Volume 20, Number 23c

December 12, 2013

Visiting the DC-3 Airports

On September 10th, 2001, the world of general aviation was, if not rosy, not too bad. Cessna had re-started single-engine production and a new company called Cirrus was having encouraging success with a composite airplane with a parachute. You could see a future.

A day later, it all but vanished in a choking cloud of smoke and dust that enveloped lower Manhattan, to be followed within the hour by a poisonous black splotch obscuring a mortal gash in the side of the Pentagon.

On September 12th, nothing flew, apart from some twitchy Air Guard fighters and military emergency flights. It took a week to return the nation’s civil aviation to a semblance of normal but it would be a lot longer than that for three airports that lie in the shadow of the capitol’s airspace, variously known as the DC-3 or the Maryland three. College Park Airport, Potomac Airport and Hyde Field—also known as Washington Executive—all have long-standing ties to the capitol area and all three represented a practical way for pilots to fly into Washington without messing with the traffic and fees at Washington Reagan.

That these airports still exist is a case study in determination and survival. Even in the best of times, airports in urban areas live a dicey existence, pressured by encroaching airspace, cranky neighbors and market pressure to give the land over to something more profitable, like shopping malls. After 9/11, the Maryland three had all that, plus the full weight of the federal government viewing them as nothing but paved security risks within sight of the White House. Beating what must be the most lopsided odds ever stacked against small GA airports, all three still exist today in varying degrees of vitality. Last month, on a trip the Capitol area, I took the time to visit all three airports, but I didn’t fly in this time. I rode a motorcycle. 

College Park

If you imagine the District of Columbia as a square tipped up on one corner with a third of it eroded by the meandering Potomac River, College Park Airport is near the top of the square. It’s but 3.5 miles from the District line and seven from the Capitol building. Because of its long and storied history, College Park may have had the best survival chances following the 9/11 attacks. It also has, along with Hyde Field, a personal connection for me: As a student at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s, I was introduced to J-3 Cubs at College Park, an infatuation that continues to this day.

The modern College Park Airport looks like nothing I remember. Then, as now, it was situated on government-protected land, but now Prince George’s County through the regional park consortium owns it, not the federal government. During the early 1970s, the single runway—15/33 now—was narrow, rough and poorly maintained. I remember having to dodge loose chunks of asphalt while taxiing. The approach to southeast was over a railroad line that’s still there and still busy with freight and commuter traffic. The place was ramshackle when I camped there flying Cubs. Several of the hangars were caved in and the FBO, if you could call it that, was cold, drafty and as far from the sterile, brightly lighted modern ideal as it was possible to get. I loved the place. It had a 1930s charm lost to the Signatures and Million Airs of the modern world. It also had a rich history. Orville Wright taught military aviators to fly there and a guy called Henry H. Arnold—better known as Hap—ran a flying school there and set a few records in the process.

To say that College Park has been through turns as a hard luck airport is an understatement. There were efforts in the mid-1970s to close it and it very nearly ceased to be an operating airport. That all changed when the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission bought the airport and in 1977, it was added to the national register of historic places, all but assuring its survival as an entity, if not a going airport.

Yet it still operates. The runway has been upgraded, there’s an approach and even some new hangars. The operations building—there’s no FBO--resides in a temporary building at the southeast end of the field. It’s a short walk from there to a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that documents the airport’s colorful history. When I flew there, I had no idea the airport was founded just six years after the Wright’s first flew.

Today, manager Lee Schiek describes the airport as in a state of “moribund stability.” The runway was upgraded in the late 1980s when the Metro line came through and there’s a GPS approach to runway 15, although it’s seldom  used. A dozen years ago, there was also an FBO and an avionics shop, but they’re gone now, victims of the 9/11 shutdown, which shooed more than 100 airplanes out of the airport. The traffic dropped by 83 percent, Schiek told me. Today, about 45 airplanes remain. There’s no flight training, nor will there ever be, by county ordinance as a noise-restriction measure.

Can anyone one fly into College Park now? Yes, anyone can, but because all three Maryland airports lie in the so-called flight restricted zone (FRZ), the security clearance is onerous. “What we tell people is to fly into BWI, rent a car and go to the FSDO for the application, then drive the rental car down to College Park and leave it. Jump on the Metro and go to National [Reagan] to get the fingerprinting done. Then Metro back and leave the paperwork and you can accomplish the whole thing in one day,” says Schiek. Two weeks later, you get a pin number and you can fly in.

It sounds involved and is, but Schiek says some 2500 pilots have taken the trouble to do that because the nearby Metro stop makes it quick and easy to reach the Capitol area.

At Potomac Airport, owner David Wartofsky told us he thinks the security arrangements might be about to be relaxed, but Schiek’s not so sure. “This really isn’t about security anymore, but power and control in the corner office downtown. Who wants to be the bureaucrat that says we ought to relax security at an airport that’s seven miles from the Rose Garden?” asks Schiek.

Hyde Field

Clockwise around the beltway from College Park is Hyde field. In my days of being based at CGS, I recall Hyde being the rough kid on the other side of the tracks. In 40 years, it hasn’t changed much. It’s been through various private owners and without benefit of government beneficence, it hasn’t seen much investment.

Hyde or Washington Executive Airport, if you prefer, has a 3000-foot runway with an approach to runway 5. Geographically, it’s on the southeast side of the District even closer to the Capitol than is College Park. Manager Stan Fetter thinks the place is a slam-dunk if it got the right investment capital. It’s near National Harbor, a popular convention site and although there’s no Metro stop, the beltway and I-295 offer quick access into the District. For many years, Fetter has operated a traffic reporting service out of Hyde.

There are about 67 airplanes based at Hyde, down from 175 before 9/11. Until a little less than a year ago, it had a flight training operation. There are hangars, but in general, the place has a rundown feel and Fetter doesn’t deny it. “It is rough,” he says, “but we’ve had a rough way to go.”  For a number of years, a sand and gravel company owned the airport, mined the area, but invested little in the airport itself. As recently as 2002, there was proposal to convert the airport to housing and a shopping center, but the deal fell apart.

“If we could get the financing to make it work as an airport, it’s a no brainer, considering the location,” Fetter says, “but banks aren’t helpful. If somebody with resources was willing to roll the dice, I think they could make a go of it.”

As with College Park, flying in requires jumping through the same security hoops. The Hyde Field web site has a section explaining how to do it and although Fetter says the process is evolving, it still requires a physical visit to the D.C. area to complete the background check.

But a dozen years after the attack, actually using the PIN and navigating the airspace is just business as usual for Fetter and pilots who regularly operate in the area. “It’s gotten to the point where once you get into the system, you actually get better handling. ATC is friendlier to people coming  in and with everyone trained, if problems happen, they know to report them,” Fetter says. But it took a few years to get things smoothed out.

Potomac Airfield

The observant traveler on Piscataway Road will notice, just upon reaching Hyde Field, a sign pointing to Potomac Airfield just a mile due west of Hyde. Located adjacent to a tidy housing development at the bottom of a hill, Potomac is the up and comer of the DC-3. It’s owned privately, having been bought by David Wartofsky in the late 1980s as what he calls a “bizarre form of real estate.” But it happens to be real estate in a nice location, even a bit closer to the District than the other two airports and in a non-commercial setting.

And that means that Potomac looks like what it has always been: a small, country airport, albeit a pretty busy and well-kept one. The runway is 2665-long with a GPS approach to runway 6 and, quixotically, the only civil runway we know of painted with Navy FCLP markings. Owner Wartofsky has a well-developed sense of humor and uses Potomac Airfield to test his material. (For a sample, see this video.) Potomac has both tiedowns and hangars available at, according to the airport’s web site, competitive rates.

In the darkest days following 9/11, Wartofsky—and others-—got busy with the government to work out the procedures that today form the basis of the FRZ security procedures. While all three airport managers we talked to said the security procedures work smoothly and have evolved to be less difficult to get if not less onerous, Wartofsky believes the day is not far off when they’ll be relaxed more, if not entirely eliminated.

“What’s the best way to defend something from air attack?” he asks, answering himself: “Point defenses.” In the dozen years since the 9/11 attacks, the federal government has thrown vast sums of money at both anti-terrorism and national-capitol defense. Wartofsky believes between aircraft, missiles and well-disguised close-in systems, the White House and other government buildings can be defended against anything hostile coming out of the DC-3 airports. Although an attack on the White House by a small aircraft did happen once in 1994, the likelihood of it occurring again seems remote, given the defenses in place.   

Wartofsky is clearly bullish on flight operations within the FRZ and even if procedures aren’t relaxed or eliminated, pilots have grown so accustomed to them that they’ve become barely noticeable. So much so, in fact, that Potomac has two operating flight schools and may be about to get a third. Timothy Poole, who runs GT Air at Potomac, told me the location is a good one for flight training, despite the close proximity of Washington Reagan Airport and Joint Base Andrews. He says the FRZ security procedures are easily integrated into daily training.

So what’s the outlook for these three airports? Potomac would appear to be the most economically viable. It has plenty of based aircraft and is convenient for transients and Wartofsky appears willing to continue his investments in it. He doesn’t believe the airport’s existence is threatened by the Secret Service, TSA or any other government agency.

Hyde is similarly well located, but until the owner is satisfied that it has a future free of government  threat, it’s unlikely to see significant investment. College Park is under the national capitol government umbrella and thus faces little economic pressure.  

“One thing we can always fall back on is our historic significance,” says manager Lee Schiek. “I don’t know of any movement, like back in the 70s and 80s, to close the airport. I sense none of that.”

In a world where airports are under siege almost everywhere, that counts as a major victory.

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Checkrides: The Examiner's View

Instrument pilots take far more checkrides than their more visually oriented counterparts. In addition to the initial rating check, you occasionally face an instrument competency ride when you are more than six months out of currency. Most times when you add a rating, like a multiengine ticket, you’ll be expected to show off your gauge gazing skills in order to pass.

I have been instructing and giving checkrides for a long time and I currently give ATP and rating exams in the venerable DC-9 for an airline school. They all involve instrument evaluations of my applicants.Type ratings, like the ones we provide for the DC-9 and 767, follow the PTS (practical test standards) for the Airline Transport Rating. Even if you show up with a Private Pilot, multiengine rating, you will be expected to meet the requirements of accuracy and knowledge for the ATP. This is a significant factor for most applicants. By the time you get to the level of training for a type rating, your instruments skills have been proven in dozens of professional checkrides and hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of flying through clouds.

What about the straight-up instrument rating or instrument competency check? The standards for those are close to what the ATP applicants have to do. Obviously, if you are headed in that direction it is incumbent upon you to be intimately familiar with the PTS for the appropriate rating.

This article will view my side of the equation. What does an examiner look for when you walk through the door with a fresh application form and a smiling face? Are there any secrets to having a smooth ride and a happy outcome?

Incompatible Des

There is no requirement that you finish a checkride with an examiner if you think he or she is giving you an unprofessional and a biased ride. Check pilots are people and their personalities vary just like the rest of the pilot herd. Sometimes, a personality conflict can arise or your check pilot could be an egotistical jerk (rarely). You are perfectly within your rights to stop a ride and ask to fly with another examiner.

This almost never happens but it has happened to me once and I am glad I stopped the ride before I smacked the guy in the head with my flight bag. I had to wait a few days for the next examiner, but it was worth the wait.

If an examiner is abusive, disrespectful or goes way outside of the PTS in terms of what he asks you to do on a checkride you should terminate, walk away, and get another person. If the problem is you—meaning you are flunking the ride due to the fact that you can’t get the job done—dumping your examiner won’t help you because you will have to take the entire ride over anyway with the new person.

What Do I Look For?

Most examiners, including this one, will tell you that they can predict how the checkride will go within ten minutes of sitting down with the applicant. In addition to a bright and eager attitude, there are a few key things you can do to make your ride go smoother. Some of these are so obvious it is silly, but you’d be surprised at some of the things your friendly neighborhood instrument examiner sees in terms of applicants.

First, show up prepared. This means on time, dressed to do the job and prepared for any contingency you can think of. A young student I worked with on his private had a bad stage check at his college a while back. His examiner, a kind of quirky professor, sent him home because he didn’t bring the required materials. This really bothered the student, who is such a sharp pilot (and not just because I taught him) that we will probably all call him the Administrator someday.

There was a book he was supposed to bring to the ride and didn’t—so he was sent home. How, he asked me, was he supposed to know which book to bring next time? Easy, I said, bring all of them. The Instrument PTS has a list of what you should have available to study—bring those. I also recommend you bring a bottle of water for when your mouth gets really dry and at least a few of your favorite headache remedies. There is almost nothing worse than having a headache during a checkride.

Being prepared also means showing up with all of your memory items—memorized. The first thing I do, after checking the applicant’s paperwork, is ask them the aircraft limitations; all of them. Next, we go through the initial action items that should be committed to instant recall. Finally we review some must-know instrument memory items. When a pilot is going for a type rating they have already gone through a long oral equipment exam. On the rating ride they typically aren’t asked to describe the DC Transfer Bus, but they can be asked about limitations and a few aircraft specific questions.

On your instrument ride you can expect at least a few questions from your examiner about aircraft systems having to do with instrument flight. Pitot static systems, what powers what instrument, and specific questions about your avionics set-up are fair game. The rest of the questions in the oral part of your instrument ride will have to do with regulations and operations. You don’t have to know everything, but if I see you are floundering around trying to remember something basic and simple like where and when you have to make required reports to ATC, we may have a problem brewing.

Over the years, some new topics are now covered in the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards (FAA-S- 8081-4E) under the heading of Single- Pilot Resource Management. These include Aeronautical Decision Making, Risk Management, Task Management, Situational Awareness, Controlled Flight Into Terrain Awareness, and Automation Management—factors that all too often show up in our In The Crunch segment.

On To The Plane

I try to get to the simulator (or the airplane) a little bit before my applicant to hide a few Easter eggs. These are little surprises that I leave for them to catch. I make them as obvious as I can and I limit myself to things which happen often that I’ve seen in the real world and that can affect the safety of their flight. For example, on the DC-9, the battery is a big deal and is necessary for the safety of flight because in a pinch it powers the emergency AC and DC busses. If I pull the battery charger circuit breaker and they don’t notice that the battery isn’t charging that is a serious oversight.

On general aviation aircraft my favorite Easter egg is to put a big piece of masking tape over the pitot tube or static port. This happens a lot out in the world and is easy to spot during their walk-around.

A Word On Tricks

With the exception of leaving an Easter egg or two, a good instrument ride has absolutely no surprises. You did all the learning during the training portion of your program. The checkride is there to prove that you learned what you need to know. It is not time for an examiner to play stump the dummy. If you show up prepared and take your ride from a good examiner the whole thing will be a sort of anti-climax with no hurry and little stress. The ride is done in real time, which means if you feel you are hurried you can do what you would do in the real world and ask for delaying vectors or a hold until you are ready.

A checkride is no time for an examiner to try to teach you a trick he learned over Hanoi back in ’72. It is a quiet time to follow the PTS and determine if you will be safe flying through the clouds. A good check pilot’s demeanor will help you relax so you can do your best. Help him, help you, by never being contentious. If you make a mistake, admit it and move on. Part of how he assesses your performance is how you recover.

You Passed!

With good examiners, you have either passed or you have not. For me, this means that even if you were pushing the edges of the limits of a maneuver, you pass if you stayed inside of them. If I don’t think you are safe, for whatever reason, I would not issue you a temporary certificate.

Some examiners will tell applicants something along the lines of: “well, you were really sloppy, but you passed.” This sort of attitude bugs me no end. You either passed or you didn’t. There is no such thing as a sloppy pass. Complete the ride within the rules of common sense and the PTS and I’ll congratulate you as a brand new Instrument Rated Pilot or a successful IPC.

Of course, any good examiner will also tell you that a brand new instrument rating is a license to learn. You are still a newbie and probably shouldn’t start your solo instrument flying career by taking on a hurricane or a blizzard. Get your feet wet as soon as possible, but do it on a semi-crappy day, not a totally crappy one.

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

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'Tis Always The Season For MAF

With Christmas approaching, AVweb checked in with Mission Aviation Fellowship to learn about its ongoing involvement flying relief missions in the recently typhoon-stricken Philippines and found the organization’s work there is still well under way. MAF pilots like Dave Forney have been delivering food to coastal dwellers in the Philippines who have used it as their only meal for the day. Struck by Typhoon Haiyan on Nov. 9, the region suffered sustained wind speeds in excess of 140 mph. Haiyan left more than 6,000 people dead with almost 1,800 still missing. The storm has been called one of the strongest ever recorded. Through MAF and groups like it, local people have received meals of rice, sardines and coffee, sometimes delivered directly to island communities by an R44 helicopter — as happened on Thanksgiving. 

In a recent podcast interview with AVweb, MAF Vice President of Human Resources (and former MAF pilot) Gene Jordan explained how the organization works and what it demands of its pilots in the field. Pilots who meet minimum requirements, including at least 400 hours of flight time with an instrument rating, an A&P certificate, and Bible study (this is a missionary organization), are funded by financial support that they raise themselves — often through community churches and faith-based organizations. MAF also raises funds that they use to put in support infrastructure.

Podcast: Whatever the Season, MAF Gives

Mission Aviation Fellowship operates small aircraft in and out of some of the most remote airstrips in the world, often while those areas are in crisis.  Their version of routine flying is the kind of stuff most stateside pilots will never experience.  AVweb spoke with MAF's Gene Jordan to learn more.

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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.

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