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Like everything else surrounding the future Donald Trump presidency, the predicted impact on aviation is as varied and as, well, unpredictable as the campaign that led the country to this point. Depending on who is being asked, the predictions range from doom and gloom, through cautious optimism to somewhat less cautious optimism. We didn’t find any jubilation among the dozens of aviation reaction stories but the overall theme seemed to reflect a generally positive response with a healthy dose of wait-and-see. Perhaps the most curious, and quickest, reaction came from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). NATCA had a fractious relationship with the Republican administration of George W. Bush but wasted no time welcoming Trump and that could be a reflection of the general belief that Trump will back privatization of the air traffic organization.

“We look forward to working with the new Administration to secure a stable, predictable funding stream for the NAS,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi and VP Trish Gilbert said in a joint statement. “This will be essential to protecting the system and the workforce that safeguards it, while also implementing modernization efforts and providing air travelers the safety and professionalism they deserve.” That mirrors NATCA’s sentiment when it supported a privatization bid contained in an early version of the current FAA reauthorization but with the House and Senate now both controlled by the Republicans, the kind of legislative gridlock that hampered FAA operations at times in the previous eight years shouldn’t be as much of an issue. But the pro-privatization lobby that surfaced earlier this year seems to have been re-energized by the Trump victory.

Rep. Bill Shuster, who championed privatization, won reelection last week and is still the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He seemed to be saying there will be another kick at that can with the Trump administration in that the FAA reauthorization expires next September. “Congress must pass an FAA reauthorization bill that modernizes our aging air traffic control system and significantly improves the efficiency of our aviation system,” Shuster said last week. The well-organized airline lobby is ready to advance the idea again. “We want to see a reliable ATC funding model – funded by the system users, not political gamesmanship – so that we can plan for the long-term capital improvements the system needs to grow,” Airlines For America (A4A) said in a news release last week.

There seems to be widespread hope that airports and other aviation services will get a slice of the trillion dollars Trump has said will be spent on infrastructure improvements. There never seems to be enough money for all the safety and service improvements that airports and associated organizations want to make, but Trump’s pledge was to fund projects to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals” in his first 100 days in office. What the priorities will be for that funding is anyone’s guess.

On the manufacturing side, Trump’s often-stated protectionist bent is a concern but his desire to increase military spending is a plus. China was often a target for Trump’s protectionist speeches during the campaign and it’s also Boeing’s biggest offshore market. It’s been less attractive for general aviation manufacturers but there remains hope that a huge market could emerge if and when China embraces Western-style aviation.

Trump’s protectionism could also manifest in support for U.S. airlines’ opposition to the rapid expansion of state-sponsored airlines from the Middle East. International carriers like American, United and Delta have long argued against increased access to American airports by Qatar and Emirates Airlines in particular, saying the carriers are syphoning off customers on lucrative long-haul routes in violation of international standards.

Trump’s call for a larger military will likely mean more security for big programs like the new B-21 stealth bomber, the P-8 Poseidon program and new tanker contracts but it could also reach down to innovative initiatives like the Textron Airland light attack Scorpion and armed versions of the T-6 Texan II.

Much has been made of Trump’s existing ownership of four private aircraft, the Boeing 757 that crisscrossed the U.S. during the campaign, a Cessna Citation X and two Sikorsky S-76B helicopters. But there’s no evidence that the ownership has inspired any particular fondness for private aviation. The 757 is lavishly laid out as an executive aircraft but Trump rarely acknowledges its value as a campaign or business tool.

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As GAMA released another disappointing aircraft production report this week, the Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia recently told the National Air Transportation Association that market data suggests next year won’t be much better. And although Teal says it’s “cautiously confident” that things won’t get worse, Aboulafia told us in this AVweb podcast that we’re far from the disastrous days of 2009. 

“We’re not in freefall. This may be a disappointment. We’re not in a 2009 situation,” Aboulafia told us. Nonetheless, for the near term through the 2020 time frame, there are no market trends that suggest a strong uptick. “No one wants to use the phrase the ‘new normal,” but it sure looks like the new normal to me,” Aboulafia says. “It looks as if the recovery doesn’t seem to be gaining momentum. We’ve actually lost a little ground over the past couple of years,” he adds.

Teal’s global data shows business aircraft production was down 6.3 percent during 2014-15, regional jet production declined by 10.5 percent and civil rotorcraft were off by 9.4 percent. GAMA data shows that piston production declined from 1030 units in 2013 to 783 in 2015, a retreat of 24 percent. Piston production increased by 16 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Teal’s data paints a complex explanation for the decline and although there’s a connection between world GDP and aircraft demand, the curve isn’t a perfect fit. After the crash of 2008, world GDP recovered tepidly with an uptick curve, but aircraft deliveries flattened. Aboulafia described what he calls the “great bifurcation” in 2008, where the top half of the business aircraft market—both in size of aircraft and cost—grew sharply while the lower end plummeted even more dramatically.

“And the growth that we’ve seen in the so-called recovery was all at the top end. And that’s where we’re seeing some damage now, primarily due to low oil prices, weak emerging markets and an unfortunately changing business culture in China,” Aboulafia says. 

Another less obvious business cultural change shown by Aboulafia’s data is sharply reduced aircraft utilization. On a per aircraft basis, it’s 11 percent from a high in 2007 and the recovery curve since then has been a shallow climb. “There seems to be some sort of shift underway in how business aircraft are appreciated and used. That’s not good for utilization," Aboulafia says.

One way manufacturers have responded to this is ever larger aircraft. The three top producers, Gulfstream, Dassualt and Bombardier, are proposing yet larger, wider cabin airplanes. Cessna recently introduced its largest cabin, the Citation Hemisphere. “I think they’re thinking, ‘If we can’t sell in units, we can in dollars,’” says Aboulafia.

This has implications for FBOs and MROs and aftermarket businesses modeled on high volume. The market, says Aboulafia, is currently going in the opposite direction. See a further analysis of Teal's data in today's AVweb blog.

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The National Transportation Safety Board is trying a new tactic--patience--in its bid to have regulators respond to its recommendations. The board will announce its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements at a press conference in Washington Monday. But instead of being replaced by another list a year from now, this one will languish for two years since it’s rare for any of the recommendations to be acted upon in 12 months or less. “The change allows more time for the transportation industry, safety advocates, regulatory agencies and individuals to effect the changes necessary to address the 10 issues on the Most Wanted List,” the NTSB said in a news release.

The release of the list is a chance for the impartial and apolitical NTSB to give a few digs at the regulators and companies in the transportation industry for their notorious foot dragging on safety issues that inevitably cost money. A few general aviation topics generally make the list and NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said this one won’t disappoint. “I can tell you that there will be items of interest to those covering general aviation,” he said in an email invitation to the news conference.

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Textron Aviation continues to roll back its Wichita workforce, laying off an undisclosed number of employees this week amid a softer year for jet sales. The cuts follow previous layoffs amid a restructuring in October and the company’s announcement in September it is offering early retirement incentives. Textron, comprising the Cessna and Beechcraft aircraft lines, was last reported to have about 9,500 area employees, the Wichita Business Journal reported Friday. “In line with the actions previously announced, Textron Aviation is taking action to streamline our business through workforce reductions in order to improve our overall operating efficiency,” Textron told the Journal. “Our focus remains on bringing products and services to market that help our customers achieve success.” 

To that end, Textron’s focus remains on its expanding Citation bizjet line with new offerings, which the company has said will boost profits in a challenging market. The midsize Citation Latitude is up to 40 deliveries as of the end of October in its first year in service, according to The Wichita Eagle. Meanwhile, Textron’s upcoming super-midsize Citation Longitude recently began test flights and the Hemisphere, Cessna’s largest bizjet, is under development. 

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New Zealand-based Pacific Aerospace has acquired the ownership and manufacturing rights of the E-350 Expedition bush plane from legendary Canadian company Found Aircraft. The E-350, which is certified in the U.S. and Canada, will be manufactured at Pacific Aerospace’s headquarters in Hamilton, New Zealand, starting next summer. The E-350 Expedition is a cross-country cruising aircraft, a rugged backcountry bush plane and a high-performance float plane, said Pacific Aerospace chief executive Damian Camp. 

It was designed and built at Found’s Parry Sound, Ontario, facilities. Only a few aircraft went into service but the aircraft earned positive reviews when it was introduced. Pacific Aerospace does not say if it has also acquired the type certificates for Found’s earlier aircraft, the Bush Hawk series. Found went out of business in 2013. “E-350 is a five-seat short take-off and landing capable aircraft able to carry heavy loads into some of the world’s most challenging airstrips,” Camp said. Pacific Aerospace makes the P-750 XSTOL, a big low-wing utility aircraft “with extreme take-off and landing capabilities.”

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The first female member of a Chinese military demonstration team died in in an unrelated accident on Sunday. Yu Xu was unable to eject from the J-10 fighter she and another pilot were flying. The other pilot was able to get out but was injured in the ejection. The mishap was the latest in a string of at least five J-10 crashes in the past two years. Yu was one of 16 women in the Chinese military’s first intake of female fighter pilot trainees in 2005. She was one of four females qualified on the J-10, a single-engine jet that looks a lot like an F-16.

A few weeks ago, Yu performed as part of the August 1st aerobatics team, which flies J-10s, at the Zhuhai Air Show. The team is named for the founding date of the People’s Liberation Army and is based at Yangcun Air Force Base near Tianjin. “The morale of the aerobatics team will be hit. There has not been an incident like this for the team for a long time,” Macau military analyst Anthony Wong Dong told the South China Morning Post. There were no details released on the accident.

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On a corporate flight from Utah to Southern California, Center informed us of traffic, opposite direction and above.  While flying in RVSM territory 1000 feet is plenty of clearance but still looks close.  

Learjet: Nice tie.

I guess you had to be there but it was humorous to me at the time. 


 

Michael Hollister

(Editor’s note: In the last 20 years the development, deployment and proliferation of Single-Engine Air Tankers (SEAT), nimble fire fighting airplanes converted from the biggest turbine crop dusters, has caused significant changes in the way forest fires are fought. While not able to carry as much fire retardant as the multi-engine tankers, they are faster to dispatch and often are the best way to keep smaller fires from becoming big ones. The following is taken from the blog of Dr. Stan Musick, a SEAT pilot flying 1600-horsepower Air Tractor AT-802s by summer and physician and warbird airshow pilot the rest of the year.)

Oregon is on fire. Fires have names. “Kitten” (innocent sounding, for such a nasty fire). “Black Butte” (sounds more like the fire it was…off a butte, down in a canyon, burning in between lava rocks). I never knew lava would burn (of course, the lava isn’t burning, but the vegetation that is in between the rocks does. Brogan (I always think of my Grandad’s shoes), Juniper (now there’s a fire name that sounds like an “out west” fire name should sound).

In the past two days we have flown almost constantly. All of the above fires have had repetitive visits from SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers). The daily battle has become, well, routine. “Show time” (the time to arrive at the base) here is usually 0800, other bases usually are at 0900. The plane has to be preflighted, oil checked, and if I’m in a new-to-me plane, I have to set up the cockpit. Rudder pedals are critical—too much travel, and you can’t put that jab of rudder in at the right moment to keep the big taildragger straight, too little travel and your feet are cramped up and you are miserable. I’ve learned to check the radios. Even though our company planes are well standardized, a couple of them have “secret switches” on the radios, and it’s mandatory to make sure they’ll work. I had the “learning experience” of getting dispatched on a fire, got in a new-to-me plane, and loaded, ready to take off—and couldn’t make the radios work. Finally found the switch, all went well, but there were a few minutes of embarrassing silence.

Morning brief is highly variable. Sometimes it’s really brief –“Today, same as yesterday. Any questions?” Sometimes, it’s excruciating, sort of death by PowerPoint. The briefer will read sheet after sheet of paper printed out from the USFS, BLM, BIA, NOAA, and they’ll have much of the same information. Here the briefing is done by one of the Fire Incident Commanders, and it’s highly professional, with enough detail to know what to expect for the day, know where the new TFR (Temporary Flight Restrictions) are, and any other issues.

The past two days, we almost immediately got a dispatch, put on our flight suits, headed to the planes, and started. Lining up for our loads, we get clearance in and out of the “pit”, and then taxi for takeoff. Once in the air, get “cleaned up”, and then call dispatch. “Burns dispatch, Tanker 892 on Direct, off Burns, enroute to Black Butte. 3 hours and 30 minutes of fuel, 18 minutes enroute, one SOB”. Those of us who trained “back in the old days”, still say “SOB” for “souls on board”. There are days when we really mean it.

Dispatch calls back with confirmation of AFF (automated flight following), an we’re off to the fire. AFF eliminates the requirement for 15 minute check-ins, and reduces the amount of radio traffic on the frequency.

The mighty 802 pulls along, soon we’re into cooler air, and the scenery rolls by at a stately pace. Those are the minutes that soothe those of us that have a pilot soul. Then it is time to check in with the “Air Attack”. Air Attack (officially known as ATGS), orbits over the fire, communicates with the ground forces, coordinates the helicopters, the SEATs, and the heavy air tankers. He (it’s almost always a “he”), coordinates with dispatch, and sometimes “sells us” to another fire that has a greater need. More than once this summer I’ve been enroute to one fire, and suddenly I get diverted to another one. “Black Butte Air Attack, Tanker 892, 15 miles out”.

“Hi 892. Altimeter 30.02, come in at 6000, we’re at 7500, helicopter at 4500, another SEAT at 5000.”

“892 copies 6000, 3002.” I motor on towards the fire. The column of smoke has been visible for some time, and now I can see the flames. The butte is quite pretty, the fire has burned along the drainage (the common descriptor for terrain that falls away—where water would drain), and is among the lava rocks. I watch the prior SEAT make a drop, a nice line of retardant “tying in” with my prior drop. I still see no ground forces.

“Tanker 892, Air Attack. No one is here on the ground yet. Do you see where the prior SEAT just dropped?”

“Affirmative.”

“Above his end point, on the top of the butte, I want to paint a line along the edge. Coverage level 1, taper it along the edge of the butte”

This is going to be cool. The butte edge is flat (always making life easier—the day prior I had dropped on the fire dropping over the edge of the butte at about 10 feet, pushing over and going straight downhill toward the fire). I set the computer for a coverage level 1, and put it on “pilot control”. Much of the time we set the computer for a known amount to drop, and just push the switch, and the computer controls the rate and the gallonage.

I drop in along the edge of the butte, and fly along dropping retardant. I call off the fire, and look as I turn out to head for the “load and return”. Nice! One of my best drops. I’m still learning how to adjust for wind drift, and I was hoping that I hadn’t let my load drift off the edge of the cliff, it wouldn’t do much good there. I was rewarded with a nice pretty line along the edge.

I call in to dispatch, let them know my estimated time back to base, and settle in for the flight back. The 802, carrying nothing but me, fuel, and itself, feels happy and light. I relax, take in the scenery, look over all the instruments, and then do a quick estimate on my next load calculation. Prior to each load, we have to know the pressure altitude, the temperature, our fuel load, and the gallons of retardant. We plug all that in, and make sure our performance, weight, and allowable takeoff weight are all acceptable. I’ve learned to do as much of that as possible prior to landing, because the turnarounds can be quick.

Arriving back at base, a quick call to dispatch to let them know “landing assured,” call base, tell them “load and return,” then announce position on Unicom. I land, taxi in, and pull up to the loading hose. My driver/loader, David, offers me water each time. I’ve learned—don’t drink too much water. We get another 750 gallons loaded, and the process repeats. Yesterday we flew 4.1 hours, the day before flew 6.4 hours.

The worst part of the day is when we have to quit.

The Mighty 802

Our SEAT is the Air Tractor AT-802. Genealogists would have a great time tracing the family lineage, from Leland Snow’s first creation of a crop duster in South Texas back in the 50s, to his move to Olney, and his Snow, Thrush and Air Tractor planes. Throughout much of the agricultural land of the nation, Thrushes and Air Tractors race back and forth across fields, stopping insects, fungus, and weeds; putting out seed and fertilizer.

Flying the 802 is intimidating at first. It’s a big airplane. You don’t walk up and get in. You climb up steps, stand on the wing, and carefully placing a foot on the (tiny) footrest you lift yourself up to check the oil. You then climb into the window of the plane, holding onto an impossibly small piece of welding rod attached to the roof of the cabin, and lower yourself into the seat. Caution is advised, because it’s a long way down to the ground. Leland made it crashworthy, not safe to climb into.

The Fire Gate system, which dispenses the load of water or fire retardant, is an excellent piece of engineering. Different coverage levels can be selected, the gate is computer-controlled to allow dropping of fairly precise amounts of retardant, and it allows everything from a quick “bump” of the gate to drop off 50 or so gallons, to a “double bump” which releases the whole load, all at once. Pilots have been known to accidentally “double bump,” or even hold the button when working down a particularly exciting run. The designer quite correctly assumed that if a pilot was so involved with things that he gripped the handle too tightly, he might be in a spot requiring a quick reduction in load, so that too will “auto-salvo” the entire load.

I can verify that procedure works.

After spending years starting the old radials, the turbine start seems strangely simple. Starter on, observe enough engine rpm (engine speed), and add fuel. Keep an eye on the temperatures, and if they start to get too high, turn the fuel off, and keep the starter running to keep an expensive flame from burning too hot. You would correctly assume that it’s not exactly that simple, or they would start student pilots on turbines, and only after lots of experience would they get to learn to start piston engines. The reality is that most of us start on pistons, where the mistakes usually aren’t expensive, and the worst thing that typically happens is that you drain the battery or burn out a starter. On a turbine, even a brief mistake in the procedure can completely destroy the engine in seconds. Accidentally let off the start switch at a critical point in the light-off? Expensive. Move the “condition lever” (us piston guys would think of it as the mixture) too far too fast? Expensive. Introduce fuel prior to a high enough rpm in the gas generator? Expensive. Attempted restart too soon, or downwind? Expensive.

Once the engine is started, “in feather” (prop blades turned sideways, so the prop turns much slower than when the blades are ready to take a “bite” of air), all is confirmed ready, the avionics (radios) are turned on, and the air conditioner is fired up. Ah, the bliss of the air conditioner. Taxi is similar to the T6, with a tail wheel that is either “locked” or “unlocked”. No steering. You use the rudder to full travel, then a tap of brake to move the monster in the desired direction.

Action 

It had been ten long days.  Ten days of getting up, showing up at briefing, pre-flighting the plane…..and sitting.  Ten days of walking the ramp, watching the jack rabbits chase the cottontails.  Ten days of counting quail. Ten days of taking naps, watching the gradual edginess sneaking up on everyone. In the “fire business”, we have a strange relationship with fire.  We hate it—the phrase “fighting fire” indicates the passion with which we try to put it out; we love it—every fire fighter, from the newest ground guy to the oldest semi-retired experienced chief lights up when dispatched, and we miss it when we don’t see any fire.

A day or two without a dispatch is okay. Three or four days starts to make you a bit cranky.  More than that….and the irritability seems to rule. Habits of other men that ordinarily amuse you seem to indicate need for urgent mental evaluation to see if they need to be committed.

This morning dawned bright. A small storm moved through during the night, with lightning. Up on the hill above the town, a smoke was sighted. A dispatch is received. I have my loader start mixing a load of retardant mud and go through my “dress up drill.” It involves shedding tennis shoes, moving stuff from shirt and pants pockets and putting on the “monkey suit,” the mandated Nomex flight suit.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of Nomex, it’s a fabric that is—ostensibly—designed to never burn. If it gets hot enough, it simply fades into dust. The idea is that if you are in a fire, it gives you some protection, and importantly, doesn’t add to your burns. Nylon will melt and stick to your remaining skin. Cotton merely burns faster and adds to the fire. That’s the good part of Nomex. The bad side of Nomex is it takes an outside air temperature that’s merely tolerable and transforms it into unbearable. It retains sweat, odor and moisture and, I think, is designed to smell like a dirty tennis shoe.

Monkey suit is on, pockets suitably charged—have to have the reading glasses handy, the cell phone has a calculator for doing the mandated load calculations, keep a knife in a lower leg pocket just in case—and try to make sure that nothing is poking me in an uncomfortable or embarrassing way. Remember, we’re going flying in the mountains, in hot weather, with significant winds and gusts. That translates into a Disney E-ticket ride. Put your shoulder harness and seat belt on tightly, boys and girls, as the ride may cause you to shift in your seat. Something that ordinarily is merely slightly uncomfortable in a car seat can give you misery in a bouncing plane, when you are tightly bound to said plane.

Today, the flight suit went on easily.  I love the rhythm.  The “mudders” working off hand signals connect the loading hose.  As I’m putting on the belts, I give the signal to load.  The meter showing gallons (of retardant) climbs rapidly.  I spin the big PT-6 over, watching the ITT (temperature) and the gallons simultaneously.

Nice smooth start.  My baby is running right.  Gallons climbing through 350—headed to 700. I’ve got to climb 4000 feet in six miles, so don’t want too much, and I’m full of fuel.  Quickly I page the GPS over to “user waypoint,” enter the name (“Ridgetop”), the latitude/longitude, then punch “direct/enter.”  Gallons now at 585; stay focused on the meter.  Don’t want too much, don’t want too little.

Arm out the window at 675, ease down starting at 685—nailed it.  (The flow meter later revealed it to be 704 gallons…I’ll take it!)  The view through the hopper window confirms that the load is close to the 700 gallon line on the window. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most fool-proof gauge we have. It’s 700 gallons.

Call into base…”T-8XX is on the roll.” Time is received; written down on the log.  We keep a current weight and balance on our knee board, including times…to the minute. The knee board log is crucial.  We are to do a W&B calculation on each load. The numbers come quickly—empty weight 7144; plus my weight; plus fuel, 302 gallons at 6.6 lbs/gallon; plus 700 gallons of retardant at 9.3 lbs/gallon—15,887 pounds.  That’s 13 pounds below gross weight.  Outside temperature is 85 degrees.  Not quite hot enough to trigger a temperature limitation on the engine.

I make the call on Unicom, “T–8XX taxiing from base to runway 32”.  In an odd sort of way, once the window is closed and the radio call made, I’m “in the cocoon.”  A feeling of peace comes over me.  We’re going.

Pre-takeoff checks are done on the roll.  “T-8XX departing runway 32.”  Power up to the torque limit, quick engine gauge check done, emergency dump armed.  The 1600-horsepower PT6 surges with power, and the heavy air tractor sluggishly moves forward. Slowly the airspeed climbs, and the controls come alive.

The tail comes up, and I “feel” the control stick aft. A classic move in the 802 is to ease one wheel off, then the other, and hold the plane in ground effect as it accelerates. At this weight, simply getting the drag of the tires and wheels off the ground allows more acceleration. The end of the runway is approaching at about 100 MPH, and I ease the left wheel off, then the right, and feel the 802 leave the ground. The stall warning chirps, and I stay in ground effect as the Air Tractor—yeah, it flies like a tractor—accelerates.  The flaps are bumped up just a tiny bit, to that magic point at which the extra lift is more than offsets the drag.

The approaching farm house goes by about 50 feet below and several hundred feet off to the right. A gentle turn puts me on course towards the fire.  Slowly accelerating, the 802 becomes more lively, and I gently and intermittently tweak off the flaps.

The fire is high on the nearby mountain.  It’s only about 6.9 miles from the end of the runway, but the airport elevation is 4300 feet above sea level.  The fire is about 8000 feet above sea level, so it means a steady climb. I head towards the nearest hill. Approaching at a 45-degree angle, I get as close as I can and ride the air upwards. On the windward side of the hill, the air rises, just as water climbs to get over a rock.  I position the tanker in that rising air, and climb along the edge of the mountain, slowing each time I find rising air. Better to stay longer in the air that is upward bound.

Checking in with Dispatch (we contact them on the way to and from the fire, as they are watching on the Automated Flight Following—AFF), which gives them our number, speed, and direction, “Air Attack, Tanker 8XX 5 miles, climbing.”

“Roger, 8XX, cleared in at 8500 feet, just me and you out here right now.”

Working up and down the ridge, I get to the altitude specified, give Air Attack a call and let him know I’m inbound. 

“8XX, you see the ridge with the prior retardant drop?”

Yes, I do, it went a bit long, but the terrain’s steep—very steep, and judging by the smoke the wind is moving pretty good up here. I set up for the drop he wants, a split load, indirect. I’m anticipating a strong tailwind. I put it right where I want it to go, but it’s not exactly what he had in mind. One of the difficulties of the job is the ever-present need to understand, by verbal description only, what Air Attack wants. He wanted it “more direct,” more on top of the fire. Okay, I can do that.

I come around, set up over the ridge again, and on short final I see the flames. Okay, brother, there you go. I give the second half of my retardant load to the fire, get a firm “Attaboy” from Air Attack, and head out for another load. Tony is one of the good Air Attacks. Lets you know when it’s not what he wants, but when it is, it’s affirmed.

Back to Dispatch on the radio, call base, then make the pattern radio calls. This feels good. The drill, the rhythm, all somehow speak to that internal part of me that matches this job. Loaders are ready, rapidly attaching the hose, loading, releasing, and off we go again. The drill is repeated.

This time the fire is boxed in on all sides but one. Air Attack wants the load across the head of the fire, where it has backed across the ridge into a bowl. The best approach to it is to come out of a right turn, make a sharp turn across a spur ridge, drop over the spur ridge and make a turning drop “slinging” the load into the line across the upper edge of the bowl.

“Exactly what I wanted, 8XX.”

Seeing that retardant line laid in along the edge of the flame made the day great.

I love this job.

Stan Musick is an antesthologist with a flying problem. He practices medicine nine months of the year; in summers he flies a SEAT fighting forest fires in the western U.S.; on weekends he can be found flying airshows in a T-6, P-51 or Corsair. Material in this article is pulled from his blog at www.cafmustang.com.

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AVweb Insider

In aviation, we are often steadfastly parochial in the way we try to understand the waning fortunes of the industry. We are stubbornly revanchist in viewing past glories as a template for tomorrow and we’re happy to blame FAA regulations and manufacturers who just don’t know to how to sell airplanes. While I’m sure those influences are factors, I’ve always believed there are larger forces afoot.

In this podcast with Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia, you can hear a long-form discussion on the topic as it relates to business aircraft. But he agrees that some of the same forces affect piston sales. His deep dive into the data was done for a presentation to the National Air Transport Association this week, an organization that represents FBOs, MROs and support companies.

I found his findings illuminating. The data shows that if there ever was a recovery, it wasn’t much of one and it’s over by now. In AVweb, I’ve made it an official rule that we don’t use the word recovery. Doing so is denial of the fact that we may be in the midst of sea change in which the aircraft market takes on new characteristics that may involve lower volume.

One of those is already obvious. Aboulafia calls it the “great bifurcation” and it occurred in 2008. The bizjet market split dramatically, with aircraft costing more than $26 million showing strong growth and those under $26 million dropping off a cliff. The reasons for this are hard to know for sure, but Aboulafia thinks it’s a combination of low-end aircraft buyers—if a $26 million airplane can be called that—being discretionary users more subject to third-party financing and sensitive to business cycle changes. Less expensive airplanes also have more fractional exposure; more users, fewer airplanes. The top half tends to sell in offshore markets that remained intact and many may be head-of-state or high net worth individual airplanes.

This trend is clearly visible in light piston sales, too, albeit probably for different reasons. Repeatedly, we see that cheap airplanes don’t sell. It’s true of certified pistons and LSAs alike. There’s a value consideration related to features and cost and less expensive airplanes don’t qualify. So we should drop the futile insistence that cheaper airplanes will expand the market. If it was ever true, it’s not true now.

And anyway, bizjets are getting steadily more expensive. Aboulafia’s data shows that the value of new business aircraft is closely tied to corporate profits. But units aren’t. In 2008, profits plummeted, but the dollar value of total aircraft shipped did the opposite. Since 2010, they’ve come back into alignment. I’ve written about this perverse distortion of supply and demand previously, but it continues to be true.

Aircraft sales also reliably track global GDP. As it rises, so does the value—not the number of units—of aircraft sold. Here, the news is not good. The IMF has consistently overestimated global GDP rise and is expecting 3.5 percent into 2017. We’ll see. In the U.S., growth has averaged an anemic 2 percent or less for the past five years and the rest of the industrialized world is doing little better. During the recently concluded election cycle, some debate—or what little meaningful debate there was—centered on reducing the corporate tax to stimulate the economy. Whether this happens or not, it’s unlikely to affect aircraft sales, Aboulafia believes. Corporate profits are at record highs and many companies are swimming in cash. So for whatever reasons they aren’t buying more airplanes, lack of money is not one of them. Aboulafia thinks one possibility is that we’re simply in a lost decade and companies are trying to get over the trauma of 2008, to resume a bullish outlook at the end of the decade. This is supported by plummeting used aircraft transactions; owners and operators are keeping what they’ve got, not replacing.

But there’s another possibility. The data shows that aircraft utilization is down; companies have the airplanes, but they’re not using them as much as they once did, despite the lowest fuel costs this decade. For 2015, aircraft usage was down 11.2 percent from the 2007 peak and was similar to usage in 2002. Does this portend a shift in business culture and practices? Have businesses found some efficiencies that encourage them to travel less? Have stockholders and boards cautioned CEOs to ease up on bizjet travel?

We don’t have the information to know this. As noted, the hot part of the market is jets costing more than $26 million, but these aren’t necessarily business aircraft, but high net worth owners. And there’s some erosion there too, caused by, of all things, persistently low oil prices.  

The manufacturers seem to be betting on the top half of the market. The three leaders—Gulfstream, Bombardier and Dassault—are envisioning models even beyond the super-size large cabins they’re selling now. Cessna has the Citation Hemisphere, its largest jet ever. If it sustains, this trend has implications. It means fewer overall units, fewer jobs in the companies that build them and less business for the FBOs and MROs that service them. Lower aircraft use may also figure into the equation.

With the IMF hardly bullish on world economic growth, I wonder where aircraft fit into a popular current economic theory called secular stagnation. Basically, it posits that current slow growth is beyond the normal business cycle but rather the effect of slow population growth and lack of propelling technology, such as automobiles in the 1920s, jet aircraft and interstate highways in the 1960s and the rise of the internet in the 1990s. In the U.S., population growth is at a 65-year low.

Rising productivity has reached a temporary peak, but modern businesses have lower capital requirements and need fewer employees because of the integration of digital technology and automation. Higher productivity means many goods are cheaper than they ever have been, but take fewer jobs to produce. In this landscape, airplanes are exactly the reverse. Across the board and adjusted for inflation, they are more expensive than they have ever been, not having benefitted to the same degree in productivity gains that other products have. Manufacturers appear to sustain themselves on a higher-cost/lower-unit strategy.

If overall growth remains low, aircraft sales are likely to do the same. The next big animator in the general economy is almost certain to be increased automation and integration in everything. Unknown is what effect this will have on how companies use airplanes, but it suggests the kind of insourcing that’s been accelerating for the last five years. At some point in the not-that-distant future, autonomous vehicles of all kinds will begin to influence the equation.

With the backdrop of all this uncertainty, Aboulafia says at least the jet side of GA is still a growth industry, even if the growth is modest. He thinks there may be an uptick in orders in 2018 or 2019 as the normal replacement cycle kicks in. If there still is such a thing as normal.     

Lightspeed recently introduced its Tango noise-cancelling headset. The new product is wireless, so there's no hard connection between the headset and the panel. AVweb's Elaine Kauh gave the Tango a wring out and here's her video report.

As GAMA released another disappointing aircraft production report this week, the Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia recently told the National Air Transportation Association that market data suggests next year won’t be much better. And although Teal says it’s “cautiously confident” that things won’t get worse, Aboulafia told us in this AVweb podcast that we’re far from the disastrous days of 2009.

Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

We have a soft spot for warbirds and even though this image was Photoshopped (a silo was very well chopped out) it made the grade this week. C-46 Tinker Belle takes off with a load of paratrooper re-enactors during the 2016 Reading, PA WWII weekend. Bamboo provided by the Chinese Nationalist Army. Light and contrast balanced and cropped.

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