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NASA plans to launch its experimental spacecraft Orion on Thursday morning, atop a Delta IV rocket. The unmanned spacecraft, which is the prototype for a manned ship that will carry four astronauts to deep space, will orbit the Earth twice, reaching a distance of 3,600 miles above the planet. Lockheed Martin is the main contractor for the project. The launch is scheduled for 7:05 a.m. Eastern time, weather permitting. NASA plans to measure the effects of radiation on the interior of the spacecraft, and also test the heat shield during re-entry. The entire mission is expected to take about four and a half hours.

At 17 minutes, 39 seconds following liftoff, the Orion will be in an initial orbit of 115 miles by 552 miles, NASA said. Two hours into the flight, the second stage will ignite to send Orion through the Van Allen radiation belts to a peak altitude of 3,609 miles, some 15 times higher than the International Space Station, where instruments will record the radiation doses inside the cabin -- critical safety data for future manned missions. Its mission complete, the spacecraft will descend under a parachute into the Pacific Ocean, where recovery crews will be waiting.

With lessons learned from Orion's flight test, NASA said it will work to improve the spacecraft's design while building the first Space Launch System rocket, a heavy booster with enough power to send the next Orion around the moon for Exploration Mission-1. Following that, astronauts are gearing up to fly Orion on the second SLS rocket on a mission in 2021 that will return humans to deep space for the first time in more than 40 years. These adventures will lay the groundwork for future human missions to an asteroid and to Mars, NASA said.

Shortcomings in design and certification ultimately led to the fire in a lithium-ion battery installed on a Boeing 787 in January 2013, the NTSB said on Monday. In the board's final report on the incident, investigators said Boeing's safety assessment of the battery, which was part of the data used to demonstrate FAA compliance, was insufficient. Boeing's analysis had ruled out the possibility of cell-to-cell propagation of thermal runaway, which occurred in the fire. As a result, this potential hazard was not thoroughly scrutinized by Boeing and FAA engineers, ultimately allowing this safety hazard to go undetected during the certification process, the NTSB said. To prevent future incidents, the NTSB said the FAA should improve the guidance and training it provides to engineers for designs involving new technology.

As a result of the investigation, the NTSB made 15 safety recommendations to the FAA, two to Boeing, and one to GS Yuasa, the Japanese manufacturer of the battery. Nobody was injured in the fire, which occurred at Boston's Logan International Airport while the airplane was parked and empty. After a second incident with an overheating battery in Japan, the 787 fleet was grounded. The airplanes were OK'd to fly in April 2013, after the FAA approved a modification to the battery system. The complete NTSB report is posted online (PDF).

The European Union is clarifying tax rules for foreign-registered business aircraft flying in European airspace. A working paper was issued this week by the European Union and its eventual implementation is expected to end the confusion, according to NBAA. Many owners of aircraft registered in the U.S. and other countries were unsure whether their operations would be subject to a hefty value added tax (VAT). The confusion centered around the definition of private and commercial operations and the new language apparently clears it up nicely. "This paper issued by the European Commission clearly resolves the confusion," said Kurt Edwards, director general of the International Business Aviation Council. "As long as the operator meets the conditions for temporary admission, they can utilize the process to receive conditional relief from value-added tax and customs duties obligations, and operate to, from and within the EU."

In many EU countries, an imported private aircraft is subject to the VAT but there is an exemption for foreign-owned aircraft that are flying temporarily in European airspace as long as they aren't being operated commercially. However, there was inconsistency in the definition of private and commercial uses and the document issued this week gives clear guidance to 28 member countries on what is and isn't a commercial flight. The new paperwork says flights by company-owned aircraft and charters qualify for the tax exemptions.

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The FAA has rolled out a new online search tool that will help make it easier for pilots to find Notices to Airmen relevant to their planned flight. The tool "means that the days of rooting around trying to find applicable Notams while planning for a flight are just about over," says NBAA. The new tool adds to recent improvements already in place. The FAA says that by late 2015, when the new digital system is complete, it will be faster and easier to submit Notams; content will be easier to read, filter, and search; and users will be able to receive Notams on multiple data devices. 

The new search capability now online "will benefit every flight operation in the U.S.," said Bob Lamond, NBAA's director of air traffic services and infrastructure. Enhancements now available include the ability to search by flight route and time period, Lamond said. Filters for specific keywords are available, and an updated user interface permits Google-style searches, multiple layout options and the ability to easily print documents in PDF format. Coming upgrades will enable pilots to create user profiles, which will save search preferences, settings, preferred airports and more. New filter enhancements also will include the ability to search by procedure type and runway characteristics.

image: GAMA

GAMA and Build A Plane have opened up their 2015 design competition, and high-school teams are invited to apply before the Feb. 13 deadline. The call for entries may close earlier if the limit of 100 entries is reached. Each school will receive a free "Fly To Learn" curriculum that includes flight simulation software from X-Plane. The teams will spend four to six weeks designing their own virtual airplane, and then will compete in a nationwide virtual fly-off, which will be scored on performance while flying a specified mission profile.

School teams must have at least four students, including at least one male student and one female student. The program aims to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. Last year, students won a two-week trip to the Glasair factory in Arlington, Washington, where they helped to build a real airplane and took field trips to nearby aviation sites. The prize for this year's competition has not yet been announced. More details can be found on GAMA's website.

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Transport Canada just released some proposed guidance on the commercial operation of light unmanned aerial systems. Drones. If you haven't had a chance to look it over, here's the link (PDF). I suggest at least skimming it. (I'll wait while you do that.)

Clearly, our friends north of the border have come adrift from reality and seem to be operating on some planet other than Earth. First of all, they're proposing to provide UAS operators with mere guidance through an Advisory Circular, for cryin' out loud. Second, the entire document is but 30 pages long and has a shallow 46 points of guidance. Do they seriously believe that a field as complex and dynamic as UAS operation can be governed by so few rules and restrictions?

Evidently, they do and a careful reading of the document will reveal a naļve mindset among the technocrats who dreamed up this circular. Throughout, the language implies that people who fly these devices are expected to exercise common sense and good judgment in their operation, while leaving the definition of these nebulous concepts entirely up to the drone operators. Furthermore, the AC seems utterly bereft of threatening and punitive language. How can it be considered serious regulation? What's next, a joining of hands for a ceremonial singing of Kumbaya? How can there be a carrot with no stick? Gain with no pain?

More troubling yet is that the Canadians seem to believe that UAS operation is somehow different than flying an actual airplane. In fact, the circular seems to have been written by people who have actual knowledge of UAS and may have seen them fly. Or worse, actually flown one. How else to explain their profoundly ignoring the innate value of UAS operators being required to hold pilot's licenses, as the FAA seems to be considering. I mean, break it down here. How can a UAS pilot possibly be competent or safe if he or she can't use an E6B, doesn't know about traffic pattern entries and can't do dead reckoning? And what about short field takeoffs and landings? (And never mind that many commercial drones are VTOLs. This is a meaningless formality.)

In their headlong rush to get out of the way of inevitable technology, Canadian regulators seem satisfied that a UAS pilot needs only a short course in regulations procedures and basic airspace. Maybe you could even do it online and take a quiz. The Canadians also whiff on the medical issue, saying that a UAS pilot should simply be fit with no known maladies or afflictions that would keep him from flying the UAS safely on the day he intends to do it. But how can this be assured without requiring a proctologic exam every 24 months?

Also, I wonder if this guidance is in compliance with ICAO standards. As it's written now, the AC is very likely to encourage a boom in the Canadian commercial UAS industry, creating more development, jobs and a vibrant industry without years of delay, obfuscation and bureaucratic dissembling. It may place Canada years ahead of the U.S. This is in utter contravention to everything we know about proper regulation and I wonder how long it will be before someone realizes they have to put a stop to it.

Canada, wake up while there's still time. 

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