan about 12 feet) went searching for a "virtual" forest fire. When one of them found the fire, it transmitted waypoint data to its wingmate and the second UAV "completed the mission." Along the way, the aircraft were able to autonomously react to obstacles while flying the pre-programmed mission. Meanwhile the Army is becoming quite attached to UAVs as reconnaissance and forward control platforms, and the smaller they are the better. The latest drone to help Army patrols scout the ground ahead (through day- and night-vision cameras that beam real-time video to a laptop) is a battery-powered plane with a four-foot wingspan that weighs a backpackable 25 pounds. It can stay in the air for 80 minutes, go as fast as 55 mph, fly as far as 10 miles from its control unit and packs its own GPS to stay on course. But can it come back to the hangar and tell embellished flying stories?
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The sometimes conflicting dynamics of political expediency and common sense will get another test in Pennsylvania as a state representative continues her campaign to make it illegal to fly drunk there. You may recall an earlier effort to pass the Flying While Impaired Bill was shot down by Gov. Ed. Rendell ... at least in part because some enterprising legislators saddled it with an amendment to fund rural bus service, which Rendell opposed. He vetoed the whole package and now legislators are trying again. "We're looking to see that it doesn't get too many amendments this time," said Rep. Kate Harper, who cosponsored the bill with Rep. Kathy Watson and Rep. Jacqueline Crahalla. One of the most high profile examples of reckless flying inspired the effort to fill the legal vacuum. It was about 14 months ago that Limerick, Pa., pilot John Salamone took off in his Piper Cherokee on a three-hour tour of some of the country's busiest airspace, causing airline pilots and air traffic controllers fits as he buzzed busy airports and got in the way of passenger planes. Prosecutors said he blew .15 after he landed. Lacking an impaired flying law, authorities charged him with reckless endangerment and risking a catastrophe, for which he was sentenced to six to 23 months in jail. Under the proposed impaired flying law, he would have faced a minimum 72-hour jail sentence and $5,000 fine, and could have been ordered to undergo drug and alcohol counseling.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials arrested 27 illegal immigrant workers in a raid last Tuesday. These folks weren't stocking department store shelves or picking fruit -- they were fixing airliners. ICE conducted the raid on theTIMCO Aviation Services facility in Greensboro, N.C. The 27 people arrested face a variety of charges, including using false documents (most had driver's licenses). They come from Sudan, Chile, Peru, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Venezuela, Mexico and Laos. At least one had obtained his A&P rating from the FAA. "As the 9/11 Commission pointed out, the United States cannot risk having 'unknown' people working on its critical infrastructure," ICE spokesman Thomas O'Connell said in a statement. Initially TIMCO denied that any of the workers were direct employees, but instead worked for contractors. It later said that six were permanent, full-time staff. The company also dismissed safety concerns, saying the work of all the employees was subject to inspection and oversight. However, Percy Vega, a Peruvian, had obtained his A&P and would therefore have had sign-off authority. Court records indicated Vega had lived in Greensboro off and on since 1994.
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First it was voluntary, but it now appears airlines operating A300 and A310 aircraft will be compelled to conduct thorough inspections of the planes' composite rudders. France's civil aviation regulator has issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive calling for the one-time visual and tap-test inspection to be completed within 550 hours or before June 18. Other countries generally adopt similar Emergency ADs but none had been issued by the FAA at our deadline. France's action comes two weeks after an Air Transat A310 lost almost its entire rudder while at cruise on a trip from Cuba to Quebec. The crew was able to return to Varadero Airport and land safely. Last week Airbus recommended operators of A300 and A310 aircraft inspect the rudders. The NTSB and FAA are both following the Canadian investigation to see if it might have any bearing on the crash of an American Airlines A300 in New York in 2001. In that accident, the whole tail separated after what the NTSB determined were excessive rudder movements by the flying pilot.
They may be bright orange on the outside but Southwest Airlines apparently likes its Boeing 737s a little gray on the inside. According to Time Magazine, Southwest is poised to become the first major airline to back a bid by a pilots' group to abolish the Age 60 rule. "Times are changing," Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford told Time. "We are losing some really good pilots." Time said Southwest intends to file a "friend of the court brief" in favor of a bid by a group of 12 pilots who have asked the Supreme Court to review their attempt to have waivers to the rule granted. In the past, airlines and pilots' unions have resisted attempts to get rid of the age cap, for their own reasons. For the companies, the rule limited the time pilots stayed at the top of the pay grid and saved them money. For the unions, it meant steady and predictable advancement for younger (and potentially more vocal) members. And for the retiring pilots themselves, the age limit guaranteed a well-funded retirement with, in most cases, plenty of years left to enjoy it. Those cushy retirement packages are now on their way out and many older pilots say they need an extra few years of work to get ready for retirement. Southwest's stance is sure to add weight to an already hefty congressional process to review the Age 60 rule. The House Aviation Subcommittee will hold hearings on the topic and there are bills ready that would push the limit to 65 if passed.
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The pilots of a Gulfstream II on its way to pick up former President George Bush last Nov. 22 may have been following the wrong navigation aid as they descended in IMC toward Hobby Airport in Houston. Cockpit voice recordings released last week reveal an exchange between the pilot Milford Dickson and co-pilot Michael DeSalvo (reportedly with some 19,000 hours of flight time, each) suggest the pair may have been following a VOR signal when they thought they were tuned into Hobby's ILS. The plane clipped a light pole and crashed in a field near a freeway. Both pilots and flight attendant Kristi Dunn died. The pilots realized something was wrong with their nav gear about two minutes before the crash. They reset the receivers but by then they'd dropped well below the glide slope. After resetting the frequencies, DeSalvo told Dickson:"We're all squared away now. You got it." Dickson replies: "Yeah, but I don't know if I can get back on it in time." About 30 seconds later, De Salvo says: "K, up, up, up, up, up, up, up." The tape ends two seconds later.
A California community has come up with a high-flying approach to combating the crumbling infrastructure at its little airport. They're letting a local Boy Scout put up owl boxes in trees near the runway at Columbia Airport, near Sonora in northern California. It seems gophers have made a mess of the grass strip, digging holes and creating mounds of earth that can make for jarring landings and takeoffs. The 2,600-foot irrigated runway isn't even a year old. "Hopefully it is going to lower our maintenance costs and keep our brand-new runway in better shape," said airport director Jim Thomas. It may also help Harrison Young become an Eagle Scout. The 18-year-old Soulsbyville teen built and installed the boxes, which will attract barn owls, as part of his Eagle Scout qualification. Birds and airports don't generally mix but Young has done his homework. Barn owls are nocturnal and the airport isn't used at night. Now, as long as the gophers are nocturnal, too...
JOIN AOPA: THE REAL-TIME FLIGHT PLANNER IS WORTH THE DUES ALONE!
There's a "new" cub flying. And it could be that all you need is a driver's license and a dream...
In case you needed another reason to avoid flying near nuclear power plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signed a memorandum of understanding with the North American Aerospace Defense Command laying out the protocols for NORAD to shoot down potentially threatening aircraft. NORAD has actually had the authority since shortly after 9/11 but now the paperwork is done...
Continental Airlines has been given the rights to fly to China. The Department of Transportation recently granted the authority and the airline plans nonstop flights from Newark using Boeing 777s...
British flight crew members are now keeping tabs on the effects of cabin air on their health. As AVweb reported last month, Australian pilots and flight attendants have been complaining about cabin-air related ailments and the Brits are planning a conference on the topic...
Talks between the U.S. and the European Union over commercial airliner subsidies have broken down. The two had hoped to have an agreement in place by April 11 over how Airbus and Boeing receive government support. Both sides now say that's unlikely...
A drunk Australian who broke into the cockpit of a Russian airliner could have three years in a Russian prison in which to dry out. The unidentified 29-year-old Aussie allegedly threatened to blow up the plane after storming the cockpit and demanding that it be flown to Chechnya. He's been charged with making a false report about a terrorist attack...
The NTSB has confirmed metal fatigue as the cause of the wing failure that led to the crash of a Texas Air Aces T-34 near Lake Conroe, Texas, in 2003. The crash killed the company's owner, Don Wylie, and William J. Eisenhauer Jr., of Centerville, Ohio. Another Texas Air Aces T-34 crashed after a wing failure last Dec. 7, killing pilot Richard Gillwaters and passenger Pietro Migliori, of Venezuela.
Drop us a line. If it caught your attention, it will probably interest someone else, too. Submit news tips via email to email@example.com.
ATTENTION, CESSNA OWNERS AND PILOTS
The Pilot's Lounge #85: Some Blunt Talk About Aviation Insurance (or, What You Don't Know About Sublimits Can Hurt You)
Insurance -- and talking about insurance -- can be one of the most tedious things to deal with when the sky is blue and beckoning for winged aviators. Yet even pilots who think they've got it covered can be rudely awakened after an accident, as AVweb's Rick Durden explains in this month's column.
AVmail: March 21, 2005
Reader mail this week about MOAs, AVweb's weekly questions, and still more comments on three-engine 747s.
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Caution: Greenhorn on the runway...
As I taxied into the number two position (holding short of the runway behind one of the local flightschool aircraft) I switched to tower frequency -- just in time to hear the following transmission between the tower and student pilot:
Tower: Skyhawk 123 taxi into position and hold.
Skyhawk 123: Aaaah ...
Skyhawk 123: ... Assume the position, 123.
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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Fly it till every part stops.
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