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Historical allies AOPA and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) are now pitted against each other in an unusual battle over airport access, fuel costs and fees. AOPA, along with “seven affected pilots,” has filed a Part 13 complaint with the FAA against three Signature FBOs in Key West, Florida; Asheville, North Carolina; and Waukegan, Illinois. A Part 13 complaint requests the FAA to investigate potential threats to the operation of the aviation system. AOPA alleges the three FBOs virtually control GA traffic at those airports and is disputing “egregious FBO pricing practices” that are gouging its members. It says it picked those three FBOs because they’ve received the most complaints about them. “At each of these airports, a single FBO controls all transient ramp space and fuel services, which means each FBO possesses a monopoly position and significant power over access to a public airport,” the organization said in a news release. “AOPA believes each FBO has failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect the airport for public use through reasonable and fair pricing.” NATA, which represents FBOs and other aviation-related businesses, normally supports the various calls to action that AOPA and other GA groups launch in defense of GA, and seemed to be caught off guard by the complaints.

In a statement issued shortly after AOPA filed the complaints, NATA said that AOPA doesn’t understand the changing dynamics of the aviation service business and nobody is trying to gouge anyone. “The assertions made in these complaints reflect a misunderstanding of a number of key points related to the economics of aviation businesses: the pricing of aeronautical services, industry consolidation, and the airport sponsor-tenant relationship,” stated NATA Executive Vice President Bill Deere. He said AOPA’s interpretation of the FAA mandate of airports and their businesses supplying services at reasonable prices doesn’t stand up. “The FBO services market is and remains a very competitive industry,” Deere said. “Those within the aviation industry fully understand that FBOs compete vigorously with each other on price, service, and quality of facilities.”

AOPA maintains that FBO pricing is a serious issue for GA because it affects access to facilities that receive federal money and are supposed to be generally accessible to the public. “Our members have spoken and they’re tired of being forced to pay for services they don’t want, ask for or need,” said AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker. “It’s all about price transparency and reasonable access to places that are supposed to be public. We also believe that promoting more competition will help relieve some of the ongoing problems our members continually face at these locations.” He said AOPA believes the FAA needs to help local airport authorities to curb excessive charges by their FBOs.

Well, fuel prices are usually a pretty good gauge of what to expect when the rampy rolls out the carpet by the aircraft and while Key West, Asheville and Waukegan certainly charge above-average prices for 100LL, the adjective egregious is kind of relative. All three Signature FBOs at those locations charge between $6.50 and $7.00 per gallon for full-serve 100LL and only Waukegan offers a self-serve option at $5.99. All those prices are well above the average of $4.82-$4.89 in the regions established by, where we compared prices. They are also well below the truly breathtaking fuel prices at some other airports we checked, like $8.31 a gallon at Baltimore-Washington International, also a Signature franchise and also the only avgas supplier. But even toney Westchester County, which has plenty of competition between five FBOs, including a Signature, vying for New York’s flying folks, is about $7 for 100LL. Our “investigation,” such as it was, dealt only with 100LL prices and didn’t look at tie-downs, hangar space or a burger and fries, which may have factored into AOPA’s definition of “egregious.”

For AOPA, the higher-than-average prices and service fees at the three FBOs are a threat to access and airport availability to GA pilots and they want the FAA to see if that puts the airports in violation of the grant assurances to ensure “reasonable access” to the fields when they accepted federal money for improvements. “Egregious pricing practices deter and restrict airport access and severely affect all aspects of general aviation from flight training to recreation,” AOPA said in its statement. “Unreasonable pricing practices can also have grave effects on surrounding communities. By pricing out certain GA traffic, FBOs are harming local economies. Pilots and travelers who usually access these communities are scared away by the FBO’s sky-high prices.”

NATA says there are bigger fish to fry in GA than the price of gas. “This action is disappointing, coming at a time when the general aviation community is confronting a serious effort to privatize our nation’s air traffic control system,” said NATA President Martin H. Hiller.  “General aviation, as we know it in this nation, is under a real threat.  We need to stand united right now and not be concerned with distractions like this."

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Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser left the ground at Edwards Air Force Base on Wednesday but the real testing is just about to begin, more than 35 years after the idea for a small, reusable spacecraft was given form by the Soviet Union.  According to Wired, the 30-foot-long “space utility vehicle” was hoisted to 12,500 feet by a Chinook helicopter and then lowered back to the ground after retracting and putting down its gear. If Sierra Nevada has its way, the Dream Chaser will be able to launch to space with up to 12,125 pounds of cargo, including up to seven passengers, and return to land on any runway at least 10,000 feet long.

Wednesday was about checking the aerodynamics of the shuttle-shaped craft after decades of study, testing and, ultimately, storage by NASA. The Dream Chaser is derivative of the HL-20, a NASA design copied from the Russian BOR-4, which an Australian reconnaissance aircraft snapped a picture of in 1982. After extensive modeling and testing, the NASA prototype never made it to prime time but Sierra Nevada found it about 15 years ago and lifted it off the ground for the first time Wednesday. There will be one more helicopter hoist and recovery and then the space plane will be released (unmanned) for a landing. If it all works out, copies of the craft will be good for 15 trips to space, the first of which is planned for the International Space Station in 2020.

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The U.S. Commerce Department has set Sept. 25 to issue its opinion on whether Bombardier’s sale of CSeries airliners to Delta Air Lines was “dumping.” That term normally refers to the cut-rate sale of produce, lumber or other commodities between countries when one country has a surplus it’s looking to eliminate. In this case, the commodity is $50 million airliners in a deal that is vital to Bombardier’s challenge of Boeing and Airbus in the mainstream airliner business. Delta has ordered 75 CSeries and has options for 50 more and Boeing claims it was robbed of an order for 737s by the bargain-basement deal for the Canadian aircraft propped by illegal subsidies by governments in Canada. Bombardier has, of course, denied the charge and the Canadian government has amped up the controversy by putting a pending military aircraft deal in limbo pending the decision.

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s first-generation F-18 fleet is in need of replacement and the original complement of 130 jets has dropped to less than 80 in the 30 years they’ve been flying. To shore up the fighter force while it decides on a permanent replacement fighter, Canada has tentatively agreed to buy 18 F/A-18 Super Hornets made by Boeing in St. Louis. But the Justin Trudeau government has made it clear that deal is in jeopardy if the Delta deal for CSeries airliners is threatened by the Boeing complaint.


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While flying back to my home airport, KAVQ, I heard this exchange from two pilots entering the non-towered airport airspace:

Cherokee: Cherokee 1234 entering left downwind for runway 12, full stop.

A Grumman Tiger pilot was also entering left downwind making a similar call.

Cherokee pilot: Grumman aircraft, we will swing wide since you are faster to allow you to land first.

Grumman pilot: No problem, I'm retired.  Grumman number two to land behind the Cherokee.

And so they did.


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Which came first: the chicken or the Federal Egg Administration? Impossible to say. Physics teaches us that when Bernoulli found lift, his nemesis, Newton, said there must be an opposing reaction. So, when the Wright brothers flew, government pondered how to keep them from impacting all those other aeronauts. Little happened because of Newton’s Law of Administrative Inertia: An agency at rest remains at rest until acted upon by an un-ignorable force.

The growth of air traffic control (ATC) followed a predictable path: Innovation (private sector), befuddlement (government), punctuated by periodic disasters, followed by outcry and government reaction. Repeat. Today’s National Airspace System (NAS) and its ATC components are the outgrowth of screw-ups, miscalculations and clever winging it.

Meet Me in St. Louis

During the Great War (which wasn’t that great; we can do better), belligerents embraced aviation’s potential but, by adding machine guns, made it self-limiting. When the war to end all metaphors concluded, survivors in the U.S. embraced aviation’s commercial value—hauling mail, nauseated passengers, and bootleg liquor.

As air traffic increased, the Department of Commerce was charged with putting order to this nascent industry growing faster than politicians could say, “Whatever it is, I’m against it!”1 The Air Commerce Act of 1926 created the Bureau of Air Commerce, which decided who got to fly where and when. Airlines multiplied like pimples on prom night and muscled into airport traffic patterns where confusion reigned. Until Archie.

St. Louis, MO was a pioneer aviation hub—its “Spirit” took Lindbergh to Paris in 1927. With so many airplanes, the concepts “near miss” and “mid-air” took shape. Pilot and mechanic Archie League mitigated unruly patterns when, in 1929, he rolled a wheelbarrow to runway’s end. Inside were his lunch box and two flags. Red flag: Hold. Checkered flag: Cleared for takeoff/landing. Thus, he issued the first ATC clearance and became the first air traffic controller to work through his meal break, planting unionization seeds.

Flags are fine on clear days—not so much at night or in fog. Enter the control tower with light signals and bright beacons. Radio was added in Cleveland, OH in 1930.

With the advent of gyro instruments, pilots could fly inside clouds, following a low-frequency A and N, four-course range. Lighted airway beacons and radio markers indicated reporting points. Nice, but impractical, since every airliner wanted to follow the same routes at the same time with the result that in the early 1930s about 12 domestic air-carrier collisions were reported per year.

Congress was slow to react until Senator Bronson Cutting was killed in a DC-2, low on fuel and scud-running at night toward destiny. Tragedy spawned a conference in 1935 at which Edgar Gorrel, of the Air Transport Association, established GA’s place in the IFR world: “Private flying is today a menace….” Without objections, the airlines created an air traffic control consortium and agreed to share flight plan information and coordinate departure times, routes and altitudes.

The first Airway Traffic Control Station opened in Newark, NJ in 1935. Air traffic controllers were called Flight Control Officers. Run by the airlines, these enroute centers, as they would later be known, expanded into Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh. In 1936 the Bureau of Air Commerce took control of centers. A year later Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Oakland Centers opened. Atlanta, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Fort Worth opened in 1939, and in 1941 Seattle and Cincinnati joined the list.

Separation Standards Evolve

Vertical separation of traffic is simple: Keep users at different altitudes, and no one hits. Problem is, no one lands. So rules were developed to allow altitude changes based on position reports, much like today when ATC says, “Radar service terminated (or lost), report FIGBY.”

Radar wasn’t common until 1940 when the British were dealing with German air traffic over London. Before radar—which really didn’t make the ATC scene with great effect until the 1960s—controllers hovered over maps and plotted airliner progress as dispatchers phoned in position reports. Direct pilot-to-center radio communication wasn’t available until 1949.

Controllers tracked aircraft progress with small “shrimp boats” pushed across the map. Each represented an airplane and had a clip holding a slip of paper with the call sign and altitude. Shrimp boats would serve well into the radar age on flat-top radar displays. Before digital data tags, controllers wrote aircraft data on the plastic data tags and gently nudged them across the scope.

Additionally, each flight had a flight progress strip with more information. By stacking these strips, early controllers formed the 3-D picture, and to some extent their descendants still do.

Once an aircraft passed a fix, another at the same altitude could also pass. If two were approaching the same fix at the same altitude, the controller could instruct one to climb or descend before a certain point or stop one in a holding pattern until the airspace was clear.

This is easy where flight paths cross at right angles, but someone had to figure how much room was needed to protect these converging points based on all the possible converging angles. There was no ATC manual until the controllers wrote it.

Non-radar separation gets muddier when two—or more—airplanes are at the same altitude on the same route, especially if the trailing aircraft is overtaking. In the 1930s, in-trail separation was at least 10 minutes. The moving math of non-radar air traffic separation rapidly developed out of necessity, and safely remains the basis of separation standards today. If a 2017 approach controller loses radar, traffic gets slapped onto airways and separated by altitudes, routes and speed as pilots stumble making position reports and estimates to subsequent fixes.

In 1940, the newly created Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) took over ATC. By the time the U.S. entered WWII in 1941, the CAA ran 24 enroute Centers with 4000 employees. By war’s end, the CAA had 7800 air traffic controllers.

Postwar Boom

Peace brought a surge in civil aviation. Former military pilots transitioned into the airlines. Non-pilot veterans learned to fly under the GI Bill, which meant more airplanes being built and more airliners reaching new markets. DC-3s gave way to DC-6s and Lockheed Constellations (Connies), flying higher, faster and stretching ATC resources. From 1949 to 1955 airline passenger traffic doubled, even as CAA staffing levels were cut. In 1955, the DC-7 premiered, capable of flying non-stop from the U.S. to Europe, carrying 100 passengers at 300 knots.

More traffic in an overburdened and underfunded ATC system with little radar service, meant midair collisions and near misses occurred at uncomfortable rates. On June 30, 1956, a United DC-7 hit a TWA Super Connie at 21,000 feet over the Grand Canyon, killing all on both airliners. Post-accident fingers pointed, politicians ha-rumphed, but the public demanded change—to what, most didn’t know. In short order, Congress funded the CAA to increase the number of VORs, purchase 82 advanced long-range radars and install an IBM 650 digital computer at Indianapolis Center, and should the computer thing work out, buy more. The modern ATC system emerged from the Grand Canyon ashes. Except, while the CAA met challenges posed by DC-7s and Super Connies, Boeing took orders for its 707 and Douglas for the DC-8. ATC needed to adapt faster, before TWA and United could meet again.

The Jet Age

Ground speeds suddenly reaching 600 knots changed everything, with airlines leading the way and the CAA playing catch-up. In December, 1957 CAA classified all airspace above 24,000 feet as Continental Control Area with a dozen “super skyways” planned for transcontinental commercial traffic. With no private jets, this was primarily for airlines.

By 1958, 707s and DC-8s were in service, each capable of hauling 189 passengers. The same year recorded three notable mid-air collisions. The first occurred when an Air Force C-118 (DC-6) collided with a Navy P2V patrol bomber over Los Angeles, killing 50. The second midair was near Las Vegas when an Air Force F-100 Super Sabre cut through a United DC-7 at 21,000 feet, leaving 49 dead. The third collision again mixed civilian and military when a VFR Air National Guard T-33 trainer collided with an IFR four-engine turboprop Capital Airlines Viscount over Maryland, killing 61.

A day after the Maryland midair, Senator Mike Monroney from Oklahoma, introduced the Federal Aviation Act, which—among other things—created the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). President Eisenhower signed it into law on August 23rd, proving that government can move quickly when the body count gets embarrassing.

The FAA was charged to oversee and regulate everything in aviation. The first administrator was retired Air Force General Elwood R. Quesada, who rolled into office kicking butts and making changes. But it took another midair to spark the next airspace upgrade.

Past and Future Collide

Mid-morning December 16, 1960 brought low ceilings and snow to New York City, as a TWA Super Connie was cleared for the ILS approach into LaGuardia Airport. Heading into Idyllwild Airport (now JFK) was a United DC-8. The last of the piston airliners and first of the jets met over Staten Island when the DC-8, not in radar contact and traveling in excess of 300 knots, overshot its holding fix. Essentially, the United crew was lost and navigating with one VOR receiver, the other being inoperable. Radar service and visibility were minimal—TWA was on a New York approach radar scope, but United was not. One of United’s engines scooped through TWA’s cabin, dropping the Connie onto Staten Island. United continued toward Idyllwild as the crew steadily lost control of the damaged DC-8, until it slammed into the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, where all onboard United plus eight on the ground, died.

Once again, out of tragedy came reforms: IFR pilots must inform ATC of navigation or communications failures. Turbine-powered aircraft must have distance-measuring equipment (DME). ATC improved its radar hand-off procedures. Finally, no aircraft could exceed 250 knots below 10,000 feet.

1960s and Beyond

ATC continued to improve in the next decade as more jets (B-727, B-737, B-747, DC-9, Lears…) entered service and competed for airspace. Despite progress, airliners still crashed, and in 1965, a TWA B-707 hit an Eastern Airlines Connie over Carmel, NY. Both were approaching the Carmel VORTAC when the crews saw each other. Although separated vertically by 1000 feet, the illusion created by the upsloping cloud tops, caused the 707 pilot to think they were converging, so he banked to steer clear. Instead, they hit. Amazingly, TWA limped safely into JFK, while Eastern’s crew lost all control. By playing the throttles, the pilot was able to crash land the four-engine Connie in a level attitude, minimizing fatalities.

The 1960s saw the arrival of ARTS (Automated Radar Terminal System), which put digital tags on radar displays. Adios, shrimp boats (although they were kept as backup). ATC was improving and catching up with the users. Controllers slowly received better equipment and even a pay raise.

In 1967 the newly created Department of Transportation (DOT) renamed the Federal Aviation Agency as the Federal Aviation Administration. Despite the name change, airplanes still collided, including a TWA DC-9 descending into Dayton, OH and a VFR Beech Baron, prompting the creation of Terminal Control Areas (TCA, the precursor of Class B airspace) around busier airports.

Three years later, transponders were required to operate in TCAs. Midair collisions declined, suggesting the FAA was gaining ground. But another problem awaited—air traffic controllers grew actively dissatisfied with FAA management. In 1968, a handful of New York controllers formed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). In six months, membership grew to 5000.

While organizing controllers didn’t have a direct input on air traffic, FAA management was slow to understand controllers’ gripes. PATCO sickouts, however, did affect traffic, as controller/management relations soured, and so began a decade of ATC labor unrest, erupting on August 3, 1981, when 13,000 air traffic controllers walked off the job and brought IFR traffic to a crawl.

It appeared in the early hours that PATCO had triumphed, but the FAA had learned from the earlier sickout and was prepared to react. Of the controllers who walked, about 850 returned during a brief grace period. The others were fired, and the FAA began the slow process of reinventing the air traffic system…again.


Post-strike ATC would seem to have been in total ruin. Some would disagree, but between late 1981 and today, the FAA managed to restart the stalled system, with a limited workforce and new hires beginning the difficult process of replacing the fired controllers. Those 11,000 lost employees were highly experienced with no available replacements. The economy was in recession, which reduced demands on ATC. This breathing space scared Congress into funding not only to rebuild the NAS but point it toward the future. Goodwill hugs were everywhere, and, eventually, the FAA squandered that to some extent.

From the 1981 rubble came the impetus to radically change how we navigate. It’s been a slow slog from ground-based navaids to satnav. GPS is nearly as important to aviation today as Bernoulli’s “So that’s how lift works” moment in the 18th century. Federal airways designed for DC-2s, might find a place in Smithsonian’s Air & Space museum, while GPS makes creative routing a reality.

Elsewhere, ATC radar service—including backups—improved. Simultaneous parallel approach operations funneled even more traffic into saturated airports. Weather radar, including NEXRAD, and wind shear detection improved throughout the 1990s. Still, pilots blundered into thunderstorms, and still they near-missed and occasionally collided, such as the 1986 Cherokee and DC-9 midair over Cerritos, CA. Again, from tragedy springs regulation, which increased use of Mode C and TCAS.

While progress was relatively swift after PATCO’s demise, the FAA slipped back into its labor-management ways, leading to the formation of NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) in 1987, which must’ve had PATCO ghosts howling, “Told you so….”

ATC’s future is bright(ish). ADS-B is reality and will continue to revamp NAS and our places within it. And there, beneath the technological and procedural improvements, lies the ATC foundation first established when Archie League waved his flags in 1929. And as the propeller of ATC progress turns, we, inevitably come full circle.

The first enroute air traffic facility was run by the airlines in 1935. Today, the stench of ATC privatization—largely controlled by the airlines—is again in the air. Perhaps the prescient words of Edgar Gorrel, of the 1930s Air Transport Association, might augur our future: “Private flying is today a menace….” Time, once again, to decide if we’re the chicken or the egg about to be scrambled.

The author wishes to thank Mr. Ron Fandrick for his excellent website covering the history of ATC,, which simplified a lot of the research necessary for this article.

Paul Berge, CFII, is an IFR editor emeritus and author of Private Pilot Beginner’s Manual (for Sport Pilots, too). Additional information at

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of IFR magazine.

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A few weeks ago, I spewed for a few hundred words on gear-up landings and this month I’ve been continuing the research. Just ask me about gear-up landings. Ask anything. I’m about to write a book. You’ll be enthralled.

As I was trudging through this, I finally got to the insurance angle and my colleague, Jon Doolittle, dug up some nuggets from insurance underwriters. One of them I was hoping I would never hear but knew was inevitable is this: Insurers are bracing themselves for a round of claims related to the fact that, for all its peachy-keen greatness, BasicMed will likely result in a rash of claims related to older pilots being kept in the cockpit who shouldn’t be.

There, I’ve said it, tossing the proverbial bolus into the punch bowl. Bracing and rash are probably too strong here. But let’s just say insurers have their antennas tuned for an uptick in accident claims. I think they’re right, but I also think it will be sporadic and difficult to track. I have reasons for thinking this and they all relate to the fact that I have always been the center of my own universe, my experience absolutely reflects undeniable truth and I’m never going to change. Readers who disagree should get their own blogs.

My theory, based on personal observation, is this: Take 10 pilots who are approaching “that age.” Seven out of the 10 will X themselves out, either because of money, lack of interest, family pressure or the self-realization that they’re no longer fit to fly. Some won’t be able to find parts for their 1956 Cessnas. Others will be found trying to slash their wrists with ADS-B blade antennas and will be escorted to somewhere where they can be supervised. 

That leaves three. Two of the three—or maybe it’s a little less, I dunno—are the kinds of guys who can fly until they’re 100 and be relatively safe. I’m sure you know people like this. I’ve certainly encountered them. They seem to smoke and drink a lot.

So that leaves one in 10—or maybe a little less, I dunno—who isn’t fit to fly and either doesn’t know it or won’t admit it, and just wants to keep a hand in. They may be missing a step or two, but that doesn’t mean they’re a crater looking for a grid reference. Just because things look bad, doesn’t mean they are. I will readily concede that taxiing away with a cinderblock attached to the tail tiedown and a walker on the wing is a strong indication of a problem. (I saw the former; made up the latter.)

But some percentage of those guys—half or maybe less, I dunno—will get into accidents and there may be just enough of them to be barely discernible in the insurance data. They will plug this into spreadsheets and perform regression analysis and realize, holy %^$%, these old guys are killing us. We’ll see and hopefully it won’t be obscured by the warm golden glow of BasicMed. It could just as easily not happen at all.

So, not to bore you with further theoretical ramblings based on my personal sociological observations of pilots, let me just say this: Consider this blog a kind of physic dead man’s switch. Now I know I’m perfectly OK and will be for decades to come, but how about you? You’re not one of those guys the underwriters are worried about, are you?

I didn’t think so. 

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