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Text messaging may be old hat to cellphone users, but it is still new in the air-traffic control system, where the FAA this week announced that it is now operational at Miami International Airport, the 12th busiest airport in North America. The text-based communication system, known as “Data Comm,” represents “a whole new era of communications between controllers and pilots,” said Jim Eck, the FAA’s assistant administrator for NextGen, in a news release this week. “This translates directly into safer, more efficient operations, helping aircraft take off and reach their destinations on time.” 

Airports without Data Comm service must rely on voice communications, which is time-consuming for the controllers and also has the potential for miscommunication due to “readback/hearback” error, the FAA said. Flight crews on planes using Data Comm receive information from controllers via digital messages. The pilots review the clearances and accept the instructions with the push of a button. The change can save controllers up to 30 minutes during busy travel times, enabling more airplanes to depart on time. Data Comm is now operational at 55 air traffic control towers, including those at complex airports such as Chicago O’Hare, New York’s JFK and LAX in Los Angeles. The FAA says it will begin in 2019 to implement Data Comm in air traffic control facilities that mange high-altitude traffic.

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NBAA filed a motion in a federal appeals court on Monday seeking a stop to any actions that would affect aviation operations at Santa Monica Airport, while the matter is under judicial review. The FAA and the city have announced plans to close the airport in 2028 and to immediately reduce the length of the sole runway from 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet. NBAA and others asked the appeals court last month to review the legality of that settlement. The new motion responds to a request by the FAA to dismiss that petition. "In reaching its agreement with the city, FAA disregarded well-established statutory and regulatory prerequisites to the release of an airport sponsor from federal obligations," NBAA’s latest filing reads.

"Even a cursory review of the actions taken – and not taken – by FAA finds that the agency did not comply with requirements both basic and mandatory, and thus the settlement agreement is invalid – as would be any actions taken in reliance upon it,” according to the NBAA motion. Stacy Howard, the local representative for NBAA, said restricting turbine aircraft operations at the airport would jeopardize many existing airport businesses and drive operators from SMO. "Multiple businesses that are based at SMO and those headquartered in its vicinity provide employment for thousands from the surrounding area,” she said. “Curtailing aviation access to this vital airport would terribly impact them and hurt Santa Monica's economy."

Other parties to the petition include the Santa Monica Airport Association; two airport-based businesses, Bill's Air Center and Kim Davidson Aviation; and two operators that frequently utilize SMO, Redgate Partners and Wonderful Citrus.

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XTI Aircraft Company, which has been working since 2012 to develop a ducted-fan VTOL design, said on Monday they will work with Bye Aerospace to develop a hybrid-electric prototype of their TriFan aircraft. The new propulsion system will “significantly reduce” the weight and cost of producing the aircraft, according to TriFan CEO Robert LaBelle. Because of those savings, LaBelle said, “our first prototype will be a full-size TriFan 600 instead of the 65-percent sub-scale version” that was previously planned. The TriFan aircraft will have seats for six, the companies said, and will cruise at 260 knots for 1,042 nautical miles. Both companies are based at Centennial Airport, in Colorado. They did not announce a timeline for the project.

Using three ducted fans, the TriFan will land and take off vertically, then the two wing-mounted fans will rotate forward to transition to horizontal flight, XTI said. The aircraft will be capable of climbing to 35,000 feet in 10 minutes, according to XTI. The company had previously planned to use an HTS900 engine from Honeywell International to power the aircraft. LaBelle was named CEO of XTI last month, to fill the post of former CEO Jeff Pino, who was killed about a year ago when his World War II-era P-51D airplane crashed near Phoenix, Arizona. XTI board member Charlie Johnson served as interim CEO and now will return to his board member position. Johnson also has worked as president and COO at Aero Electric Aircraft Corp., which is part of Bye Aerospace. It’s not possible under current FAA rules to certify electric-powered aircraft, but new rules set to take effect in August are expected to allow a pathway to certification.

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Russian adventurer Fedor Konyukhov, who last year flew around the world solo in a gas balloon, setting a new speed record, now is working on a plan to build the biggest-ever hot-air balloon and fly it to a record-setting altitude of 82,000 feet. The balloon envelope, to be built by Cameron Balloons in the United Kingdom, will have a capacity of about 3.5 million cubic feet and stand more than 220 feet high. The current altitude record for hot-air balloons is 68,986 feet, also set by a Cameron balloon, flown by Indian businessman Vijaypat Singhania in 2005. Konyukhov has said he hopes to fly even higher, to 100,000 feet or more, to glimpse the blackness of space. No date has been set for the attempt, but Konyukhov has said he hopes to fly later this year.

The launch will take place from the new Vostochny spaceport, known as the Cosmodrome, which is under construction in eastern Russia. Balloons have flown to the edge of space before, but they are gas balloons, using a lighter-than-air gas such as helium in a sealed envelope. Hot-air balloons require an open envelope with an outside source of heat to provide lift. Konyukhov also set a new record for duration of flight in a hot-air balloon last month, with fellow pilot Ivan Menyayalo, spending more than 55 hours aloft. They beat a record of 50 hours and 38 minutes that had stood since 1997.

images: Cameron Balloons

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When I was preparing this week’s Question of the Week, I was up to the third question when I realized that blood cheering for errant drone pilots to be jailed is not a good thing. In fact, it’s a distinctly bad thing, absent any malicious intent or egregious negligence.

To review, this concerns the story we ran last week describing the fate of drone operator Paul Skinner, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail after he lost control of his DJI quad while filming a parade in Seattle, possibly due to an electronics failure. I wasn’t able to get the court record but I did exchange email with Skinner’s attorney, Jeffrey Kradel. As we reported, Skinner’s drone struck a building and plummeted to the ground, injuring two people. One woman sustained a concussion.

According to a court sentencing memorandum, Skinner fessed up to the accident and attempted to make contact and restitution with the victims. During the trial, the judge recognized that the incident was an accident and that there was no criminal intent. He assigned the jail time simply because the prosecutor asked for it. (Full disclosure: Skinner had done time following a heroin addiction, but had evidently righted himself and was leading a productive life.)

From a distance, I can’t tell if Skinner acted negligently and Kradel declined to comment on the details. He did say that he had worked out a diversion agreement that wouldn’t have required a trial—or a conviction—but the city attorney refused to accept it against the recommendation of the city’s criminal division supervisor.

Instead, the city brought in an expert witness to explain that flying drones anywhere in a cityscape is irresponsible because of GPS interference potential. That in itself is a dubious claim, given that this technology has been and is widely deployed everywhere, including in cities.

Is this outcome in the public interest? Let me put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. If pilots crash their airplanes, should they routinely be exposed to criminal charges? For the record, there is no consistent pattern of that in the U.S., even in cases of demonstrated negligence in which innocent bystanders are killed. Would we, as pilots, want to make it that way? I think I know the answer. So why should it be any different for drone operators, who are merely airmen of another stripe?

I think I know the answer to that, too. It’s mostly due to fear and resentment. Fear that remote-piloted technology endangers aircraft and bystanders and resentment that drone operators don’t have to slog through the same hoops, regulations and expense that us real pilots do. I get that, but the reality is that automated/remote piloted flight is here and more of it is coming. A lot more. It has and will displace manned flight.

As with any new technology, the collateral elements haven’t kept up. Regulations are behind, enforcement is flummoxed and the market is in turmoil on how to use these machines efficiently, safely or at all. Just as when aviation inserted itself into the industrial world more than a century ago, there will be missteps, accidents and even deaths as this new technology finds it feet. Reacting to it by criminalizing accidents—again, absent ill intent or gross negligence—strikes me as profoundly shortsighted. At some point in the distant future, we will reach balance and understanding of how this new machinery fits into modern life and we can only hope the fear recedes. In the meantime, buckle up. It's gonna be a rough ride.

And as with aviation, there truly are risks and like it or not, people on the ground not even involved with the activity are exposed. That’s life in a modern industrial society and why the FAA can’t protect against a Skyhawk crashing through Grandma’s picture window. It’s the price of progress. If there's such a thing as a fundamental right not to be struck by flying objects, good luck getting any entity to guarantee it. 

What’s to be done? Generally, when it comes to enforcing anything to do with things that fly, local jurisdictions defer to the FAA, who is supposed to know about such things. Local jurisdictions often do not and have a dog's breakfast of statutes they might apply, probably at the whim of political winds. The FAA has a menu of civil penalties from which to choose and hefty fines well publicized ought to provide a more just deterrent than time in the slammer. And the U.S. tort system isn’t exactly lacking in opportunities for an aggrieved plaintiff. That said, I can imagine circumstances in which errant drone operation could rise to the level of a criminal complaint. I just think this isn’t one of them.  


The Cirrus SR22T G6 is the sixth-generation SR22, which was originally introduced in 2001. For 2017, the G6 SR models are equipped with the new Perspective+ integrated avionics, new interior appointments and new Spectra wingtip lighting, which was designed exclusively for Cirrus by Whelen. For this flight report, Aviation Consumer Editor Larry Anglisano flew the flagship SR22T (equipped with a twin turbocharged 315-HP Continental TSIO-550-K engine) on a round-robin trip from New England to the Cirrus Vision Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Cirrus's Ivy McIver gave a product overview.

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Picture of the Week

Mark Patey takes the honors this week with a very nice image of Heaven on Earth. That's Jason Sneed and Wallace Brown on Utah Lake in their Carbon Cubs. Sigh.


On Presidents' Day weekend,  POTUS had West Palm Beach shut down with his TFR. Boca was swamped with corporate and private traffic trying to avoid the TFR restrictions. We were sitting in a long line waiting for departure, with numerous jets lined up for arrival, when a weekend warrior called up tower inbound asking for touch and goes. The tower controller told him to remain clear for now, but the pilot continued to call with his own ideas on how he could fit in. After a couple more denials, the controller finally issued instructions:

Tower: "Look out your window, pick a landmark, and do 360s around it until I call you back "

Weekend Warrior: " Left or Right?"

My captain, looking at me:  "Some people just don't get it do they?".

Gene Ford


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