AVwebFlash - Volume 20, Number 23b

December 11, 2013

House Pushes Expansion Of Driver’s License Medical

Representatives in the house Wednesday introduced legislation that would expand the use of a driver’s license as an acceptable qualifying medical standard for pilots flying light certificated GA aircraft. The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act would set the driver’s license as the medical requirement for noncommercial VFR flights in aircraft with no more than six seats and weighing 6,000 pounds, or less. As written the proposal would cover most (nearly all) single-engine aircraft, and also some twins — the Beech Baron 55 and 58, and Cessna 310, for example. But there are other conditions.

Pilots would be restricted to flying no more than five passengers and at altitudes below 14,000 feet msl. They also could not operate aircraft that fly faster than 250 knots. The legislation calls on action from the FAA to review the rule after five years and report on any safety consequences observed by the rule’s implementation. The bill was brought forward by Representative Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and Sam Graves, R-Mo. Both men are pilots and AOPA members. The bill has picked up a handful of other sponsors, who are all members of the GA Caucus. For their part, AOPA and EAA have petitioned the FAA to lower the standards for third-class medical certifications for pilots. AOPA wrote, Wednesday, “Congress has taken matters into its own hands, offering up legislation that would vastly expand the number of pilots who could fly without going through the expensive and time-consuming third-class medical certification process.”

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Asiana Pilot 'Very Concerned' About Landing Visually

The pilot in the left seat of Asiana Flight 214 that crashed in San Francisco in July told the NTSB he didn't feel comfortable flying a visual approach on that cloudless, calm day, nor did he feel well enough trained to operate the Boeing 777's automatic flight systems. The NTSB held a public hearing Wednesday on its investigation of the landing accident, which resulted in three deaths and 182 injuries. One of the passengers who died was killed after being struck by two fire trucks, 11 minutes apart, in the aftermath of the crash. According to documents released at the hearing, Capt, Lee Kang Kuk told NTSB investigators "it was very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane." Although the PAPI lights and localizer were working, the glideslope was as unserviceable due to construction work and the lack of that instrument landing aid made Kuk "very concerned" on what was his first landing at SFO. The 777 was 34 knots slow when its tail hit a seawall before the threshold of Runway 28L. After shedding the tail, the rest of the plane became briefly airborne as it rotated almost 360 degrees before coming to rest in flames beside the runway. The NTSB also released a surveillance camera video of the crash.

A pilot who flew with Lee on flight two days earlier wondered about his competence and described him as "not well organized or prepared." Lee said he was blinded by a bright light from outside the cockpit at a critical moment but no one else saw it. In fact the first indication that any other crew member gave that they were worried about making the runway was a few seconds before impact when an unidentified crew member  warned, "It's low." Another crew member then called for a go-around but it was too late. Much of the hearing focused on the operation of the stall-prevention devices on the aircraft but John Cashman, the retired chief pilot on the 777 for Boeing, said it's the pilots' ultimate responsibility to make sure everything is working properly. "The pilot is the final authority for the operation of the airplane," he said.


Repair Stations Object To FAA’s ECi Action

The Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) Wednesday joined the NTSB, AOPA, EAA, the National Air Transportation Association and others in requesting that the FAA reconsider proposed rulemaking regarding ECi cylinders used in Continental engines. ARSA wrote in electronic comments submitted to the FAA that the agency “disregarded the most basic requirements for promulgating a regulation,” by failing to comply with its own internal guidance policies. And “As a matter of law, the FAA cannot establish that the cylinders should be subject to this regulatory action.” The group’s comments did not stop there and accused the FAA of acting in a threatening manner.

According to ARSA, the FAA failed to properly establish through evidence the existence of a flaw in the ECi parts that rises to the level of an unsafe condition. The FAA “has failed to provide supporting documentation,” ARSA said, and the agency instead includes “veiled threats and disparaging assertions” about the parts manufacturer in this situation. ARSA warns that under the Administrative Procedure Act, an agency must establish within the public docket the basis for its conclusion that an unsafe condition exists. ARSA also contested the FAA’s conclusions regarding economic impact of its regulatory proposal. “The rudimentary economic data provided by the agency is inadequate, inaccurate, and unsubstantiated,” the group wrote. According to ARSA, “In a nutshell, the agency disregarded laws, internal guidelines, and executive orders …” and “needs to withdraw the proposal immediately.”

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Solar Impulse Crew Plans Hypnosis Trial

In preparation for a planned round-the-world flight in 2015, the builders of Solar Impulse, the world's largest solar-powered electric airplane, will conduct a 72-hour simulation next week, during which pilot Bertrand Piccard will experiment with using self-hypnosis as a means to fight fatigue. "I hope it will work," he said. During the 2015 flight, a solo pilot will need to stay airborne for up to five days and nights nonstop, to cross the Pacific Ocean. The simulator cockpit is identical to the real one, with a size of just 9 feet x 5 feet x 3 feet.

This will be second 72-hour simulation for the team -- pilot Andre Borschberg successfully flew a 72-hour mission last year -- but this is the first time the pilot will experiment with hypnosis. Piccard also will experiment with other aspects of the planned flight besides fatigue management, such as cockpit procedures and nutrition. The simulation, which will take place at the Solar Impulse base in Switzerland, is scheduled for next Tuesday through Friday, and will be reported live by Solar Impulse on Twitter, Facebook, and in Google hangouts.

Snowy Owls Cause Airport Conflicts

Photo: Bert de Tilly

At least two snowy owls were shot and killed by airport employees in New York last week, after owls reportedly struck five airplanes in the New York/New Jersey region. News of the killings brought swift protests from local birdwatchers. The New York agency that manages the airports now says they will instead work with the state's environmental agency to capture and relocate the birds. The large white owls, which can have a wingspan up to 4.5 feet, have been unusually abundant in the northern U.S. this winter. They are protected under federal law, but airports can get permission to kill them if they pose a hazard. The owls also have caused problems at Boston's Logan Airport, where the Audubon Society has been working to trap and relocate the birds.

The owls generally live and breed in the Arctic, but occasionally they will fly south, perhaps in search of food. Unlike some other owls, which are active mostly at night, the snowy owl hunts during the day, making it more likely that it will conflict with air traffic in the vicinity of airports. The owls are expected to head north again in the spring.

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Thunderbirds, Blue Angels Release 2014 Schedules

Last year, the showcase military teams were grounded by federal budget problems, but for the 2014 airshow season, both the USAF Thunderbirds and the Navy's Blue Angels are back in full force. The Thunderbirds released their full schedule last week at the International Council of Air Shows annual conference, and the Blue Angels also announced an updated and revised schedule. The Thunderbirds will start their year on Jan. 1, with a flyover at the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, Calif. After that, they will fly at 34 airshows around the country, from February through November, including a first-ever appearance at EAA AirVenture.

"We're glad to be back," said Lt. Col. Greg Moseley, Thunderbirds commander and lead pilot. "But right now, we're focused on training. While we're excited to know we'll be able to tell the Air Force story on the road, we're completely focused on ensuring we have a safe show season." The Blue Angels had released a 2014 schedule in October, but last week they updated it, and added the 2015 schedule (PDF).

Kitty Hawk To Celebrate 110th Anniversary Of Wrights' Flight

Next week, the 110th anniversary of the Wright brothers' successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., will be celebrated with several events at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The First Flight Society is hosting a public ceremony on Tuesday, from 8:30 a.m. until noon, with a band concert, a flyover of military and civilian aircraft, and various speeches and tributes. The Society also is hosting a dinner on Monday night and a luncheon on Tuesday, which are open to the public, but reservations are required. The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum also recently published a 3-D version of the original Wright Flyer online.

The anniversary also was commemorated by Shinola, a new Detroit-based company that creates handcrafted products with modern designs. In honor of the Wrights, the company has announced this week a new limited-edition watch and a customized bicycle that honor the Wrights' legacy. The products were introduced at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, home of the Wright brothers' bike shop.

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AMEs Object To FAA Apnea Policy

"Education of the many would have far greater public health impact than regulation of the few," the Civil Aviation Medical Association, which represents FAA aviation medical examiners, said in a recent letter to the FAA, regarding its proposed sleep-apnea policy. The letter (PDF), posted online Tuesday by EAA, objects to the FAA's proposal that AMEs should send pilot applicants to a sleep specialist if they exceed a certain body-mass index. "No scientific body or evidence has demonstrated that undiagnosed obesity or OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) has compromised aviation safety," wrote Dr. Mark Eidson, CAMA president. "The proposed policy would greatly burden a critically taxed medical certification system already suffering from very significant processing delays." The FAA responded on Monday with a memo to AMEs "stating that the new OSA screening had not been implemented and physicians should not include body mass index calculations as part of the airman medical examinations," according to EAA.

The FAA also said a formal notice would be issued prior to the policy's implementation. However, the letter to AMEs does not indicate FAA is reconsidering the policy, and EAA said it doesn't affect opposition to the policy by EAA, its Aeromedical Advisory Council, and CAMA.

WestJet 'Christmas Miracle' Draws Applause

As air travelers brace for the annual holiday ordeal that awaits many of them, Canadian budget carrier WestJet had a holiday miracle in store for passengers on two of its flights earlier this week. The airline began by creating present-shaped check-in kiosks at Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario airports for two flights bound for its hub of Calgary, Alberta. The kiosks featured a live online Santa in a blue suit (WestJet colors) who greeted them by name as they scanned their boarding passes. The Santa then asked them what they wanted for Christmas and that's when the real magic began.

By the time the doors closed on both flights, 175 WestJet employees in Calgary headed to a local mall and a Best Buy to gather up many of  the gifts requested by the passengers (see the blooper reel), including a big-screen TV, Thomas the Tank Engine and socks and underwear. The gifts were wrapped, tagged with the passengers' names and put on the baggage carousel about four hours later when the flights arrived. Santa in the funny-colored suit was there, too. The idea was hatched in August at a meeting with the airline's digital media contractor but the giving didn't end in baggage claim. WestJet said that if the YouTube video below reached 200,000 views it would give a free trip anywhere it flies to a family in need. The video hit the magic number late Monday but who knows what the airline will do as the numbers rack up.  (At press time, the video had already hit millions of views.)

Ed. Note: You really should watch the video.


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Shell's New Avgas: Inside Comments

Shell’s announcement of an unleaded replacement for 100LL last week has drawn lots of attention, deservedly. At this week’s ASTM meeting in Tampa, I spent time buttonholing the world’s fuel experts about what this means for the world of GA. The fuel guys are mostly curious—intensely so—about what formulation Shell has cooked up, but the company didn’t so much as tip a face card at the meeting. So all we know is what we reported last week—it’s an alkylate-based fuel with an aromatic additive package. We know nothing about its performance, its producibility and, above all, its price.

That is, understandably, where most of the consumer curiosity lies. After all, we can reasonably expect that a $467 billion international petrochemical conglomerate can figure out how to refine a few hundred million gallons of 100-octane fuel, provided they’ve got the formula right. No promises there, but I’ll stipulate that for the purposes of this blog.

Our mail following the Shell announcement indicates there are some misconceptions about price expectations. In all the reporting I’ve done on this subject, no one in the fuels, aircraft or engine industry has assumed that the replacement for 100LL will be cheaper. At the very best, it will be comparable and how you define that is rubbery. Will it be within 5 percent or 10 or 15 of 100LL? Take your pick. (I’m going with between 10 and 15 percent.)

Some people think because lead will be eliminated, the refiners will save a bunch of dough on both additives and transportation. But there’s no reason to believe this is so and no one in the petroleum industry has ever said this to me. As an octane enhancer, lead is close to dirt cheap compared to other alternatives. I’ve been told as little as a dime a gallon to up to 40 cents. I suspect for most refiners, the real number is between the two. In any case, the aromatic hydrocarbon packages that seem likely to replace lead are more expensive and likely to remain that way, since they’re commodities driven by broader economic conditions.

One letter writer thought that refiners and distributors will save a bundle on these new fuels because they can be transported by pipeline while leaded fuels can’t be. But there’s a better chance of seeing Diet Pepsi bubble through the Colonial than there is unleaded avgas. The volume simply isn’t there. One source told me the minimum volume for a pipeline batch is 5000 barrels or about 210,000 gallons. Sounds like a lot, but anemic, widely dispersed demand at the other end means that stuff will have to be stored somewhere and refiners and terminals don’t like to do that. It costs money for tankage and unsold inventory has value that can eat up any savings in transportation. Also, there’s the transmix—liquid fuels mix when the products are changed in the pipeline and that has to be trucked back to the refinery for recovery. More than likely, truck and rail will be the transport of choice, unless Amazon decides to move avgas by drone.

Further, because of the liability issue, it’s quite likely that aviation fuel will continue to be sequestered in dedicated storage, lead or not. The liability of off test fuel is real and high and I’ve been told that refiners aren’t going to want to risk contaminating a batch. (Recall that Chevron had that very problem in 1994, when it paid $40 million to replace engines potentially damaged by off-spec avgas.) It may be true that distributors will no longer need dedicated tankers, but that’s unlikely to swing the economics downward much, if at all.

The most powerful market force here may be something no one can control: declining volume. The less avgas is made, the less likely there are to be production economies of scale and, perhaps, the less likely there will be either new entrants into the business or meaningful price competition. I don’t mean to depress you, but the data here is grim. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the production of avgas has been in continuous decline for more than 40 years, although there have been plateaus and brief spikes. The last high was in 2006, when EIA reported 276 million gallons of avgas refined. For 2012, the number dropped to 204 million. Trends in Europe are similar, while Asia has shown spotty growth. Even China’s avgas consumption is down since 2009. (Note: there’s argument about the accuracy of EIA numbers; some insist the U.S. volumes are larger than EIA says. But it’s the directionality that’s important.) The point is, this is not a market which is likely to incite intense price competition nor, perhaps, new entrants for the next half decade or so.

One hope was that a new avgas could be a terminal product—that is, something blended up from large-volume stock sloshing down the pipelines. That’s what Airworthy Avgas will be doing with it’s new mogas product. Nice idea, but for avgas, it’s hard to see how this will work. Shell says its base feedstock is aviation alkylate, a pricey, low-volume refinery product that neither moves by pipeline nor is found hanging around in the average terminal. So that argues for Shell’s unleaded avgas being a refinery product. But how many refineries? Too soon to say. Shell signaled that it might re-enter the avgas refinery business in North America or simply license refining of its avgas to other facilities, of which there are many. But it’s not clear how many have the high-quality alkylation plants Shell will probably need to make its fuel work.

As for timing, we may not see this new fuel before 2018 and perhaps not before 2020. Because it’s clearly going to be as expensive or more expensive than leaded avgas, there’s no price push to draw unleaded fuel into the market. It will be done by regulatory declaration. Figuring out when EPA is actually going to move on this makes reading tea leaves look like child’s play, but the FAA’s approval timeline for these fuels—and they plan to perform final testing on only two fuel candidates—runs to 2018. It might happen faster, but that’s the outside line. The FAA testing plan hasn’t been detailed yet, but it’s involved. The rest seems to be up to EPA or perhaps the courts.

So, my informed-as-I-can-get-it guess is, allowing for inflation, the 2019 average cost of avgas will be between $6.80 and $7.25. As of December 2013, AirNav.com reports the U.S. national average at $5.87. The perverse thing about avgas prices is that the spread between the very highest ($11.21) and the lowest ($3.99) is more than a buck higher than the national average price.

If that doesn’t make a mockery of supply-and-demand theory, I’m sure I don’t know what does. In the next blog, we'll look at the FAA approval process.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Video: Tempest Spark Plug Tester -- Resistance Isn't Futile

If you do your own airplane maintenance, that work will include checking spark plugs.  Tempest says checks should include resistance measurements and they've developed a little gadget to do that.


Video: A Visit to Hawker Pacific in Shanghai

AVweb visits Hawker Pacific in Shaghai.