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Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says he “might” ban laptops in the passenger cabins of all international flights to and from the U.S. In an interview Sunday he said airliners with lots of Americans aboard are a prime target for terrorists and the ban wouldn’t be a response to a specific threat, but a general attitude within the security establishment. He told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace the U.S. "will raise the bar for, generally speaking, aviation security much higher than it is now, and there's new technologies down the road, not too far down the road, that we'll rely on. But it is a real sophisticated threat, and I'll reserve making that decision until we see where it's going.” Intelligence suggests extremists have developed laptop bombs that can get through normal security scans.

The U.S. now bans laptops on flights into the country from eight Middle Eastern countries. That ban affects about 50 flights a week. There was earlier discussion about expanding the ban to flights from Europe but the ban suggested by Kelly would affect thousands of flights and millions of passengers per day. Kelly didn’t say how long it will take him to decide on whether to implement the ban.

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Russia’s newest airliner took its first flight Sunday with little fanfare but a reportedly substantial order book. The Irkut MC-21-300 will compete directly with the Boeing 737 MAX, Airbus A320 Neo and Bombardier CSeries for the increasingly crowded single-aisle airliner market. It will carry 163 to 211 passengers and is projected to be 12 to 15 percent more efficient than current airliners in that segment. It will come with a choice of either Pratt & Whitney PW1400G or Russian PD-14 engines. There are 175 firm orders from Aeroflot and UTAir.

The aircraft took off from Irkut headquarters in Irkutsk, in central Russia, on a first flight that was not announced in advance. The flight only lasted 30 minutes and it was carried out below 10,000 feet, at about 160 knots with the landing gear deployed, and included a missed approach. The manufacturer said the limited scope of the first flight was according to plan. Test pilot Oleg Kononenko told Russian media the “flight went in the normal mode. There are no obstacles revealed preventing the tests' continuation.”

The Air Force has reversed its plan to retire the A-10 and now says all 283 Warthogs have a productive future. The 2018 budget plan sent to Congress this week says the iconic close support aircraft will be in the fleet “for the foreseeable future,” according to The Associated Press. All the A-10s were supposed to be parked in the desert by now as the Air Force prepared to deploy the F-35 to replace it and almost every other aircraft in the inventory. Warthog fans in the Air Force and in government have kept them flying for the last six years and now the immediate future of the 1970s-era aircraft appears secure.

Among the champions of the A-10 were Arizona Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Martha McSally, who have political reasons for their stance since some are based at Davis-Monthan in their home state. But McSally is a former Warthog pilot who caught the ear of Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump with a succinct description that might have appealed to the action-oriented President. "The A-10 is this badass airplane with a big gun on it," she is quoted as telling Trump. A-10s are in combat in Syria with the “big gun,” a seven-barrel Gatling gun whose distinctive ripping sound is unwelcome to any opposing ground force.

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John Travolta is hanging up his four-barred Qantas uniform and donating his personal Boeing 707 to an Australian museum, which will restore it. Travolta said he plans to personally deliver the Boeing to the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) in Illawarra, New South Wales, after some maintenance on the aircraft. Travolta discussed the possibility of sending the aircraft to the museum in 2009 when he was invited to fly the HARS Super Constellation. He decided to let the jet go this year and the museum was happy to take it off his hands. "I am truly excited by this project and am just so pleased that this beautiful aircraft, for which I obviously have very fond memories, will continue to fly well into the future," Travolta said in a statement.

Travolta bought the old airliner in 1998, a few years after he chartered it for a fast trip to Europe. It was originally delivered to Qantas in 1964, one of 13 shortened, long-range versions of the venerable design. It was outfitted with the executive interior in 1973 and had previously been owned by Frank Sinatra and billionaire Kirk Kirkorian. Travolta operated it himself for a few years before striking a deal with Qantas to paint it in historic livery and fly it as an ambassador for the airline in exchange for maintenance. Even a movie superstar couldn’t justify the maintenance costs on the thirsty jet. "Any plane this size is too pricey," Travolta told The Australian. "I did it for four years on my own and it was much easier to do a barter system and promote the airline.” Travolta still owns a GII, an Eclipse, a Yugoslavian Soko fighter and a couple of ultralights.

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Regional airlines say the FAA is vastly understating the cost of a proposed AD that will require them to replace 10,482 passenger seats in various small airliners. The FAA said the AD will only cost the airlines a total of $900,000 because it is only tallying the labor cost of removing the Slim and Slimplus seats from their fleets ($85 each) and not including the cost of replacing them with new seats. “Calculating these numbers would make the part cost in the millions just for our fleet,” Daniel Burkhard, SkyWest'sengineering manager for compliance, reportedly told the FAA when the fix was proposed. He said replacing the seats will cost between $250,000 and $500,000 for each of the 120 affected aircraft in its fleet.

The FAA says the seats, made by Zodiac Seats California LLC, pose a risk of neck or head injury in passengers in survivable crashes. The agency says videos studied by the FAA and Brazil’s civil aviation organization show that in a crash a passenger might slide down the seat with his or her chin on the seat ahead of them and hit the tray table. Airlines have disputed the findings but the FAA has stuck to its order. “The intent of this (airworthiness directive) is to provide a safe outcome for passengers during a survivable crash by preventing serious injuries,” USA Today reported the AD as saying. The seats are installed in Boeing 717-200s, MD-90-30s, Bombardier CRJ700s, CRJ900s and Q400s and Embraer E170s and E190s.

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There are three ways to arrive at an airport when operating under IFR: a standard instrument approach procedure (IAP), a visual approach and a contact approach. A great way to bring hangar flying to a screeching halt is to ask about a contact approach. A lot of IFR pilots know that it is some sort of visually-flown maneuver, but when asked how it differs from a visual approach, blank stares often ensue. Let’s fix that.

Contact vs. Visual

A visual approach is conducted to an airport that is legally in VMC. “Reported weather at the airport must have a ceiling at or above 1000 feet and visibility 3 miles or greater,” says AIM 5-4-23. When the visual approach is to an airport without an operating control tower and has no weather reporting service, ATC can initiate a visual approach provided there is “reasonable assurance” that the weather at the airport meets the 1000 and 3 VMC minimums. This is where a PIREP can help grease the wheels for those behind you.

If the field is VFR, your other option is to cancel the IFR flight plan with ATC and land under VFR. This has both pros and cons. The first advantage is that you won’t be the one who forgets to tell ATC that you landed safely and that your IFR flight plan can be closed if there’s no tower to do it for you. Another advantage is that ATC separation standards are reduced for VFR aircraft, and if you’re operating in some busier airspace, it may provide ATC with a little more flexibility and utility to help the system run more smoothly.

The biggest disadvantage is that as soon as you cancel, you’re bound by the VFR cloud clearance and visibility requirements of 14 CFR 91.155. On a visual approach, your only restriction is that you remain clear of clouds. (Some certificated operators have more stringent requirements.) If canceling IFR and still in Class E airspace, you need to remain 500 feet below the clouds with 3 miles of visibility until reaching Class G airspace, if any. With Class E surface or extension areas, you may have to wait until you are below 700 feet AGL or even landing before you’re in VMC.

Of course, you’re also no longer IFR. If the weather changes, or things aren’t quite as visual as you expected, you are no longer ATC’s IFR priority and you’re hoping for a “pop-up” IFR clearance—all while trying to stay in VMC. All of this, of course, is dependent on the destination airport being VMC.

Contact Approach Defined

The best way to think of a contact approach is as a visual maneuver to an airport reporting IMC. Since the airport is in IMC your only other choice is an actual instrument approach. This means you should prepare for that approach while hoping it’s good enough for a contact approach. So, a contact approach is a way of arriving visually at an airport that is reporting less than 1000-3, provided certain criteria are met.

AIM 5-4-25 tells us what we’ll need to pull this off. First, we’ll need to be operating clear of clouds with one-mile flight visibility—you forfeit your authorization to punch through clouds and you must have and maintain one mile of flight visibility all the way to landing. If you meet that requirement, you are free to request the contact approach. You have an out, though, if you find that the conditions aren’t cooperating. You’re still on an IFR flight plan and you can cancel the contact approach and request vectors for an instrument approach.

ATC has its own requirements to issue a contact approach clearance. First of all, the airport (not necessarily the runway) must have an IAP. Therefore, the contact approach won’t be a cheesy way to sneak IFR into an airport that doesn’t have an approach. The FAA specifically thought of that. AIM 5-4-25 says that the contact approach isn’t to be tacked on to a standard IAP for the purposes of getting below the clouds at one airport, only to sneak over to a nearby airport that lacks an IAP.

Another requirement is that the reported ground visibility at the destination airport must be at least one statute mile. This is in addition to the one mile flight visibility that you need throughout the contact approach. If your airport is only reporting RVR for the active runway, then it pays to know your RVR/SM equivalencies. (Hint: 5000 RVR = 1 SM.) The AIM and the Air Traffic Control Handbook (FAA Order 7110.65) both say that approved separation is applied between the contact approach aircraft and any other IFR or Special VFR aircraft. In practice, this means that it’s extremely unlikely that you will be cleared for a contact approach if there’s another aircraft preparing for the IAP.

The controller handbook even says “Unless otherwise restricted, the pilot may find it necessary to descend, climb, and/or fly a circuitous route to the airport to maintain cloud clearance and/or terrain/obstruction clearance.” This is fair warning to the controller that standard separation may be difficult to predictably maintain.

How the Pros Do It

Many commercial operators put additional restrictions on the contact approaches—if permitted at all—through their operations specifications. In doing so, they generally divide contact approaches into two categories: Runway in Sight and Airport Not in Sight. The Runway-in-Sight category would be for those instances where perhaps the airport is reporting, say, 400 overcast and 10 miles visibility, and the overcast which is making the field IFR is located at the far side of the airport where the ASOS is located—leaving the first half of the runway in the clear and the second half covered. This is common at coastal airports, or other locales where fog or similar low cloud layer may advance and retreat based on wind and/or solar energy.

The Airport-Not-in-Sight category is a little fishier. It’s reserved for circumstances where the ceiling is not so much a factor but the visibility is down to not less than one mile, typically in haze or mist, or sometimes smoke from nearby fires.

With decent familiarity, some might fly the contact approach by following the interstate to the big box store to the hamburger joint and turning north to find the threshold. Since the pilot is responsible for his or her own terrain and obstruction clearance during a contact approach, familiarity with the area and particularly the obstacles is crucial. Even knowing the area, there is still a large element of risk.

Common ops specs restrictions reflect the hazards of these two scenarios. With the runway in sight, the primary restriction is usually the admonition not to descend when above a broken or overcast cloud layer—the “Sucker Hole Prevention Clause.”

The Airport-Not-in-Sight scenario naturally comes with additional restrictions. It’s not uncommon for commercial operators to require positive course guidance to the intended landing runway in order to descend, usually from the FAF altitude or perhaps MVA, when the runway is not in sight. This gets us into the realm of “why bother doing this?” That does give some insight into what the FAA truly thinks of the “feeling your way” contact approach. Bear that in mind next time you’re tempted to forgo the IAP for the local landmark-based, I-think-it-should-be-safe-to-descend-here contact approach.

Contact approaches cannot be suggested or offered by ATC; the pilot must request them. Think about that. The FAA lawyers did, and created a way to disavow any responsibility. You should make sure you can conduct the contact approach safely and that it’s really a better solution than a normal IAP.

Like pilots, not all controllers are familiar with the requirements of a contact approach. I once was denied a contact approach because there was no tower at the airport, which isn’t a requirement. I later delivered an appropriately highlighted section of the 7110.65 to the controller and subsequently got a contact approach to the same airport from the same controller.

Responsibilities

AIM 5-5-3 contains the pilot and controller responsibilities for the contact approach. Much of it is restatement of 5-4-25, with a couple of additions. First, it’s the pilot’s responsibility to inform ATC immediately if it’s not possible to continue the contact approach, presumably due to clouds or visibility. The controller’s responsibility is to ascertain that the destination airport has the required one mile of ground visibility, as should the pilot.

Additionally, the controller shouldn’t assign a fixed altitude for vertical separation; however, they should ensure that there is at least 1000 feet of separation below any other IFR traffic, consistent with the minimum safe altitudes outlined in 14 CFR 91.119. Lastly, it is the controller’s prerogative to issue alternative instructions if they judge that the weather conditions make completion of the contact approach impracticable. But then, you shouldn’t have requested it in the first place.

Evan Cushing is a former regional airline training captain who now works in a collegiate flight program, where his contact approaches usually amount to finding his way to the door at quitting time.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of IFR magazine.

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As sure as winter turns to spring, the ATC privatization idea has resurfaced and just as surely as summer is coming, so too are the alphabets protesting it. We’ve already hashed out ad nauseam why turning over air traffic to a private entity is a bad idea, but this season’s regurgitation has a new twist: privatizing airports.

In a draft legislation summary released by the Trump administration, the concept of “asset recycling” is being suggested. According to a report in the Washington Post, Trump aide Gary Cohn described it this way: "Instead of people in cities and states and municipalities coming to us and saying, ‘Please give us money to build a project,’ and not knowing if it will get maintained, and not knowing if it will get built, we say, ‘Hey, take a project you have right now, sell it off, privatize it, we know it will get maintained, and we’ll reward you for privatizing it. The bigger the thing you privatize, the more money we’ll give you."

The plan is light on details and lighter yet on budget analysis, but it springs from the ever hopeful conviction that the private sector is simply more efficient at running things like terminals, airports, transportation facilities, air traffic systems and so on than the government ever could be. While this sounds intoxicatingly attractive, the reality has been harsher, especially with regard to airports.

Some 20 years ago, in 1997, the FAA introduced the Airport Privatization Pilot Program, which was specifically intended to grease the regulatory and financial skids for companies interested in buying and running airports for profit. And we’re talking about commercial airports with airline service or maybe some busy munis. There are already lots of privately owned small airports in the U.S., some doing very well I’m sure.

The APPP was supposed to remove barriers to purchasing airports by eliminating restrictions on using AIP funds, allowing businesses to charge passenger facility fees and to raise capital through bond sales. It did not, however, promise buyers direct funding input, as the administration proposal seems to be doing. A 2014 GAO report on APPP concluded that the program found few takers. Ten airports applied, but only one, Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico, appears to have been a real success story. A second is the Branson, Missouri airport, but it was built originally as a private airport, not converted from public ownership.

One of the original arguments for airport privatization was that private entities would be more willing to make necessary capital investments than would cities and states. In at least one case, this proved not to be true. New York’s Stewart Airport was privatized under APPP in 2000, but the company that assumed the lease tried to unload it and, finding no buyers, it ran the airport for short-term profit, but made no investments in it. It reverted back to public ownership in 2007.

One big failure like that doesn’t necessarily tank the idea, but I think the Trump proposal is DOA for two reasons. One, the money to subsidize these purchases will have to come from somewhere and good luck getting it out of the current Congress. Second, investors can find more profitable places to put their money than airports. After all, they aren’t exactly money machines. The GAO report pointed out that privatization is already extensive at many airports, where vendors operate airport concessions and all kinds of services up to and including maintenance and construction. Perhaps the best model for this sort of thing is Fort Worth’s Alliance, an industrial airport built specifically for the purpose that’s owned by the city but operated privately.

There are plenty of small airports in the U.S. that are privately owned. Some are residential airparks, some just little country airports. While those models seem to work, my guess is they don’t throw off pots of cash. In the case of city- or county-owned munis, profit for a private owner may be found in higher occupancy density and greater traffic, if the owning entities can set fees where they like.

But if they can do that, they can also charge $75 ramp fees and $1200 t-hangar rent. Want to find out what the market will bear in an already anemic aviation economy? That’s one way to do it. Leases can be written to give the public sector oversight in setting fees and limits on activity but, ooops, there goes the private business impetus.

While private business is vaunted for its efficiency, that works best when it has competition. But privatized ATC and airports are unlikely to have that, so in a world of diminished activity, they’re likely to generate profitable revenue by charging the survivors to the point of extinction.

In the right markets, I could see a privately owned airport doing more aggressive promotion and sales than a public airport might, but the venues where that would work seem limited to me. That privatization continues to be a hot topic strikes me as just a perennial Reason Foundation whipping boy more than it does sound public policy. I just don’t see the problem that privatization is supposed to solve, other than allowing politicians to continue ducking the responsibility of raising infrastructure capital with bonds and/or taxes.

Speaking of which, the cratered muni bond market came back to life this week as investors seemed less convinced a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is likely. Said the Financial Times, “Investors are less optimistic that the administration will implement its pro-growth agenda that includes hefty spending on infrastructure at the state and local level and tax reform.” That could flip come fall, if the administration and Congress reach a deal on spending and taxes, but investors may not be willing to wait.

If GA continues its downward spiral, it may reach the point where privately owned airports are the only choice. But we’re not there yet and, in my estimation, privatizing airports and public infrastructure sounds like a sure way to hasten the demise of what’s left.

As drones get ever more capable, a company called ARA has married them to a system of ground sensors that can automatically dispatch a drone to monitor suspicious foot traffic. That means border protection and military perimeter monitoring.

Electronics International 'Aviation Alert! Short video on how EI saved this pilot's life
Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

A hot jet landing on a hot day makes a nice shot to show the utility of business aviation in a fast-paced business. Thomas Backus caught Arizona Cardinals' President Michael Bidwell's Citation X landing at Scottsdale Airport. Nice shot Thomas.

Heard at JFK one summer day after a very long ground roll and subsequent lift off by a British Airways 747.

Tower: “Speedbird XXX noise violation.”

Speedbird XXX:"Send it to the ()(*&^% Queen.”

Real story.


Dan Jenkins

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