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Advocates converged on Washington this week to push for passage of the Safe Skies Act, which would extend to cargo pilots the same rest requirements mandated for pilots who fly with passengers. "This is not a partisan issue, it's a science-based, common-sense issue," said Chesley Sullenberger, who has been advocating for the act, at a news conference. The act would be part of the FAA reauthorization bill. It would limit cargo pilots to the same daily flight time as pilots for passenger airlines — no more than 9 hours a day. Cargo pilots now fly up to 16 hours a day.

The Cargo Airline Association has taken a stand against the bill. The proposal "could actually make our operations less safe and put our pilots at risk," the association said in a statement. "Measures used to prevent fatigue must be different for passenger carriers than they are for cargo carriers because our work schedules are different. We fly fewer legs, have longer layovers, and have better rest opportunities on our trips." Sullenberger disagreed. "Fatigue is a killer," he said. "It's time to right this wrong. It's time to fix this rule." The Independent Pilots Association has argued that the different rules for cargo pilots are based solely on cost, not safety concerns. ALPA and the Independent Pilots Association also support the act.

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Ten aviation advocacy groups submitted a letter to U.S. senators this week, asking them to oppose any changes in the FAA Reauthorization Act that would allow local and state governments to create their own rules about drones. Allowing that kind of "patchwork" of laws could "erode, rather than enhance, air safety," the letter says. It also has a "strong potential to create confusion and compliance burdens." Only the FAA should regulate airspace, the groups say. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, of California, has proposed an amendment to the act that would allow states to set their own rules, "to address the growing problem of reckless drone use."

"Reckless drone use varies significantly in different states and even within a state, which is why we need to maintain the ability for states to set their own standards of drone operation," said Senator Feinstein. "One in five incidents of reckless drone use nationwide has occurred in California, and densely populated areas with critical infrastructure like Los Angeles and San Francisco need flexibility to enact rules that address their unique challenges." An analysis by the senator's staff showed that more 40 percent of drone safety-related incidents occurred in just three states: California, New York and Florida.

Senator Feinstein's amendment is supported by the National Association of State Aviation Officials. Joining AOPA in opposition are the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Aerospace Industries Association, Cherokee Nation Technologies, Consumer Technology Association, DJI, Drone Manufacturers Alliance, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, National Business Aviation Association and Small UAV Coalition.

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External Tank 94, a 69,000-pound artifact from NASA's space shuttle program, is en route to a permanent home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The tank, which was one of 138 built at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, is the last of its kind. ET-94 left its storage site there this week on a barge for its five-week journey. The barge will travel to the Pacific via the Panama Canal and arrive in southern California next month, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. There, crews will place the tank on a specially assembled wheeled mount for a drive through L.A. streets to the Science Center. There, it will go on display with the shuttle Endeavour, which took a similar trip through the city in 2012.

This tank is a 154-foot-long lightweight version of the external tank that launched with the space shuttle, absorbing and distributing more than 7 million pounds of thrust while distributing liquid oxygen and hydrogen to the orbiter's main engines, according to NASA documents. After the shuttle Columbia's fatal accident on re-entry in 2003, NASA designated ET-94 a test article as the agency planned for the shuttle's return to service, which took place with the launch of Discovery in 2005.  "I'll always see, when I look at ET-94 ... that it's a critical team member, that it made a difference," a NASA official told the Times. "When you think about it, it's really appropriate for ET-94 to be the one that's on center stage now. It's time for it to have its day and be displayed." As the tank makes its way to Los Angeles, Thursday also marks the 35th anniversary of the first shuttle landing, when Columbia touched down at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

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AVweb's search of aviation news worldwide found announcements from the National Aviation Hall of Fame, National Air Transportation Foundation, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and the Sapphire Pegasus Awards. The National Aviation Hall of Fame is seeking entries for the 30th annual A. Scott Crossfield Aerospace Education Teacher of the Year Award, which includes a $5,000 cash stipend. The National Air Transportation Foundation announced the winners of the Dan L. Meisinger Sr. Memorial Learn to Fly Scholarship and Pioneers of Flight Scholarship: Matthew Bettmeng, a student at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona; Brett Bentley, a student at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah; and Johnathon Hagen, a student at Kansas State University in Salina, Kansas.

The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals announced the receipt of a $30,000 grant from The UPS Foundation, which drives global corporate citizenship and philanthropic programs for UPS. The grant will be allocated to award five scholarships to offset costs for college tuition within an aviation-related program or to further training for aspiring aviation professionals. The Sapphire Pegasus Awards for international business aviation were presented April 8 in Prague. The 13 award categories include business aviation operators, aircraft brokers, charitable projects and maintenance operators.

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The Weekender's SocialFlight schedule shows the airshow season picking up the pace around the country. March Air Reserve Base in California will host its first show since 2012 on Saturday and Sunday, featuring the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds along with military and aerobatic performances and static displays. On Saturday, Old Kingsbury Aerodrome in Kingsbury, Texas, site of the Pioneer Flight Museum, will host its Spring Fly-In on Saturday. The museum preserves and restores artifacts from the earliest days of flight to World War II. The fly-in will feature vintage automobiles as well as aircraft. 

Durant Regional Airport-Eaker Field in Oklahoma will host the Take to the Skies AirFest on Saturday, presented by the Choctaw Casino Resort. The airshow will feature a variety of aerobatic shows along with military performances including the U.S. Air Force and the Oklahoma Army National Warbird rides in aircraft from the Cavanaugh Flight Museum will be available. For a Sunday day trip, fly in to Sporty's at Clermont County, Ohio, and have lunch with members of the PALS (Patient Airlift Services) team. Learn more about PALS pilots and their experiences with medical flights around the northeastern states, including Ohio. For more on this weekend's events, visit SocialFlight.

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While symbolism alone might win in the presidential-campaign circus, pilots who understand what's behind aeronautical iconography will impress hangar neighbors and have no trouble acing this quiz.

Click here to take the quiz.

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A half decade ago when diesel engines gained some traction as aircraft powerplants, the skeptics got quite a little whisper campaign going by noting that diesel engines could swing only wooden props. Their torque pulses and resonances were just too harsh for the fatigue limits of metal props. The naysayers forgot to mention—or perhaps didn't know—that wood props cost half what metal ones do, last just as long and, on most engines, run smoother than metal and composite props do.

More than a century after the Wrights carved their paddles out of select spruce and while composites continue to make strides, wood as a prop material is, if not enjoying a resurgence, at least holding its own in the propeller market. Surprisingly, if it weren't for carefully crafted birch props, more than a few edge-of-tech UAVs would be beached. In fact, the rise of robotic flight has pushed propeller design forward across the board, technology that's trickled down into the civil market from drones to airline turboprops.

For many Experimental aircraft, prop material choice spans the spectrum: wood, metal or composite. But for some airplanes, wood is the only practical choice, for economic and, in the case of our recently re-engined J-3C Cub, aesthetic reasons. No self-respecting Cub driver would be caught dead explaining away a composite prop on a classic yellow bear.

When our Cub recently tanked its A-65 Continental, we upgraded to an A-75 and that required a replacement prop in order to generate the required rpm. That seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit nearby Sensenich Propeller for a look at how wooden props are made. As is so often the case with legacy aviation technology, wooden prop manufacture is an amalgam of traditional woodworking technique and state-of-the-art digital production methods.

The Prop Market

Sensenich holds onto a piece of the propeller market for Experimentals, although it's unclear how big that piece is. Sensenich general manager Don Rowell told us he'd like it to be bigger, but the company finds plenty of competition against other wooden prop makers plying the Experimental market, not to mention composite manufacturers, who enjoy favorable economics since they're free to develop props without the constraints and expense of FAA certification.

Nonetheless, Sensenich is happy to prop any engine up to about 225 horsepower and actually builds props for legacy radial engines larger than that.

What's the attraction of wood? What it always was. Wood is relatively cheap, its properties are well understood and although labor costs are higher than for metal or composite, as a material, it's predictable and readily workable.

Rowell describes the economics as three tiered. "Metal props are basically high materials costs and lower labor costs. You have a forging and that's a significant investment in forging dies," he explains. "For a wood prop, the materials costs are relatively low. But there's a very high labor cost. You do have to start from bare wood, CNC it to a profile and hand carve it," he says.

Composites are exactly between the two; lower labor costs than wood, but higher than metal. For composites, materials cost is not a key driver.

There's a bottom line for everything and wood comes out ahead here. For certified aircraft with low output engines, wood is a no brainer. It costs less than half as much as an equivalent metal prop. For Experimentals, the price delta may be a little less because E/AB props don't carry the cert overhead load. Composite props—many of which are actually wood cores clad in composite—dwell between wood and metal in price.

Wood excels in two other characteristics. "A wood prop naturally damps harmonics. It eats them up and dissipates them. A metal prop is like a tuning fork, it takes a harmonic and really enhances it and you can feel that back in the airframe. A composite prop, again, is in the middle. It doesn't damp as well as wood, but it doesn't enhance harmonics like a metal prop does," Rowell explains.

Sensenich conducts vibration analysis on all its props, even the Experimental-only models which, technically, don't require it. Rowell says in his 35 years at Sensenich, he's only seen two instances in which a wooden prop developed sympathetic vibration that required redesign.

"You really don't see resonances in wood. It's very, very rare. Occasionally you can see flutter, but generally you don't even see that," he adds. Pilots who have flown the same engine/airframe combination with both wood and metal are quite likely to notice the difference. Metal props, no matter how well designed and balanced, tend to have harsh spots at certain rpms. "There's a fallacy out there that you have to get rid of the harmonics, but you can't. They're there in every propeller. If the frequency is higher than we would like, we'll try to move that frequency where you just go through it; it's not somewhere where you operate," Rowell says. But wood simply soaks up the vibes.

It soaks up something else, too: prop strike energy. "You're going to have occasional prop strikes and a wood prop acts like a fuse. It breaks very easily so you won't have sudden engine stoppage and damage to internal components the way you will with metal," Rowell explains. Composite props don't do quite as well because the composite cladding adds stiffness. But that's a tradeoff, too. A stiffer composite prop can accommodate a couple of inches of pitch over a comparable wooden prop, thanks to the additional stiffness.

Building in Wood

Sensenich builds between 3000 and 4500 props a year, an output made more impressive by the fact that the factory employs only 30 people in a relatively compact 12,500 square feet not too far from the Plant City Airport in Florida. If it weren't for all those props stacked around in various stages of completion, Sensenich would look like a moderate-sized cabinet shop, albeit one with a few digital upgrades.

What's most noticeable is the large number of small, unrecognizable props—production carts full of them. Decorative props for the pedal airplane market, perhaps? Nope, UAV props by the dozen. As with every other airplane-related manufacturing entity, Sensenich has been touched by the burgeoning UAV market, which, at least for small in-theatre tactical drones, tends to go through props like candy through a kid. Sensenich has also developed processes to build props using internal pressure molding technology and carbon fiber. Very trick. This method finds application in the Light Sport and Experiment segments, but probably won't migrate to certified aircraft. The certification costs are just too high for the return, according to Sensenich.

Sensenich does use this method for airboat props, which constitute a large portion of its business and the reason that part of the factory was moved from Pennsylvania to Florida in 1990.

Composite work aside, building a wooden prop is basic laminate woodworking, shaping and carving. As would be expected, Sensenich has a vast library of prop designs, which exist both as drawings and tables of specs kept in binders on the shop floor. The specs describe overall dimensions for each prop, blade width and, critically, chordwise blade angle at a series of defined stations along the blade span.

Each prop begins with a glue-up of three to as many as 12 plies for the largest props, ranging in thickness up to about a half inch, but usually less. Sensenich uses yellow birch—betula alleghaniensis—for both its workability, but also its exceptional shear strength; few commercial timbers beat birch's shear numbers. Hard maple has also been used, and around the shop, you'll see the occasional walnut decorative prop winding through the production process. For the laminating process, Sensenich uses old school resorcinol, the original urea formaldehyde glue developed for the lamination work in the de Havilland Mosquito during WW-II. During my days as a commercial cabinetmaker, I had used resorcinol for some outdoor millwork, but I was surprised to see it was still in use. But Rowell says for making props, the glue has unbeatable characteristics, even though it's getting harder to obtain. When mixed, resorcinol is the color of dried blood and in the visible glue lines of a prop, it appears as dark red, almost black. It's considered waterproof and doesn't degrade much with age.

Machines First, Hands Last

Every wooden prop begins with the raw lumber, with the prop's rough shape marked out on birch boards with templates that have been in the company for years. The marked-out planks are roughly sawn to shape, then glued up into rough-laminated propeller blanks. Sensenich has custom presses to compress the lams while the resorcinol cures.

Back in the day, the cured blank was largely hand carved with various woodworking edge tools, but Sensenich soon developed a hand-operated duplicating router that relied on a template to get the rough shape right. Rowell compares it to a large-scale key cutter.

But all of that has been replaced with CNC technology that first automatically machines the hub and mounting bolts to serve as a datum for future operations and then by a CNC router that zips the blank to within 0.050 inch of its final profile within a matter of 30 or 40 minutes. The blanks are clamped into the router three at a time and once the button is pushed, the technician goes on to other work while the carving carries on robotically.

Although the props emerging from this process appear finished, they're not quite there yet. The machine routing just isn't capable of the precise profiles called for in Sensenich's drawings, so the props move on to hand carving stations where the finish work is done. It's all hand-eye work with razor-sharp spokeshaves and a series of templates and protractors that match the precise blade angle called for at up to nine stations along each blade's length. For handwork, the tolerances are fairly demanding.

"At the inboard stations, he's got 0.090 above drawing and 0.060 under. Outboard, where the blade is thinner, there's no tolerance under, but 0.030 over," Rowell explains. Birch isn't a nasty roey wood like ash or beech, but will chip out under an edge tool, so the craftsman has to know both his tool and the wood. A pneumatic orbital sander at every station tamps down the chip-outs and brings the prop to its final profile.

After carving to the final profile, the prop is ready for finishing or composite cladding, which happens in a separate cool room inside the shop.

Rowell said 75% of what the Florida shop manufactures has composite covering of some kind. They use a wet layup process with fiberglass, carbon fiber or Kevlar. Although a painted composite prop has the look of a thick layer of cladding, the covering is actually quite thin; only two plies of 0.089-inch thick 9–ounce fiberglass for typical aircraft props.

Rowell says Kevlar has proven highly successful for airboat props because it's so resistant to FOD passing through the prop—hats, sunglasses, beer cans and the occasional starter or alternator.

"I've seen airboat props come in here for repair that would have exploded if they didn't have the Kevlar," he says. This material may find its way onto aircraft props eventually, but so far, it hasn't.

Final Touches

Before leaving the factory, every Sensenich wooden prop gets some final touches. You've probably noticed that many wooden props have painted tips, but in Sensenich products, that's actually aircraft-grade cotton glued and painted, then covered with varnish. Sensenich developed this technique years ago as a low-tech means of protecting the tips against erosion and FOD damage.

The prop's leading edges also get protection in the form of either an inlaid urethane leading edge or an applied brass edge that's screwed and riveted in place. To create a smooth, finished look, the fasteners are countersunk and then filled with solder.

Most wooden props are finished clear with marine spar varnish, and there's an option to have the back of the prop painted black to reduce glare. Sensenich has tried other finishes on props, Rowell says, but as with the resorcinol glue, old school still works best so they've stuck with spar varnish. On boat brightwork, the spar varnish often gets renewed every year, but on props, it lasts for years. That's probably because most wooden props are—or should be—hangared, and thus don't see much UV light, which breaks down the varnish surface film.

To help protect against that, Sensenich recommends regular coating with ordinary automotive paste wax.

And by the way, Sensenich says it's okay to fly wooden props in the rain. The metal leading edge will protect against edge erosion, and the finish is robust enough to resist rain damage. They do, however, recommend throttling back to reduce even minimal erosion.

How long can a wooden prop last? There's no specific overhaul period for wooden props as there are for metal designs; and, technically, wood can't be overhauled since there are no specs for post-overhaul performance checks, as there are with engines. Wooden props can, however, be stripped and reconditioned and also, if necessary, rebalanced and even re-tracked. Where a metal prop's tracking can be adjusted by bending the blades, that's not an option on wooden props, so the hub surface is minutely machined to adjust tracking angle. Warping of the blades—a relative rarity—is a certain killer of a wooden prop. That's why when one is removed, it should be stored sitting flat in a temperature-controlled environment, and on an idle airplane, the prop should be rotated to the horizontal. That keeps moisture from migrating into the end grain exposed inside the hub bore.

If it sounds like a properly cared for wooden prop can last almost forever, that may not be too much of an exaggeration. Sensenich sees its share of 50-year-old props arriving for refinishing that perform as well as they did the day they first left the factory. Wouldn't it be nice if you could say that about everything in aviation?

This article oriiginally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Kitplanes magazine.

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I have always been baffled by the psychology of paying a company a tidy of sum of money to assure that I get one of the first new-and-improved widgets it proposes to make: the pre-production deposit or, as it's popularly known, a "position." This is quite common in the aircraft business as most recently demonstrated by Icon. But others have done it, too, including Cirrus and Cessna.

The boilerplate reason for pre-production deposits is to validate the very idea of the product and generate excitement around its impending release. It's also a tidy way for the company to get an interest-free loan from its customers who then take on a share of the business risk of bringing the new product to market. In aviation, it's technically not always interest-free, since companies sometimes offer a discount to deposit holders. But the risk of losing the deposit, even if escrowed, is always real, which is why I've never been impressed with the idea. I don't think it's a great business practice.

For big-ticket items, I thought this practice was limited to airplane companies but now Tesla, the electric carmaker, has adopted it as well. In late March, it starting taking orders for its new Model 3 electric vehicle, the $35,000 sedan priced to be the mass-market game changer. By contemporary standards, that's not an expensive car, but it's not particularly cheap, either. A 35K car wouldn't be on my shopping list because I am unapologetically cheap and a car costing that much doesn't meet my occasional need to drive 750-mile trips. The Model 3 will have a projected range of just over 200 miles.

As an illustration of the lure of pre-deposits, nearly 400,000 buyers have written Tesla a check for $1000 to reserve a slot. The deposit is refundable, but buyers get no promise of delivery date nor even a fixed price for the new vehicle. Meanwhile, Tesla scoops up an interest-free $400 million to fund the industrial effort to make that many electric cars. To date, they've built a little over 100,000 vehicles, while losing more than $700 million doing it. Quadrupling that output, as any manufacturing engineer will tell you, is a challenge every bit as enormous as Eclipse faced with its jet and Icon is now facing with its A5 LSA, a vehicle that's far less complex and sophisticated than an electric car.  

You don't have to be clairvoyant to posit that we'll be reading stories about how the Model 3 will be delayed because production challenges were underestimated. I'd never assume that buyers who place pre-production deposits don't understand this. Probably they do and are willing to accept the risk, delay and uncertainty. I'm just not one of them, which is why I'm never one of the cool kids on my block to have the first anything. I'll buy it later. Probably used.

Does Icon Need Us?

Following last week's discussions about Icon, I found myself wondering why the company showed up at Sun 'n Fun. Icon has made it quite clear through its marketing materials and company philosophy that it's not aiming for sales to the traditional aviation markets; that is, people who like airplanes and flying. The A5 is incidental to flying; the appeal is to the motorsport, extreme sport and lifestyle crowd. And that's not who comes to Sun 'n Fun, or at least not in great numbers.  

Icon has implied that the traditional general aviation industry has been doing things all wrong and it intends to disrupt it with a new way of doing business and with products with fresh market appeal and manufacturing methods. And, well, bully for them. General aviation is long past due for new ideas on fundamental market direction. As indicated by its eye-watering buyer agreement which, in my view, attempts to insulate the company from the slightest liability or responsibility for its products, Icon wants to instantly reset the toxic aviation tort environment. Again, cheers for them. Everyone in aviation decries the destructive impact of large-dollar lawsuits that threaten the industry's vitality. It's time to do something about it.

I think most of us agree that Icon just went about this in the wrong way, proposing an onerous agreement that appears to strip the customer of even basic rights under accepted commercial practices. But its idea to build in limited liability for the manufacturer has merit and if they tried, they'd find broad support among both buyers and manufacturers for some form of it. As far as I can tell, they didn't try, preferring instead to present the buyer agreement as a diktat.

In round two of its arm's-length relationship with the rest of general aviation, I'd propose Icon enlist the support of other companies to help advance the desirable underlying intent of their liability limitation. One way of doing this is by exploring buyer agreements that split the difference, offering some protection for companies while still preserving basic customer rights, such as unencumbered resale. A second way, as one lawyer I spoke to recommended, is to approach Congress with Icon's original agreement as a cudgel, showing how desperate one company is to limit its exposure and how badly tort reform aimed specifically at aviation is needed. I asked AOPA's Mark Baker about this and he said the association is examining the idea. They need to do more than examine, however. While this kind of fundamental reform is a tall order, GA currently enjoys a historically large caucus in congress and there may be no better time to try such a thing. 

In the meantime, this thought occurred to me: If Icon wants to reset the industry on its own terms, it will in fact need the support of the rest of the industry. Is that another way of saying they need us more than we need them? Read it any way you like. 

Aero Next Week

Fresh from Sun 'n Fun, I'll be attending Aero in Friedrichshafen, Germany, next week. Look for regular reports on what's happening across the pond. After that, it's on to the drone show in New Orleans and the electric aircraft symposium in California.

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Continental's six-cylinder engines are among the smoothest and most economical aircraft engines in the industry.  Now Vitiatoe Aviation is offering improvements for the Cessna 206/207 series engines that include crossflow induction for even smoother and more economical operation.  Here's an AVweb profile of the company.

Lightspeed's 'Get a Charge Out of Spring' Sale - Now Until May 8, 2016

At Sun 'n Fun 2016, Lancair flew in both versions of its flagship Evolution, one turbine and one piston. The piston version has the Lycoming IE2 electronic engine. AVweb interviewed Kevin Eldredge and prepared this video report as part of our Sun 'n Fun coverage.

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A viable replacement for 100LL seems closer than ever — and with the announcement that Swift Fuel can compete at low-lead's price point, it's looking more and more likely to end up in your tank before the decade is out. We spoke with Swift's Chris D'Acosta at Sun 'n Fun.

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