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Aug. 21 will likely go down in history as one of the most interesting for pilots, the FAA and airports across a middle swath of the country that will include the path of totality for a solar eclipse. The level of activity expected at airports along the path is pretty well documented but what is not know is how many aircraft are going to launch in the near darkness to experience the phenomenon from an airborne perch. And since most of the route is in uncontrolled airspace the level and nature of traffic will depend a lot on see and avoid and position reports. Eclipse flights do not appear to be directly addressed in any of the FARs but common sense would suggest that those without at least some night VFR experience might want to watch it from the ground.

There are plenty of more organized attempts to capitalize on the eclipse. Those who haven’t picked an airport to fly to might be out of luck, especially if they’re looking for full services and maybe lunch and a latte. Many airports are already out of tie-down space. The well-heeled will be well served with many bizjet management companies organizing flights (Dom Perignon included) either to the eclipse path or along the eclipse path at altitudes as high as 45,000 feet. But the title of most elaborate eclipse experience goes to Orlando-based aviation photographer Mike Killian. He will be in the back seat of one of two Navy E/A-18 Growlers as they do a supersonic run westward over the Pacific toward Oregon. It will cap an effort Killian started organizing months ago. “We’ll intercept it over the ocean, fly a few photo maneuvers with the second aircraft, and then race it supersonic speeds for 30 seconds or so,” Killian told Wired. The Navy is calling it a training flight.

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The pilot of a homebuilt Wheeler Express was killed when the engine reportedly “sputtered” in the traffic pattern, and the aircraft subsequently crashed in rugged terrain about a mile from Madras airport. The San Carlos, California-based aircraft was traveling to Madras, Oregon, for Monday’s solar eclipse. News reports originally stated that two people had been killed in the crash based on parking reservations made at the airport, but family members confirmed that the pilot was the sole person on board. Airports near the route of the eclipse in central Oregon—with their predictably clear skies and reasonably close proximity to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco—have been bracing for an onslaught of general aviation arrivals over the weekend and into the big day. Most airports are requiring parking reservations for transient arrivals and are sold out.

San Carlos Airport staff reported that the aircraft departed around 11 a.m., and Oregon officials report that the aircraft crashed around 1:50 p.m., evidently making the flight nonstop. Although homebuilt, and therefore subject to extensive modification, the Wheeler Express customarily has sufficient useful load to fill its 92-gallon fuel tanks with 800 pounds to spare. An area resident told Oregon KTVZ News that the aircraft was engulfed in flames and black smoke, starting a small wildfire in the canyon where it came to rest.

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The FAA is officially disbanding the regionally structured Flight Standards Service (FSS) on Monday. As of Aug. 21, the FSS will be based around four functional areas—Air Carrier Safety Assurance, General Aviation Safety Assurance, Safety Standard, and Foundational Business. According to the Information for Operators briefing the FAA released on the reorganization earlier this month, the initiative “is a service-wide effort to transform the culture of Flight Standards into an organization that facilitates critical thinking, interdependence and consistency to better serve aviation safety.”

The FAA promises “the reorganized Flight Standards will be a streamlined structure that will allow for faster response times, single points of accountability in each functional organization, greater agility and consistency.” Under the old regional system, FAA regulations were sometimes interpreted somewhat differently from district to district. Members of the public trying to find their new point of contact should reference the Flight Standard Information Management System (FSIMS), which now hosts the FSS Organizational Chart, FAQs and an FSS Responsibilities Quick Reference Sheet. Although the regional Flight Standards offices will no longer be providing regulatory guidance, local FAA offices will remain in place to perform non-policy-making functions previously handled by the FSDO.

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The FAA has made operational changes at San Francisco International Airport in response to last month’s aborted landing by an Air Canada A320, the Bay Area News Group reported on Tuesday. The FAA no longer allows visual approaches for aircraft approaching SFO at night with an adjacent parallel runway closed, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told the News Group. “When these conditions prevail, our controllers issue pilots Instrument Landing System approaches or satellite-based approaches, which help pilots line up for the correct runway,” Gregor said. Additionally, SFO is requiring two controllers to remain on position working traffic until the late-night arrival rush is over.

On the night of July 7, Air Canada Flight 759 flew as low as 59 feet off the ground above the taxiway, where four airliners were waiting to fly, before aborting the landing. Two controllers were working at the time, but only one was in the tower, and he was busy talking to another facility during Flight 759’s approach. “Following the event, SFO tower management adopted a policy requiring two controllers to be on position working traffic until the late-night arrival rush is over,” Gregor said. The Air Canada pilots were cleared to land on Runway 28 Right. A parallel runway, 28 Left, was closed and its lights were turned off, adding to the flight crew’s confusion. The ATC audio from the approach can be heard here.

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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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I'm just back from a few days at the Cirrus factory in Duluth, delivered back home via the company's new SF50 Vision Jet, and I'll immediately unpack this first impression: It's no exaggeration to say that the Vision Jet is a fugitive from the law of averages. It's not much to be impressed with how well Cirrus executed the airplane so much as it is to be awed that the thing exists at all. In case you've forgotten the history, the Vision Jet's gestation was long—most of a decade, depending on when you hack the start point—and it survived a downturn that did in a long list of would-be competitors, including the Eclipse 500, Diamond's D-jet, the PiperJet and to name a few you can't even remember, the Safire, the AdamJet, the Vantage and the Sport Jet. To be accurate, the Great Recession wasn't necessarily the accelerant that burned all these projects, but it didn't help. Not all those airplanes were necessarily competitors either, at least as Cirrus sees it.

What resurrected the Vision Jet from an uncertain future was an infusion of Chinese capital in 2011 and, maybe, the fact that sliding the project to a rear burner for a while kept it from eating the company alive and allowed Cirrus to focus unerringly on exactly what the SF50 was supposed to be: a kerosene-burning step-up from the popular SR22 that goes faster, flies higher and carries more but isn't so fast as to likely kill a pilot unblessed by Sully-on-Hudson reflexes. Commendably, Cirrus didn't stray from that design brief and although the SF50 is the most technologically advanced airplane I've encountered and probably in the entire light end of the GA fleet, the company seems to have resisted larding the thing up with features that don't serve its primary mission of transporting owners who need to go places with as much safety, efficiency and comfort as possible. The airplane does exactly that. And having hung around the factory for most of two days shooting video for a feature on Cirrus aircraft production, my fellow editor Larry Anglisano and I both sensed that even though Cirrus has 600 orders for the Vision Jet, there's a discernible wariness about getting too greedy and over-expanding the factory, only to have the next recession knock the pins out again.

I'll have a long-form video report on the SF50 in about a week, but my initial impression of the airplane is that it's about as well executed to do the job it's supposed to do as is possible. Unrelated to how it flies, it has one overarching feature that drives a favorable impression: cabin size and accessibility. The single-entry door is biased aft, although it's not really a mid-cabin entrance. That makes the two center-row seats easily accessible and the cabin is so high, it's easy to get into them. The two front seaters can squeeze through an aisle or slide the pilot's seat all the way to the mid-door line and enter that way. It's the first small airplane I've seen to creatively address in detail the fact that small airplanes are a pain in the ass to ingress and egress. There's a huge amount of open floor space between the front and rear seats. While Larry was flying one leg, I had all my camera crap in piles on the floor and there was room to spare. This capaciousness accrues from the airplane’s bulbous, egg-shaped profile. Paraphrasing Meghan Trainor, this ain’t no stick-figure-Barbie-Doll of an airframe.

The cabin has good climate control, nice courtesy lighting and USB charging ports. The windows are enormous and well-placed, so the views are spectacular. And spectacular doesn't begin to do justice to the view from the left seat, whose windshield wraps well past your shoulders and is only restrictive for a windshield center post. I can easily see how pilots could miss radio calls for being enthralled by the view. I sure did.

As airplanes have gotten faster and more sophisticated, a fuzzy line has emerged between flying and operating. I first heard the argument during the 1980s when pilots who came up on piston airliners were typing in the 757/767, the wedge that led to the modern automated cockpit. Flying was feeling the air, operating was programming that had the machine do most of the work and some of the thinking. Cirrus has embraced that ethos with the highly automated SR line and the Vision Jet advances it further with Garmin's G3000 suite. It doesn't exactly think for itself, but seems to. When the G1000 arrived, some pilots were so dazzled by it that it seemed like they were viewing the airplane merely as a means to move the avionics around to see how the magenta line danced over the scrolling virtual terrain.

Not so much with the SF50. The airplane itself is no afterthought and anyone who's paying attention will understand there's more going on here than glittery touch screens. Small and light as it is and with 1800 pounds of thrust from a Williams FJ33-5A, a ramp view of the Vision Jet may convey a sports car fantasy. That would be misplaced. It's heavy on the controls, especially in pitch, and takes concentration to hand fly well. I bumped the autopilot off for a while and hand flew it at FL270. That's imminently doable, but I wouldn't want to do much of it. Similarly, a few hundred feet into a 400-foot overcast out of Duluth, Cirrus SF50 program director Matt Bergwall had me engage the autopilot and thus flying transitioned to operating. I'm sure owners will fly the airplane this way because that's the way it's designed to be flown. I might change that view of hand flying after more hours in the airplane. Initial impressions fade with familiarly. The properly trained Vision Jet pilot will have to be immersed comfortably in the G3000's guts and Cirrus aims to make sure they are with a training program steeped in nearly two decades of experience with SRs, much of it acquired through a difficult early accident history.

The Vision Jet does what Cirrus says it would do. When it was first announced, the company playfully said it would be the lowest, slowest and cheapest jet. It is. But now the promotional copy says “you can fly farther, faster, higher, carrying more people and cargo.” So which is it? That first description was minted when there were a dozen contenders and Cirrus saw marketing gold in anchoring the bottom of the range with a modest everyman’s jet. They’ve since inverted the solution, refocusing on the SF50 as a logical step-up for SR22 owners hungering for more performance. That it’s cheaper to own and operate than a Phenom or a Cessna Mustang is a given no longer worthy of bold-type mention, but I won’t be surprised if Cirrus finds quite a few buyers for the Vision Jet stepping down from larger jets just as some LSA manufacturers find some step-downs from the SR22. By now, the TBM, the PC-12 and Piper Meridian have proven that fears of single-engine reliability and safety materially affecting the accident rate have mostly been misplaced. And the Vision Jet can at least offset that with the CAPS option. On the bizjet ramp at Pontiac, Michigan, the Vision Jet got a lot of admiring attention, including one bizjet pilot who actually knocked on the cabin door after we’d buttoned up to depart on a second leg.

How fast, they always ask. Cirrus says 300 knots in standard conditions and that’s about right. On an ISA +15 day at FL 270, we saw what the book said we should: about 270 TAS flowing 57 GPH. Leaving at least an hour reserve in the tanks (296 gallons usable), the Vision Jet is a 1000-mile still-air airplane, carrying 400 pounds with full fuel. With four or five people and stuff, it’s obviously less. Back the throttle off and it will go another hundred miles or so. Two people trades for nearly an hour of fuel and 250 to 300 miles of range. Cirrus figures most owners will fly the airplane with one or two aboard, just as they do with the SR22. With the same hour in reserve, the SR22T will fly just over 800 miles, but nearly 100 knots slower, 8000 feet lower and with 100 pounds less in the cabin. So there’s your step-up Delta. It’s not that much in raw numbers, but on many trips it will mean one leg instead of two and four hours door-to-door instead of six or seven. And topping weather rather than slogging through it or just not going at all. But the raw numbers don’t account for raw emotional allure; it’s a jet peeps, a jet.

So the Vision Jet is certainly a survivor, but is it a great airplane or just a good airplane? If the measure of greatness isn’t defined by absolute speed, pure efficiency or herculean payload, but of how well the design resonates with the intended buyer, the Vision Jet is both a great airplane and a significant one. It’s great because I think SR22 owners will swoon over this thing and significant because it represents a class of its own, expanding practical (if not cheap) jet ownership downward. At a typical invoice of $2.1 million, the Vision Jet is the least expensive jet out there and on a speed vs. dollars matrix, it more than holds its own against whatever competition it has in the low-and-slow tier, and that’s basically nothing in the turbojet category. Piper’s M600 turboprop comes closest, I’d guess.

The more intriguing question is what comes next for Cirrus. Aircraft companies never prosper without expanding the model line and that will be a trick with the Vision Jet. I’m not sure making it bigger or faster will achieve much and adding another engine would defeat the Cirrus claim of affordable accessibility. My guess—and no one suggested this either on or off the record—is the obvious. Somewhere on a whiteboard in Duluth, I’m guessing, is a plan to add autoland and eventually semi-autonomy, manned autonomy or whatever the hell you want to call an airplane that flies itself with minimal human intervention. As we’ve reported, Diamond has already tested this concept and I can’t imagine others aren’t looking at it.

When that happens, we can have another round of hand-wringing about how piloting skills are going to pot and that things just aren’t the way they used to be. But then the Vision Jet sort of proves that’s already true.

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L3 Aviation Products continues to advance its Lynx NGT9000 multifunction ADS-B transponder. In addition to ADS-B weather and traffic, the new software enables display of Stormscope lightning data, enhanced traffic surveillance and terrain alerting. Aviation Consumer magazine Editor Larry Anglisano went flying with the system, along with L3's Todd Scholten and Jessica Power, in the L3 company airplane for this product demonstration video.

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Picture of the Week

Who doesn't like a nice sunset? We get lots of sunset pictures and while we use some, you won't find any getting a coveted AVweb hat. Just so you know, we like pictures of airplanes and Tim Austin got a beauty at AirVenture with this one. Thanks, Tim.

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My daughter and I flew back from AirVenture on the last day of the show.  While flying over Eastern Iowa and monitoring 122.80 we heard the following conversation that we assumed was between a couple of crop dusters:

Pilot 1: "Hey XXX did you make it to Oshkosh this year?"

Pilot 2: "Yeah, we got over there on Tuesday.  The weather was perfect!"

Pilot 1: "Yeah, I was talking to YYY' and he said he 'had so much fun there that if he died and went to heaven it would be a lateral move!"


Tom Lynch

 

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