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Over 15,000 pilots now have medical certification to fly through the FAA’s new BasicMed rule, which went into effect on May 1 of this year. The FAA estimates that at the end of 2016 there were roughly 162,000 active private pilots. Data isn’t yet available to assess the breakdown between pilots who have received BasicMed certification because they believed themselves unable to receive Third Class medical certification and pilots who sought BasicMed certification out of convenience, but the program is undeniably popular, winning over a significant portion of the pilot population in only three months.

To qualify under BasicMed pilots must complete an online medical course, get a medical exam from any doctor following the FAA BasicMed checklist, possess a valid U.S. driver’s license and have received a medical certificate that was valid after July 15, 2006. Pilots flying under BasicMed may fly aircraft with a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 6,000 pounds or less and are authorized to carry no more than six occupants, including the pilot. They may not fly above 18,000 feet MSL, and are limited to speeds not exceeding 250 knots. They also cannot fly for compensation or hire—except as flight instructors. The education course must be passed every two years, and the medical exam must be completed every four years.

Virginia authorities Sunday confirmed that two state troopers were killed on Saturday when their state police helicopter crashed while patrolling near the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. State police identified the victims as pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, 40. Both men died at the scene. 

The aircraft went down around 5 p.m. and immediately burst into flame. It's not known how many were aboard, but it was apparently hovering near a house just before it crashed. No one on the ground was injured. 

 

Continental 'Factory new CM Magnetos at near-rebuilt pricing'

All flying units of the U.S. Marines will take a 24-hour operational pause over the next 10 days "to focus on the fundamentals of safe flight operations, standardization, and combat readiness.” Because the days off will be scattered among all the units over that time period, the Marines say there will be no operational impact. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller made the call after two serious fatal accidents involving Marine aircraft in the last month. Last July, a KC-130T crashed in Mississippi, killing 15 Marines and one Navy corpsman, and last week an Osprey tiltrotor went down off the coast of Australia, killing three Marines. The Marines insist the rotating stand-downs are not symptoms of a larger problem. "Pauses in operations are not uncommon and are viewed as a responsible step to refresh and review best practices and procedures so our units remain capable, safe, and ready," the Marine Corps statement said.

Budget constraints have cut flying time for pilots in all branches of the military in recent years and there have been suggestions the reductions have caused an erosion of skills. "The Marine Corps' decision to temporarily ground all aircraft is further, indisputable evidence that America's military is in a readiness crisis, and that the crisis is costing lives," Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. In testimony to the committee last month, Air Force Gen. Paul Silva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed the budget squeeze cut training but said that doesn’t necessarily link directly to individual accidents.

The City of Santa Monica has approved a contract for shortening of the runway at SMO from 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet. After years of attempts to close the airport entirely, the City of Santa Monica entered into an agreement in January with the FAA that would permit the city to shorten the runway immediately and to close the airport in 2028. The excess runway will be converted to blastpad and runway overrun spaces. While sufficient for piston, turboprop and even light jet traffic, 3,500 feet won’t be enough runway for owners of the largest business jets, who will have to move their planes elsewhere. The city estimates shortening the runway will reduce jet traffic by 44 percent.

The exact design is scheduled for completion later this month with construction work ongoing from October to December of this year. The airport will be closed overnight for significant portions of this time and the city says operators can expect the airport to be closed for seven to 14 days during this period. 

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Could the future of personal aviation be a DeLorean?  Paul DeLorean, nephew of the "Back to the Future" stainless steel car creator in the 1980s, is proposing a dual ducted-fan VTOL aircraft to compete with a host of variations on the same theme and with similar boasts about performance and environmental friendliness.  DeLorean Aerospace has formally launched the DR-7, a two-place tandem aircraft that is fully autonomous and electrically powered. “We are moving forward on a full-size, piloted prototype which will carry two passengers and is designed to operate, fully electric, for a range of 120 miles,” DeLorean told Wired.

DeLorean joins the likes of Uber, Airbus, Google and a host of less billionairish hopefuls in the consumer-friendly VTOL market that looks to change the way urban transportation works for those with the cash to avoid the nuisance on the ground. DeLorean expects his foldable wing creation to retail for $250,000 to $300,000. The DR-7 is about 20 feet long and, thanks to the folding wings, will fit in a garage. The company prediction of 120 miles on a charge (Airbus is hoping for 50 with its Vahana) is based on its slick aerodynamics and DeLorean’s prediction that it will fly efficiently at “higher altitudes” at more than 200 knots.

 

After initial trials with the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine, the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the Textron Scorpion jet, and the L-3/Air Tractor AT-802L Longsword at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson told reporters that combat trials were a likely next step in the OA-X light attack demonstration program. Wilson did say that combat trials were predicated on combat commanders approving the aircraft for use in an operational setting, but that’s probably a low bar for the AT-6 and A-29, both of which the Air Force has deemed “tier one” competitors for having met all the Air Force’s initial specifications. The Air Force already operates those two aircraft or a close variant thereof. The Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine is closely related to the T-6 Texan II used by both the Navy and Air Force for primary pilot training and is itself closely derived from the Pilatus PC-9. The Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base trains Afghan pilots to fly the Super Tucano. Afghan pilots then fly the same airplane on counterterrorism combat missions back home.

The Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC) is already considering how it would conduct a combat demonstration. Col. Michael Pietrucha told Defense News that the ACC envisions stationing the aircraft somewhere in the Middle East and having them fill in for the A-10 or F-16 on less demanding missions in uncontested airspace. Lt. Gen. Arnold Brunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition officer, told Defense News that the combat demonstration would probably be limited to the AT-6 and A-29—the only two aircraft that met the initial requirements. The AT-802L is unpressurized and lacks an ejection seat. It’s unclear which requirements are specifically lacking in the Scorpion jet, but it likely lags well behind the other competitors in both acquisition and operating costs as the only turbojet-powered airplane in the group.

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The State of Connecticut has stepped into the simmering controversy over who was actually the first to take a controlled, powered flight by honoring a native son who some believe beat the Wright brothers by two years. Gustave Whitehead will be honored by state officials in Bridgeport Aug. 14 on the 116th anniversary of what some believe was a half-mile flight at 50 feet in nearby Fairfield. The honor is likely to reignite the debate over Whitehead’s alleged flight, which had a lot of witnesses but no photographic proof, only an artist’s rendering in a local newspaper.

The governments of North Carolina and Ohio are also likely to have something to say about the Bridgeport ceremony. Both consider themselves the crucible of aviation, North Carolina because of the Kitty Hawk flight, Ohio because it’s where the Wrights did all the construction and development work. In 2013 Paul Jackson, the editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, wrote a column supporting the notion that Whitehead beat the Wrights but the publication itself has distanced itself from that opinion.

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There are only some 200,000 aircraft in the U.S.—there are more cars than that in a large town—so why any profit-oriented insurer would enter such a restricted market seems to defy logic. Yet, in the last decade, the number of aviation insurance underwriters has gone from the old, hard core of nine to 14, an increase of more than 50 percent. The result is predictable—with a relatively large number of companies competing in a limited market, insurance premiums are low and owners have little trouble getting coverage.

What does this mean for owners and pilots seeking insurance in the short run and the industry in the long run? We put those question to several insurance brokers and underwriters and got consistent answers: Because we’re in the “softest” market in over 40 years, it’s a great time to be buying insurance, but the fact that premium dollars are barely covering the cost of claims paid means the current situation should not be sustainable—yet there’s no end in sight. (This article was written two years ago, yet the situation has not markedly changed. Ed.)

How it Works

Insurance companies enter into contracts to pay money to an insured should specified events (usually accidents) occur in return for a fee (the premium) from the insured. The insurer takes the premium money and invests it. So long as the amount the insurer earns from the premiums and investments exceeds what it pays out in claims, the insurer makes a profit.

One way to improve the balance sheet is to not pay claims, however, that’s not really an option for aviation insurers because the aviation community is so small. If an insurer gets a reputation for fighting claims, aviation insurance brokers learn about it quickly and steer their clients away from that insurer.

Jon Doolittle, owner of Sutton James insurance brokerage, told us that the market is as soft as any he has ever seen, “Prices are down significantly and underwriter guidelines are eroding.” Doolittle said that where owners of turbine and cabin-class airplanes used to have to go for simulator-based recurrent training annually, now it’s likely they can get the insurer to agree to recurrent training every two years and it can be in the airplane. In addition, more and more insurers are agreeing to allow owners to take recurrent training through aircraft owner groups such as the American Bonanza Society and Cessna Pilots Association.

While the brokers we spoke with agreed to be quoted, those involved in underwriting (setting premiums and deciding who their employer insurance company would insure) would not agree to be identified. The underwriters we spoke with said that they were offering higher limit coverage to less-experienced pilots than they had in the past. One underwriter said that it was tough to hold the line when it came to pilot experience for coverage. He said that his company had been approached to cover a private pilot with less than 100 hours who wanted to step into a six-place single. That was outside the parameters for his company, so he declined. He later learned that another company agreed, and charged a premium that was half what it would have charged for such a high-risk pilot five years ago.

Underwriters were unanimous in telling us that companies were currently writing coverage for pilots stepping up into sophisticated airplanes that they would not have touched 10 years ago. One said that if a pilot has the money to buy a lot of airplane, his chances of being able to get insurance on favorable terms are the best he’s seen in his decades in the business.

Mike Pratt, a broker with Epic Insurance Solutions, told us that he’s been able to place coverage for clients at levels unheard of just five years ago. He recounted recently obtaining a $5 million smooth liability policy for an owner-flown twin-turboprop for a $9000 annual premium—if he had even been able to obtain such coverage five years ago it would have cost $20,000.

Jon Doolittle told us that insurance underwriters have different levels of comfort and expertise. They get to know some types of aircraft very well and prefer to write policies for those aircraft. Historically, he said he knew which insurers to contact to get the best rate and coverage for the particular type of airplane owned by a client. Now, he said, underwriters are constantly looking for a niche, and which ones are looking where changes regularly. So when he is trying to place insurance for a client he knows that he’s going to be able to get a good deal, but he has to make many more calls until he finds the underwriter who is in that niche at that time.

Pratt echoed the sentiment, noting that one insurer that had historically only covered classics suddenly started writing insurance for all types.

Buying Insurance

Okay, the market is soft, there are good deals on insurance to be had, how do I buy insurance for my airplane, or to cover me as a renter?

As an aircraft owner who wants to insure his or her aircraft and self, the procedure is to buy two types of coverage that is bundled together into one policy—insurance that fixes or replaces the aircraft in the event of an accident (hull insurance) and insurance that covers the owner for liability should the owner get sued as a result of an accident (liability insurance). To do this, we recommend that the owner contact an aviation insurance broker. In fact, contact a few and talk with them to see which one you connect with and choose him or her.

A broker owes a fiduciary obligation to the owner, not to any insurance company, so he or she seeks out the best coverage available for the owner. A broker is not an insurance company. The broker then shops coverage for the owner—going to the various insurance underwriters with the details of the owner’s piloting experience and the aircraft to get quotes for coverage. The owner and broker then discuss the quotes and coverage and the owner makes a choice.

A warning: Do not try playing brokers against each other by having more than one broker get quotes for you. The brokers go to the same insurance underwriters for quotes and underwriters don’t like quoting the same airplane twice. You can get into the position of being unable to get any insurer to cover you.

At the same time, the owner is working with a broker, we also recommend that the owner also contact the aviation insurance company Avemco. Avemco is the only direct writer of aviation insurance. That means it sells insurance directly to aircraft owners (brokers do not get quotes from Avemco). All other aviation insurers only sell insurance through brokers. When contacting Avemco for a quote, a owner needs to understand that the person with whom the owner deals with is an employee of Avemco and owes a fiduciary duty to Avemco, not the owner.

Once the owner has quotes and coverage information from the broker and Avemco, it’s a matter of comparing them to see which best fits his or her needs.

Policies Are Not the Same

Unlike auto insurance where policies are nearly identical, each aviation insurer has slightly different types of coverage and policies—and those differences can be critical. We strongly recommend that you obtain a sample of the actual policy for each insurer that gives you an attractive quote.

Insurance policies are contracts and only cover exactly what is in the contract. Look at what is covered and what is excluded. A very low premium may sound great, but the policy may have so many exclusions that it is worthless for the type of flying you do.

However, if a policy looks attractive, but has an exclusion you don’t like—such as no coverage for operations on grass runways—see if the insurer will remove the exclusion. Often that can be done at no charge or a small increase in the premium.

Renter’s Insurance

Buying renter’s insurance is essentially buying the liability portion of an aircraft insurance policy. You are buying insurance to cover yourself should you have an accident and have to pay for the airplane and/or someone sues you. The procedure is the same; contact a broker and Avemco, get quotes and compare policies.

When seeking insurance, we recommend that you spend some time talking with your broker about yourself, your flying and your airplane. While getting a quote on coverage may simply involve entering data on a computerized form, much of the work a broker does is to talk with underwriters personally—aviation insurance is still very much driven by people talking directly to people.

If your broker knows you, he or she can bring out those things that make you a good insurance risk when talking to underwriters—which can mean better coverage at a lower price than comes from a one-size-fits-all computer form.

Never, ever lie about your experience to make yourself look good. Padding your hours, ratings and experience is a way to get coverage denied should you have an accident.

All of the underwriters we spoke with expressed concern about the general aviation accident rate due to the soft market. Especially for higher performance airplanes, insurance requirements for time in type and recurrent training have helped keep accident rates down. As underwriting standards slip, higher risk pilots are flying higher performance aircraft—and for the folks who make their living looking at accident data versus pilot experience, it’s a bad situation.

They know that the one variable that affects accident risk is recency of recurrent training and the underwriters we spoke with expressed concern that because recurrent training requirements are slipping, more people are going to get hurt.

The Future

With insurers apparently making little profit in the aviation field, we don’t think the current low rates will continue. But, as Mike Pratt pointed out to us, people have been saying that for over three years, yet when one insurer leaves aviation, another comes in, keeping premiums down.

While we don’t think the sky is going to fall, insurers have to see a profit to justify staying in a particular field, so more may step away from aviation. With fewer players, premiums will go up and experience and training requirements to get coverage will tighten up.

We’ve seen it happen in the past as soft markets drove insurers out of aviation—through conscious business decision or bankruptcy—and the market hardened. It usually happens gradually, however, a sudden series of general aviation accidents or a major airline accident that mean insurers have to pay large claims can, and has, caused the market to harden in short order.

Our take is that the current soft market is good news if you are buying or renewing your insurance. Having your broker shop your coverage could give you a lower premium than last year. If you’ve been considering moving up to a higher performance airplane but have been concerned about coverage, there’s never been a better time to make the move. 

Policy Sublimits: Wealth Hazard?

For more than 30 years, the most popular liability policy in aviation has provided coverage of $1 million with sublimits of $100,000. Owners sleep soundly at night, confident that they have an insurance pool of a million bucks should they roll Ol’ Bessy into a ball. These same owners have the personal net worth necessary to own an airplane and often have auto and homeowners insurance that has at least $1 million in liability coverage.

There’s only a minor problem—that sublimits policy only offers $100,000 of coverage per person injured or killed in an accident, not $1 million. For a full million dollar pool of money to draw from for personal injuries should you have an accident, you need what is called a smooth policy, one with no sublimits.

We recognize the popularity of sublimit policies with insurers—because they are among their most profitable products—and aircraft owners, because they are notably less expensive than smooth policies. However, in speaking with aircraft owners over the years, we have found that a substantial portion don’t realize that they only have one-tenth of the overall value of the policy available for any on person who is injured or killed.

Insurers tell us—and our experience is in agreement—that the vast majority of lawsuits or claims made against a pilot by someone injured in an accident settle for the $100,000 limits. However, a majority isn’t all of them. If the pilot messed up and caused an accident that seriously injured or killed the sole passenger, the value of the claim against the pilot could easily exceed $100,000. We have seen lawsuits brought against pilots and the estates of pilots in which the insurance company immediately paid the $100,000 policy limit, but the case continued against the pilot because he or she, or the estate, had assets. In addition, once the insurance company pays the limits of the policy, it no longer has to pay to defend the pilot, something that can be staggeringly expensive for the pilot.

In our opinion, an owner must be fully aware of the nature of the liability coverage he or she is buying. A $100,000 sublimit policy may be the right one—but it may not.

We do note that while it is not well known, there are policies available that offer $1 million coverage with sublimits of $200,000 or $250,000. They are priced less than smooth policies.

If a person has the money to buy an airplane, trying to save a few hundred dollars on insurance by buying a sublimit policy may be a serious mistake. We recommend that an owner speak candidly with an insurance broker and an attorney about coverage—and read the policy—before making a decision on liability insurance coverage. In the current soft insurance market, smooth policies are cheaper—and available for more pilots and airplanes—than they’ve been in years.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney who 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.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Aviation Consumer magazine.

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Think how boring life would be without the starry-eyed dreamers, the unshakeable optimists and the grand visionaries who are utterly incapable of allowing even the slightest harsh reality to tarnish that bright future just over the hill.

That would pretty much describe the people ushering in the next big thing in aviation: the on-demand urban air taxi. Specifically, Uber’s ambitious plan to launch Uber Elevate. See our news story on the rollout of this idea at a Dallas conference last April. 

What Uber Elevate has in mind is a sizeable fleet of pure-electric VTOL aircraft—not necessarily multi-rotors, by the way—shuttling passengers around urban areas through a node-based system with launch facilities they call Vertiports. (New word for you.) They expect to have demonstration vehicles flying by 2020 and actual operation at low-scale by 2023. You can hear more details on this in a podcast I recorded with Uber Elevate’s Nikhil Goel and Wyatt Smith. You can then decide if you think any of this is remotely possible or likely. As they explain, the vehicles will eventually be autonomous. 

Personally, I place myself in the it’s-possible-but-highly-unlikely camp. Just to be clear, Uber’s concept isn’t rooted in the totally daft idea of flying cars which, despite my personal crusade to render the idea ridiculous beyond all rational thought, continues to gain yet more coverage in the daily press. One reason for that is that tech billionaires are getting interested in it and those guys didn’t get those billions by embracing stupid ideas, right? Right?

What Uber has in mind is dedicated aircraft propelled by distributed electric power—basically motors attached wherever thrust is deemed to be needed. This offers genuine technical advantages, not the least of which is that it can be employed in tilt-rotor designs for fixed wing aircraft that would be more efficient than helicopters. So far, so good. On paper, it’s at least plausible, if not entirely realistic.

Uber shrewdly organized the high-profile conference in Dallas last spring and recruited some heavy hitters to at least endorse it, thus allowing the on-the-fence-doubters to think, hey, this thing is real. It’s here or soon will be. Whether it achieved that goal or not, it did get a lot of press so the promotional mission was at least accomplished. They name checked a few companies: Embraer, Bell, Mooney, Aurora, Pipistrel.

Uber described these as “partners” but it’s more accurate to think of them as interested parties in the way that a chicken is involved with a bacon and egg breakfast. The chicken is involved, the pig is committed. (Pipistrel has its own demonstrated electric aircraft program, but uptake is proving slow.) Worth noting is that Airbus said it would, by 2020, certify a four-place hybrid electric aircraft for the U.S. market. It has since withdrawn that plan, although it has an aspirational electric aircraft program on simmer.

But for Uber, no sale for this customer. I could list a lot of niggly reasons for skepticism, but two stand out: a delusional view of certification and a business plan, if there is one, that’s too dependent on scales not likely to be achieved. In other words, instead of a stand-up double, Uber is swinging for the fences.

As soon as I heard Uber Elevate’s Nikhil Goel say the Part 23 revision is a path paved with gold bricks making certification of electric airplanes a lead-pipe cinch, I knew I was listening to someone whose skin hasn’t been scabbed over by actually completing a cert project. No, no, I occasionally hear, this time the FAA is really sincere about efficient certification. I’m not buying it. Show me an example or two and I’ll relent. We are, after all, not talking about just another new airplane, but an entire class of new commercial aircraft with no certification history, no operational experience and no risk model. Quick and easy to certify? I’m gonna go with no. Certifiable eventually, for sure. Just not quickly.

Second, scale. Uber Elevate says its pricing models are based on a level of aircraft manufacturing we haven’t seen since World War II. What might that be? As late as 1978, the general aviation industry was producing nearly 18,000 airframes a year. So Uber is talking about volume even greater than that.

Business plans—especially aviation business plans—that do-or-die on high volume have a high likelihood of failure because there’s a high likelihood that those millions of customers you were sure would heave baskets of cash at you won’t share your vision. This is exactly what happened to the very light jet concept. We used to throw around VLJ like periods and commas, but now it’s as forgotten as SST, AAS and a million other acronyms. (Can we only hope the ADS-B will soon share the same fate?)

Twenty years ago, then NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin told an Oshkosh audience that a revolution in design, materials and manufacturing efficiency would result in a new golden (sorry) age of GA, with 20,000 airframes a year spilling out of the factories, dominated by the now-banished VLJ. The manufacturing revolution happened, the airplanes didn’t. It’s too simplistic to say that demand never materialized because the prices weren’t as low as promised, but it’s denial to say that wasn’t a big reason.

People coming new into aviation bring fresh eyes, new ideas and innovation. All good. We need a dose of new thinking to offset the hidebounded cynicism of people like me. What they lack is knowledge of the basic laws: gravity, weight, schedules, the grinding pace of certification and an understanding of the Aviation Dollar. The Aviation Dollar, depending on the exchange rate, is equivalent to between five and 100 regular dollars. Even aviation-experienced innovators sometimes lose sight of this.

That’s probably a good thing, though. If they didn’t, they’d hole up in their windowless offices writing the next big social media app and thank the baby Jesus, we sure need that.   

AVweb's Geoff Rapoport spoke with founder Xylon Saltzman about One-G Simulation's first foray into virtual reality with their simulator for the Robinson R44.

Uber showed up at AirVenture this year, but it wasn't toting hardware. Instead, the company was touting its new Uber Elevate proposal that will do for on-demand air taxi what its networking service has done for ride sharing and on-demand transportation. In this podcast, Wyatt Smith and Nikhil Goel explain the details.

I landed at KCMA, Camarillo, CA on a windy day and checked in with ground.

Ground: “18 Sierra Romeo, taxi to the ramp via Foxtrot,  caution,  tumbleweed all quadrants, not my control"

He wasn't kidding either; huge tumbleweed balls were passing over the taxiways and runway heading downwind like a scene from an old Western movie.


Stephen Silverman

 

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