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Six test sites have been selected by the FAA for working toward the integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace. The six sites "achieve cross-country geographic and climatic diversity and help the FAA meet its UAS research needs," the agency said on Monday. The sites, in Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, New York, and Virginia, will help to meet the FAA's research goals, which it has defined as system safety, command and control link issues, control station layout and certification, sense and avoid capabilities both on the ground and in the air, environmental impacts, and aircraft certification. The FAA said it also will establish rules to protect privacy as well as ensure safe operations. The testing will continue until at least February 2017.

The announcement was welcomed by Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "In designating the first UAS test sites, the FAA has taken an important step toward recognizing the incredible economic and job creation potential this technology brings," he said. "AUVSI's economic report projects that the expansion of UAS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs nationwide and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade following integration."

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Citing an ongoing effort "to ensure long-term sustainability," the board of the Reno Air Races Association said on Monday it has eliminated the job of CEO Mike Houghton, and he won't be replaced. "This is an extremely difficult decision but, in light of current circumstances and financial restraints, we felt that it was in the best interest of the Air Races," said board chairman Mike Major. The board cited an increase of $3 million in operating expenses in the last two years, mainly due to insurance hikes following the 2011 accident when a pilot and 10 spectators died. Houghton told the local website the decision was "disappointing and devastating," though not a total shock. "The reality of it is tough," he said. "I've been doing this for 15 years and 16 races."

RARA said it has revised its organizational bylaws and restructured its board of directors to allow for more efficient and effective decision-making and a stronger emphasis on sponsorships, coalition building and fundraising. In November, the group said it had cut wages and benefits, and eliminated two staff positions. About two weeks ago, Houghton announced the organization had successfully raised its target of $500,000 to meet costs for the first quarter of next year. He told this week he was proud of his work at the air races. “I can proudly say I played a role in keeping the event alive when many said it couldn’t be done,” he said, but now he'll look for another job. “That’s all you can do, is take it one step at a time,” he said. “I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears to the air races and now it’s time to find something else.” Going forward, RARA's board of directors will fulfill the CEO roles and responsibilities.

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Image: Kermit Weeks

Despite efforts, Kermit Weeks won't be re-creating the historic first commercial airline flight on New Year's Day in an authentic version of the Benoist Airboat, but the city of St. Petersburg, Fla., will nonetheless celebrate the centennial of the event. "We've been crossing our fingers for the last several days, just hoping that this will come off with Kermit flying the reproduction," Will Michaels, president of Flight 2014 Inc., the nonprofit organizing the anniversary, told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. "Obviously, a lot of emotion has gone into this." Weeks, founder of Fantasy of Flight, an aviation attraction near Lakeland, had been working for more than two years to build and fly an authentic version of the Benoist seaplane for the anniversary. He said he still plans to fly the aircraft sometime in 2014.

The city will celebrate the historic event during First Night, First Flight festivities on Tuesday. At the St. Petersburg Museum of History, an actor will portray Tony Jannus, who flew the original Benoist seaplane on a daily schedule between St. Petersburg and Tampa a century ago. Kermit Weeks will display the Benoist 2014 near the museum and will give a talk about his efforts to build it and the challenges he faced. “We’ve been overcoming problem after problem for the past couple weeks, but ultimately we ran out of time and I had to pull the plug,” Weeks said on Monday. “Trust me, it’s not because we didn’t try.” On New Year's Day, Weeks will power up the seaplane and taxi it near the shore. Another aircraft, the Hoffman X-4 “Mullet Skiff,” built in 1980 -- similar to Jannus's airplane, but not an exact replica -- will fly the historic route. The event will be live-streamed on the organization's website.

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Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) has received an order for 15 Hurkus advanced trainer aircraft from the Turkish Air Force and will enter serial production of the turboprop single in 2017. In the meantime TAI will also get to work on the armed light attack version of the aircraft, and the combined portfolio will be direct competition to Textron/Beech's T-6 family and Embraer's Super Tucano series. As we reported earlier, the prototype of the Hurkus flew in August. It has accumulated 800 hours of test flights. The first aircraft is a basic model but the production model will be tailored to Turkey's needs and might find some customers elsewhere because of its cockpit layout.

Turkey is an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter partner and the Hurkus will feature avionics and controls that will parallel those of the fifth generation fighter. Hurkus can also be configured with an F-16-style cockpit for training pilots for the 270 Vipers the Turks now operate. After that, the armed version will be developed and it will be able to pack 3300 pounds of weapons. A Coast Guard patrol version is also planned.


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Remember the movie, Wall-E, a Pixar animated tale whose subtext was that technology eventually evolved to be so all enveloping that humans were reduced to quivering mounds of fat conveyed in bins attached to a mechanical belt? If that future awaits us all, are airline pilots leading the way?

In the midst of its investigation into last summer’s Asiana crash at San Francisco, the NTSB has once again raised concerns about airline pilots relying on automation to the extent that their hand flying skills diminish. If this is true, I think it’s been going on for a number of years but maybe we’re just now reaching some sort of critical mass. Whatever the case, it’s alarming to me to hear anyone supposedly qualified to sit on the flight deck of an international 777 say he’s really uncomfortable hand flying a visual approach. The only rational response to that is: seriously?

In general aviation, we have a related problem, but it may be due to too little automation rather than not enough. Bluntly, some people just fall apart at the man-machine interface and simply lose control of the airplane. And I’m not talking about, say, skidding off a slick runway or botching a crosswind touchdown. We’ve all done that. I’m talking about flat out losing control of a perfectly functioning airplane on a clear, VFR day and driving it into a smoking hole. Or losing it on landing and taking an excursion through a line of parked aircraft before coming to rest in someone else’s hangar, co-habitating uninvited with the current resident.

This sort of thing isn’t rare. In fact, it happens every week, if not every day, in some form. Just the ground chaos is enough to fear for the future of civilization. Every time I go to the airport, it seems, something else has happened. Last winter if was the runaway Malibu that sheared off its legs in a ditch after the owner decided it would be okay to prop it with the throttle open, the mags on and no chocks. The other day, I’m told, a pilot lost control of a golf cart—yes, a golf cart—and ran into the wing of a turboprop. And we haven’t even gotten to the flying part yet.

Not that I’m claiming any immunity. While I’ve never lost control of an airplane seriously enough to bend metal, there was that incident with my truck on the way to the airport to fly an early a.m. charter. I needed gas and the pump was situated on the wrong side of the nozzle, so I backed into the slot, not seeing one of those big heavy steel bumpers they bury in 30 tons of concrete to protect the pumps against… people like me. I backed into  it unseen and smashed the left tail light. I pulled forward to get a better position and hit one on the other side, smashing the right tail light. This was being observed by the kindly Indian owner of the store who I suspect was soon online booking one way tickets back to New Delhi. When I got to the airport, the line boy asked if I was aware that both my tail lights were broken. Yes, I was, but thanks for asking.

But back to the airplanes. In general aviation, loss of control is by far the most common cause—or perhaps result—of GA accidents. The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators recently sent me a link to a resource page devoted to educating pilots about loss of control with suggestions about what they might do about it. While I’m all for education and awareness and parting the curtains of ignorance, I’m doubtful that we’re going to move the needle on this in any noticeable way.

First of all, this problem has been with us forever, even during periods when pilots were averaging more than 100 flight hours a year. Now that we’re averaging half that, how can we rationally expect to do any better? While SAFE is doing good stuff, I’m not sure the will is there in the pilot community to do the training and currency necessary to build the skill base. And I definitely think it’s skill deficiency. Some pilots will run into stuff no matter how much you train them; they’re just inept with machines.

But I suspect most of us are inept only in certain circumstances and increased awareness and more practice—you know, actually flying—would reduce the odds of catatonia in the cockpit when the slightest novel situation arises, say the airplane veers a little left when the power is applied or that noisy damn gear horn makes it so hard to think. 

The automation part is interesting. I think it’s different for GA pilots than for airline pilots. GA pilots tend to lard the cockpit up with more digital stimuli than they could possibly ever need and so the problem may be distraction. The airlines have achieved a remarkable safety record partly because relying on automation can reduce errors like busting altitudes or wandering off headings. And we all know a coupled approach will almost always be more precise and safer than a hand flown one, which is why airline training emphasizes the automation. The NTSB questions whether that’s gone a beat too far.

A couple of weeks ago I reported on the research done by Carolina Anderson at Embry Riddle that revealed some interesting points in the accident scatter plot. She concluded that older aircraft certified under CAR 3 are overrepresented in loss-of-control accidents, quite possibly because the FAA has made it too difficult and expensive to install autopilots in those airplanes. In other words, regulation has retrograded safety. I don’t doubt the theory. As explained in our previous coverage, the ongoing revision of FAR Part 23 is supposed to make it easier to install avionics in general and autopilots specifically in older aircraft. If that eventually leads to installations of Garmin’s new line of experimental autopilots in certified airplanes, that might represent meaningful progress against loss of control by GA pilots. But it may be years before we can measure the results.

In the meantime, my strategy is two fold: I’m flying as much as I can with an emphasis on landing skills and I always use a guideman when backing my truck for fueling. It seems only prudent.

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

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In 1976, famed aviation businessman and movie pilot Clay Lacy was asked to fly one of the strangest stunt acts in aviation: The Human Fly. In this exclusive AVweb video, he explains how the project came into being.