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Witnesses in Texas say that a fiery balloon crash that killed 16 occupants Saturday may have been caused by contact with high-voltage power lines at the crash site. The balloon's envelope was found nearly intact three quarters of a mile from the crash site and the gondola was completely charred nearby. The balloon crashed about 7:40 a.m. near Lockhart, Texas, south of Austin. 

One witness told The Associated Press that she saw a huge fireball as the balloon went down. Margaret Wylie lives near the crash site in a rural area and said she was letting her dog out early Saturday when she heard a “pop, pop, pop,” and immediately called 911. “I looked around and it was like a fireball going up,” she said, explaining that the flames were located under or near the power lines. 

The names and number of victims had not been confirmed early Saturday morning, but the accident is the worst balloon accident on record in the U.S. Although balloon accidents are relatively rare, many do involve contact with power lines, according to NTSB records. Erik Grosof of the NTSB told reporters late Saturday that the accident would result in a  "significant" investigation. The agency has dispatched a full go team to the site. AVweb will have more information as it becomes available.

 
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The Martin Mars water bomber, one of the main attractions at this week’s AirVenture show in Oshkosh, made a precautionary landing on Lake Winnebago Friday evening and was damaged. The incident forced the Canadian operator of the seaplane to cancel today’s demonstration flight at the afternoon airshow, according to a report in the Oshkosh Northwestern. The Mars crew detected an issue with one of the four engines during a flight and returned to the lake to land. Something beneath the water in Lake Winnebago, which has a maximum depth of 21 feet, tore a hole in the bottom of the aircraft. The crew and a local fire department pumped out the water and the plane was able to return to the seaplane base, the newspaper reported.

The rare Mars seaplane, one of two owned by Coulson Group, made its first appearance at Oshkosh, arriving July 23 at the EAA Seaplane Base. The massive aircraft had already impressed crowds during the week with flybys dropping water from its 8,000-gallon tanks. The Mars aircraft were orginally built for the Navy and first flew in 1942, then were used as water bombers after World War II.

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TruTrak is a mainstay in the experimental market with its well-regarded, sophisticated autopilots at affordable prices. Now, following the lead of EAA and Garmin, TruTrak aims to make its new Vizion autopilot available for certified airplanes, starting with the Cessna 172. And this is no stripped-down wing leveler, but a full-featured three-axis autopilot that even includes some envelope protection with minimum and maximum airspeed protection and an emergency wings-level button.

In this exclusive AVweb podcast, TruTrak's Andrew Barker explained that the Vizion has track mode, the ability to follow a flight plan defined by GPS, altitude hold, vertical speed selection and altitude select. The Vizion has a variation of high-torque servos developed for the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer project more than a decade ago that have slip and disconnect clutches without integrated software. Barker believes these are safer than typical autopilot servos. They've been specifically configured to accommodate the heavier control loads of certified aircraft.

"Obviously, the 172 is important, there are still about 20,000 of those flying in the states today. Piper is equally important out there with about the same numbers in the Cherokee line. These are going to be the main focus. But the market tends to choose what it wants to have," Barker said. That means heavier and faster aircraft such as Bonanzas and Mooneys might eventually be considered.

The target price range of the Vizion is about $5000, plus a couple of days of shop time to install. Barker said no schedule on approval--which will be done under AML-STC similar to the EAA and Garmin EFIS projects--is promised, but the company is hoping for a six- to eight-month time line.

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Although European regulators have steadfastly refused to allow commercial operators for single-engine turboprops, Daher says that will change in about six months. The European Commission has approved a proposal to allow single-engine aircraft like Daher’s TBM to be used in for-hire commercial flight throughout the European Union, Daher said at AirVenture this week.

“The committee’s positive vote reflects the well-established safety record of single-engine turbine aircraft and enables continental Europe to join other regions of the world – including the U.S. – where commercial air transport operations have been approved for some time,” said Nicolas Chabbert, Daher’s senior VP for the company’s aircraft unit. A final approval will be announced later this year. 

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Murphy Aircraft has introduced the third generation of its high-wing single called the Radical. AVweb spoke with Murphy's Zrinko Amerl about the aircraft and its unique options.

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NASA took delivery this week of a Tecnam P2006T, which will undergo transformation into an electric-propulsion testbed called the X-57 Maxwell. The Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology and Operations Research (SCEPTOR) project, the latest in NASA’s X-plane experiments, seeks to develop technologies to make flying quieter, cheaper and emissions-free. Sean Clarke, one of the leaders of the X-57 project out of NASA Armstrong in California, was among the presenters during a joint news conference with Tecnam during AirVenture 2016. Clarke told AVweb during the event that the test aircraft will undergo a series of modifications and be ready to fly in early 2018. Experiments with electric motors mounted on the wingtips will follow, he said. Future plans are to research flight characteristics with smaller inboard electric motors. The project was launched with $15 million of funding over three years.

From a research standpoint, electric motors are highly efficient regardless of size, and they can be installed, removed and rearranged in various configurations with ease, said Mark Moore, a SCEPTOR project leader. “It gives us incredible flexibility,” he said. While the aircraft sent to NASA is strictly for research, Tecnam says the project’s findings will benefit industry in the future. “Even though this aircraft will never be a production article, Tecnam is proud to be a part of expanding our base of knowledge in this new paradigm in flight,” said Shannon Yeager, director of Tecnam U.S. “The entire aircraft manufacturing community will benefit from the return of the X-planes and the new information gained with the X-57.”

A twin-engine Piper PA-31 Cheyenne being flown for a medical transport mission crashed in Humboldt County, California, near the Oregon border, on Friday morning, killing all four on board. The pilot had reported smoke filling the cockpit at about 1 a.m., according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. The airplane had taken off about 30 minutes earlier, headed for Oakland, about 360 miles away. The pilot told ATC he would try to return to Crescent City, but controllers then lost contact. The flight was operated by Reach Air Medical Services for Cal-Ore Life Flight.

A medic, a nurse, the pilot, and a patient were on board the airplane, officials said. Initial searches for the airplane were hampered by fog, but the wreckage was found at about 10 a.m. The debris field spans about a quarter of a mile in a densely forested area. The NTSB will be investigating the crash.

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I’ve always viewed competition in aviation as a relative thing. In new aircraft costing upward of $400,000, price breaks of a few percentage points don’t really amount to much and matter more to the big-box flight schools who now seem to be the main buyers of piston singles than to individual owners. In any case, the competitive leg up on those sales often comes from after-the-sale sweeteners like factory support or training programs.

For individual owners, the competitive environment is better for things likes accessories, especially headsets, where the market is closer to being over-served. For the past decade, avionics haven’t been impressively competitive because Garmin essentially owned the market. It had or was willing to develop a product for every niche and it also had the marketing apparatus to make these products pay off the investment of creating them.

Although I never thought I’d see it, that’s now changing. Avidyne has awoken with a range of products that are selling well, Aspen came on the scene with its Evolution EFDs aimed at the aftermarket and there are more ADS-B choices than one person—at least me—can possibly keep track of. But here again, Garmin is dominating thanks to product choices and marketing. The big avionics story at AirVenture was Garmin’s announcement that its G5 EFIS, heretofore developed for the experimental market, will now be approved by AML-STC for more than 500 certified aircraft models.

My reaction is twofold: That didn’t take long and what took them so long? Let me explain. In April, EAA’s Jack Pelton strode up to the podium at Sun ‘n Fun and stunned us by announcing it had partnered with Dynon to develop an STC for a limited number of models to install the D10 EFIS in certified airplanes. You coulda heard a pin drop in that tent. My colleague Larry Anglisano and I both bet that Garmin would respond with their own program and roll it out by AirVenture. Sure ‘nuff.

Now, is the race on between EAA and Garmin to extend this kind of favorable trickle-down product development to other products, of which Garmin has quite a catalog? We can only hope. Although this won’t reset the cost of flying to 1975 levels, or even 1995, it’s a positive development that does help owners in the bottom tier who want to upgrade their basic certified airplanes but can’t afford it because the manufacturers have lost sight of affordability. This trend, if it has legs, promises to at least level the cost curve, if not bend it downward. Well played, Mr. Pelton.

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At AirVenture 2016, Yingling showed off the next generation of its Ascend refurbished Cessna 172, which features a glass panel from Garmin. As part of AVweb's continuing coverage, here's a video tour of the airplane.

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Heather Penney, the National Program Chair for the RISE ABOVE: WASP project, is a former fighter pilot for the Air National Guard and air racer. She hopes the story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots will serve to inspire young people, especially women. She spoke with AVweb's Elaine Kauh about the Commemorative Air Force's upcoming film and educational exhibit.

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