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AVweb Special Report -- Columbia, An Insider's Perspective

Dr. Jay Apt joined NASA’s astronaut program in 1985 and has spent more than 35 days in space on four Shuttle missions. He is an active pilot with more than 4500 hours of flight time. Over the weekend, he graciously provided AVweb with his perspective on the Columbia accident -- and shared his own firsthand experience of re-entry aboard the Space Shuttle. The technical insight and sometimes impassioned description he provides is today's must read.

Shuttle Columbia And Crew Lost

Final Mission For NASA's First Shuttle Orbiter...

The 113th Shuttle flight and the 28th for NASA's first Shuttle ended tragically Saturday with the death of all seven crew when the vehicle, traveling at 18.3 mach and enduring peak airframe heating of some 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit along the wing's leading edges, broke up 207,135 feet above the earth. Wreckage (some pieces just inches small) was this weekend being recovered from a 250-square-mile debris field covered at least mostly by a TFR. Three separate groups will investigate the Columbia disaster -- NASA (which has solicited the aid of the NTSB), the House Committee on Science, and a team led by retired Navy Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr., who previously investigated the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole. Loss of the Columbia Saturday, and the Challenger in 1986, represent the loss of the Shuttle program's first and second orbiters, respectively -- three Shuttles remain. Of those, Discovery, the third built, holds seniority with 30 missions flown. NASA had recently planned to extend the life of the current Shuttles by 25 years.

...And The Investigation Begins

The early trail of statistical evidence originating with sensor readings -- and sensor failures -- during re-entry may ultimately help explain, or describe, the structural failure of the vehicle. Sensor readings were lost for the left inboard and outboard elevon, which share common wire routing adjacent to the wheel well area. Abnormal heating in the left wheel well was indicated by a brake line measurement that rose 20 - 30 degrees in five minutes. Left side "bondline temperatures" (an area above the left wing) also rose 60 degrees over 5 minutes compared to a nominal 15-degree rise on the right side while the vehicle's roll trim began to react to a drag increase on the left side of the vehicle. The drag apparently increased over time but was not deemed excessive. Soon after, the vehicle broke up. Insulation that broke free from the external fuel tank appeared to have struck the left wing during launch, but reviews of launch video footage left NASA experts with the conclusion that the impact would not have compromised structure. Amid the investigation is the agency’s recent plan to try to extend the life of the current Shuttles by an additional 25 years and a now-scathing Jan. 30 General Accounting Office report citing NASA's management of contractors as "weak" and "debilitating" with "little emphasis on end results [or] product performance."

NOTE: The GAO report is available at their Web site as an Adobe PDF Document.

Eclipse Customers Meet Its Makers

Engine Issues Explained...

As expected, the re-engined Eclipse 500 will be heavier, thirstier, faster, later and somewhat more expensive than the original model, but that doesn't seem to bother those who have put money down on one. Eclipse gathered customers at its Albuquerque headquarters last week to update them on the project in the aftermath of firing Williams International as the engine supplier. Don Morris, who was one of the first to place an order for the five-place twin-jet, said the gathering wasn't told who will supply the new engines, which will put out about 900 pounds of thrust. They were also told the price has gone up. Morris declined to quote a figure but said current position holders will still get their mini-jet for less than $1 million and the price is expected to break that barrier in the near future. He said he'd expected a bigger price hike and is more concerned about the delays inherent in finding and fitting new engines. Morris was supposed to get his Eclipse in 2004. "I'm disappointed that I won't be able to fly this wonderful personal jet next year," he said. "The time and delay is very agonizing."

...More Power = More Fuel

Despite the setback, Morris remains upbeat about the airplane and his involvement and he said the vast majority of those attending the meetings appeared to feel the same. "People were very positive," he said. "They're still optimistic and enthusiastic." Morris said Eclipse officials made it clear that continuing with the Williams EJ22 engine wasn't viable. The challenge now is to meet the range and performance predictions as the power and gross weight increase. Morris said an extra 250 pounds of fuel needs to be accommodated and tip tanks are one of the options being considered. Fuselage tanks have been ruled out for safety reasons, he said. Morris said Eclipse, as an airframe builder, has hit all its development and production deadlines. "I have no doubt that if they had the engines, they'd have airplanes flying," he said. The group was told that Eclipse wants to resume flight testing as soon as possible and that might mean using some type of off-the-shelf alternative power. "They're working on interim measures to get back in the air," he said. Morris said he personally remains convinced that Eclipse is the revolutionary development its makers claim it to be. "This airplane is incredible. It's the first airplane of the 21st century."


Bombardier Bonuses Suspended, But Business Goes On

Belt-tightening continues at Bombardier, but company officials are denying rumors that the company is abandoning the business jet market. "Nothing could be further from the truth," said spokesman John Paul Macdonald. He said that kind of rumor has been circulating among jittery employees since the company announced two temporary plant closures and more than 2,000 layoffs in September. But it's more than a rumor that salaried employees are the next to feel the pinch. They were told Thursday that the merit bonuses they were to receive this week had been suspended. The bonus suspension is part of a fresh review of costs at its operations. Spokesman Dave Franson told The Wichita Eagle that no decisions had been made on whether to ask employees for wage and benefit decreases. He said additional layoffs were not part of Thursday's discussions. Meanwhile, one of the plants idled, the Toronto, Ontario DASH-8 factory, will resume production next week. The Learjet 45 and 60 production lines in Wichita will remain shut down for another two months.

Lycoming Tightens Quality Control

Former FAA official Michael J. Dreikorn will head up a panel, which Lycoming says is part of its overall plan to address "component reliability issues" like the faulty crankshafts that led to the recall of more than 1,200 turbocharged, 300-plus horsepower engines last year. The Independent Advisory Panel will keep an eye on "safety, quality and compliance systems and processes" at Lycoming's engine plants. "Safety is paramount and we want experienced, world-class experts to bring an objective and critical perspective to our ongoing efforts to further ensure the integrity of our product and processes," said Steve Loranger, CEO of Textron, Lycoming's parent company. Lycoming is on schedule repairing the recalled engines. Spokeswoman Sue Bishop said 350 of 950 engines requiring new crankshafts under Service Bulletin 552 have been shipped to customers. Service Bulletin 553 required core sampling and testing of 736 crankshafts. Of the more than 400 tested so far, about 70 percent were returned to service, said Bishop. A total of 1,100 new crankshafts have been forged. "We're clearly on target to get everyone back in the air in the second quarter as we'd planned," said Bishop.

Registration Smooths Sport Pilot Transition

Ultralight pilots may have a more direct route to a sport pilot license through the three national organizations that already conduct ultralight flight training. FAA sport pilot team leader Sue Gardner said ultralight pilots registered with EAA, Aero Sports Connection or the United States Ultralight Association will go through a simple process to get the new license. Pilots already registered with those groups will take a knowledge test and pass a practical flight test to get the new license. Anyone else, regardless of experience and knowledge, will have to go through the whole training regimen and log the required number of hours before obtaining a sport pilot license, depending on the type of aircraft they fly. "Becoming a registered ultralight pilot is the easiest path to becoming a sport pilot," said Gardner. Meanwhile, progress continues on the establishment of technical standards for light sport aircraft.

The American Society for Testing and Material's (ASTM) International Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) Committee wrapped up a two-day meeting in Florida last Wednesday. The committee is made up of industry and government representatives and is charged with setting design, construction and maintenance standards for the new class of aircraft. Standards for powered parachutes have been completed and are going for one final review. Work is progressing on all other types and on the engine standards. All involved remain optimistic the standards will be finalized before the final rule is approved, which Congress has ordered be done by September at the latest. EAA officials are also on the road warning airports to get ready for the increase in traffic and business the new aircraft and license categories will create. "Sport pilot is the future of recreational aviation, especially for those who depend on new pilot starts and fuel sales for their very survival," EAA Vice President Bob Warner told the recent Nebraska Aviation Symposium.

Equipment Problems Eyed In Accidents

Equipment problems are being cited in two high-profile aircraft accidents in the past month. Investigators in Denver say the transponder wasn't working or was shut off in a Piper Cheyenne that collided with a Cessna 172 there last week. Therefore, air traffic controllers, who were providing flight following to both aircraft, could not see the altitude of the Piper. Investigators of the crash of a Beech 1900D at Charlotte, N.C., Jan. 8 say the elevator controls had been adjusted two days earlier and one cable was set 1.8 inches longer than the other (both should have been the same length). Five men died in the Denver accident and six were injured on the ground. A house hit by the Cessna was destroyed by the ensuing explosion. The two planes had both taken off a few minutes before from different airports. Just before the collision, an air traffic controller warned the Cheyenne pilot that the Cessna was about a mile away and directly ahead. In the Charlotte crash, 19 passengers and two crew aboard the US Airways Express flight died after the plane pitched up to more than 50 degrees after takeoff, stalled and dove into a hangar. The investigation has focused on the Beech's pitch controls -- according to the flight data recorder, they were "moving up and down a lot" after the maintenance stop.

Customs Takes On TFRs

Well, now we've done it ... The U.S. Customs Service has begun patrolling the restricted airspace around Washington, D.C., in the specially-equipped Citations and Black Hawk helicopters normally used to track down drug runners and smugglers on the border. The first such patrols were to enforce the 30-nm TFR around the Capitol last Tuesday during President Bush's State of the Union Address. There were no violations reported. Government officials said the customs aircraft are better suited to tagging and tracking aircraft than military fighters but AOPA is concerned those on the customs aircraft will have the wrong attitude in dealing with wayward GA pilots. "Customs should not assume that pilots operating domestically are a threat," said AOPA Senior VP Andy Cebula. "Failure to recognize this is going to lead to problems."

Lancair Kits Changes Hands

There's a lot less "Lance" in Lancair's kit division. Founder Lance Niebauer has sold the kit maker to a New Orleans attorney for an undisclosed amount. Niebauer said in a statement that the new company owner, Joseph C. Bartels, has promised to carry on business as usual. Niebauer said the sale keeps his dream alive while allowing him to focus on the reorganization of the Lancair Company, which produces the certified Columbia 300. Since starting the certified aircraft business, Niebauer said he has not given the kit side the attention it deserves. Bartels bought a Lancair IV-P in 1992 and later formed Aero Cool LLC, which makes air conditioners for Lancair IVs. Niebauer said he believes the sale is in the best interests of the company and staff but he won't be far away if he's needed for design and consulting work. "I have no shortage of ideas for the kit company and its future product line ...," he said. The certified company recently received a $55 million capital infusion, allowing it to resume production and fill orders for 173 Columbia 300s.

On The Fly...

Goodrich Corp. will sell its avionics business to L-3 Communications Holdings for $188 million. The sale will close within a couple of months. Goodrich makes aircraft instruments, while L-3 makes intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance products for military and intelligence agencies...

Jane Garvey, former FAA head, is no longer an unemployment statistic. Garvey has joined APCO Worldwide as its VP in charge of transportation issues. APCO calls itself a "strategic communications" organization specializing in, among other things, government relations, which sounds a lot like lobbying to us. We were never worried about her being able to make the rent...

A Northwest Airlines pilot who jumped the gun, so to speak, by packing a pistol with him in his carry-on has illuminated the issues that will arise when pilots can legally carry guns to the cockpit. The Northwest pilot was arrested, but soon there will be thousands of "federal flight deck officers" allowed to carry guns. The Transportation Security Administration has until Feb. 25 to come up with a plan to train them...

E stands for efficiency in the new Boeing 7E7 as the world's largest aerospace company and soon-to-be second-largest maker of airliners plays catch-up with archrival Airbus. Boeing will go head to head with Airbus's 320 and 330 series with a 200- to 250-passenger, twin-aisle jet that will have a range of up to 9,200 miles. Boeing will start taking orders on the 7E7 in 2004 and hopes to have them in the air by 2008...

EAA AirVenture Museum has announced its 2003 calendar of events. Among the highlights is the Gary Powers U-2 display, Laughter and Tears, an exhibit of art by George Rarey, who was killed flying P-47s in WWII, as well as numerous family and children's events...

If you can't take your own plane to EAA AirVenture this year, airlines are helping ease the pain of flying with them by offering special fares. Most are offering 8- to 10-percent discounts on flights booked well in advance and 5 percent on last-minute purchases. Arrival cities include Appleton, Milwaukee, Chicago and South Bend, Ind.

Short Final...

Sometimes when we are stressed we forget to think before we key the mike. This actually happened after the oil line blew.

N1234: Manchester (N.H.) tower Cherokee 1234 is five miles northwest with a total engine failure.

MHT (Using that standard FAA terminology): What are your intentions?

N1234: I intend to land!

MHT (With that standard terminology again): Roger, how many souls on board?

N1234: No souls, four heathens.

Contributions to Short Final are welcomed at



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