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As might be expected, pilots are reporting seeing a lot more drones these days but the lather that sightings seem to create might be overblown, according to an analysis by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. AMA looked closely at each of the 1,270 sightings reported by pilots of manned aircraft in data released by the FAA in February that showed that 44 of those encounters could be described as close calls. That’s about 3.4 percent and the same as the results of similar analyses done by AMA in 2015 and 2016. “Back in the 70s and 80s, everything pilots saw was a UFO. Now everything they see is a drone,” AMA President Richard Hanson told Popular Science. “Drones are the new UFOs.”

Hanson told PopSci it’s possible pilots have now lumped everything they see in the air, from dry cleaning bags to kites and weather balloons, as drones. They’re also reporting perfectly legal drone operations. Some of the reports included sightings of drones being flown at well below the 400-foot ceiling. Despite all the hype, the notes that come with new drones about rules and drone registration and numerous programs promoting safe operation of the aircraft, Hanson told PopSci he thinks there’s more education to be done. “The vast number of sightings that are people operating inappropriately is because they just don’t know any better, they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to do what they were doing,” he said. “There are a few individuals who are irresponsible but you find that in any community of people.”

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A panel of judges will review the deal struck between the FAA and the city of Santa Monica that will close the airport by 2028 and severely curtail operations in the meantime. A U.S. District Court of Appeals rejected the National Business Aviation Association’s bid for an injunction against implementing the deal but it did agree the legal underpinning of the agreement needs further study. A separate “merits panel” of judges will take a detailed look at the arrangement, which was agreed to by the city and FAA in January. NBAA President Ed Bolen said the decision “makes clear that the court holds steadfast on the need for a thorough and fair hearing about this unprecedented situation,” according to a story in the Santa Monica Lookout.

NBAA alleges that in making the deal with the city, the FAA “failed to follow established procedures when issuing the settlement order, including consideration of its detrimental effects to operators and businesses at the airport, and to the National Airspace System.” Although the airport will remain open for 11 more years, the deal gives the city the right to shorten the runway from 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet, which is too short for many business aircraft. It also allows the city to take over all services at the airport after the runway is shortened. The deal ended decades of costly legal sparring between Santa Monica and the FAA but the bulldozers will be held at bay at least until the merits panel completes its review. It’s not clear how long that might take.

The next generation of airliners use a lot less fuel and are whisper quiet but squeezing all that efficiency out is challenging and it’s causing some headaches for airframers and their engine suppliers. Bombardier and Airbus have been having issues with the Pratt & Whitney PurePower geared turbofan that they’ve hung their sales on and Boeing briefly suspended the flight test program for its 737 Max because of turbine disc issues with the Leap 1B turbines made by Safran, a joint venture between GE and CFM. Boeing hadn’t noticed anything wrong but grounded its test aircraft after Safran warned it of potential issues. The 20 test and pre-delivery aircraft were inspected and returned to service late last week, and first delivery is planned for May 22 to Indonesian carrier Lion Mentari Airlines.

Meanwhile, the issues with P&W’s engines do appear to be design-related but are being addressed and aren’t hurting sales of the CSeries airliner, according to Bombardier. CEO Alain Bellemare told analysts on a first-quarter earnings call there’s a bearing that needs upgrading and a combustor lining needs beefing up. But Bellemare said the engine has been reliable in service and dispatch rates are exceeding the expectations of the two carriers flying the new twinjet. Airbus uses the same basic engine on its A320Neo but some of the suppliers and contractors in the program are different.

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Bucking long-term trends, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s first-quarter data shows a 6.3% increase in sales of piston airplanes over the same quarter in 2016. The allocation of sales within the piston market was mostly unremarkable, though Cessna had real gains, shipping 41 piston singles compared to 27 for the prior year period. Although total GA shipments were up compared to Q1 2016, billings were down over 10%, reflecting mostly a softening in the large business jet market. Most of that decrease can be attributed to Bombardier alone, whose sales decline of $270 million was more than most manufacturers' total revenue. Two-thirds of all GA aircraft sales dollars in Q1 2017 went to either Bombardier or Gulfstream.

“The first quarter shows mixed results for our industry, but with several bright spots,” said GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce. “We expect future growth to be driven by the introduction of new products, which underscores just how important it is for the U.S. Congress to pass certification reform legislation to facilitate the future of aviation manufacturing, something GAMA board members and representatives explained when they were talking to legislators earlier this month during the largest ever GAMA Capitol Hill Day.”

It’s no secret that President Donald Trump is a big fan of coal, but he surprised the Navy with his preference for steam as the power to fling planes from aircraft carriers. In an interview with Time magazine, Trump was quoted as saying that he would not approve equipping new Ford-class carriers with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System that debuted on the Gerald R. Ford. “And I said—and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said, what system are you going to be — ‘Sir, we’re staying with digital.’ I said, no you’re not. [You’re] going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.”

It would appear the comments of a crew member who showed Trump the catapult soured Trump on the electromagnetic system when the president asked how the system was working. “Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place and there’s planes thrown in the air.” The relative gentleness of the electromagnetic catapult was actually a key selling point in the award of the contracts for the Ford and follow-on John F. Kennedy. Although it certainly relies on a battery of computers to progressively accelerate aircraft down the deck, the “digital” system being criticized by Trump and the unnamed, but suddenly famous, crew member is a lot easier on aircraft. It also requires fewer people to operate it and self-diagnoses its glitches. The steam catapults used on Nimitz-class carriers are no longer made and redesigning the Kennedy to take a steam system, even if it was available, would probably be cost prohibitive.

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An $11 million Air Force Reaper UAV stalled and spun to the ground because the pilot was fixated on completing a checklist, ignoring audible and visual stall warnings, according to the Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation released Thursday. Immediately after receiving control of the aircraft from the launch team, the pilot of the unmanned turboprop was confused about the aircraft’s autopilot mode and disconnected the autopilot, while continuing to complete the handoff checklist. The Reaper’s stall protection is disabled in the manual, landing configuration mode. Then in manual flight mode, the pilot left the aircraft in a 9.5 degree nose-up attitude and 30% power, which led to a stall. Rather than lower the nose, the mishap pilot increased the power to full, which caused the aircraft to enter a spin.

In the incident report, the accident board found “that the cause of the mishap was the combination of the pilot’s misprioritization to complete the handover checklist, and the pilot’s failure to observe prior warnings of reduced energy state and stall, and timely implement stall recovery procedures.” The report continues, “By commanding landing configuration, the pilot was manually operating the aircraft. The pilot was responsible for monitoring altitude and air speed. The pilot was also responsible for taking precautionary measures to prevent the aircraft from stalling and taking corrective measures in the event the aircraft stalled. On two separate occasions in between 22:27:11 GMT and approximately 22:29:20 GMT, the pilot received visual and audible warnings that the aircraft was stalling. However, the pilot prioritized completing his handover checklist and increased airspeed instead of accomplishing the stall recovery checklist. As a result, the aircraft stalled and impacted the ground.”

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Anytime you get a group of flight instructors together, the topic of weather will enter the conversation in some form. It may range from how crummy it always seems to be when a CFI has nothing but primary students on the schedule to how miserable it is to preheat a Cessna 152 in the winter and still have time for a lesson, to shooting approaches to minimums in IMC with instrument students. Almost invariably it will work around to whether it was a good idea to train primary students and new private pilots in marginal VFR weather, that is, in any combination of strong winds, low ceilings and reduced visibility. After all, a significant proportion of general aviation accidents still involve attempting to fly VFR into deteriorating weather. In their candid moments, instructors want to know why pilots keep insisting on killing themselves in this fashion. Is there something wrong with our training? Is it simple "bloody mindedness" as the British would say, on the part of pilots, who know what crummy weather can do to them but insist on pressing on and smacking into hillsides and towers?

Real-World Marginal VFR

Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of the CFI weather conversations to see what I could learn about the subject. I was interested to observe that most instructors and pilots were in favor of taking primary students out and showing them what marginal weather looked like. The overall feeling was that a pilot who is shown how nasty and scary marginal weather is will be so awed by it that he or she will make the decision to stay on the ground when such weather is forecast or divert and land when it is encountered. That pretty much reflected my overall opinion on the subject. I made a point of taking students flying in strong winds so that they could see how difficult it could be to handle the airplane. I wanted them to get a feel for how the difficulty of landing in a crosswind increased almost exponentially as the velocity of a direct crosswind increased. I wanted my students to see what light and moderate turbulence really were, what it was like to have to fight it and how to avoid it. I attempted to show that moderate turbulence is very unpleasant, tires a pilot fast, adversely affects in-flight decision-making and makes it tough to handle the airplane when landing.

I also tried to take students up when the visibility was three to five miles, so that they could see what "marginal" VFR was and demonstrate that they did not even handle the airplane as well as they did on days with better visibility. Then I'd try to make a brief flight in the pattern on a day with only two or three miles' visibility, getting a special VFR clearance if needed, to show just how fast they covered the territory they could see at any given moment and how diverting their attention to look inside the cockpit could rapidly be fatal. I also tried to take them aloft when the ceiling was below 3000 feet to show the problems inherent with low ceilings, the inability to pick out landmarks and the proliferation of tall towers. I tried to mix this all in with a discussion of why scud running is something that simply is no longer viable in the majority of the United States because of the number of towers.

I found that I did what most instructors do.

NASA's Research

Then I got to know Barbara Burian, Ph.D., an employee of NASA and a pilot, who has been looking at this very issue for many years and has published a number of papers relevant to it. Her research has been fascinating and has included major projects getting pilots at EAA’s AirVenture to test their skills and knowledge as well as running pilot surveys here on AVweb. She a deliberate approach to weather training to see what both CFIs and newly-stamped private pilots say about it. As one would expect, there are differences in what CFIs say they taught and what new private pilots say they were taught. She has done the statistical grinding of the data and found that students don't always realize what is being taught when they are learning something (they don't attach the same title to some lessons that CFIs do), but that's no big deal. What rocked her back on her heels and got my undivided attention was what she learned about the unintended consequences of flying student pilots in marginal VFR weather and how pilots self-assess their ability to evaluate weather versus how well they do when given real-world examples to analyze that ability.

Dr Burian, a pilot, asked CFIs whether they took their students into marginal weather (high winds, turbulence, low ceilings, limited visibilities, actual IFR) during primary training, and why. Most all said they did so and, in general, said it was to let them see how crummy the weather was so that they would stay out of it in the future; in general, to promote good weather decision-making; the old "scared-straight" approach. She then queried students about their training; however, she added a brilliant twist that led to answers that told me we instructors might be going about this in the wrong fashion. She asked new private pilots to rate how marginal weather training affected their level of confidence and comfort (two very separate ratings) about flying in such weather, or worse, sometime in the future. She found that 21.7 percent said that, as a result of having been exposed to marginal weather conditions in training, they would both feel more confident in flying in such conditions on their own and more comfortable in doing so. That means nearly a quarter of the students who we are trying to show that this deadly weather, the sort that is not the stuff in which they should be flying, are coming out of the lesson perfectly willing to fly in such weather and probably willing to make decisions to go when they should not.

A Head Slapper

I spoke with Dr. Burian and then looked at the results and went off by myself for a little while. The head slap followed shortly thereafter. Good grief. Of course we have pilots crunching into the sides of hills in fog and rain and snow and we have pilots snagging towers in haze and pilots generally flying into terrain because we aren't teaching how to make decisions. Dr. Burian's results are perfectly consistent with the accident stats because a healthy proportion of pilots who do the VFR-into-IMC splat each year (oftentimes a majority) have instrument ratings. (Keep in mind the data doesn't say if the pilots were instrument-current or if they were flying airplanes that were instrument-legal or if they had access to instrument charts.)

What we have is a situation where a good percentage of pilots who know what dog-meat weather is like (low ceilings and poor visibility), still motor into it anyway, and crash. That is entirely consistent with other marginal-weather accidents, those involving strong winds and loss of control on landing. Those usually aren't fatal, but they keep happening to pilots who have certainly been around the block enough times to know what a strong crosswind is like and, if queried, claim to have a pretty good feel for what sort of crosswind he or she can handle in a particular type of airplane.

It's consistent. Pilots who have some degree of experience and training in marginal weather continue to get accurate forecasts for marginal VFR weather or actual IMC and then elect to try to fly VFR into it, or they make the decision to try to continue a flight when they do not know what the weather is ahead, relying on blind optimism.

Don't Try This At Home?

Nature is a hanging judge. Pilots who make the decision to go, or continue, in weather that exceeds their personal ability to fly an airplane by visual references, do not get probation or any sort of another chance. They die. And they take people with them. I think we flight instructors have the right idea about teaching pilots about marginal VFR weather by showing them just how awful it is, but I think we may be up against the "don't try this at home" syndrome. We've got to come up with a better way to teach students how to evaluate the weather information available to them (Dr. Burian’s studies found that VFR-only pilots are particularly bad at this weather evaluation) and teach the go/no-go weather decision for VFR flight. I think we have to integrate weather evaluation and go/no-go wx decisions into every part of our training process so that students become so accustomed to it that it is a basic part of their subconscious.

I fully recognize that the VFR weather decision is also heavily weighted geographically. East of the Rockies, what is considered marginal VFR is probably anything when the visibility is at or less than about three to five miles' visibility and the ceiling is at or less than 3,000 feet. Those numbers are not hard and fast, but they are a place to start. In the western high plains and Rockies, marginal VFR is different. There, anything less than 10 miles visibility is suspect because it is rare. When it does happen, it usually means the vis is going to go way down, so a pilot has to be wary of any sort of obstruction to visibility. That trips up a lot of flatland pilots in the mountains. Ceiling is also a challenging concept because it is measured above ground level and ground level varies so greatly.

I had a long talk with a very experienced military and civilian pilot and instructor, Terri Watson, now retired from flight instructing and living in Honolulu. Formerly based in the mountains of Lander, Wyoming, she said she taught her students that if there is any indication of a ceiling in the reports or the forecasts, that by itself may trigger a marginal VFR warning. What may be a 5000-foot ceiling at a lower airport may also be less than a 1000-foot ceiling at the pass that must be crossed to get to that airport. As an interesting counterpoint to her experience with teaching students weather judgment, she is very reluctant to put numbers on any pilot's personal weather minimums.

Now What?

So, what do we do? I did a lot of listening to pilots and instructors who know about this sort of thing. One of the results Dr. Burian received in her survey was that 68.1 percent of the private pilots said that after their introduction to marginal weather they felt more confident that they could handle it on their own should they see it again, but that they were not comfortable doing so. That's definitely positive. Pilots who have internalized a situation and can say that it would make them uncomfortable in the future are probably less likely to depart into such weather. The fact that they have seen something like it and have obtained some degree of confidence in the process also tends to mean that should they get into marginal weather because of a mistake on their part, or a bad forecast, they are more likely to survive the encounter. So, overall, it looks as if we are on the right track; exposing pilots to marginal weather is good for the majority of pilots (assuming we can believe their responses). That's step one.

The next step is to actively put weather interpretation and decision-making into every lesson, including the first one. The instructor and student should go through the process of obtaining the current weather and forecast, discuss the process and then make a decision as to whether to fly. If it's CAVU, that's easy. If it's marginal, discuss what is going to be experienced.

Horizons and Limited Visibility

For years, instructors have noticed that a student who is used to flying in good visibility, with a clearly defined horizon, does noticeably worse on lessons where visibility is limited or the horizon is difficult to locate. I believe instructors should point that out to students. All pilots fly more accurately on days when the visibility is better. It may seem a little thing, but it is tremendously important when the visibility is bad and a pilot is trying to navigate with very limited outside references and landmarks. It becomes much more difficult and takes much more concentration to simply fly the airplane. Terri Watson pointed out that virtually all pilots use landmarks that are a significant distance away from the airplane when they fly VFR, whether it is to navigate or simply fly around the local area. When the visibility drops, rendering a number of those frequently used landmarks invisible, the ability to accurately control and navigate the airplane is diminished. Again, that just adds to the problems a pilot has when the weather starts to go south.

On the days when the CFI and student make the decision to fly and the weather is marginal, a wonderful opportunity is presented to let the student have difficulty and then bring that difficulty to a conscious level through discussion. The student knows things aren't going as well as usual (students are many things, but they are not stupid) but he or she doesn't know why. He or she is simply conscious that the lesson isn't going as well as the last one and it's frustrating. The instructor sees that sort of thing all the time, so it's up to him or her to point out that a major part of the reason the student is having more trouble flying the airplane and isn't doing as well is because he or she just can't see as much.

On days when the weather causes a cancellation, the CFI and student should take the time to discuss it and do a little mental imaging as to what it would be like to try and fly in that weather. The CFI can ask some directed questions such as how long it would take the airplane to cover the ground the pilot can see when the pilot looks down at the map or otherwise into the cockpit. They can look over the sectional chart and see which towers will be sticking up into the clouds. They can discuss simple things such as the landmarks the student normally uses to enter the downwind and the fact that they might not be visible.

The cancellation should be viewed as a part of flying. Despite advertising, it isn't possible to fly every day of the year. Based on the CFI's evaluation of the student it may be wise to point out that canceling a flight is not a reflection on the pilot's machismo or ability. It is a reflection that the pilot has developed an elevated level of judgment and is therefore to be respected.

Maybe So, Maybe Not

There will be days when the weather is marginal and the go/no-go decision is not clear-cut. The CFI and student can discuss what to do, look at all available weather and trends and then make the decision to conduct a flight in the pattern as a learning experience. The goals will be letting the student internalize just what that reported weather looks like from the cockpit, observe that many of her or his usual landmarks in the pattern are not visible (with a comment from the CFI to the effect of "just think how it would be if we strayed from the area we know well, right around the airport") and add some other comments about the difficulties in controlling the airplane to let the student internalize a discomfort with flying in such weather. The instructor can then terminate the flight after a few takeoffs and landings so that there is some level of confidence built should the student inadvertently get into such a mess in the future.

A distressingly high proportion of the respondents (27.5 percent) to Dr. Burian's survey said that they had experiences where instructors went ahead with lessons in bad weather not to teach about the weather but because the instructors simply wanted to complete a flight or some training that day (frankly, I've seen it done by instructors who needed the money). That one scares me because I do not think CFIs always recognize just how powerful they are as role models. In those circumstances they have just given a positive reinforcement of a form of get-home-itis to their students. Personally, I don't think that is at all appropriate.

On the days that a flight is made in marginal conditions, I believe that the overall purpose of the flight probably should be observation and decision-making. It gives the chance for the CFI to demonstrate and discuss the concept of ongoing decision-making regarding weather. He or she can show that the process isn't over upon launching the flight, it involves continual evaluation of the conditions by observing and comparing them to the forecast to determine whether the flight may even continue or if it's time to stop at the nearest airport or, indeed, land in a suitable field. It involves getting cockpit weather (and the danger of the head-down time reading it in marginal wx) and/or making calls to Flight Watch for weather updates because that is what the pilot does in the real world.

Finally, I believe, it involves a healthy discussion of simply being honest with oneself. Aviation does not long tolerate any pilot who will lie to him or herself about anything regarding flight. A pilot who has experienced two-mile visibility and was aware of how difficult and dangerous it was cannot later tell himself that it will be okay to go this time, because it really wasn't that bad. There is no probation for the pilot who does not take the steps to learn what the weather really is or launches with the optimistic "it can't be that bad." There is no second chance.

I have to defer to Terri Watson again because she described so very well what she tries to do with students: "The entire process is conscious decision-making. There may not be a rule regarding what you as a pilot are about to do, but that does not mean you can blow it off. Anything to do with marginal weather means the pilot has to understand deep inside that she or he is entering a statistically significant realm where he or she is likely to wreck an airplane and kill or injure people. It is up to the CFIs to inculcate the concept of conscious decision-making and intellectual honesty in pilots when they look at the weather decision." I fully agree and feel that the process has to be repeated until it is second nature in all pilots, whether or not they have instrument ratings.

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

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What started out two weeks ago as, if not a trial balloon, perhaps a rumor, may be about to happen. Several news outlets have reported that the U.S. wants to expand a policy to ban any electronic device larger than a cellphone from airline cabins on flights to the U.S. originating in Europe.

Recall that this very ban was put into place in March, but it was limited to about 50 flights a day from 10 cities, mostly in the Middle East. The wider ban would apply to European cities as well, although no details of its implementation date have been announced. The Department of Homeland Security said the new ban isn't in response to a specific threat, but to a believed new capability among terrorist organizations.

Rather than trot out the predictable snide remark about security theatre, I will instead ask a more sincere question: What is the threat matrix here? How significant is this threat? Banning laptops is a fairly big deal because so many business travelers returning from Europe use the plodding nine or 10-hour flight into headwinds to catch up on work they missed during their trips. I know because I am one of them and I will be traveling in Europe next month.

There's a tradeoff, of course. How much additional safety is achieved by inconveniencing business travelers and concentrating all those LiPo batteries in the cargo holds of 400 airliners a day? Under current guidelines for domestic flights, you can be fined for checking baggage with batteries, which is why when I board an airliner, my roll-aboard is stuffed full of all the camera batteries I'm not supposed to check, plus a laptop, a cellphone and an iPad.

The thinking for this policy is sound. You can at least access LiPo batteries in your carry-on and they are less likely to get manhandled to the point of shorting the internals, a leading cause of lithium ion battery fires. To be sure, these have occurred in airline cabins, but they have proved manageable. Surrounded by other flammables and despite baggage compartment fire suppression systems, I'm less sanguine about batteries I can't see cooking off in checked baggage.

DHS argues that even laptops or devices with explosives concealed inside are less threatening than they would be in a cabin because it takes more explosive energy to breech a baggage container and cause significant enough damage to bring down an airplane. Also, says the agency, checked baggage is more rigorously checked than are carry-on bags. Pardon me, but I don't have much confidence in that claim.

If I had my druthers, I'd take my chances with whatever is in the cabin, thanks. On the plus side, this is a policy that ought to stimulate the sales of paper books and magazines and since I'm in the business of the latter, perhaps I shouldn't complain.

Most people think of drones as annoying little buzzing quadcopters. Don't say that to the Griff Aviation Guardian, a 160-pound working drone that can lift its own weight and then some. At the AUVSI Xponential show in Dallas, Griff was showing a prototype and AVweb's Paul Bertorelli shot a video describing it.

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Picture of the Week

Beautiful skies are the theme this week but Rusty Eichorn got the winner in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Rusty has won before and we only got three usable entries this week. Flying season is here. Send us your best photos.

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