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Aviation groups are warning that the FAA's inflexible requirement for ADS-B equipage by 2020 could force an exodus from general aviation. In statements issued as the FAA hosted a "call to action summit" on the looming issue, both EAA and AOPA said the costs are too high for the minimal benefits to individual aircraft owners and that could spell trouble for personal aviation. EAA spokesman Sean Elliott told the meeting that with the least expensive ADS-B solutions costing 10 to 25 percent or more of the value of many GA airplanes, the situation "could drive people out of aviation." AOPA President Mark Baker wrote a letter to the FAA saying the economic scenario posed by the mandate is of serious concern. "It would be irresponsible to insist on enforcing a mandate that does not reflect the realities of general aviation flying and would cause irreparable harm to this industry," Baker wrote.

If the groups hoped to get an extension on the deadline, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker made short work of the notion with his opening statement. "We are not here to rewrite the rule; rather, we are here to discuss any barriers we have in meeting the mandate," Whitaker said  "The mandate is not changing." Aircraft Electronics Association President Paula Derks says the FAA is throwing up one of those barriers by refusing to sign off on an innovative financing program that would make it easier for aircraft owners to get the necessary gear. "The industry is ready, willing and able to meet the ADS-B Out 2020 mandate, but despite industry-wide efforts to promote early equipage, the FAA is dragging its feet on the incentive program by not approving the loan guarantee certificates for the NextGen GA Fund," Derks said. "Until the FAA issues the loan guarantee certificates, nothing moves on this program. Keep in mind that the monies raised for financing these loans are from private investors. Our industry is not asking for government money; we are only asking for the FAA to issue the loan guarantee certificates as it was directed by Congress to do so."

Buyers waiting for cheaper or at least more solutions to satisfy the 2020 ADS-B mandate have another choice to shop. Garmin this week announced a new ADS-B box that will interface with its Flight Stream onboard data network, satisfying the ADS-B Out requirement.

The GDL 84 appears to be a downscale version of the company's popular GDL 88, featuring both ADS-B In and Out capability without requiring external controls or panels. Paired with Garmin's Flight Stream in-cockpit data network, the GDL 84 can display FIS-B weather and TIS-B traffic on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. The unit receives on both the 978 UAT and 1090 MHz frequencies and is suitable for aircraft operating below 18,000 feet. (Aircraft flying above 18,000 feet will still require a 1090 Out solution, however.)

The GDL 84, says Garmin, is expected to receive FAA AML/STC approvals in early 2015 and will sell for $3995, to include the basic Flight Stream 100 system.

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image: USA Today

A report in Monday's USA Today about the danger of lethal post-crash fires in GA aircraft is "sensationalistic," according to GAMA President Pete Bunce. "Once again, USA Today's Thomas Frank has not told the full story about general aviation aircraft safety," Bunce said in a statement released Tuesday morning. In the USA Today story, Frank reports that post-crash fires in small aircraft have killed at least 600 people since 1993. "The victims who died from fatal burns or smoke inhalation often had few if any broken bones or other injuries," Frank wrote. About 308 others died from multiple injuries, including burns and smoke inhalation, and another 309 suffered burns but survived.

The FAA has failed to require fire-prevention features in small aircraft that could have saved lives, such as rupture-proof fuel tanks and upgraded fuel lines, Frank said. The FAA declined to comment for the USA Today story. AOPA on Tuesday called the story "sensationalistic." The story presents "an incomplete picture of the safety initiatives that are underway," AOPA said, such as efforts to reform Part 23. Frank's previous story, "Unfit for Flight," which ran in USA Today in June, also drew strong response from the GA advocacy groups.

An unmanned supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded shortly after liftoff from a Virginia commercial launch facility Tuesday. The Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. lifted off the launch pad at the Wallops Flight Facility at 6.22 p.m. EDT and exploded seconds later. It was carrying about 5,000 pounds of supplies for the ISS. The rocket was carrying a Cygnus cargo ship. It's not clear whether the rocket exploded on its own or whether it was intentionally destroyed because of a detected malfunction. More details will be coming later.

The rocket was supposed to take the Cygnus to orbit where it was to loiter until Nov. 2 and then go to the ISS for capture by its robotic arm. It was carrying food, supplies, equipment and 1,500 pounds of science experiments. It was Orbital Sciences' third launch under an eight-launch contract with NASA worth $1.9 billion. SpaceX also has a supply contract and is getting ready to launch its fourth rocket to the ISS.

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Redbird Simulations opens its fourth annual Migration training conference in San Marcos, Texas, today, with two days of forums and industry discussions about training issues critical to the aviation industry.

On the agenda will be a brief review of Redbird's experience in operating its Redhawk diesel Skyhawk conversion and a progress report on the company's development of Guided Individual Flight Training using a unique platform called TRACE, based on digital gaming technology. You can see a video preview of the system in this exclusive AVweb video.

At Redbird Simulations' fourth training conference in San Marcos, Texas, AVweb got a look at the latest version of the company's TRACE technology, which will enable students to teach themselves many of the basic maneuvers necessary to learn to fly.

With a year and 1,300 hours of operation behind them, Redbird says its converted diesel Skyhawks have delivered bulletproof maintenance reliability and significant savings in direct operating costs. At a short briefing during the company's fourth annual training conference in San Marcos, Texas, Redbird's Darren Bien told a small group that thus far, customer response has been favorable, with positive comments on the airplanes being easier to fly and better trainers because pilots and instructors can focus on flying rather than manipulating engine controls.

At the Migration conference, Redbird showed off Redhawk number 6, with three laboring on the flight line at the company's San Marcos Skyport and other placed elsewhere or about to be. Bien said 1,300 hours of initial operation have revealed fuel costs of $26.45 an hour for the Continental CD-135 diesel compared to $61.70 for the Lycoming-powered Skyhawk. Because of its expensive engine, the Redhawk gives a little of that back in scheduled maintenance costs of $43.21 an hour compared to $24.88 for the gasoline Skyhawk. When it's all added up, says Redbird, the Redhawk's direct operating costs are $68.66 an hour against $86.57 per hour for gasoline version. (These numbers don't include any capital costs for buying the aircraft.)

As for scheduled maintenance events, Bien says the Redhawk has less than half as many as the Skyhawk because of longer oil-change intervals—20 versus 41. Because of this, the Redhawk can post an additional 200 hours of flight line availability over the Lycoming-engined model. Redbird announced the Redhawk at AirVenture last year. The conversion upgrades an older Skyhawk with a Continental CD-135 diesel, a Garmin G500 suite, new paint and new interior, among other improvements. It sells for $249,000, but Brown Lease, an aircraft leasing company, is working out hourly lease rate deals for interested schools. They'll also be offering competitive financing for the Redhawks.

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As if everything in aviation isn't hard enough to get done, it's grimly amusing how we're able to make it harder yet. Just ask anyone trying to get a simple cert project on the FAA's agenda, much less getting it approved. Even the stuff that should be simple and quick, isn't.

That came to mind yesterday when I was interviewing Brandon Seltz for this video on Redbird's developing TRACE/GIFT technology for self-guided aviation training.  This package, which  comes out of the gaming industry and will be used in Redbird's sims, has been in the works for a couple of years. For cripes sake, it's just a video game, so where the hell is it? Redbird's Jeff Van West, my former colleague, kinda rolled his eyes when I asked. He opened his laptop and showed me a task matrix of the sort game and software developers use to track the gazillion steps necessary to get to a working product. And even then, the damn thing might not work and may require more debugging effort.

Specifically, the way Redbird has conceived it, TRACE technology is a flexible platform that has to tie together the sim's dynamics and graphics with video, audio and an effective, interactive syllabus to jolly the would-be pilot along in the sim without too much intervention from an instructor. Really. How hard can this be? See above. It's aviation.

Ignoring the whine with the cheese here, is this a good idea, to basically assume you can just throw a student into the sim and have him or her essentially self-instruct? Personally, I think it's a terrific idea because I've always felt that the actual act of flight instruction is way overrated in difficulty and ultimately delivered unevenly. For some percentage of people who want to fly—and I don't know what that percentage is—learning it just isn't that hard. Flying an airplane just isn't that hard, despite our persistent efforts to make it so. For some percentage—again, no idea—learning to fly will be challenging and for some smaller percentage, almost impossible. They may not be candidates for self-guided learning and that's okay. There are and there will remain other options for them.

But for a good self-learner, the GIFT idea—that's guided individual flight instruction—is…a gift. For all its challenges, rewards and successes, some flight instruction can be drudgery, blathering through the same old doctrine and dogma with the same tattered training materials and inconsistent delivery and feedback. A nicely constructed sim-based computer learning system would be a blessing and a relief. That is, if it works. My definition of "works" is something like this: The student plows through the four forces, straight and level, turns and steep turns, stalls and landings in the sim, flies for four hours in the airplanes and then solos. Or six hours, or whatever. Just something less than the 20 hours it now requires some students to reach that goal.

Redbird insists it has proven that sim-based instruction yields more effective training in the airplane and a shorter, less expensive route to the private pilot certificate. However, Redbird's Roger Sharp concedes that the company's Skyport facility in San Marcos, Texas hasn't been through a full generation of CFIs in teaching with these methods so there are shortcomings and bugs to be worked out. And, of course, the whole idea has to be fielded as a done-deal package to the Redbird sim schools that wish to deploy it.

Coming next is what Redbird calls the Connected Flight School, which it envisions as kicking the network idea up to the next level. To demonstrate that, Redbird cranked up the hangar door as a Redhawk taxied in and in a few moments, the airplane was automatically dumping its flight, engine and maintenance data into a network (still under development) that would eventually tie the entire school's data generation into a master hub that could monitor maintenance, handle billing, track training, manage video and audio training records…you can see the possibilities and how they might help control costs, improve efficiency and encourage consistency in training. Running on a tablet, TRACE can even read QR codes on the physical airplane and lead the student through pre-flight, complete with video vignettes explaining it all. As an instructor, I'm not feeling the slightest bit useless, thanks.

The potential impact is obvious, but the actual impact not so much and may be well into the future. Redbird has more than 1000 sims in the market and it shipped 332 last year. Part of the reason it's holding the Migration event this week is to show off what it has done during the past year and to pull the curtain back on what's ahead. Redbird customers and the press are here to see all this. Good stuff as far as that goes. 

The challenge it faces is staying on track with all these ideas and turning them into actual, marketable products that schools capable of investing in the Skyport idea can make work. With the Redhawk program inching forward and these tech packages at the breadboard level, the parts and pieces of a flight training evolution are in view.  Now, can Redbird and the industry stitch them all together to make an impact? To me, that's as big a challenge as finding the students to populate the sims and airplanes.

I'm not convinced that any of these initiatives fundamentally reset the economics of flight training, although they clearly help flatten the cost escalation. That's a start. For the second year in a row, we've been hearing about marketing aviation to the millenials and eventually the digital natives, the newest generation. I'm just not so sure we've found the spark that will ignite significant interest in flying in those generations, if indeed it's there to be ignited at all. But this much seems fair: If those generations are going to develop an aviation interest, the stuff Redbird is proposing, at least conceptually, ought to appeal to them. If it doesn't, I'm fresh out of ideas.

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Google executive Alan Eustace has broken Felix Baumgartner's "highest skydive" record — but that's only the beginning of the story, as Eustace's record-shattering jump yielded massive amounts of data for scientists and engineers to study.

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