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Some Boeing employees are organizing a march in Everett, Wash., Wednesday trying to convince their union to allow a vote on a final contract offer from the company over building the next generation of Boeing 777s. The 777X will continue one of Boeing's most successful aircraft lines and provide decades of work but the leadership of the International Machinists Union rejected the Dec. 12 offer without taking it to a vote. Boeing says it's not really interested in the vote either. It's focused again on sorting through 54 offers from other cities vying to build the big airplane.

After the union voted two to one to reject an earlier offer, the company told the union in November that if it couldn't get a deal it would shop the airplane around. It took only a few weeks to attract the dozens of offers. The company and union went back to the bargaining table on Dec. 12 but only briefly. Although there were some changes to the company offer the union said the main issue of pensions was not addressed and said there would be no vote. Those organizing the march say they believe that if the most recent offer was put to a vote that it would pass. ďThe majority of people I have talked to in my work area would vote yes on this,Ē organizer Paul Fritzler told the Puget Sound Business Journal. ďMy son-in-law works on a different line than I do; everyone he spoke with would vote yes on this.Ē

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Few aviation operations are as tricky and dangerous as helicopter flights to and from oil rigs, but recently Sikorsky introduced commercial use of an automated approach system that reduces pilot workload by up to 60 percent. The new "Rig Approach" system was in development for five years. Sikorsky worked with PHI, which operates S-92 and S-76 helicopters to oil rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, to develop and test the technology. "Rig Approach gets all of its data from the satellite constellation; there is no land-based equipment involved," PHI operations director Pat Attaway told the Miami Herald. "The system can fly the helicopter until it's half a mile away from the rig and 200 feet above the water."

At that point, the pilot can choose to manually land or can stay coupled to the system. Veteran oil-rig helicopter pilot Ron Doeppner told the Herald the system positions the helicopter in the ideal place for an approach to the rig every time. "When the pilot is manually flying the helicopter, it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the approach," Doeppner said. "Rig Approach frees the pilot to concentrate on other details like weather and responding to radio crosstalk from the home base and the rig." The system was FAA approved earlier this year. It will be available as an option on S-92 helicopters and can be retrofitted to aircraft already operating.

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Photo: Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press

A Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter crew made a dramatic rescue of a crane operator trapped by a major fire on the new student housing complex he was helping to build in downtown Kingston, Ontario, Tuesday. Witnesses heard a series of explosions before flames engulfed the building, which had a large construction crane installed in the superstructure. Kingston is about 150 miles east of Toronto. The helicopter was called in from nearby Canadian Forces Base Trenton and the unidentified crane operator was plucked to safety a few minutes later. "This is far from routine," David Elias, a civilian public affairs officer working for the Canadian military, told CBC News. "We're normally not involved in urban rescue. The number of times we would have hoisted someone off a crane like this, I imagine we could count that on one hand. Normally we are hoisting people off of boats or mountains. He wasn't just standing on a tower crane. He was standing on a tower crane surrounded by flames."†All the other workers in the building are believed to have escaped.

The Griffon helicopter, a military adaptation of the Bell 412EP, is a general-purpose helicopter used for troop transport, ground support and rescue and carries three flight crew members and a search and rescue technician on a mission like this. In this case the helicopter hovered over the extreme end of the crane arm where the operator sought refuge from the flames. The technician was lowered to the crane and attached a harness to the stranded man and they were first lifted off the crane before being winched inside. The man was taken to hospital with minor injuries. Fire officials have said propane bottles used to power construction heaters may have played a role in the fire, which spread to several other buildings and threatened a hotel.

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Southwest has installed water-vapor sensors on 87 of its 737s, and is sharing the data with the National Weather Service. "We have seen improvements in the capabilities for forecasting severe thunderstorms, and also the forecast of whether the storm is going to produce rain, snow, freezing rain, or sleet," said Carl Weiss, an aviation meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency for NWS. The aircraft collect data continuously at every altitude, from the surface to the flight levels, at locations around the country. "Now we don't have to wait for the 12-hour updates [for data collected from weather balloons], we get data almost real-time," said Rick Curtis, of Southwest.

"Water vapor is the most rapid-changing and under-sampled element in the atmosphere," said Weiss.†"WVSS-II [Water Vapor Sensing Systems] data upon takeoffs and landings allow forecasters to monitor and stay on top of how moisture is changing in the atmosphere, specifically in severe weather situations when preparedness is especially important." The system was designed and installed by Aeronautical Radio Incorporated and SpectraSensors. It has the potential to "revolutionize weather forecasting -- especially when predicting thunderstorms," according to Jeannine Hendricks, ARINC's manager for the program. A small scoop attached to the outside of the fuselage funnels air to a shoebox-size sensor inside the aircraft.

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If you were paying attention to the news last week, you may have noticed that the otherwise chronically broken Congress actually proposed a bi-partisan budget package. Now letís not delude ourselves into thinking strains of Kumbaya will soon be pealing from the Capitol and the members will be caroling on Pennsylvania Avenue, but this little outbreak of cooperation may have positive consequences for aviation.

Specifically and without undue prodding, Congress got busy pushing back on two critical issues, the FAAís plan to require sleep apnea diagnosis for medical certification and the very idea that the Third Class medical requirement is still viable. Itís not unusual for Congress to dip deeply into the affairs of government agencies; thatís what they do, after all. But I canít recall a confluence of Congressional involvement in two important aviation issues occurring so quickly.

First, the proposed sleep apnea diagnosis. Iím surprised that FAA air surgeon Fred Tilton stumbled into this mess. Mid-level agency executives are usually a lot smarter about whatís going to stir up the masses enough to invoke the wrath of Congress. They like to avoid that sort of thing. Yet, by administrative fiat, Tilton decreed in early November that all pilots over a body mass index of 40 would have to be tested for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and that eventually, the agency wants to extend that to lower BMIs. Hereís Tiltonís announcement. (PDF) Itís breathtaking in its potential scope, cost to airmen and utter lack of supporting data demonstrating how aviation safety will be improved or even anything showing that OSA is a threat to aviation safety. Earlier this month, the House introduced a bill to require the FAA to follow standard rulemaking procedures for this proposed new requirement.

What stuns me is that Tilton didnít have his ducks in a row on this, attaching links to convincingly show how OSA is causal in aviation accidents to the extent that itís worth the enormous expense he is proposing to address this issue. Could it be there are no ducks to line up? My guess is the convincing data doesnít exist. Yes, the NTSB has opined (PDF) on this subject, but largely in the context of fatigue in general, with apnea as but one factor. In other words, Tilton may be proposing an expensive fishing trip, to be paid by pilots seeking medicals.

If you break through the crust of all the coverage on sleep apnea, you soon see that it has become the condition du jour, the suddenly discovered silent killer of the masses. How could civilization have endured so long with the scourge of sleep apnea? An entire industry to treat it has emerged and doctors are being shown how they can make lots of money in the burgeoning field of ďsleep medicine.Ē In this story, NPR reported that Medicare payments for sleep testing increased nearly four fold between 2001 and 2009, from $62 million to $235 million. According to the report, a company called Aviisha specializes in sleep testing and lures physicians with a picture of a doctor with a stack of cash in his lab coat pocket. Not to say the sleep medicine business is entirely a racket, but you can see the potential for abuse. I suspect Tiltonís proposal will be seen as playing into this. If Congress forces rulemaking, perhaps weíll get a look at what data is supposed to support how OSA treatment will materially improve aviation safety.

Of course, if there werenít a requirement for medicals, expensive OSA treatments wouldnít be a requirement, either. And thatís the idea behind a bill introduced last week by Rep. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican whoís also a pilot. The bill would expand the use of the driverís license medical certification to allow pilots to fly aircraft up to 6000 pounds, VFR in non-commercial operations. It doesnít eliminate the Third Class, but rather reduces the scope of operations where it's required. If passed, itís a huge step forward, but thereís one thing about it I donít like: it doesnít allow IFR operations. This makes no sense to me, for instrument skills and operations have always been seen as a means of improving safety. Itís counter-logical to say that itís medically stressful or that it should require a higher degree of medical screening. My guess is itís thrown into the bill as a bone and Iím not really complaining. We have to start somewhere on eliminating the Third Class and this is a positive development.

But itís not without negatives. While I donít think the elimination or curtailment of the Third Class will kill the light sport industry, it will put a dent it, especially for some manufacturers. Many LSA buyers are older pilots who have the wherewithal to pay cash for $130,000 airplanes. Some are doing that because theyíre selling their Bonanzas or Skyhawks out of medical-loss fear. They see LSAs as lifeboats to extend their flying career. If fear of medical loss no longer propels them, light sport will lose some sales. So be it. Itís unreasonable to expect light sport to sustain on the back of a medical requirement that has long since outlived its usefulness, if it was ever useful. ††††

How these two issues play out will be interesting to watch and will likely be another case study in how bureaucracies protect their castles by maneuvering around Congress. Itís always amusingóor maybe infuriatingóto attend public meetings where FAA mid-level or even administrator-level executives talk the talk about supporting GA and removing regulatory barriers. Yet here are two examples where they are doing just the opposite. Elimination of the Third Class medical wonít instantly stimulate GA growth, but it will surely reduce the erosion of the pilot population, which is the next best thing. Tiltonís sleep apnea proposal is just bizarre. I have little doubt that many pilots on the verge of bailing from GA will be encouraged to do just that when confronted with a requirement for $3000 worth of OSA testing and then living with a CPAP machine. Personally, Iíd rather take up crack smoking than look and sound like Darth Vader when getting ready for bed. But thatís just me. Either way, it ought to be my choice, not the FAAís.

Join the conversation. †Read others' comments and add your own.

David Clark DC PRO-X

In an emerging aircraft refurbishment market, Smithville, Ohio-based Aircraft Sales Inc. stands out with a comprehensive and highly customized rebuild process. †In this AVweb video, Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano presents an inside look at the company's Pristine Airplane refurbishment process.

Renting Airplanes Just Got Easier || OpenAirplane

If you do your own airplane maintenance, that work will include checking spark plugs. †Tempest says checks should include resistance measurements and they've developed a little gadget to do that.