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The FAA third-class medical, which GA advocates have long lobbied against as a nuisance to pilots that does little to advance safety, has been replaced with a new option called BasicMed, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced on Tuesday. “The BasicMed rule will keep our pilots safe but will simplify our regulations and keep general aviation flying affordable,” Huerta said. Starting on May 1, pilots will have the option to maintain their 3rd class medical, or opt to use the BasicMed rule. Under BasicMed, a pilot will be required to complete an online medical education course every two years, undergo a medical exam every four years, and comply with aircraft and operating restrictions. The medical exam will include a four-page FAA form to be completed by your doctor and kept available by the pilot for FAA inspection. Your regular doctor can complete the form, and they don’t need to deal with the FAA at all.

The aircraft and operating restrictions under BasicMed include: pilots cannot operate an aircraft weighing more than 6,000 pounds and cannot have more than six people on board. IFR operations are allowed, but pilots must fly at less than 18,000 MSL and no faster than 250 knots. Pilots using BasicMed also cannot fly for compensation or hire. To qualify for BasicMed, pilots also must have held a medical that was valid any time after July 15, 2006. New student pilots must obtain a medical certificate, but then they can operate under BasicMed to keep it current. Pilots using BasicMed also must “make certain health attestations,” the FAA said, and agree to a National Driver Register check. General aviation advocacy groups are taking a close look at the FAA announcement, but so far reaction is upbeat.

"BasicMed is the best thing to happen to general aviation in decades," said AOPA President Mark Baker. "By putting medical decisions in the hands of pilots and their doctors, instead of the FAA, these reforms will improve safety while reducing burdensome and ineffective bureaucracy that has thwarted participation in general aviation." AOPA staffers are working to carefully analyze the rule and provide free online courses that will meet the FAA education requirement. EAA also welcomed the announcement. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, as the provisions of aeromedical reform become something that pilots can now use,” said Jack Pelton, EAA chairman. “EAA and AOPA worked to make this a reality in July, and since then the most popular question from our members has been, ‘When will the rule come out?’ We now have the text and will work to educate members, pilots, and physicians about the specifics in the regulation.”

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The FAA is working toward allowing more freedom for drone operators, and at the same time is working with NASA on a plan to develop technology that will manage drone traffic, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said last week. Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Huerta said “the next step” in the agency’s regulation of drones will be to allow them to be flown above people, “under specific circumstances.” The FAA is working with industry partners to develop technologies to ensure that safety and security are not sacrificed. The next step, Huerta said, further down the road, will be to allow routine unmanned aircraft operations beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.

The NASA effort, known as UTM, or unmanned aerial system traffic management, is now undergoing tests at the University of Nevada-Reno, Huerta said. Last October, they flew and tracked five drones at the same time beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight from Reno-Stead Airport. Each drone accomplished a separate simulated task, including looking for a lost hiker, covering a sporting event, monitoring wildlife and surveying environmental hazards. “Tests like these will help build the foundation for managing much greater amounts of drone traffic in the coming years,” Huerta said. NASA has been working on the UTM system for several years and expects to have a fully tested prototype by 2019.

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The NTSB issued a rare urgent safety recommendation on Tuesday, warning pilots that Piper PA-31T-series aircraft may have unsafe wiring that could lead to arcing and cause fires. The urgent safety recommendation is based upon preliminary findings in the ongoing investigation of the July 29, 2016, inflight breakup of a Piper PA-31T medical transport flight in California. Investigators found evidence of thermal damage near the airplane’s main electrical bus circuit breaker panel. This enclosed space also includes hydraulic lines that run directly below the panel. Further examination of the wiring in this area showed evidence of electrical arcing, and sections of the adjacent hydraulic lines were consumed by inflight fire. Evidence thus far indicates that the inflight fire occurred in the area where these electrical wires and adjacent hydraulic lines may have been in contact, the NTSB said. NTSB urgent safety recommendations are issued in advance of the completion of an investigation when the Board believes an imminent threat to life and safety exists, based upon findings of the ongoing investigation.

According to the NTSB, current maintenance procedures for the Piper series, which only specify a general visual inspection, do not provide adequate guidance for inspection in the area of the floor-mounted circuit breaker panel because of its location and the confined space in that area. Thus, contact between electrical wires and hydraulic fluid lines can persist undetected. NTSB and FAA investigators examined this area in six other Piper PA-31T-series airplanes using a borescope and camera and noted electrical lines in direct contact with hydraulic lines in all six cases. 

The NTSB believes that owners and operators must identify and repair (or replace) damaged wires in the floor below the main circuit breaker panel and ensure proper clearance between wires and hydraulic lines. The FAA issued a special airworthiness information bulletin (SAIB) on this issue in December 2016. The NTSB believes the wiring condition on Piper PA-31T aircraft merits an FAA emergency airworthiness directive, which would require mandatory action and a shorter timeline for addressing the issue than the SAIB. The PA-31T is a twin turboprop commonly known as a Cheyenne.

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The Supreme Court has taken a look at the Flytenow case to decide if a lower court’s interpretation of the law was correct, and on Monday they announced their decision — the Court will not hear the case. That decision leaves in place a lower court’s ruling that it would be illegal for Flytenow to operate a web-based flightsharing service for private pilots. The company decided to shut down over a year ago, after an appeals court in the District of Columbia also upheld the FAA’s position that pilots who used the site would be engaged in “common carriage.” Matt Voska, a co-founder of Flytenow, said on Monday that several members of Congress, led by U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, have sponsored legislation that would explicitly authorize internet-facilitated flight cost-sharing.

“We are disappointed with the Court’s decision this morning and we will be continuing our efforts in Congress to overturn the FAA’s ban on online flight sharing,” Voska said. Jon Riches, general counsel for the Goldwater Institute, who represented Flytenow in its appeal, said the Supreme Court missed an opportunity today to correct an error made by the FAA and lower courts. “What’s more, the Court could have offered direction to lower courts that protects the First Amendment rights of people using other sharing economy platforms, like Uber and Airbnb,” Voska said. “Hopefully the FAA will reverse its position on this issue, and hopefully the Court will decide in another case to examine the important constitutional issues raised.” The Supreme Court justices offered no comments on the case.

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With the Model T and the assembly line that produced it, Henry Ford taught the world a seminal lesson in mass production and economics. Some two decades later, he got schooled himself when General Motors caught up and demonstrated a fundamental truth about selling stuff in a consumer economy: Markets stagnate and so do sales unless the products are constantly refreshed and improved. Improbably, the Model T survived for 18 years before the Model A displaced it, driven by intense competition from GM.

This renew-or-die Darwinism is a constant in every industry, including aviation. While the changes in new models often amount to little more than incremental nudges, the new models that do appear—I’m thinking of Diamond’s DA62 and maybe Icon’s A5—do represent enough change to stimulate sales, even if they aren’t market disrupters. If you plot the aircraft units-sold curve against model—and avionics—introductions, the line has just enough spikes to see an effect here and there.

But game changers? Not really, despite the marketing department's inseparable love for that phrase. Engines haven’t changed fundamentally in 40 years; at the upper end, airframes are incrementally faster, but perhaps not more structurally efficient than the best the 1970s produced. They’re safer by dint of better seatbelts and seats, airframe parachutes and more reliable instruments that, increasingly, intervene to keep the pilot from losing control or improve situational awareness to keep him or her from running into something. It’s arguable if, taken together, these improvements are more sustainers than expanders.

I was ruminating on this the other day when flipping through the Bluebook looking for some engine specs. Across the four decades I’ve been flying little airplanes, I asked myself what product or technology I absolutely would not fly without. Couldn’t think of anything to do with engines or airframes. Glass panels? I like them just fine, but I’m agnostic. Glass or steam; whatever. GPS? Nice, but I can still use VORs and those map reading skills I learned so long ago haven’t atrophied. I feel about airframe parachute systems as I do about glass. I like and believe in them, but I’m not a fundamentalist about it.

That left only a single technology I wouldn’t fly without: the lowly aviation headset, with noise cancelling please. But really, just any noise attenuating headset. If you learned to fly, say, from the early 1980s forward, you probably can’t imagine not using a headset and probably with an intercom, too. But much before that, even though aviation headsets were available, they were far from common. When I started lessons in a Cessna 152, we cranked the speaker volume up to max, had trouble hearing all ATC transmissions and screamed at each other to be heard over the cockpit din.

When I started in Cubs a couple of years later, it was worse. Rag wings attenuate zero engine, prop and slipstream noise and if you don’t believe that, peel off your headset in one and soak in the clatter for a minute. Now multiply that times 60 for the typical lesson. Having headsets radically improves in-cockpit and ATC communication and massively reduces the stress of not being able to hear. I’ve been doing a lot of body flying in a vertical wind tunnel lately and even with good, custom-molded earplugs, it’s loud and communication by eye contact and hand signal is barely adequate. It reminds me of the days of being whapped with a rolled up sectional in a Cub. (There are Bluetooth helmet communicators, but I don’t know if they’ve been tried in the tunnel.)

Headsets, or at least my use of them, arrived a little too late to do me all the good they might have. All that exposure to threshold-level noise has taken a toll on my hearing that it would not have if I’d used headsets from day one, as students today are lucky to do. So what’s the bigger game changer, having a glitzy glass panel that shows me real-time winds aloft or having the same hearing acuity I had when I was 30? The answer should be obvious.

This week, Garmin unveiled its follow-on product for the popular G1000 EFIS suite. It's called the G1000 NXi and Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano took a demo flight in Garmin's King Air to sample the new system.

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