NewsWire Complete Issue

June 12, 2005
By The AVweb Editorial Staff

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Background Checks Ground Tanker Pilots...

Eight Pilots Awaiting A Reason Why

A year ago, the U.S. Forest Service decided most of its heavy air tankers were unfit to fly, not because they were demonstrated to be unsafe but because there was some circumstantial evidence they might be. Now, it seems some of the pilots who fly the big planes are suffering the same fate. According to Wildfire News up to eight pilots have been told they are not allowed to go near the airplanes because of "issues" in background checks that were initiated this year. According to the magazine, the pilots, some with military experience, are not being told what flags were raised on their checks and they must wait for the government to complete the reviews before they find out. "It's pretty amazing they can pull us off the line on an assumption," Steven Maxwell, one of the grounded pilots, told Wildfire News. "The background check isn't even completed." Wildfire News editor Kelly Andersson told AVweb that repeated calls to numerous USFS officials were not returned. The groundings stemmed from a new requirement to make heavy tanker pilots fill out Form 85P, or Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions, and submit it to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The OPM screens personnel for most federal departments and normally assesses whether they can be trusted with classified and national security-related information. Only the contracted heavy tanker pilots were subject to the screening. Helicopter pilots and Bureau of Land Management pilots were not. The groundings are affecting crew scheduling as the air tanker fleet gears up for its busy season.

...DC-10 Tanker Conversion Tested...

And while the government sorts out who can fly the ancient iron, entrepreneurs continue to experiment with not-quite-so-ancient aircraft with which to modernize the fleet and potentially open the field to more pilots. As AVweb told you last year, Evergreen Aviation has developed a tanker version of the Boeing 747 and now a group of California companies is hoping converted DC-10s will soon be on fire duty. 10 Tanker LLC, which is spearheading the project, tested the 30-year-old trijet by dropping 10,000 gallons of water over Southern California Logistics Airport last week. The plane is now at Le Bourget in France where it will do four drops at the Paris Air Show in hopes of attracting customers. The plane underwent $15 million in modifications over two years. It can hold a maximum of 12,000 gallons in an external tank. The full load can be released in 17 seconds with the plane as low as 150 feet and flying at 142 knots. Turnaround time on the ground is as little as eight minutes and the jumbo can cruise to the fire scene at more than 400 knots. If the plane makes a splash with firefighting organizations, the conversions will be done by Victorville Aerospace, with numerous subcontractors also supplying components and services.

...While Tech Keeps The Older Birds Flying

And as 1970s technology is applied to aerial firefighting hardware, the Forest Service, NASA and the University of California, Davis, are collaborating on a state-of-the-art facility to keep the well-worn fleet of air tankers operating as safely as possible. The new Aviation Center for Excellence includes a flight simulator specially designed for firefighting crews and a whole-aircraft X-ray system for spotting structural problems in aircraft. The X-ray system is a former Air Force facility now owned by Aerobotics Inc., which has joined with four other firms to create the Aircraft Health Management center. The most immediate impact on firefighting by the facility is likely to be from the simulator. The sim re-creates real-life cockpit conditions experienced fighting a fire and subjects the crew members to the complexities of maintaining effective communications while guiding a fully loaded aircraft through turbulent air and at extremely low altitude to the correct drop point. (Sounds like it would make a great video game.) "It's all about communications and coordination," said Forest Service spokesman Dennis Hulbert. There's also ongoing research into making metals tougher and more resilient through laser peening, which directs high-energy blasts of laser light at metal. The resulting shockwaves through the surface make it more resistant to corrosion, fatigue and stress. University spokesman Michael Hill said the knowledge gained and processes developed should have wide applications and not just be restricted to firefighting challenges.


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Inspector General's Office Critical...

FAA Lax In Safety Inspections

As the hand-wringing (and finger-pointing) continues over future funding (or lack thereof) for the National Airspace System, other areas of the FAA are also feeling the pinch. Next to be red-flagged in a report by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General's office is airline safety inspections. With budget carriers sprouting across the country and many airlines on the financial ropes, the FAA has decided, due to financial constraints, not to replace about 200 inspectors who will retire or resign this year. There are now about 3,400 inspectors. DOT's Assistant Inspector General David Dobbs claims inspectors aren't doing the job properly at current staffing levels. "Adequate resources need to be committed to air carrier oversight to ensure the continuity of safe operations," said the report. The report says 26 percent of scheduled inspections on five major carriers were not done last year. The deployment of the increasingly limited resources was also questioned. For instance, most airliner maintenance is done overnight but inspectors don't, as a rule, work the graveyard shift. The report said inspectors spend 1 to 7 percent of their time on night inspections but the FAA said it's more like 10 percent.

...FAA, Airlines Defend Record

The FAA and airlines were critical of the report, noting that there hasn't been a major airliner crash in the U.S. in more than three years. "We changed the way we do business as the industry changed," FAA spokesman Greg Martin told The Associated Press. "This is the safest period in aviation history." And even though they're losing huge amounts of money, airlines say they will not cut corners on safety. "We have cut nothing that would compromise safety, nor will we," US Airways spokesman David Castelveter said. Inspector General Ken Mead agreed there's no need to hit the panic button. "The idea here is we all stay right on our toes," Mead said. "We don't want anyone taking inference that we're saying the system is unsafe. But having said that, we've definitely found areas where the FAA can improve and minimize risk further." Jack Evans, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said airlines are vigilant on maintenance and safety, and FAA inspections "are secondary to the robust quality-assurance programs" employed by the carriers.

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O'Hare Plan Would Take More Than It Gives?

The city of Chicago is being accused of making its expansion plan for O'Hare International Airport look better than it actually is so it can qualify for FAA grants. The Campbell Hill Aviation Group has filed a critique of Chicago's application for $300 million in FAA funds. The consultants, who were paid to do the critique by the communities of Bensenville and Elk Grove, both of which will be significantly affected by the expansion, say the city failed to prove that the massive expansion (ultimately costing about $20 billion) is worth it. According to the consultants, Chicago, by law, had to show that the benefits would at least equal the expense -- but it didn't, and that means the FAA has to turn down the application. "The FAA is clearly between a rock and a hard place," said Craig Johnson, the mayor of Elk Grove. The consultants said Chicago underestimated costs and overestimated revenue on its way to an application that appeared to meet federal cost-benefit analysis standards. Bensenville President John Geils said that to approve the grant, the FAA will have to ignore the suspect conclusions in the application. "It will be hard for the FAA to let the American taxpayer finance a boondoggle that will go down in history as the poster child for government waste," Geils said. Elk Grove and Bensenville both think there are better ways to solve the area's airport problems than paving over large parts of their communities.

An (Almost) All-American LSA

A Texas company claims to be the first U.S. aircraft manufacturer to certify an airplane under the new Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA) category. The Thorpedo, a Jabiru-powered version of the certified Thorp T211 made by IndUS Aviation, of Dallas, received its FAA certificate June 8. Base price is $85,000. A handful of imported planes, mostly from Europe, have earned S-LSA status but IndUS says its plane is the first "designed in America and manufactured in America." The plane was designed by American Jim Thorp in the 1940s but some might split hairs about the Thorpedo's nationality. According to the company Web site, the aircraft's components are made in Bangalore, India, and assembled in Dallas. The Web site said the two-country manufacturing process is part of the company's plan to take advantage of lower manufacturing costs while at the same time creating a general aviation industry and market in India, which currently has only about 400 GA aircraft. "This creates a new, wide-open, two-way street for interactive global collaboration," the Web site reads. Heritage issues aside, company owner and President Ram Pattisapu said the airplane has already found a market in the LSA category. Pattisapu said there's an order backlog and late-summer delivery slots are now being filled. The main difference between the certified airplane and the S-LSA version is the engine. The certified model uses a Continental 0-200 while the S-LSA plane has a six-cylinder Jabiru, which produces slightly more horsepower but is lighter than the Continental, according to Pattisapu. A version of the plane with an 85-horsepower four-cylinder Jabiru, called the Sky Skooter, is expected to get FAA approval soon and base price is $80,000.


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Senate And TSA On DCA Security

TSA Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Fleming told the Senate Commerce Committee last week that the strict security requirements that will be imposed on the owners of private aircraft using Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport are a "basic starting point" and could be revised in the future. He didn't say whether that means they might get even tougher but his comments came after several members of the committee complained that the security lid will keep out all but a few private operators. Anyone using DCA will have to have an armed law enforcement officer on board and go through a TSA security screening at a gateway airport before flying to Washington. Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said the provisions are "just going to kill general aviation" because of the added costs. Fleming said DCA access is a work in progress. "We'll continue to monitor it and make adjustments as necessary," he said. The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) has estimated the cost of the security arrangements at about $850 per flight, $700 for the officer and his or her return flight and $150 for a security processing fee. The TSA is now working on training and standards for the security screeners at the 12 gateway airports. Only 24 inbound and 24 outbound flights will be allowed each day to start.

Commander Owners Want To Take Over

A group of 50 Commander owners from all over the world have bid on the assets of the bankrupt aircraft manufacturer. They've formed a company called Commander Premier Aircraft Corporation (CPAC) and named Joel M. Hartstone as their president. Hartstone said the bid is to buy "substantially all of the assets" of the company, which is based in Bethany, Okla. A dollar figure wasn't released but Bob Tippens, a director of CPAC, told AOPA that there are no other serious bids. Commander slipped from Chapter 11 reorganization to Chapter 7 liquidation last January after a potential investor defaulted. The company built about 200 of the highly-regarded, speedy and luxurious singles between 1992 and 2002. The new company is getting a major marketing boost right out of the gate courtesy of AOPA. The annual members' sweepstakes grand prize is a refurbished and modernized Commander that is getting a lot of attention at various public appearances. The acquisition plans by CPAC appear to have approval from other Commander owners. An online forum on the topic has drawn a few positive responses.

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One Young Eagles Day

Saturday was Young Eagles Day at airports across the country, and EAA members, who have already taken more than 1 million youngsters aloft for their first GA flight, went to work on the second million. At Quonset State Airport, in North Kingstown, R.I., 90 kids and their families got an intro to the GA world that started with a bit of ground school -- navigation, air traffic control and instruments briefly explained -- and a free museum tour, before heading outdoors to the 20 aircraft waiting on the flight line. First to fly, in Kim Boekelheide's homebuilt Glastar, was 11-year-old Ben Falvey. "It was awesome!" he said, echoing every Young Eagle's first response. "I always like going up in the sky, I'm just amazed at what everything looks like from up there." Young Eagle alumnus Chase Denhoff has taken 10 hours of instruction since his first flight last year, and returned Saturday to learn more and meet the pilots. "I invited him to go out on the ramp and pick any airplane that he'd like to fly," said Noah Forden, who organized the event. With a Piper Cub, a Long EZ, an RV-8 in Blue Angels colors, a Beech Musketeer, and many more, it was a tough call. "He chose a Navion and had a great time," Forden said. EAA's Young Eagles programs continue year-round. Coming up on Wednesday evening, from 7 to 8 Central time, astronaut Mike Melvill will chat with kids online in a live Web event. If it all sounds good to you, and you think you'd like to be a part, look into it. To visit AVweb's photo gallery from Young Eagles Day at Quonset, click here.

Mathematical Solutions For Congestion

For those who think airspace congestion is the evil empire, a Berkeley professor is striking back with a mathematical force he believes will be with aviators in the future. "The long term vision is a bit like what you might see in Star Wars films when streams of aircraft in the sky are crisscrossing each other beautifully," said Alexandre Bayen. Bayen is now working on mathematical algorithms that will enable aircraft to recognize potential conflicts and, initially at least, warn them to take evasive action. But he said in a Berkeley press release that his ultimate plan is for computers that will take over control from a pilot "in an emergency situation." Bayen said the first step is to lay out the mathematical framework for the "worst-case" aircraft collision scenario, which is more like something out of a James Bond movie. "We solve it under the assumption that one aircraft will do everything possible to avoid being hit and that the intruder aircraft is trying its hardest to collide," said Bayen. "In real life, hopefully the intruder won't act so badly." From there, the math is supposed to provide a solution to prevent collisions in every kind of scenario, using the mathematics of "level sets," which Bayen claims will give the computers the ability to warn (or steer away from) a collision. "We can prove mathematically that if the pilot responds right away, he or she can escape the danger." Bayen also thinks his math can help controllers slot traffic more efficiently. "It's a very high workload for the humans in charge of that airspace," Bayen said. "Can we automatically assign maneuvers so that the aircraft are delivered at an optimal rate?" Probably, right up until that huge thunderstorm parks over the airport...


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The Passing Of Curtis Pitts

The man whose nimble little biplane spawned a whole segment of aviation design, competition and just plain fun died Friday. Curtis Pitts, whose Pitts Special became the standard for sport aviation for 60 years, was 89. He died in the hospital from complications resulting from a heart valve replacement. EAA President Tom Poberezny, who has more than 3,300 hours on Pitts Specials, said Pitts had a tremendous influence on him personally. "More important was his personality and willingness to share so much with those who were in pursuit of aviation as a career, recreation, or aerobatic performer," he said. "As we mourn, we should take this opportunity to celebrate his life and contributions to the aviation community." Pitts designed the airplane from the ground up to be an aerobatic performer, with fast roll rates and crisp handling. In 1966, Bob Herendeen won the U.S. National Aerobatics Championships in a Pitts.

On The Fly...

The 1919 Vickers Vimy replica has reached St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, its departure point for the attempt by Steve Fossett and Mark Rebholtz to re-create the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight by John Alcock and Arthur Brown. Fossett and Rebholtz will launch for County Galway, Ireland, as soon as weather permits...

The FAA has issued an emergency AD on T-6, SNJ and Harvards after the May 9 crash of an SNJ in Florida. Investigators found a big fatigue crack in the crash airplane's wing and all the aircraft will undergo fluorescent inspections that will be repeated every 200 hours...

Boeing could be on its way to reclaiming the top spot in airliner sales after a banner start to 2005. The company sold 280 planes in the first five months of the year (many of them the new 787) compared to 196 for Airbus. However, the Paris Air Show could alter the spread...

If you'd like to give new purpose to your flying, Angel Flight might be for you. Texas pilots are invited to a pilot recruitment and fundraiser at Lonestar Executive Airport in Conroe, Texas, June 18 to learn more about the organization, which flies people for specialized medical treatment...

There hasn't been a free lunch on many airlines for some time and now Northwest is axing the snack service. Those little packages of pretzels will be replaced with a fruit-and-nut mix at $1 apiece.

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Reader feedback on AVweb's news coverage and feature articles:

AVmail: June 13, 2005
Reader mail this week about the New York TRACON, flat panel displays, photo submissions and more.

New Articles and Features on AVweb

The Pilot's Lounge #88: The Air Care Alliance -- Helping Those Who Fly to Help Others
Whether they go on flights for documenting environmental degradation or for transporting kids for medical treatment, hundreds of pilots in dozens of organizations work tirelessly to provide special aviation duties. AVweb's Rick Durden tells about the central source of information on all public-benefit flying in this month's The Pilot's Lounge column.

Avionics and Your Airplane
Advertising in glossy airplane magazines (and, let's be honest, sometimes here on AVweb too) exhorts you to buy the latest, greatest, bleeding-edge avionics for your plane. Come time to sell it, though, and you might not get back what you put into it. Brian Jacobson discusses the value of upgrading your panel.

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AVweb's Business AVflash

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Short Final...

There's Always VFR ... Or Is There?

Clearance Delivery: ...then own navigation as filed. Read back.

Flight 269: Roger. 269 is cleared to Destination Indian Springs via after take off Radar vectors to 4000, then present position direct BOM, pass BOM at 6000 or below, after passing 15,000 turn right on heading 280 to intercept J-156 direct ZZT, thereafter intercept J-158, climb and maintain FL 240 own navigation as filed...

(short pause)

...And I need another pencil.

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Greasy side down for landing.

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