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The pilot of the Blue Angels jet that crashed on June 2 in Tennessee was too fast and low when he flew an aerobatic maneuver during practice, the Navy said Thursday. Jeff Kuss, 32, who died in the crash, flew a split S maneuver 300 feet lower than required and had the afterburners on in his F/A 18C Hornet, resulting in a speed that was at least 50 knots too fast, according to a report by the Navy Times. Officials also reported that the clouds were at 3,000 feet, which was a possible factor in Kuss flying the split S too low. "Clouds at about 3,000 did not impact the solos' ability to fly, but that weather was likely a contributing factor to Capt. Kuss' decision to initiate the 'Split S' maneuver below the normal altitude," the head of Naval Air Forces said in a statement. The required speed for the maneuver is 125 to 135 knots, but Kuss was flying at 184 knots, investigators found.  “When you combine that with afterburners, it resulted in rate of descent that he didn’t recognize," a Navy spokeswoman told the Times.

Those errors, along with findings that Kuss had forgotten routine tasks such as turning on his transponder and entering his squawk code, also led officials to believe that fatigue was a factor. "Every other squadron in the fleet has the ability to find a substitute pilot to complete the mission or execute an alternative mission," the Navy’s statement said. “However, if one of the Blue Angels pilots is not ready, there are no other pilots who can readily cover their position for a show." The Navy will continue to examine safety policies and flight operations, and the split S maneuver has been removed from the Blue Angels' flight routines, the Times reported.

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Boeing unveiled its new military single-engine T-X airplane on Wednesday, the latest contender in the contest to supply the Air Force with its next-generation pilot trainer. Boeing has two production T-X aircraft it designed and built with Sweden’s Saab as demonstration models, featuring a twin-tail design and modern avionics made to replace the Air Force’s aging T-38 training fleet. "Our T-X is real, ready and the right choice for training pilots for generations to come,” Boeing said in an announcement. The T-X prototypes were built in St. Louis, which is rooting for Boeing to win the Air Force contract with hopes the company will produce the T-X there, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The aircraft will undergo flight tests throughout the year in St. Louis. Along with the potential for sales to other nations’ military forces, the Air Force order of more than 300 trainers is estimated to be worth $11 billion, according to the report.

The T-X has a GE 404 jet, glass cockpit and a software system that’s integrated with ground training equipment, according to a report by DefenseNews. Boeing expects the aircraft to fly by the end of the year while ground and structural tests continue using the two prototypes, according to the report. Boeing’s aircraft will be up against other models including Raytheon-Leonardo’s M-346, Lockheed Martin’s T-50 and another clean-sheet design from Northrop Grumman, which last month unveiled its new trainer built by subsidiary Scaled Composites. The yet-to-be-named single-engine jet, which looks like an updated version of the T-38, has been undergoing ground tests at California’s Mojave Airport. 

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The Antonov-225, a classic six-engine cargo carrier that is the world’s largest airplane, might be going back into production via a joint China-Ukraine program, but recent reports cast doubt on the timing and viability of the plans. A couple of weeks ago, representatives of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AICC) and the Antonov Corporation, a Ukrainian aviation company, signed an agreement to restart production of the 640-ton An-225. But this week, reported that Antonov’s work is hampered by the Ukraine government’s decision to cut ties with Russia, making it impossible for the company to get the parts it needs. The Chinese partners may be able to produce the needed components, an Antonov official told RT.

The An-225 was originally developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s as a carrier for the country’s space shuttle. One example first flew in 1988, and it’s still flying as a cargo carrier, operated by Antonov. Work on a second airplane began in 1988 but was never completed. Antonov plans to complete that second airplane as part of the deal with China, and then help to create a production line in China to produce more copies. The An-225 is the longest and heaviest airplane ever built, and also has the longest wingspan of any aircraft in operational service, according to Wikipedia.

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AVweb’s search of aviation news worldwide found announcements from the National Aviation Hall of Fame, Space Center Houston, the National Air Transportation Association and Diamond Aircraft. The National Aviation Hall of Fame announced that David McCullough's best-selling book, The Wright Brothers, has earned its author the 14th Annual Combs Gates Award. McCullough will be presented the $20,000 cash prize on Nov. 2 at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) 69th Annual Meeting & Convention in Orlando, Florida. Experience the everyday life of astronauts, launch a rocket, serve as mission commander and discover how to grow plant species in space at the North American premiere of Astronaut, Space Center Houston's fall exhibit presented by the city of Webster, Oct. 1-Jan. 16. The interactive exhibition takes guests through a space workshop full of hands-on science fun and nearly 30 activities to test their abilities for space exploration.

Concluding its fall board meeting last week, the chairman of the National Air Transportation Association Board of Directors, Mr. Andrew Priester (president and chief executive officer, Priester Aviation, Wheeling, Illinois), announced that Mr. Martin Hiller (owner and partner, Marathon Jet Center, Marathon, Florida) will continue to serve as president of NATA. In June, the Board announced that Hiller would serve as acting president upon the departure of then-president Tom Hendricks. During a two-week demonstration tour in La Paz (Bolivia) and Lima (Peru), Diamond Aircraft’s multipurpose platform DA42 MPP was able to demonstrate its start and landing performance on high-altitude airports to potential customers. The challenging conditions on the world’s highest international airport, El Alto in La Paz, delivered unique insights into the DA42 MPP capabilities. 

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The Weekender's headed to all four corners of the country with festivals, air tours and airshows to choose from on Head to the “Hop Capital of the World,” Independence, Oregon, for the Hop & Heritage Festival Friday and Saturday. Fly into the Independence Airport on Saturday morning for the Flap Jack Feed, a fundraiser for a local youth aviation scholarship. There’s also a 7 a.m. hot air balloon launch. 

EAA Chapter 27 in Meriden, Connecticut, will hold a plane-wash fundraiser at Meriden Markham Airport on Saturday for Teens-to-Flight students who are building an RV-12. Donate to the cause and get your airplane washed while you grab a pizza lunch on-site.

The Michigan Air Tour 2016 kicks off Friday with stops all around the state, including time to attend AOPA’s Battle Creek fly-in on Saturday. Each stop of the tour will feature a trivia quiz and plaque ceremonies for participating communities and a chance to talk to visitors about general aviation.

On Saturday and Sunday in Waco, Texas, the Heart Of Texas Airshow will feature a variety of performances including a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey demo, the Air Force F-16 Viper Demo Team, Navy TAC Demo Team, U.S. Coast Guard and Texas Air and Army National Guard, plus lots of attractions for the family and rides in helicopters and warbirds.

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While you vacationed on remote mountain airstrips, aero-administrators were hard at work making more work for instructors and examiners. But despite enhanced e-paperwork shuffles, pilots can preserve basic aerodynamic sense by acing this quiz.

Click here to take the quiz.

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Nutjob. That’s what we all called him. He was one of my trainers at my first tower. Extreme skydiving and off-the-grid adventure travel earned him the title. His not-safe-for-work “There I was…” stories were legendary throughout our ATC community.

Despite his off-campus reputation, he didn’t screw around in the control tower. He confidently ran his traffic tight. Was there an airplane-sized hole in the traffic flow? He’d shove an airplane into it, never compromising safety.

If you were smart, you took Nutjob’s advice when offered. The best chunk of knowledge he ever dropped on me summed up air traffic control’s complexity in a mere six words. As I was wrangling a sloppy pattern of Cessnas, Nutjob was sitting behind me, feet up on the console. As I struggled for my own mental footing, I heard his dry Southern rasp. “Just put ‘em where they ain’t.”

The light clicked. I’d been over thinking things. Behind the phraseology and regs, the mission was simple: ensure separation. Focusing on that task cleared my head. I reigned in my traffic.

Separate Aircraft

Controllers need to comply with a roughly five-pound book of regulations called FAA Order 7110.65. Chew through its government legalese, though, and you’ll find many of the spacing standards that ATC uses aren’t much more complex than Nutjob’s succinct statement. Controllers continuously use these standards to prevent aircraft from sharing the same piece of sky.

Common sense and good judgment form the foundation, but there are specific rules for specific types of air traffic facilities. Each affects how flexible ATC can be when handling your IFR flight.

ATC separation requirements are divided into two main categories: terminal and enroute. Terminals, of course, are places where aviation journeys begin and end. Not the building filled with waiting passengers and duty-free shops, of course, but a towered airport itself and any surrounding airspace that’s worked by an overlying terminal radar approach control (TRACON).

Picture these TRACONs as islands of airspace extending out around 40 or 50 miles. Their airspace typically tops at 10,000 feet, but can extend higher depending on local traffic flow needs. These TRACONs run off one or more short-range approach surveillance radars that have a 60 mile range and rotate every six seconds.

The wild ocean of air between and above those TRACON islands is operated by Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs), or simply “Center” on-frequency. Centers are referred to as the “enroute environment” since they’re overseeing traffic that’s traveling in between the terminal islands. To keep track of their massive airspace, they use an overlapping network of long range radars that feature a 150 mile range and spin about once every 12 seconds.

Why do radar ranges and spin rates affect you? Controllers have to work within the limitations of their available technology. Different tech means different rules. With increasing distance and slower sensor spin rates comes reduced target resolution. The lower the target resolution, the more space ATC needs between those targets.

No Touchie

Control towers and TRACONs follow straightforward terminal rules: maintain 1000 feet of vertical separation or three miles of horizontal separation between all IFR aircraft. With some exceptions, if ATC maintains that “1-or-3” bubble around IFR traffic, life is good.

Vertical separation is already partially ensured just when pilots file a flight plan, when you use odd altitudes for eastbound flights and even altitudes for westbound ones. Stacking opposite direction traffic at 1000-foot intervals is a good start. As your flight progresses, ATC may adjust your cruising altitude to maintain your vertical spacing from traffic crossing or sharing your route.

Traffic crossing paths or running in parallel at the same altitude needs to be spaced by three miles. That naturally includes IFR aircraft climbing or descending through an altitude occupied by another nearby aircraft, hence the “vectors for climb” on departure and “vectors for descent” as you near your destination. Generally speaking, controllers don’t like disturbing aircraft when they’re established on course at their cruising altitude. Still, safety trumps convenience, and we won’t hesitate to issue “vectors for traffic” when needed, and “proceed on course” when the conflict is resolved.

ATC gets creative on a busy final approach course. A controller may have traffic of all types inbound to one or more runways, and he must line them up on final with at least three miles in trail. ATC may vector you through final “for spacing,” reduce your speed to minimum 10 miles from the airport, or keep you high on the localizer until a faster aircraft passes underneath. Frustrating? Sure, but the alternative is worse: being pulled off the final altogether and getting vectored “for re-sequencing.”

There are exceptions to the 1-or-3 rules. Sometimes, the spacing is decreased. Certain airports with approaches to parallel runways can run traffic with only 1.5 miles of diagonal spacing. Other exceptions, such as wake turbulence, increase the distance. Extra spacing is required when ATC vectors smaller aircraft behind large (max takeoff weight 41,000-255,000 pounds) or heavy ones (over 255,000 pounds).

Threading Needles

In dense terminal airspace, it’s tough to avoid popping that 1-or-3 bubble around every IFR arrival and departure. The solution is to cheat—legally—through a common sense thing called course divergence. If two aircraft depart the same position on headings that differ at least 15 degrees, they can never conflict. That “position” can be either an airport runway, or a point in space.

Picture yourself in a Cessna 172, holding short of Runway 9. You’ve got a Citation business jet waiting behind you. Tower clears you for takeoff on heading 070. As you lift and bear left, Tower launches the Citation on heading 090. You’re not even beyond the airport boundary when the Citation blazes past you in its climb. Did Tower have three miles or a thousand feet between you? Nope, but diverging headings ensured the Citation wouldn’t run you over.

Imagine the alternative, where Tower launched you both on the runway heading. The Citation would be delayed until you pedal your Cessna miles and miles away upwind before launching the jet, allowing enough room for departure to turn the fast mover off your tail. Intelligent use of course divergence means fewer (or shorter) delays for everyone. The ideal thing is to give you a diverging heading in the direction you want to go anyway, so you won’t need to cross back over the departure path.

The starting position doesn’t have to be an airport. It can be an aircraft’s current position. Imagine you’re still IFR in that Skyhawk, plugging along at 4000 feet, heading 270. Approach has a Columbia 400 overtaking you by 100 knots, behind and to your left, heading 285. Here, the starting point is your aircraft’s current position. The TRACON controller just needs to ensure the Columbia passes behind you. (If he passed in front of you, you’d be converging. That’s, you know, bad for safety and stuff.) Second, he needs to ensure your courses diverge by at least 15 degrees.

As long as the Columbia passes aft of your tail—even just a quarter mile away—and his northwest heading is at least than 285, ATC has achieved diverging courses and therefore separation.

Big Sky Country

The larger the air traffic facility, the further apart they need to run their aircraft. One reason is that centers use slower-turning long-range radars to watch over their massive airspace.

Imagine you’re driving on a crowded highway at 60 mph. To simulate a TRACON short range radar sweep, close your eyes for six seconds, then open them. You’ve blindly traveled 528 feet. That’s scary. Now, shut your eyes for a center’s 12 seconds. You’ve traveled twice as far—1056 feet—without checking your position or that of other traffic.

Multiply your speed by 10 to 600 mph and picture yourself at 33,000 feet. That’s ten miles a minute. Shutting your eyes for 12 seconds means you’ve traveled two miles. That 12 second delay between traffic updates halves target position accuracy. If a plane turns or changes altitude unexpectedly, it takes twice as long for a center to realize what’s happening, thus more time to correct it.

To compensate, the center rules are more stringent. For aircraft sharing an altitude, enroute controllers are required to maintain five miles between all of their targets and cannot use course divergence. This applies to all IFR traffic in a center’s airspace, whether it’s United 768 cruising along at flight level 330, or the Cessna at 4000 feet.

Like terminals, centers use 1000 feet vertical spacing, but only up to FL270. Above FL270, they’re required to use 2000 feet between stacked planes, with the exception of aircraft that are qualified for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum. RVSM-capable traffic only requires the original 1000-foot vertical separation.

ATC terminal facilities feeding aircraft to a center do so with enroute requirements in mind. TRACONs launching departures into a center’s airspace need to ensure five miles of separation will be achieved. Towers that aren’t paired with a TRACON and operate directly under a center’s oversight need to do the same.


What if there’s no radar, such as in mountainous or oceanic areas? Welcome to the mysterious, spooky world of “non-radar” ATC. These controllers rely entirely on pilots for accurate position reporting, picturing aircraft positions in their heads and tracking them using a clock and paper flight plans. This is abstract stuff, even for other controllers who don’t work it often, and subject to the most restrictive separation requirements in all of ATC.

For example, IFR aircraft sharing an airway at the same altitude need to be a minimum of 20 miles in trail, or cross mandatory reporting points ten minutes apart. Are aircraft crossing a certain fix or departing the same airport? If the lead aircraft is 44 knots faster than the second one, they only need five miles or one minute. A 22-knot difference requires ten miles or five minutes. Non-radar is a complex mind game in practice, yet the goal is still simple: keep the aircraft separated.

Of course, with the dawning of the ADS-B age, requirements may change. ADS-B promises one second traffic updates for all ATC facilities using a mix of ground-based sensors and new GPS-enabled transponders. No sweeping radars required.

That could drastically change the game for en route operations. However, the 2020 adoption deadline for aircraft operators is still a ways away, the ADS-B sensor system is not yet fully installed, and the ATC system’s infrastructure is still not ready for the green light.

No matter the technology or the tools involved, the ATC concept stays the same. Ol’ Nutjob may have retired a couple years ago, but his legacy lives on. Whenever I’m training a new controller and they’re struggling a little bit, I muster up my most obnoxious southern accent and tell ‘em, “Just put ‘em where they ain’t.”

Mark 1 Eyeball

As good as radar is, nothing beats good vision. Aptly named “visual separation” regulations allow controllers to run airplanes tighter than radar alone.

The most obvious visual separation is pilot-provided. ATC issues traffic to you, the pilot. You report the other aircraft in sight. Then you’re told, “Maintain visual separation from that traffic.” You can save everyone a transmission and just say, “Traffic in sight. Will maintain visual separation.” The controller’s separation responsibility is ended. It’s up to you not to hit the other guy.

Tower controllers have the most flexibility. First, they can use the same radar rules as the radar facility overseeing them. But, inside their own limited airspace, they can put those big tower cab windows to use, grab some binoculars if needed, and visually ensure their airplanes aren’t running together.

Picture an IFR Gulfstream IV on a three-mile final to a 5000-foot runway. From the tower, I can see the GIV’s landing lights in the distance. I clear an IFR Cessna 310 for takeoff with runway heading. The C310 is about a half mile off the departure end when the GIV touches down. That mile and a half isn’t enough for any radar, but, I could clearly see they weren’t going to conflict.

Visual separation helps tower separate IFR practice instrument approaches from arrivals and departures. Imagine you’re on a one mile final for Runway 18. From the tower, I tell you to execute your missed approach and climb on heading 045, and I immediately clear an IFR Airbus for takeoff from the crossing runway 9. As the ‘bus lifts eastbound you’re turning through 090 a mile off his left. There’s no divergence and you’re under three miles, but I don’t need either right now. I can clearly see you’re no factor for each other, and I switch the A321 to departure. Once I verify that you’ve turned through 075 degrees—establishing radar course divergence for the TRACON radar guys—I can switch you, too.

Visual separation is a wonderful convenience, but has a few catches. It’s obviously vulnerable to weather obscuration. In IMC, radar rules apply. The C310 would need to wait for the GIV to land, and I’d have to hold the Airbus until you were well into your turn to 045. Also, visual separation is not allowed in Class A airspace. If you’re climbing high, ATC needs to ensure vertical or horizontal radar separation between you and other traffic before you reach flight level 180. —TK

Tarrance Kramer always keeps the basics in mind as he works traffic in the southern U.S.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of IFR magazine.

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Every once in a while, it’s fun to cast off the wispy tendrils connecting sanity to what passes for reality these days and consider a real crack pipe concept: What if Elon Musk made airplanes? This occurred to me this week when the news broke that tech billionaire Jeff Bezos plans to build a giant rocket called the New Glenn. (Catchy name.)

Despite my throwing a little shade at Musk last week after one of his rockets blew up—I mean burned rapidly—you have to give the man his due. He founded SpaceX only in 2002, but since then, he has become the runaway success story in the private launch business, having launched 29 Falcon 9 boosters and landed a $1.6 billion contract for NASA missions, plus a lot of other satellite business. Seven more launches are planned before the end of the year, assuming SpaceX figures out fairly quickly why the last one failed on the pad.

While that’s impressive, the bigger story is how much cheaper SpaceX claims to be doing these launches compared to its chief rival, United Launch Alliance, a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed. Even the Chinese can’t match SpaceX’s launch costs. ULA is cagey about its launch prices, but what data is available from sources like suggest that SpaceX gets a Falcon payload into low earth orbit for about $62 million, while ULA charges$164 million for an Atlas V, although the real number could be higher. If SpaceX gets its reusable first-stage to work out, its costs might shrink to $48 million and some customers are wishing for $30 million as though they expect to get it. Getting there will require a certain volume formula, since SpaceX will need a pool of recovered cores to refurb for the next flight. 

Twenty years ago—even 10, maybe—few in the aerospace business would have said this magnitude in cost reduction to orbit would have been possible for the same reasons those of us who think we know about airplanes say the prices of new ones will never come down. You can see where I’m going here. If I apply Musknomics to, say, a $380,000 new Cessna 172, the price would drop to $114,000, using the best-case numbers. And a really nice LSA would cost $40,000, just like so many people have told me they were promised it would. (They weren’t; they imagined it.) Anyway, wouldn’t this be interesting?

What Musk may be proving is that the military-industrial complex has built a lot of margin into rockets sold to the moneybags government and competition may be about to trim that. Let’s hear it for private enterprise space initiatives! Blue Origin promises to bring yet more competition to the launch business and this will no doubt tank the Russian’s habit of charging $82 million for a seat to the ISS.

Before the hallucinogenic wears off, I’ll deconstruct the airplane dream. First of all, I don’t think Elon Musk is a sociopath and it takes at least sociopathic tendencies to voluntary start building airplanes. And how did he accomplish these remarkable economics anyway, given that he’s trained in physics and business and is by no means a rocket scientist? 

As Air and Space’s Andrew Chaikin explains in this article, SpaceX has done it by building a much simplified booster system that uses the same engine for all stages. Furthermore, at every phase of manufacture, it seeks commonality of parts and materials to reduce tooling and acquisition costs. By comparison, ULA’s Atlas V is a more complex rocket, requiring different engines and fuels for each stage. But because of its complex configurations, it can also lift payloads the Falcon 9 can’t. 

Then there’s the market, or lack thereof. Around 2000, when NASA was planning to exit the launch business, Musk saw an opportunity with not many players competing. He seized it and now enjoys strong demand for his launch services. He got into rockets because it interested him.

The market dynamic in GA is entirely different, of course, but in the odd delusional moment, think what GA might be like if a new Cessna 172 really did cost $114,000. Would it fundamentally reset the market? Or how about a $40,000 LSA? Musk set out to turn the cost of space travel on its head and he’s come close to delivering. We do know he’s talked about an electric supersonic airplane and has a design in mind. I can think of crazier things. (Even Musk himself has described his Mars colonization plan as “entertaining.”)

One hill SpaceX has yet to climb is long-term reliability at a high launch cadence, which NASA, at least, will want for man rating Musk’s rockets. In 29 attempts, and counting the launch pad fire earlier this month, SpaceX has lost two boosters for a 93 percent score. Competitor ULA is 60 for 60 on the Atlas V and looking back at NASA’s record for manned flight, Mercury-Redstone, Mercury-Atlas, Gemini-Titan and Apollo-Saturn manned launches were all 100 percent. The Space Shuttle had one launch failure for a score of 99.3 percent. (The Columbia entry loss was not a launch failure.)

If SpaceX’s current score had been applied to the Shuttle, it would have translated to 10 vehicle losses and would have been untenable. Even for unmanned launches, the military has been willing to pay ULA’s higher launch costs for its expensive spy satellites, evidently figuring the Atlas’ demonstrated reliability is worth it. Still, given SpaceX’s short history, the record is impressive.

At this point, SpaceX is thought to be profitable, although because it’s closely held, no one outside the company knows for sure. If it is, Musk has established a new paradigm by radically reducing the cost to get into space while still making money at it. If only he could do the same for the black hole economics of airplane manufacturing.   

The foregoing is opinion and commentary based on disclosed facts. AVweb welcomes other points of view, including guest blogs.

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A group of Canadian pilots will bring history to life by flying replica First World War fighters over a ceremony commemorating the Battle of Vimy Ridge next April.


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Hundreds of pilots filled a theater in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on Wednesday to watch a preview of Sully, the much-hyped account of the Miracle on the Hudson. There were some minor quibbles but Sandy Dubrow, who was among the pilots, told AVweb's Russ Niles the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.


Heard anything funny, unusual, or downright shocking on the radio lately? If you've been flying any length of time, you're sure to have eavesdropped on a few memorable exchanges. The ones that gave you a chuckle may do the same for your fellow AVweb readers. Share your radio funny with us, and, if we use it in a future "Short Final," we'll send you a sharp-looking AVweb hat to sport around your local airport. No joke.

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