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Egypt is deploying a submarine to search for the main wreckage of EgyptAir Flight 804, which could be as deep as 10,000 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean. Searchers found pieces of EgyptAir Flight 804 in the Mediterranean Sea along with human remains, officials said Friday. Seats and passenger belongings also were found 180 miles north of Alexandria, Egypt, according to news reports. French officials also confirmed that the aircraft sent an ACARS message reporting smoke in a lavatory and in the avionics bay about the time the aircraft went missing. Crews from multiple countries continue to take part in the search for the Airbus A320 that crashed early Thursday en route from Paris to Cairo with 66 people on board. Friday's announcement from Greek and Egyptian officials comes after retracting statements made the day before that the wreckage had been found. 

While officials have said it's possible a terrorist attack caused the crash, no definitive evidence has been found. The Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority said Friday everything appeared normal at 1:48 a.m. Cairo time, when Greek controllers last communicated with the flight, The New York Times reported. At 2:27 a.m., controllers were unable to get a response from the crew. News reports say the aircraft was at 37,000 feet when it turned left, made a full circle to the right and plunged toward the sea before radar contact was lost. A Washington Post report noted that the discovery of the debris will help target the search of the Mediterranean, but the area includes waters at least 10,000 feet deep and strong currents.

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The newly restored B-29 "Doc" now has an FAA airworthiness certificate, 16 years after restorers brought the historic aircraft to Wichita. Doc's Friends, the organization behind the project, said Friday a first flight is "imminent." The B-29, salvaged from the Mojave Desert in 1987 by Tony Mazzolini, was moved in pieces to Wichita in May 2000 for the restoration, which gained momentum a few years ago with the formation of Doc's Friends. The heavy bomber's four engines started for the first time in September and the team performed a taxi test earlier this month. 

The restoration team will soon submit a formal request to the U.S. Air Force and Pentagon to gain access to a runway at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita for high-speed taxi and flight tests. “It’s been nearly 60 years since Doc has flown and 16 years since this majestic warbird arrived in Wichita to be restored, and now we are another major milestone closer to a return to flight,” said Jim Murphy, Doc’s Friends Restoration Program Manager. “Today, we celebrate this major milestone and honor the hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer work that has gone into restoring our B-29."

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A 22-year-old Alaskan had the shortest combined takeoff and landing distance in the 2016 Valdez STOL competition. Bobby Breeden, flying a Super Cub, took off in 40 feet and landed in 55 feet to win the Alternate Bush category and claim the overall distance title at the competition held two weeks ago at Valdez Airport. It was his second consecutive win. Breeden, from Sterling, Alaska, has been competing since he was 17. In terms of overall distance, he edged Robert Pedersen, of Oriental, North Carolina, who was competing in the Light Sport class and had a 54-foot takeoff and 49-foot landing in his Just Aircraft Cub clone. While much of the attention is on the tricked-out Cub derivatives that inevitably win the competition, there were some noteworthy achievements by some other types.

For instance, Ben Brown, of Kasilof, Alaska, needed just 161 feet for takeoff and 83 feet to bring his Cessna 172 to a stop in the light touring class. Matt Conklin, of Boise, Idaho, coaxed his brawny Cessna 180 off the runway in 90 feet and landed in 168 feet to win the heavy touring class and Jacob Williams, of Anchorage, won the bush class in his Super Cub. Breeden will be among those taking part in EAA AirVenture’s STOL demonstration this year.

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Congress and President Obama have overruled an Army decision that briefly banned Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) from being interred at Arlington National Cemetery. In 2015, Army Secretary John McHugh stopped allowing the placing of WASP veterans’ ashes in an aboveground facility at the cemetery, saying their job of ferrying and testing military aircraft in the Second World War did not meet the standards for eternity at Arlington. In January, the cemetery issued a statement saying the cemetery will run out of space in 20 years and the WASPs’ service, while “commendable,” did not “reach the level of active duty service” required. Tiffany Miller launched an online petition to change the rules last year and said her grandmother Danforth Harmon can finally rest.

“It was her last wish to be in Arlington,” Miller told CNN. “We haven't been able to hold a funeral for her because we wanted to honor that wish.” WASPs flew thousands of non-combat missions from 1942 to 1944, freeing male pilots to fight. There were about 1,000 WASPs and 38 of them died in aircraft accidents. "If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal, they should be good enough for Arlington,” said Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who sponsored the bipartisan bill to change the rules.

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For over 70 years general aviation pilots have volunteered their time, skills and airplanes to help others in need by giving free flights for everything from search and rescue through medical transport, environmental survey and research to disaster relief, animal transport and exposing kids to the world of flight. What has been termed Public Benefit Flying (PBF) has saved lives, exposed toxic polluters, allowed collection of valuable scientific data, saved pets from euthanasia and generally enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Volunteer pilots have spent thousands of dollars of their own money providing free flights to help others.

Those who have made volunteer flights say that those flights have been some of the most personally rewarding flying they have ever done.

Up front disclosure: I've been a volunteer pilot doing Public Benefit Flying for over 25 years, am on the board of the Air Care Alliance—more about that nonprofit organization in a bit —and had some involvement in helping develop the safety training course that is described below.

As might be expected, volunteer pilots are passionate about what they do (there’s my understatement for the month). They tend to be Type A types who are determined to make the flights for which they volunteer happen. Most pilots make their volunteer flights in conjunction with a volunteer pilot organization (VPO) that functions as a clearinghouse to match those who need a free flight with pilots who are willing to make such flights—and the VPOs want to have as many flights as possible take place. VPOs were formed to provide help to people—if they don’t provide that help in the form of completed flights, why do they exist? Their donors want to see evidence that their money is going to an organization that is accomplishing its goals.

For some years, an unspoken issue of concern within the public benefit flying community was that pilots put pressure on themselves to complete flights and VPOs did so as well—intentionally or unintentionally. Few volunteer pilots are, or have been, professional pilots. Most did not take recurrent training beyond the absolute FAA minimum requirement—a flight review ever two years. While volunteer flying never involves emergency transport, when a pilot gets word that a cancer patient is in need of treatment, that an aircraft is down and a search is being organized, that the scientists have arrived from all around the country for the aerial survey over the spawning grounds and the time window to gather data is closing or that 20 dogs are going to be euthanized unless they can be flown to a no-kill facility in 24 hours, the pressure is on.

Pilots who had not flown professionally had received little training in making the go/no go decision beyond what they learned while getting their rating(s), usually just some discussion of avoiding gethomeitis. A look at the general aviation accident record would show that pilots didn’t always make appropriate go/no go decisions.

VPOs varied widely in how they approached the matter of aeronautical decision-making for their volunteer pilots. Some had training and guidelines and made it clear to pilots that there would never be any adverse feedback if they postponed or canceled a flight—others did not. In addition, as might be expected, there are a lot of big egos in the world of volunteer flying—as is the case in the world of nonprofit organizations generally—and a certain attitude on the part of VPOs that they knew how to do things best and nobody could tell them what to do.

Enter the Air Care Alliance

In 1995, the Air Care Alliance (ACA) came into being. A nonprofit organization, its purpose was to be an umbrella organization for all VPOs. It holds an annual conference where it invites the approximately 70 VPOs to get together and exchange ideas for best practices and operational safety.  Early on, Air Care Alliance board members recognized the concerns with aeronautical decision-making that were unique to public benefit flying and began working with VPOs to recognize and address the issue. During its annual conferences at which VPOs and volunteer pilots gather, the ACA had a number of seminars and open discussions on operational safety and aeronautical decision making, including one in 2008 at which the head of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Bruce Landsberg lead the safety best practices program.

In 2010 safety matters began to come to a head. In just over a year, there had been four high profile crashes involving pilots making a public benefit flight. In three of them passengers traveling for medical treatment were killed. The investigations uncovered evidence that the pilots had made very poor decisions regarding initiating or continuing their flights. In one, the pilot was in IMC, couldn’t intercept the localizer for an ILS and was being vectored around to try it again when he lost control of the airplane and crashed. He wasn’t even close to being current on instruments. The second fatal accident involved an 81-year-old pilot who decided to takeoff downwind. He managed to get the airplane into the air, but couldn’t maintain directional control and hit the glideslope antenna. The third accident killed a child who was being transported for medical treatment when the pilot flying a single-engine turboprop tried to takeoff downwind and couldn’t clear obstacles after takeoff. The fourth accident involved a pilot positioning to pick up a patient who decided to fly through convective activity, lost control of his airplane and crashed.

The accidents generated significant adverse publicity for public benefit flying with commentators criticizing amateur pilots carrying people who had no idea that the pilots didn’t operate at the safety level of charter flights, even going so far as to call volunteer pilots “Part 135 wannabees.”

In response to the accidents, the NTSB began looking at the safety of public benefit flying. The NTSB's mandate, by law, is to evaluate transportation safety. If it sees a problem, it sends a Safety Recommendation letter to the appropriate federal regulatory agency—for aviation, the FAA—recommending that the agency establish safety regulations to address the identified issue. It then keeps the heat publicly on the FAA to take action—and that heat often gets repeated by the media as it identifies safety issues the FAA should be addressing.

Once the word got out that the NTSB was looking at PBF, the concern was that the NTSB would call for the FAA to establish stringent regulations for public benefit flying, both affecting pilots and VPOs. Volunteer pilots had a right to be concerned—the FAA had established regulations under which a volunteer pilot could be reimbursed for her or his fuel expenses for a volunteer flight from the VPO, but the regulations were so onerous to comply with that it was often more expensive to comply than to pay for the fuel. Almost no volunteer pilots jumped through the myriad number of hoops required to get reimbursed for their fuel.

It was widely felt that FAA regulations on PBF would cripple it due to increased costs for pilots to comply as well as disqualifying a significant portion of the volunteer pilot pool because of more strict rating and flight time requirements to qualify to do PBF.

The NTSB’s Unexpected, and Challenging, Action

Instead of sending Safety Recommendations regarding PBF to the FAA, the NTSB—recognizing the value of PBF—on June 9, 2010, sent its Safety Recommendation letter to the Air Care Alliance calling for it to act. To anyone’s knowledge, the NTSB had never asked a non-governmental organization—which had no regulatory authority—to take action.

At first, what the NTSB asked the Air Care Alliance to do—require all VPOs to take steps regarding operational safety—seemed impossible because the Air Care Alliance cannot tell VPOs to do anything, each is an independent entity.

The Air Care Alliance board members (all volunteers themselves) made the decision to step up and see if it they could find a way to satisfy the NTSB as they knew that the NTSB’s next step would be to go the FAA. They, and others, felt PBF was at risk if the NTSB wasn’t happy with what the Air Care Alliance did and went to the FAA.

The NTSB’s letter identified three specific areas of concern: pilot currency; passenger awareness that the flights were not conducted under the same standards of a commercial flight; and safety guidance for pilots on aeronautical decision-making, preflight planning, pilot currency and self-induced pressure.

Air Care Alliance board members Rol Murrow, Lindy Kirkland and Jeff Kahn formed a working group and reached out to all VPOs of which the Alliance was aware (whether or not the VPO was a member of the Alliance) to pass along the specific NTSB recommendations. In addition, they immediately responded to the NTSB’s letter outlining what the ACA had already done at its conferences and in communication with VPOs to address safety issues for PBF—including having worked with the AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation. They provided the NTSB with information about the nature of VPOs and volunteer flying in general and outlined their plan to work with AOPA to create an interactive, on-line safety, training course directed at volunteer pilots and VPOs that the ACA would encourage VPOs to require that their pilots complete.

The NTSB’s response was to recognize that the Air Care Alliance could encourage, but not require, VPOs to comply with the NTSB’s recommendations and state that the actions the ACA was taking were moving in the right direction.

Slowly and Steadily

The ACA conducted polling of VPOs regarding their safety practices and, over the next six years, kept the NTSB informed of the results.

The ACA raised the $50,000 necessary to create an interactive PBF safety training course for volunteer pilots in conjunction with the AOPA to become one of the AOPA’s well-respected training courses on its website.

The online, multi-media, interactive safety course “Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion,” was created.  Nearly all VPOs instituted requirements that their pilots complete the course. As of last week, more than 10,000 pilots had done so, with a current rate of 100 pilots taking it each month.

Most VPOs also established requirements that its pilots take recurrent training annually and certify to the VPO prior to making a flight that the pilot was current for the flight.

Over the course of the next few years, the ACA continued to collect data from VPOs regarding their actions—including early disclosure to potential passengers that the flight would not conducted under the commercial aviation regulations.

The NTSB Approves

In February of this year, the Air Care Alliance reported to the NTSB that the majority of VPOs were requiring their pilots to complete the online safety course that included aeronautical decision-making, self-induced pressure to complete a flight and safety issues specific to volunteer flying; were requiring pilots to self-certify prior to making flights and disclosing the non-commercial nature of flights to potential passengers.

On April 25, 2016, Christopher Hart, Chairman of the NTSB, sent a letter to the Air Care Alliance to state that the Board had reviewed the Air Care Alliance’s response to the three specific safety recommendations the NTSB had made in 2010, including the online, interactive safety course, and had formally found that the actions the ACA and the VPOs had taken satisfied the demands of the specific Safety Recommendations and the matter was closed.

Chairman Hart concluded his letter to the Air Care Alliance with unusually warm language in a federal agency document: “Thank you for your efforts to address these recommendations and for your commitment to aviation safety. We were pleased to read that, although you believe your actions satisfy the recommendations, you consider improving flight safety an effort that is always ongoing, and that you are committed to continuing to remind and urge VPOs and their member pilots to implement these recommendations.”

In my opinion, the actions of the Air Care Alliance and its board members Rol Murrow, Lindy Kirkland and Jeff Kahn have not only increased the level of safety of public benefit flying through effective education but also prevented it from being hamstrung by onerous regulations. That seemed to be the consensus of the VPOs and volunteer pilots who attended the most recent ACA annual conference in Denver over this last weekend when the NTSB’s findings were announced.

Ongoing Effort

The issue of pressure to complete a volunteer flight is ongoing, however, the training program generated by the Air Care Alliance, VPOs and the AOPA may be one reason that the safety record for public benefit flying appears to have improved (it’s impossible to identify accidents that haven’t happened) and the positive culture of safety among VPOs has been recognized by the NTSB. More effort is necessary as not all VPOs require training in recognizing the pressures on a pilot to complete a flight and not all volunteer pilots are aware of the safety training program that is available. There was recently a magazine article by a volunteer pilot worried about pressure to complete flights and unaware of the safety training program created by the ACA and AOPA. The NTSB has recognized the tremendous amount the Air Care Alliance and VPOs have done to increase the level of PBF safety, yet the need for outreach and education continues.

Rick Durden has been a volunteer pilot for LightHawk for over 25 years, is a member of the board of directors of the Air Care Alliance and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 & 2.

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In another chapter of my publishing career that might as well have taken place on Mars, I worked for a company that hit the magic. It started a publication in the craft field right in the midst of an explosive interest in craft revival in the mid-1970s that few knew was happening. (No internet then; no Facebook, no Google.) In those days—and still—we sold magazines through junk mail packages and with a near bottomless pit of latent demand, those mail packages returned as much as 20 percent, a response that's scarcely believable today. (Two percent is a smash hit now.)

That insane success was a mixed blessing. It made for tidy profits, but it set expectations so high that future sales efforts were never seen as worthy, even if they turned 10 or 12 percent. In reviewing pilot certification stats for this blog, that experience came immediately to mind. Check out the graph below and notice the rocket rise of pilot growth between 1965 and 1971. It didn't quite double, but it did increase by 71 percent. We were adding as many as 75,000 pilots a year for an average growth of about 3.3 percent. (It had spikes up and down, of course.) We didn't know it then—and that's when I came into general aviation—but it couldn't last. In retrospect, that curve has all the earmarks of a bubble and it's not unusual for any product or service in a developed economy to mature this way.

click for full-size image

Why did it happen and why can't we duplicate it? It's complicated, but my guess is the mid-1960s were the perfect combination of World War II veterans, many of whom were pilots, reaching financial security in their 40s in a strong economy. There were 5 and 7 percent growth years in the general economy during the period. Cessna was coming of age as a mass manufacturer of then-affordable airplanes and if nothing else, it knew how to sell them. Unions were reaching peak influence and yes, factory workers could afford to buy airplanes and did. The airlines were growing and hiring, too, and the pipeline was partially stoked with GA pilots. But all bubbles eventually pop and the GA boom did in 1980. Pilot starts diminished gracefully, a trend that continues yet today. Manufacturing volume went off a cliff and now it's just tumbling gently down a screed slope. The peak volume never recovered and many of those airplanes we fly yet today.      

We never got over those peak years. How many times have you read in this blog or other analytics a reference to the glory days followed by the lament that if we did it then, we can do it again? We must be doing something wrong, goes the reasoning. But we aren't. Faded glory isn't an opportunity for a corrective, but a starting point for what's next.

In Monday's blog, I opined that three developments may inject a little vitality into GA: Third Class Medical reform, the Part 23 revision and relaxed avionics regulations. I'm not expecting a buying frenzy, but I still see these trends as nothing but positive. Is there concurrent good—OK, less gloomy—news in the pilot certification trends? Hard to say, but it's not all bad news, either. I've always maintained that GA is shrinking rather than dying and it will eventually find a critical mass and resume modest growth.

I can't put that on the calendar, although in its most recent aviation forecast, the FAA thinks private pilot certificates will decrease by 0.6 percent a year until 2036, beyond which its crystal ball doesn't extend. Just for the record, since the 1980 zenith, the pilot population has decreased an average of 0.9 percent per year. During the past 10 years, it has declined to 590,039 from a 10-year high of 627,588 in 2010. Historically, the decline has been steeper at times and shallower at times. Note the sharp drop-off in 2012. Those have occurred before, so I don't know what it means, if anything. I'm not sure how reliable the FAA data, from whence I got these numbers, really is.

But also see the sharp uptick in student pilot certifications beginning in 2010. That's great news, right? Well, sort of. It's due at least partially to a regulatory sleight of hand that increased the duration of student pilot certificates for under-40 students from 36 months to 60. I see that is good because heretofore, when the 36 months passed, students may have been less likely to renew. Now they've got five years and perhaps, by random chance, if they hang around that long they'll bump into an actual pilot certificate. It beats the alternative, no?

Growth is clearly evident in the sport pilot category. It's fashionable to describe the sport pilot segment as a miserable failure, both in terms of pilots added to the flock and airplanes added to the fleet. The airplanes, after all, turn out not to cost $40,000, which some of us seem to have thought they would. This sentiment is understandable if you lapse into the logic of using the never-to-return glory days of 1980 as the metric.

click for full-size image

Nonetheless, the FAA's records show we've added 5482 sport pilots to the rolls since 2005. See the graph for the details. This is indeed modest growth, but it's growth all the same. Bitch about it if you must, but I don't find much merit in that because (a) I don't have a better suggestion to offer cheaper new airplanes and easier pilot certification and (b) neither does anyone else. If you want to really complain about something being a failure, that would be the recreational pilot certificate. As of 2015, that rating had declined to a lousy 190. I don't think it ever got much above 300. I wonder if we would be further along if the recreational pilot had been what the sport pilot certificate has become. But in 1990, when it was created, we were still in a regulatory straitjacket that we're just now beginning to loosen.

I claim no particular expertise in predicting how the general aviation market will perform, or fail to. I'm not sure the FAA is any better at it either, because the agency is hobbled by the same unknowns as the rest of us. The only advantage we have is that we understand how regulation has inhibited both growth and continued participation by those already in the industry while the FAA is just slowly, dimly beginning to grasp this.

I will claim to be—or try to be—clear eyed about industry prospects. There are no market forces visible that will return us to the salad days of 1972, no matter what happens with regulation or how much we jawbone about medicals, the high cost of airframes and avionics and what it costs to get through the gate at Sun 'n Fun. It's just the reality we live with. The demographics were different then. So are the economics. Within our difficult universe there are plenty of green shoots, just no shimmering city on the hill. Personally, as I mentioned in Monday's blog, I like to rise above the wallow, at least momentarily, and grasp whatever bright spots I can find. And there are a few to relieve the drumbeat of negativity. I don't know about you, but I'm willing to take what I can get for now.

In the next blog, I'll take a look at the big coming growth engine: Icon. Yes, Icon. If you plug their claims into a spreadsheet, the sky parts and the sun shines.

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