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Poor weather and the pilot's medical condition, including use of sedating drugs, were among the critical factors discussed Friday during the NTSB's hearing on the July 30 hot-air balloon crash in Texas that killed 16 people. The balloon, piloted by Alfred “Skip” Nichols, owner of Heart of Texas Balloons, struck power lines and ignited a fire, killing the pilot and all 15 passengers on a sightseeing tour near Lockhart. During the hearing, commercial balloon operators told the board they would not have flown in the weather conditions that existed at the time of the crash, citing the Flight Service briefer who told Nichols of 1,200-foot ceilings and a temperature-dewpoint spread of zero in the area. Nichols had replied to the briefer, “We find a hole and we go.” Ceilings in the area dropped to 700 feet with visibility of two miles reported about 8 miles to the north of the crash site.

Toxicology tests show Nichols was taking at least 10 kinds of medication at the time of the crash and had filled 13 prescriptions. He had been diagnosed for conditions including chronic pain and depression. An FAA senior research toxicologist testified the medications include Diazepam, commonly known as Valium, and the painkiller oxycodone. He had no prior aviation incidents or accidents, but did have drug- and alcohol-related convictions he did not report to the FAA. The NTSB also discussed government oversight of the commercial balloon flying industry, which it noted does not require pilots to have medical certificates or regular inspections required of other commercial operations such as charter airplane flying. The accident balloon, a Balony Kubicek BB85Z, is among the largest of its kind for commercial flying, the NTSB noted, with a 300,000 cubic-foot capacity that can carry up to 18 people. Nichols, 49, received a commercial balloon certificate in 1993 and obtained a third-class medical in 1996, the NTSB found.

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AOPA announced Friday it will expand its Regional Fly-In series next year to two-day events around the country, starting with an April fly-in to kick off the season. Each fly-in will run from Friday morning through Saturday afternoon to give attendees more time and additional workshops, clinics, forums and events to choose from. The fly-ins, launched in 2014 to replace the annual Summit, have grown each year with the 2016 total event attendance up 33 percent over 2015. Almost 44,000 people have taken part in the 16 regional fly-ins held so far, with more than 6,000 aircraft arrivals, according to AOPA. 

The fly-in locations have varied each year, with the first 2017 event slated for April 28-29 in Camarillo, California; followed by Sept. 8-9 in Norman, Oklahoma; Oct. 6-7 in Groton, Connecticut; and ending the year in Tampa, Florida, Oct. 27-28. Each fly-in will feature Friday night parties and Saturday pancake breakfasts, workshops for pilots and aircraft owners, vendor exhibits and aircraft display areas, and town-hall meetings with AOPA President Mark Baker. “We’re listening to our members who have asked for more extensive content, and we’re excited to bring new things that will deepen relationships and expand your flying skills,” said Chris Eads, AOPA director of outreach and events. “This has been about us really listening to the members.”

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Reuters is reporting that Pilatus is considering going public to finance production of its PC-24 business jet. The IPO would be worth almost $3 billion and give the company the capital it needs to launch the jet, which is a niche product in that it’s designed to use short unimproved runways. The company has undertaken a deliberate introduction and testing program that differs markedly from other aircraft debuts.

The program was well under development when it was announced in 2013 and first flight was in 2015. In May of 2014 the company took orders for the first 84 positions and sold them out in 36 hours. That covers the first three years of production, which is predicted for the coming year. New orders won’t be accepted until most of the first run is out the door. AVweb's Paul Bertorelli prepared a video update on the PC-24 when it crossed the Atlantic for the first time to go on static display at NBAA BACE 2016 in early November.

A big hunk of metal that a sea cucumber diver thought might be a Cold War atomic bomb turned out to be a piece of industrial junk. The Royal Canadian Navy sent a ship to a remote area off the northern Pacific coast of British Columbia late last month after the diver, Sean Smyrichinski, reported finding the object in early November. The location roughly matched up with the flight path of a U.S. Air Force B-36 bomber that crashed on a remote B.C. mountain in 1950 and had jettisoned an unarmed version of a Mark IV atomic bomb. The Navy quickly determined the object wasn’t related to the B-36 incident after sending a camera-equipped robot to take a look. “It was determined to be a metal part of a larger machine assembly and appears to be a piece of industrial equipment,” the Canadian Forces said in a news release.

Smyrichinski found the object in about 25 feet of water and described the discovery to local residents. One man suggested it might be the bomb and the diver went online to check it out. He later told the Vancouver Sun the images he found online of early nuclear weapons looked something like the rough sketches he made (he didn’t have a camera on the dive) and the Sun story sparked the military response. The dummy bomb, which had a lead core instead of plutonium, is likely still on the bottom of the ocean somewhere in the same area. The aircraft was on a mock raid simulating a nuclear strike on San Francisco from its base in Alaska when three of its big pusher radial engines caught fire. All 17 crew bailed out but only 12 survived. The plane flew another 200 miles before crashing on Mt. Kologet, southeast of Prince Rupert. The Air Force recovered sensitive equipment from the crash site but there are still remnants of the aircraft on the mountain.

The computer user refrain of “unplug it and plug it back in again” now applies to Boeing 787s. On Dec. 2, the FAA issued an airworthiness directive that required operators of all Dreamliners to power their aircraft down completely and turn them back on again by Dec. 9. The order came after the FAA said it “received reports” (it didn’t say from whom) that if an aircraft was left running for more than 21 days, all three flight control modules (the central control computer and both backups) could simultaneously reset on their own on Day 22.

If that had happened in flight, the results would have been at least interesting but it wasn’t likely. As reliable and relentlessly productive as the aircraft have proven to be (Qantas just launched a 9,000-mile, 17.5-hour flight from London to Perth, Australia), they all reportedly get breaks for one thing or another and don’t go more than a week without the lights on. Nevertheless, operators of the 500 or so Dreamliners were anticipated to have complied with the order to shut down the aircraft by Dec. 9 and never let them go more than 21 days without a rest from now on.

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Updated software for the Lynx NGT-9000 series of ADS-B transponders produced by L-3 Communications offers Stormscope compatibility, improved terrain and traffic collision warnings via aural alerts, and, for larger GA aircraft, dual transponder configurations. Originally released in 2015, the Lynx transponders provide access to ADS-B In data directly from a touchscreen interface on the panel mount transponder—an important feature for pilots wanting traffic and weather in the cockpit, but whose aircraft are not equipped with a modern MFD and who don’t wish to keep an iPad accessible in flight. The Lynx will also send ADS-B weather and traffic to most MFDs or, by Wi-Fi, to tablet devices for those users who wish to have a second way to view traffic and weather data. Garmin and certain Avidyne MFDs receive only traffic data from the Lynx.

The Lynx touchscreen interface has allowed L-3 to continue to update the transponder with many of the features found on full-fledged MFDs. With the addition of a terrain database as a $900 option, new and updated Lynx devices will use their built-in WAAS GPS antenna to provide aural terrain alerts. Traffic conflict warnings are also now available via aural alerts as a $670 option. The ability to quickly mute nuisance alerts will be a welcome feature during extended training operations in the traffic pattern. All NGT-9000 series transponders transmit ADS-B Out on the 1090 MHz ES (“extended squitter”) frequency making them legal for use in Class A airspace and internationally, but receive ADS-B In on both the 1090 MHz ES and the 978 MHz UAT (“universal access transceiver”) frequencies.

I’ve never felt it was appropriate that a pilot could obtain an instrument rating without flying in the clouds. From a safety standpoint—no matter what type of flying the pilot intends to undertake—it seems beyond ludicrous. I received instrument dual in IMC at a small airport in rural Iowa; one would think that it would be a basic part of the syllabus of every flight school or independent instructor. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be the case—I can’t count the number of graduates of ostensibly top-drawer flight programs I've met who have never flown an airplane in the clouds.

I recognize that there are flight schools and instructors who will not give dual in IMC and I’ve spoken with a number about the issue. I also recognize that there are flight schools that are intentionally located in states with a great deal of good VFR weather so that students can get ratings as fast as possible.

The common denominator in my conversations with flight schools and CFIs who do not give dual in IMC is a combination of not wanting to run the risk of having a student lose control of the airplane in clouds and having a very compact syllabus that gets pilots through the instrument rating as quickly as possible. In some cases schools have told me that they face overwhelming pressure from customers to put the checks in the boxes and get the rating as fast as possible without concern for actually learning anything. I was told that taking time to do instrument work in IMC would interfere with the process. One instructor pointed out that the FAA would not give check rides in actual instrument weather and reiterated that there was no requirement in the FARs to get any time in the clag, so why should he give dual in IMC?

Ethical Obligations?

I’ve heard both sides of the debate and recognize both the time and money pressure that flight schools face. I also realize that it is absolutely impossible for an instructor to prepare a student for everything that might happen to him or her outside the nest (and I know that instructors agonize over that issue). However, the FARs are, by law, only minimum standards. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of flight schools and instructors only teaching to minimum standards of the regulations, and no more. That discomfort has been made worse by the most recent dumbing down of FAA standards with a definition of “slow flight” that can be faster than the normal approach speed of many training aircraft. I think that some degree of seasoning should be provided to pilots who are obtaining ratings—so that they are not loosed on the aviation world capable of the monkey motion of steering the airplane, able to talk with ATC and quote regulations verbatim, but without experience in making the go/no-go weather decisions outside of hypothetical scenarios discussed in the comfort of a classroom. In my opinion, because the FAA has disregarded its obligation to establish appropriate training requirements in IMC—to the detriment of flight safety—flight schools and instructors have an ethical obligation to go beyond the FAA’s minimum standards for an instrument rating and take their instrument students into actual IMC on a regular basis and to show a pilot what is involved in flying safely in the real world.

An instrument student doesn’t benefit much from flying in clouds during the first five hours or so of dual. That is the time the student is learning about attitude instrument flying, developing an effective instrument scan, the subtleties needed for minor corrections, how to use trim to make the airplane go where desired, how to add the clock into the scan and how to fly partial panel. That time is best spent in good weather—or, better yet, in a sim—so the student can concentrate on those basic skills without worrying about ATC or falling off the tightrope.

The "Oh, Wow" Factor

Once past that early training, it’s my opinion that actual time in clouds is nothing but beneficial to the instrument student. Remember the sense of awe you felt the first time you flew very close to clouds, on seeing your first glory (the circular rainbow around an airplane's shadow on a cloud)? If nothing else, the delightful experiences flying in and near clouds make working on the rating that much more exciting.

Think of the many small surprises you had on first flying in clouds—discovering there was almost inevitably a bump on entering or exiting the side of a cloud, but not on doing so through the top or bottom; or how fast you learned about how rough a ride to expect inside a cloud from its external appearance. Remember how surprised you were to discover it was easier to fly the airplane in a cloud than under the hood because you could look around the cockpit? Why not introduce that knowledge to an instrument student early?

Bitter Experience

Because of my profession, I've been involved in looking closely at far too many accidents over the years. Many occurred in instrument conditions to pilots with instrument ratings but little actual time flying in clouds. We humans evolved on the surface of this planet and have only been creatures of the sky since we started flying balloons in 1783—evolutionally a flicker of an eyelash of time. A tremendous amount of what we experience in flight is without parallel to our experiences on the ground. Our inbred, ground-based instincts and reactions get triggered by the sensations of flight, and unfortunately, they are often dead wrong when it comes to what is appropriate when moving about the sky. As a result, we have to learn nearly everything formally when we step into the third dimension. So, when first flying VFR, we go with flight instructors. I feel that when we first fly inside a cloud it's also a wise idea to do so with flight instructors who can help us through this massive new set of experiences.

In my humble opinion, it's not a bad idea for an instructor to be there the first time a pilot actually sees how the color of the cloud changes as one nears the top and that on an overcast day it's wise to have sunglasses handy for that moment. Besides, having someone to share the exuberance you feel the first time you break out of the top of a cloud deck makes the moment even more magical. It's also a good idea for future reference for an instructor to be there to point out how much further they had to climb beyond that point when the student felt they were "almost on top."

At the other end of the flight, there is an emotional component to the descent through the clouds as one discovers the ever-increasing, almost sinister, blackness as the bases are neared and the pilot feels the pressure build to keep the needles centered, knowing the cold, hard ground is close. Add to that the sometimes overpowering need to urinate as the approach nears minimums, it's not a bad idea that a pilot do it for the first time with someone who has been there before, even if only for moral support.

Telling instrument students that the worst ice is usually near the cloud tops is no substitute for letting them discover it is true. I am of the opinion that much good comes from having an instructor along the first time the pilot watches the climb rate go to nothing over a period of a few minutes, just when that pilot firmly believes that climbing just a few hundred feet more will put them on top. At that moment some gentle comments by an experienced instructor may make a long-lasting impression on that pilot, such as pointing out that estimating where the tops are without a pilot report may not be a good idea. In the event the pilot is still tempted to linger overlong in the icebox portion of a cloud due to inexperience, optimism about climb performance and a longing for sunlight, the instructor can take action before the pilot learns that a block of ice has poor aerodynamic qualities.

I've always heard the instrument rating described as the thinking rating. Listening to others, far more competent than I, I've come to believe that the process of developing the appropriate level of judgment to make good weather-related go/no-go decisions comes from having some degree of experience with weather.

The first time pilots I’ve trained are not sure if they are going to see the runway at the end of an approach, I’d like to be present, sitting quietly, just to be a safety net. When they spot the runway, make a play for it, drop the rest of the flaps, pull the power back and then lose sight of the runway, I would like to be in the other seat, watching. I know that they are juggling the knowledge from books and our discussions that they must go missed—but I also know that they feel in their guts that they can blow through this "little" cloud and get to the runway. That could be their last mistake.

Your First Time...

I want an experienced CFII in the right seat as safety net, because I've looked at too many shredded airplanes and know that the particular decision those pilots are making right then means looking death in the face, and I want them alive. I don’t think books and lessons and lectures and hangar flying fully prepare a pilot for the overwhelming desire to land that comes about when a runway is glimpsed, even if only momentarily. Such an urge, if not resisted, can lead to either foolishly continuing a descent while in a "little" cloud or, perhaps even worse, trying to circle over a runway and land on it when the vertical visibility is 500 feet or so, and the horizontal visibility is about the same. Then, any turn they make will cause the runway, and all other visual references, to disappear. I'm of the opinion that seeing such situations in circumstances where an instructor can prevent a bad decision from being fatal are more likely to lead to good decision-making by pilots once they have instrument ratings and are on their own. Bad weather makes a powerful impression on a pilot. Handling it correctly once makes it more likely that it will be dealt with correctly in the future.

I want to fly in blowing snow with my students so that they can see how incredibly fast visibility can change and how a circle-to-land approach in it, or in any conditions at night, can provide food for the coffin worms.

An instructor friend told me that she firmly believed it was wise to fly with instrument students, in weather, at night, so that they can get a visceral understanding of the fact that it is often impossible to tell where the clouds are—something that is serious if there is ice about. She admitted that the first time she was flying along on a dark night and only realized she was in cloud when she heard a hissing noise and saw the windshield suddenly become opaque with rime ice, nearly necessitated cleaning the upholstery of the pilot's seat.

Missing For Real

I’ve flown with instrument students when the weather was low enough to necessitate a real missed approach. New instrument pilots are used to landing out of an approach, they are primed for it, expecting it—hey, it’s the normal end to an approach. Well . . . not always, and that can be stunningly difficult for a pilot to accept. The first real one usually causes distinct psychological reactions that, from my observations and reading accident reports, can’t be duplicated in a simulator or under the hood. It takes an aircraft, clouds, uncertainty and cold sweat.

There is that awful period of time as each pilot realizes that she or he really isn’t going to succeed with the approach—and pilots are success driven. What is known as “continuation bias” kicks in—and it’s killed a lot of people because pilots are spring-loaded to continue the approach and make a landing come low clouds or fog. There is an incredible reluctance to pitching up and initiating the missed approach. The process goes in stages and I’ve taken to comparing it to those described by Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her magnificent study, On Death and Dying. The pilot first denies that a missed approach is needed—that runway is going to appear even though we are at DA, or time has run out while at the MDA. Then, at varying rates, pilots go through the bargaining, promises, and so forth that Ross so artfully described, before acceptance sets in and the missed approach is even tentatively begun. The fact that the mental journey to acceptance and action sometimes takes the pilot and the airplane well over a mile past the missed approach point is a definite cause for concern.

I think it’s a good idea, if possible, to let instrument students see this whole process of denial through acceptance and starting the missed approach, for the first time with an instructor. I’ve met a number of instrument-rated pilots who have told me they have never had an actual missed approach. I worry a little for them, for I have been fortunate enough to learn about the dangerous mind-set that develops when making instrument approaches in actual conditions—that each will result in a landing and the potentially deadly task continuation bias that goes with it.

If possible, I like to have a session with my instrument students shooting approaches when the weather is below the non-precision MDA, and a precision approach is available. It provides a real world missed approach opportunity and that wonderful feeling of shooting a precision approach to near minimums and getting in when the weather stinks. I think such sessions also help made the abstract notion of an alternate airport take on new meaning, for the ceiling or visibility would only have to drop a bit to make a diversion necessary, especially because they were usually in an instrument trainer that didn't have particularly long legs.

Near the end of an approach, the transition to visual references via pulling off a hood is no big deal. That’s not the case in weather, especially when visibility is rotten, there’s no horizon and the cloud bases are ragged. Splitting one’s attention between the panel to keep the airplane upright and looking outside for the runway is a new, and challenging experience. It’s caused more than a few pilots to hit the ground short of the runway. The FAA doesn't require a demonstration of the ability to handle this transition in weather but, it seems to me, a good instructor will do the best he or she can to teach it to an instrument student.

Not In Boomers

While I am a big supporter of giving instrument students as much experience in actual weather as possible, I absolutely don't advocate taking a student into a thunderstorm. That's about the most foolhardy exercise in the aeronautical version of practice bleeding I can imagine. A session in moderate turbulence (as defined in the A.I.M.) combined with a comment that it is about a fifth of the challenge of flying in a thunderstorm, along with some further discussion, should be adequate to keep all but the most idiotic out of those monsters.

I’m convinced that flight schools and instructors can do a great deal for their instrument students by introducing them to flying in the clouds. While the FAA doesn't require such activity, I believe that an instructor should offer it to his or her students and an instrument student should demand it of an instructor.

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, is an aviation attorney and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual, or How To Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 and 2.

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High-profile aviation accidents usually get a public hearing in which the NTSB reveals what it knows and allows input from other parties on the road to establishing probable cause. Such hearings offer tantalizing factuals but they rarely reveal jaw-dropping lack of judgment. But rarely is not the same as never and this week’s hearing on the crash of a high-occupant hot air balloon in Texas last July that killed 16 people qualifies for jaw-dropping revelations. It also places both the FAA and NTSB in a can’t-win regulatory canyon.

I wrote about the Lockhart, Texas crash shortly after it occurred on July 30. A balloon carrying 15 passengers and a pilot struck power lines—possibly while attempting to land—and all of the balloon’s occupants died in the subsequent impact and fire. It was one of the most gruesome general aviation accidents ever and the highest death toll of any single GA accident I can think of for many years.

The hearing, held on Friday in Washington, revealed, for me, at least, that the accident was far more appalling than the original news reports suggested. The pilot, who had a history of medical and psychiatric conditions, plus DUIs and drug convictions, was found to have ingested seven drugs at the time of the accident, including three that the FAA considers disqualifying for flight status. None of that necessarily means he was incapacitated at the time of the crash, but it serves as a marker about his attitude toward regulatory guidance. He did not, for example, report his DUIs, nor did he report drug convictions he also had. Both of these are required under FAR 61.15, even though balloon pilots are not required to have medicals. Failing to report these things is grounds for suspension and willfully lying on medical applications is a felony.

While the drug use and obfuscation of DUI and drug history are bad enough, what’s worse is the pilot’s documented decision to fly despite adverse weather. An FSS briefer told the pilot that poor visibility and low cloud existed at his proposed time of flight, but he replied, “We find a hole and we go.” A photo recovered from one of the passenger cellphones shows the balloon floating above a layer of dense ground fog or low cloud.

Was the pilot’s judgment impaired by the cocktail of drugs he had consumed, including oxycodone, or was he just a pilot willing to operate on the edge, even with passengers aboard? From a regulatory standpoint, I’m not sure it matters because regardless of what the NTSB recommends, the FAA will have a hell of time making meaningful regulation for balloons that isn't just for appearances.

At the hearing, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said, "Unfortunately, sometimes it takes blood to get change. And we want to make sure there are changes made before there's more bloodshed." No one can argue the sentiment. The government, in representing the public, has a compelling interest to prevent a recurrence. But entirely ignoring the onerous burden of regulation that saddles general aviation, what kind of additional regulatory filter do we imagine would have prevented this tragic accident? Willful bad judgment has always been with us and always will be because in the end, the pilot still has to make go/no-go decisions. Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol may simply be a distractor irrelevant to the outcome. Or a leading indicator of an underlying personality ill suited for flying.

Federal Air Surgeon James Fraser said this at the hearing: “I feel a medical evaluation is a part of the holistic plan to keep the national airspace safe." Yet there's little convincing data to support this view or at least to show that any safety benefits are commensurate with the cost and effort of medical examinations. Perhaps pilot certificates could be issued with the proviso that the FAA can review the driver registry and/or criminal records. You authorize that when you sign the medical form. But no medical, no waiver.

The airlines and on-demand charter industries enhance safety through detailed operating specifications that have the effect of making pilots’ decisions for them, forcing a duty of care that might not otherwise be required. A single accident does not a trend make. I think it's inarguable that regulation is a critical part of the remarkable safety record U.S. commercial aviation has achieved. But it's also true that pilot judgment is the first and last defense against accidents.   

I flew Part 135 on-demand charter for a while and flew one trip as copilot for another pilot moonlighting from an airline job. One blustery winter morning, a bunch of gamblers wanted a ride back from Atlantic City. It was clear, but the unplowed runway was covered in light snow being blown around by a gusty crosswind. Our ops specs didn’t preclude the trip; we could have launched. If we had pranged it, we’d have hung on the 91.13 hook. But we cancelled and the unhappy gamblers took the bus. But no one was advising or watching us make the decision. No dispatcher checked a box; no chief pilot office stood by to buck up the decision.

As I said in the previous blog, the NTSB wants more oversight for the balloon industry. But the accident rate is so low and there are so few fatalities that it’s impossible to imagine even the most stringent regulation moving the needle at all. With all due respect, I understand regulators must consider the political optics of such high-visibility accidents, but those of us in the industry aren’t compelled to believe that what they devise will have the vaguest effect, other than to add cost and overhead for operators. In general aviation, we've been struggling for years to rid ourselves of the Third Class medical requirement, yet the FAA clings to it with the tenacity of the universe's strongest known force: bureaucratic inertia. 

I’ll admit I’m doing a bug-on-its-back here. I don’t have a response to this accident because bad judgment and irresponsibility are eternal if, fortunately, not that prolific. Perhaps require medicals for balloons carrying more than, say, four occupants or some other number that isn't 15. If there's any lemonade from lemons here, it may be this: If you’re tossing back a bunch of drugs, whether disqualifying or not, it may be worth taking a pause to consider if doing so is masking an even larger misjudgment. Or is itself a misjudgment. This is the insidious nature of subtle incapacitation due to sedating or psychotropic drugs. Personally, I feel blessed. Because I’m special, I can take as much of this stuff as I want and fly without worry. But you’re ordinary; you need to be careful.

Head up displays have been in military and commercial aircraft for decades but MyGoFlight is developing a system that is small enough and inexpensive enough for use in light aircraft. CEO Charlie Schneider walked AVweb through the SkyDisplay.

Many years ago while flying into MFR (Medford, OR) as a newly minted pilot from a non-controlled airport I was  nervous to say the least.I got a right downwind entry clearance but I absentmindedly entered an extended left downwind.  

Tower: "Experimental 123xy, okay left downwind will work just fine too, and cleared for left base to landing.”

Needless to say I felt as low and stupid as could be, and responded with much apologies to an unusually friendly controller.


Dennis Bellis

 

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