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As the FAA’s technical testing of unleaded avgas replacements grinds on, owners and manufacturers are still wondering what the approved fuels will look like and whether they will be true drop-ins. At a briefing last month at AirVenture, three members of the FAA Piston Aviation Fuel Initiative offered an overview that warned that the clean drop-in fuel isn’t necessarily in sight yet. AVweb was provided with copies of the briefing slides.

PAFI began its work in 2014 and is scheduled to issue test data by the end of 2018 that will inform ASTM in developing a new unleaded aviation fuel spec. The second phase of that testing selected two candidate fuels, one from Shell and one from Swift Fuel. These candidates have since undergone extensive testing, including test cell runs and continuing in 2017, flight tests.

On one slide presented at the briefing, the group said the second phase testing has revealed differences with potential impacts compared to 100LL and warned that “each fuel will have different impacts, different authorized fleets and different mitigations.” Mitigations means modifications, either to the aircraft fuel system or tanks, the operating limitations or even the ground fuel distribution system. It could include anything from O-ring changes to fuel bladder replacement.

It also suggests that one fuel might be suitable for one type of aircraft, but not another, meaning the product wouldn’t be a true drop-in. However, AOPA’s David Oord, who sits on the PAFI steering group, said these caveats overstate the case. “We might not have that many mitigations. I don’t think it’s the best term to use. It implies problems and I don’t think we have problems. We have differences,” Oord said.

The PAFI process allows the fuel providers to tweak the chemical makeup as the process moves forward and once PAFI’s test data is released in 2018, the ASTM process may have altered the formulations yet more. Even as PAFI continues its testing, the ASTM balloting process on a new fuel spec to replace the D910 standard for avgas is underway. Although it hasn’t been widely reported, at least three other companies are working on fuels outside of the PAFI process to meet the spec. Phillips 66/Afton and BP are among them. In addition, General Aviation Modifications Inc. continues its testing on its G100 unleaded fuel. GAMI is pursuing an STC approval for G100 and thus far hasn’t balloted in ASTM.

Despite the worries about a visible drop-in, Oord told us he’s confident there will be viable fuels to replace avgas. “I’m confident we’ll see a drop-in for the vast majority of the feel and I think we’re on the way there,” he told us in an interview after AirVenture. 

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Restrictions imposed in an effort to reduce noise at East Hampton’s busy general aviation airport must be lifted, a federal court ruled on Monday. “We are gratified that the judicial system upheld our position that the restrictions at East Hampton violated federal law,” said NBAA President Ed Bolen. “For aircraft operations to be successful, it is essential to have a uniform and consistent set of rules.” The problems began a few years ago when helicopter trips to the area, a popular beach destination for New Yorkers, began to increase. In April 2015, the town adopted three restrictions for aircraft operations at East Hampton Airport — a year-round curfew that banned operations from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily; a year-round extended curfew for "noisy" aircraft, from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. daily; and a summertime one-trip-per-week limit for aircraft deemed by the town to be “noisy.”

NBAA, Friends of the East Hampton Airport, the Eastern Region Helicopter Council and others argued that a federal law, The Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, applies to all public-use U.S. airports, and that the town’s three restrictions were a violation of that law. “East Hampton has one of the most extensive voluntary noise-abatement programs in the country, and our members are committed to flying responsibly,” said Bolen. He added that the ERHC has developed new routes and procedures for helicopters, to avoid noise-sensitive areas. “NBAA will remain vigilant regarding attempts to restrict access to the nation’s public-use airports and oppose any efforts to limit the utility of airports like HTO, which would cripple the overall viability of the National Airspace System,” he said.

The Lake Renegade that crashed during takeoff from the AirVenture 2017 seaplane base in rough water had its flaps up, according to the NTSB’s preliminary report. The 84-year old pilot and one of his passengers was killed in the accident. A second passenger survived with minor injuries. According to the NTSB, persons at the seaplane base expressed concern to the pilot regarding the rough water departure. The pilot had asked to be taken out on a boat to survey the water conditions prior to takeoff. A witness on the boat said waves were 1.5 to 2 feet. Maximum wave height recommended by the manufacturer is 18 inches.

The NTSB described the events leading up to the crash this way: “The pilot told the harbor master he was going to start the engine as the plane was being towed through the cut, and the harbor master held up a finger to indicated not yet and to wait a minute. The pilot reportedly asked him to start the engines several more times as the airplane was still under tow before the tow rope had been disconnected, and the harbor master indicted to him to wait each time. Once the tow ropes were disconnected and the harbor master moved out of the way to the side, the pilot started the airplane engine and the airplane went to full power within two seconds.”

Video of the takeoff shows the plane porpoising two to three times before the plane rolled off to the left and the wing struck the water. According to the NTSB, “Review of video and photo evidence documenting the takeoff revealed the airplane's wing flaps were in the up position during takeoff. The flaps and flap lever were found in the ‘up’ position during examination of the wreckage.” According to Max Trescott, a Lake owner, CFI and host of the Aviation News Talk Podcast, “all takeoffs are made with flaps down” in the Lake.

Aircraft equipped with ADS-B Out capabilities will no longer be required to specifically apply for approval to operate in Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) airspace, according to a newly proposed FAA regulation. Under existing regulations, to fly an aircraft between FL290 and FL410, the aircraft must be RVSM certified, either by the manufacturer or by subsequent application. The application required the applicant to demonstrate the aircraft was equipped with an altimeter capable of a sufficiently high level of precision at very high altitudes together with an autopilot capable of holding altitude within certain standards.

Under the new rule, aircraft with ADS-B Out will still need to have a suitable autopilot, but the ADS-B Out system is deemed to comply with the altimetry requirements, provided that the aircraft is operating in airspace with ADS-B coverage to allow ATC monitoring of altitude compliance. The new rule, if adopted without significant amendment, is scheduled to become effective sometime in 2018. The FAA estimates that the rule will save over $35 million over five years, mostly by allowing additional aircraft to realize the fuel savings benefits of operating in RVSM airspace.

The rulemaking also opens the door to RVSM operation outside ADS-B coverage without RVSM certification: "An aircraft that has recently been monitored by the FAA and found to be operating normally could be safely operated outside of FAA-monitored airspace with a high degree of confidence that the performance requirements would continue to be met." Since all aircraft operating in Class A airspace will be required to be equipped with ADS-B Out by 2020, this new rule paves the way for the elimination of RVSM certification entirely in the next decade.

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A report by the Swiss financial services company UBS says pilotless aircraft may take to the skies carrying cargo and passengers by 2025. The report estimates airlines would save $35 billion per year from decreased labor costs, reduced training expenses, improved fuel economy and cheaper insurance. One big hedge on the arrival date for unmanned transport aircraft: The 2025 estimate provided by UBS is for technical feasibility only. Proposing a date by which such an aircraft would be acceptable to regulators and passengers calls for a higher degree of speculation. UBS discovered a significant minority of people would be willing to fly in an aircraft without a pilot today (46%) and surmised that public opinion may shift rapidly towards unpiloted aircraft when faced with reduced fares and evidence of improved safety.

Although well beyond the horizon, pilotless aircraft are an appealing prospect for airlines bracing for the need to hire several hundred thousand new pilots in the next decade. Wages and training costs have been rapidly rising at regional U.S. airlines over the last several years as the major airlines have hired pilots from the regionals at unprecedented rates to cover increased air travel demand from economic expansion and a wave of retirements pushed back when the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age for Part 121 pilots.

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When I plopped my weary butt into a chair for Continental’s presser at AirVenture last month, what’s the first thing I see on the show-and-tell stand? A couple of Lycoming roller tappets and an angle-valve cylinder. Uh-oh, I thought, really bad timing for Lycoming. And it relates directly to what’s going on with the current Lycoming mandatory service bulletin (SB 632) requiring inspection and potential replacement of connecting rod bushings.

To refresh, here’s the news story on SB 632 and in summary, it requires owners of Lycoming engines overhauled in the 2015 to 2017 time frame to check their engines for use of off-spec small-end connecting rod bushings. When installed, the bushings have an effective outside diameter that’s too small, allowing the piston pin and piston to work side-to-side, accelerating wear to the point of failure. And there have been some failures, although Lycoming isn’t saying how many. (Thusday morning addition: the company's latest FAQ says five known in-flight failures have occurred.) Two engine shops I’ve spoken to said they were aware of the problem during the period when Lycoming was shipping the parts and one, Ly-Con Aircraft in Visalia, California, sent at least 160 parts back to Lycoming. Penn Yan Aero also says they found problem bushings.

The SB requires an onerous inspection process involving cylinder removal, testing the bushing with a calibrated tool and reassembly. Lycoming thinks 1300 or so factory engines are involved and my educated guess is that another 1000 engines overhauled by field shops might be affected. At this point, no one seems to have precise numbers and the SB is almost certainly going to morph into an AD.

Not that it matters much, since the inspections really need to be done. For engines built by Lycoming, the factory will cover the inspection and repair under warranty. For field shops, Lycoming will provide the parts, but the company is being noncommittal about labor support. Obviously, this is not sitting well. At all. Essentially, Lycoming sold defective parts that shops installed in good faith and now they must make good with customers on their own warranty programs.

This is anything but a trivial amount of money. Lycoming budgets 12 hours for the inspection for a four-cylinder engine and 16 for a six-cylinder. Shops say this is at least 20 percent too low, but if you add up the gaskets and other parts needed for assembly, it will cost $1500 per engine on the low side, but probably closer to $2000. Multiply that times 100 engines and you can see why a field shop can’t afford to absorb it. Moreover, the inspection is intrusive enough to inject some risk due to reassembly errors.

Many shops use Lycoming parts because they believe the quality is good and that the company will stand behind any defects, as it has in the past. In that regard, SB 632 is a departure. Ly-Con’s Ken Tunnell told me, “On an issue like this, they’ve got PMAers out there wanting to take business from them. I’ve always been under the impression that if I stand behind the OEM, they would stand behind me.”

So that puts Lycoming at a crossroads here. As evidenced by its expanding catalog of Lycoming PMA parts, Continental is aggressively going after Lycoming. And the ad copy practically writes itself with regard to after-sales support, which is the root of my comment about bad timing for Lycoming. I can’t see how Lycoming can avoid making an accommodation of some kind for field shops as a minimal bulwark against Continental’s challenge. Moreover, Continental is actually PMAing entire Lycoming engines and planning to certify them, so the competitive challenge is all the more intense. If Lycoming issued a full-throated commitment to backup shops with labor support, it would be turning lemons into lemonade.

The larger issue is the health of engine manufacturing as a whole. As we’re coming down from the sugar high of an exceptional AirVenture with glass panels dancing like sugar plums, the fact remains that demand for new airframes is anemic and innovation in powerplant technology, although in evidence, ignites but a trickle of sales and interest. Like every manufacturer, Lycoming uses vendors for some parts and if it chases another one away by suing for losses, it’s just another nick in the engine building ecosystem that does no one any good. It’s already difficult enough to find vendors who don’t run screaming into the night when the word “aviation” appears on a purchase order.

So while SB 632 is a big deal for owners and shops, how Lycoming handles it going forward may have real impact on both its competitive stance and the overall health of the engine industry. A market that’s lopsided with a dominant supplier is, in the long term, undesirable, in my view.

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At AirVenture, AVweb's Paul Bertorelli took a turn in the left seat of a DC-3 with Dan Gryder flying low approaches. Here's a video of the action, with some great outside shots by Nate Tennant. 

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