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image: Wikimedia

The Center for Environmental Health, which filed a lawsuit in 2011 seeking to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline in California, has reached a settlement, NATA said on Tuesday. Under the agreement signed last week, FBOs at 23 airports will provide warnings of lead exposure to individuals residing within one kilometer of the airport, will post warning signs at the airports, and will pay about $550,000 in penalties and legal costs. The fuel distributors also agreed to offer for sale the lowest-lead fuel that is commercially available, and to make mogas available to FBOs that request it.

"We are pleased the matter is concluded and that California general aviation and its related businesses are no longer threatened," said Thomas Hendricks, president of NATA. "100-low-lead avgas is currently the only fuel that allows the entire piston engine fleet to operate safely. We are working closely with the FAA as part of the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative, and it is entering into an exciting period in the search for an unleaded fuel for general aviation aircraft." Caroline Cox, director of research for CEH, said the FAA is moving too slowly to find a replacement fuel. "With this settlement today, we expect the aviation industry to move more quickly to towards safer, lead-free fuels," she said. "We will continue to monitor the industry and keep the pressure on for safer fuels as quickly as possible."

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A speaker at a commercial drone conference in Los Angeles on Saturday was shouted down by a protest group blaming him for up to 3,000 deaths caused by Predator drones in Pakistan, the Contra Costa Times has reported. Another group protested police use of drones for surveillance. "Nobody here is even remotely interested in using [drones] as weapons," said Austin Blue, who was targeted by some of the protesters because his family owns General Atomics, which produces the Predator drone. The one-day event, the first Expo organized by the Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle Systems Association, focused on the use of drone technology for hobbies and commerce.

The UAVSA is a division of the Tesla Foundation Group, a nonprofit based in California. The association aims to promote the commercial use of UAVs and help users to fly their aircraft responsibly. According to the group's website, the small UAV industry doesn't much resemble the traditional aviation industry and is more like "the personal computer industry gone aloft." The Tesla Group also is working to develop a "Safe Flight System" that it plans to submit to the FAA in response to a request for proposals for a method to register and track UAVs in the national airspace. The group's website says its solution could monitor all drone flights in the U.S. and ensure that the flights are conducted safely.

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Fractional service AirShares Elite closed Dec. 1 and is now selling off its large fleet of Cirrus aircraft. AirShares pioneered the fractional model for high-performance GA aircraft and was in operation for almost 15 years before it quit the business with no explanation. The company had aircraft in more than 15 cities and was planning to offer fractional shares of Cirrus's new personal jet, the SF50. Phone calls to AirShares Elite get transferred to a voicemail loop and CEO Kevin Price did not return email queries. The website has also been pulled down. An AVweb reader confirmed the developments, however. 

The reader, who had an eighth of a share in an SR22 (we're not using his name for privacy reasons but we've confirmed his identity) said the owner pool was as surprised as anyone when they were notified. "I'm a fractional owner in AirShares so I can confirm it but I can't give you details [about] what happened since I don't know," said the owner. "They are selling 'my' plane and I will get my percentage of the sale. They said I will receive the money by Dec. 31." AirShares Elite was considered a successful example of a fractional company and also had a branch operation in Australia. It's not known if the Australian organization is still in business.

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image: Quartz

A widely cited story posted on the blog Quartz on Friday raises the question whether airline pilots who post aerial photos online are violating FAA rules against using "personal wireless devices" in the cockpit, but the FAA told AVweb picture-taking is OK with them -- as long as pilots use the proper equipment. "A pilot at the controls is permitted to take a picture with a non-wireless camera and not be in violation of this regulation," the FAA wrote in an email. "However, a pilot at the controls is not permitted to take a picture with a cell phone." Tablets and personal computers also are not permitted, and no photos of any kind are allowed during aircraft operations when the "sterile cockpit rule" is in effect, typically below 10,000 feet.

To gauge the extent of possible violations, David Yanofsky wrote, "Quartz has monitored hundreds of Instagram accounts over six months and collected a trove of photos and videos taken by people clearly sitting in the pilot or co-pilot seat on commercial flights. Many images appear to have been captured during critical phases of flight, like takeoff and landing." The story found that the rule appears to be "widely flouted," and posted a PDF of a recent story in a magazine published by the Air Line Pilots Association that features photos shot from airliner cockpits. The Quartz story notes that GoPro video cameras that are WiFi enabled also are apparently forbidden by the FAA rule.

ALPA told AVweb in an email that the organization is committed to safety and professionalism. "This includes strict adherence to Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) and airline policies and procedures. Under the FARs, a critical phase of flight is considered to be any non-cruise portion of the flight below 10,000 feet, including ground taxi. The use of personal cameras during non-critical phases of flight is not prohibited by the FARs. While some photos may appear to be taken in critical phases of flight, they may well have been taken in non-commercial operations such as repositioning or maintenance flights or corporate flights where such photos are not prohibited by the regulations. Every day and on every flight, the professional airline pilots of ALPA are committed to maintaining the highest standards of safety and exhibit complete professionalism."

The 2014 Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy was awarded to airshow legend Robert L. Hoover during a ceremonial dinner in Washington, D.C., last Friday. The annual award is given to a living American by the National Aeronautical Association to honor significant public service of enduring value to aviation. "There are very few people in the world that capture the history, progress, importance, and sheer excitement of aviation and aerospace like Bob Hoover," said Jim Albaugh, NAA chairman. "For 70 years he has set the standard for skill, leadership, and bravery which may last forever."

Hoover, at age 92, has been at the forefront of the aviation world long enough to have met Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, James Doolittle, Neil Armstrong and virtually every other well-known aviator. Doolittle called him "the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived." Chuck Yeager once described Hoover as "the best pilot flying today." The event included a clip from a documentary about Hoover's life, Flying the Feathered Edge, which is now available on DVD.

Also, TV host David Hartman interviewed Hoover about his unique journey through aviation history; here is a video of that conversation.

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I've been doing some work on the Cub so I've been driving back and forth to the airport a couple of times a day. Inbound this morning, I was about to duck into a gas station and had second thoughts. The posted price was $2.43. Sure enough, when I drove home—five hours later—it was $2.38. I tanked up.

If you've been waiting for the commensurate drop in avgas prices, you may or may not have seen it. We saw it just this week. At Venice, one of the vendors just posted $3.98, down from $5.40 in the spring. That's a 26 percent drop and actually a little higher percentage decline than the national price of autogas during the same period, at least at our airport. But some airports have barely dropped their prices at all. In its survey of 3604 FBOs, AirNav reports a national avgas average price of $5.66, just two cents less than it was a year ago. I'd look for that to edge downward during the next month, although how much is impossible to say.

So what's going on in the avgas market, exactly? Knowing full well I'll never get answers to this question, I periodically phone a few sources just to provide them with the amusement of pondering the imponderable. No one really has a grasp of market trends in avgas and those that might—the major refiners—always demur, insisting they never comment on prices. (Unless it's deemed to be in their interest, in which case they become giddily voluble.)

Although the daily press stories suggest the precipitous gasoline price drop we're seeing now is unprecedented, it hardly is that. As recently as 2008, following the financial crash, oil bottomed out at $32 (from $146) and the national average price of regular floated below $2. The current slide started in August, when indexed oil was at $100.66. On Tuesday, it was trading around $55.

Not that avgas is necessarily tied to any of this. In general aviation, we live in the Village of the Damned, where normal laws of supply and demand don't apply. When demand for airplanes tanks, the manufacturers raise the prices. While car gas prices plummet, avgas remains—at least until recently—steadfastly static. There are seemingly plausible reasons for this and the most credible one is simply lack of competition. There aren't that many avgas refiners—about a half dozen now—and many avgas vendors don't have on-field competition. At your corner service station this week, the price posters are wearing their legs out climbing the signs to shuffle the numbers. It reminds me of the old time gas-price wars when I was a kid in Texas.

Crude oil is less of major price constituent of avgas than is so with mogas. Avgas has expensive blend components that mogas doesn't and it's unclear—at least to me—how the prices of these components track against crude prices. They live in their own commodity orbits and demand for aromatics could be strong when gasoline demand is weak and vice versa. In broad economic terms, avgas isn't so much a fuel as a specialty chemical, given the low and declining volumes. Plus, avgas is priced on market-will-bear rules sometimes tagged to the rack price of premium mogas plus an additional margin. And it's quite a high margin for refineries. It has far less to do with the cost of production than does mogas.

And you don't see the fuel truck driver trudging out into the snow to change the price three times a day because the FBO may have bought that load in September at a substantially higher wholesale price than he'll pay this week. Many FBOs don't make much margin anyway and lowering it further would be irrational. Given the sluggish response to competition and price signals, if a refiner can get away with higher prices on lower crude costs, what do you think they're going to do?

To me, the most interesting thing about this price tumble—the latest of a long, cyclic history of such things—is where it could go and why. The analytics I've read generally conclude that the current glut of oil is at least partially the result of tight oil production in the U.S.—in the Bakken and Eagle Ford fields, mainly, with the Alberta tar sands doing their share, too. But because the tight fields have to be fracked, they have high production costs. The break even is said to be about $60 and to keep production alive, drilling is constant. So one theory is that Saudi Arabia, which has among the cheapest production costs in the world, is sustaining its production to drive the pesky North Dakota and Texas upstarts out of the market, after which it will raise prices. Of course, higher prices will bring those fields back into play, which is the way it has always worked. Saudi once controlled the market with all but an unchallenged iron fist. That may no longer be true. But what is obviously true is that the people who said there would never again be oil surpluses were as wrong as the people who though $140 was the new norm.

Regardless of how this interesting market dynamic plays out, the more salient question for GA may be this: what the hell difference will it really make? Will a 25 or even 30 percent retreat in the price of avgas ignite more activity? Or will owners and pilots wait around so long to see if it's real that the prices will come roaring back next spring or summer? In a way, this is Redbird's quirky fuel fest of last year writ large.

I'm betting there won't be a spike in activity, at least one we'll notice, because I think just as the lack of competition and decline in the GA market distorts price signals for manufacturers, so does it do the same for owners. I think lack of flight activity is only peripherally related to both real and perceived fuel costs. Remember, avgas prices adjusted for inflation aren't any higher than they were in the 1980s. Redbird thought the state of aircraft maintenance was a bigger factor than fuel prices. I think there are other forces and barriers at work, too.

But for the time being, I'm not complaining. At current prices, I can fly the Cub for $8 less an hour. Whoop-dee-do. 

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