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The pilot of a Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172 that crashed into a building in Anchorage on Tuesday was a five-year member of the organization but was not authorized to fly the plane that day. The Civil Air Patrol has confirmed that First Lt. Doug Demarest was killed after he took the plane on an "unsanctioned" flight. No one else was hurt. The incident has, of course, has led to a larger investigation.The FBI has stepped in  but said there was no reason to think the crash was intended as terrorism.

The airplane struck the fourth floor of an office building about 6 a.m. It hit a second building as it fell to the ground, then came to rest against another building, and burned. A witness said the airplane “did a total complete turn” before it hit the building. "It was just way low, and then it started sinking on in."The crash sparked a fire in a parking lot, but it was quickly extinguished and nobody was hurt.

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This year has been the most profitable ever for China’s airline industry, growing 76 percent from last year and generating $8.5 billion in profits, according to local reports, despite an overall slowdown in the economy. Over the last five years, passenger traffic grew about 10 percent per year, nine new airlines launched, and the number of commercial planes grew from 1,047 to 2,645. Several new airlines are expected to start up in 2016. Also, a new helicopter commuter service is set to launch its first flights this week.

The helicopter service, the first of its kind on the China mainland, will serve Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, three major business hubs in the Guangdong province, with service from the central business district of each city. Each flight will take about a half hour, compared to more than two hours by ground transport. Private aviation continues to grow slowly in China, faced with a lack of infrastructure and restrictive operating rules. However, more than 100 general aviation airports are now under construction or in the planning stages across the country, and AVIC has said it will build 50 GA airports, with the first set to open by 2019. The country now has about 399 airports open to GA aircraft; by comparison, the U.S. has about 24,000.

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The entrepreneurs behind Morgan Aircraft, a startup based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, planned to develop and build a twin turboprop VTOL business aircraft, but they have now shut down the company and filed for receivership, according to local news reports. The receivership process is similar to bankruptcy, and allows the company’s assets to be sold off to repay its debtors. The company’s only assets, however, according to WTAQ, are the patents for the aircraft. The patents will be sold, but the proceeds are not expected to cover the company’s debts.

The company launched in 2009. At the time, co-founder Mark O'Halloran said their aircraft would combine “jet-speed forward flight with the ability to land in a parking lot." Co-founder Brian Morgan said he expected to start flight testing in 2013, with deliveries to begin in 2017. The Journal Sentinel says “the venture never moved beyond the start-up phase.” By 2013, the company was a year behind on its lease payments to the Sheboygan County airport. Morgan Aircraft was given a $686,000 state loan, which could have been forgiven if they had created 340 jobs and met other conditions, with a deadline set for this week. State officials say they'll try to recover the tax money, according to WTAQ. The company also owes about $1 million to Oostburg State Bank.

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Two recent news reports have cited bird strikes and fuel-fed fires as safety concerns for helicopter operators. According to an Associated Press story published over the weekend, operators reported 204 helicopter bird strikes in 2013, a 68 percent increase from 2009. While some of that is due to increased reporting by pilots, the AP says there has also been an increase in the U.S. populations of large birds, like Canada geese and turkey vultures, that can do significant damage to an aircraft. "We're getting more severe damage, more frequent cases of birds penetrating the windshield, and the risk of pilot incapacitation that could cause fatalities for everybody there," said Gary Roach, an FAA helicopter safety engineer, at a recent FAA meeting. Roach and his colleagues have urged the FAA to establish an industry committee to examine the helicopter/bird-strike issue, the AP said.

Another recent report, by NBC News affiliate KUSA in Denver, examined the incidence of fuel-fed fires in the crashes of medevac helicopters. According to KUSA, the fuel systems in many older helicopters are not well-protected in crashes, and while the FAA requires stronger systems in helicopters certified since 1994, it hasn’t required aircraft that were certified under the older rules to change. According to the NTSB, more than 4,700 of the 5,600 helicopters manufactured since 1994 don't have fuel systems that would meet the 1994 FAA standards, since they were copies of helicopters that were certified earlier than 1994.

The NTSB issued a safety recommendation in July that urged the FAA to mandate crash-resistant fuel systems for all new helicopters, regardless of the date of certification. “Between 1994 and 2013, the NTSB has investigated at least 135 accidents in the United States involving certificated helicopters of various models that resulted in a post-crash fire. Those accidents resulted in 221 fatalities and 37 serious injuries. Only three of the accident helicopters that experienced post-crash fire had crash-resistant fuel systems and crashworthy fuel tanks,” the NTSB wrote (PDF). The KUSA report said it could find only one post-crash fire report involving military helicopters, which have long had crash-resistant fuel systems. “We’ve seen it in the military,” NTSB chairman Christopher Hart told KUSA. “We want to see similar progressive action taken in civilian helicopters.” Airbus officials responded to KUSA that the true impact of post-crash fires on survivability is “not well understood.”

Overall, helicopter crash statistics have been improving. According to the International Helicopter Safety Team, during the first six months of 2015, total accidents in the U.S. were down 28 percent compared to the same period last year; compared to 2006, the number of accidents has been cut nearly in half.

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Vandals cut though a chain-link fence Sunday night at the Van Nuys Airport near Los Angeles and sprayed three corporate jets with graffiti. It was the first time vandals have struck at the airfield since a similar incident two years ago. The jets were parked on a ramp outside of a hangar. "This happened in a darkened area of the airport," said Patrick Gannon, chief of the Los Angeles airport police. "We are going to take a harder look at the lighting in the areas where this happened ... It is embarrassing. It is not something we want to be happening at our airports.” No one was ever arrested or charged after the earlier incident.

Estimates for repairing this week’s damage, reported by the news media, ranged from a few thousand dollars per jet to up to a million dollars. Blue and black spray paint was used to write names and numbers across the jets. The jets were quickly moved inside of hangars, and were identified in news reports only as two Gulfstreams and a Boeing. Gannon said his staff will work with “graffiti experts” from the Los Angeles Police Department to try to identify who vandalized the jets.

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As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take a few reflective moments to consider the year just past, to wonder at the marvel of flight, to appreciate its sheer poetry and to give thanks for that rarified privilege we all reverently share. And also to attempt to make feeble but pointless amends for all the cheap shots, the smarmy asides and the half-baked theories and critiques I have knowingly and willfully allowed to populate this space. (If you thought I was about to go all Jonathon Livingston Seagull, you’re probably in the wrong place.)

Looking back, 2015 was, at best, an average year for general aviation in a string of years that have been anything but encouraging. The last serving of salad would have been 2006 or 2007. Yet still, like Tennyson's six hundred, we charge forward and amidst trying market conditions, I see green shoots. And here’s my list.

Company of the YearThis one’s easy: Nextant Aerospace. I didn’t really get what they were doing until I visited the place a couple of months ago. If anyone proposed to me rebuilding a 20-year-old jet from the ground up to include new engines and entirely new avionics, I’d have said they were nuts.

But that’s what Nextant is doing with its 400XTi, a re-do of the Beechjet 400A that’s finding rousing success. That shows that even in a so-so market, a company with a vision can find sustainable, profitable business. That I had to realize this only after being shown it after the fact explains why I’m not rich.

Airplane of YearThis one is a little difficult, simply because there aren’t that many new airplane introductions anymore and I kinda like to wait until they’re flying before I allow anything beyond a cursory shrug. So I’m picking CubCrafters’ Carbon Cub. Even though it’s not a new model this year, I’m confining my findings to airplanes I flew this year, the Carbon Cub among them.

I will freely concede to being both a victim of circumstance and damn fine pandering to a journalist. We flew the Carbon on floats on a perfect June morning and fetched it up on a lakeside grass strip near Yakima. The airplane was in its element, the light was ideal for photography and Randy Lervold produced a jug of hot coffee and a box of pastries. We flew for a couple of hours, a rare luxury these days. The airplane is just a blast to fly with climb rate to burn and nice table manners. Hell, I give up. It was perfect.

Innovation of the Year—This one’s easy, too. Way out there for innovation in just about everything it does is Pipistrel Aircraft in Slovenia. They’re big into electric airplanes there and way ahead of everyone else, they have one ready to sell, or very nearly so.

I flew the Pipistrel Electro before the dustup with Siemens over the motor, but the airplane was clearly sorted out and production ready. It was easy to operate and fun to fly. Pipistrel now says they’ll use a motor from another supplier and settle on that early next year.

As far as the market outlook for electric airplanes, I consider them plausible eventually, if not immediately in the form we’re seeing now. Call me an engaged agnostic. But for sheer creativity and engineering finesse, Pipistrel is a leader. And if you’ve never been to Slovenia, it’s Europe’s best-kept secret.

Drone Video of the Year—It will probably make my friends at the Academy of Model Aeronautics nuts by saying it, but the revolution in drone technology has spurred some creative applications that are just downright jaw-dropping and insanely hilarious. These guys have their own YouTube channel devoted to flight testing drone and RC technology and the funniest one is how they add warp drive to a Star Wars Star Destroyer. Runner up is the Totally Irresponsible But Still Hilarious genre of attaching Roman Candles to drones. Never do this. But you're allowed to watch the results and sniff about the lunacy of it all.

Product of the Year—I should say products of the year; I’m picking a class of products: self-contained electronic gyros. To pull myself back from the brink of unrestrained boosterism, I’ll just add this: What took so long? The automotive-cellphone-tablet-driven cheap chips and accelerometers have been out there for five or six years, but we’re just now seeing competitive choices. It’s a minor bitch, but my self-esteem precludes being mistaken for a Pollyanna.

There are five choices out there, including Dynon’s D2, the BendixKing KI300, the L-3 Genesis, Sandia’s SAI-340 and the Kelly/RC Allen 2600-3. I suspect there are one or two more yet to appear. On the current list, four are approved for primary gyro use; the Dynon is the outlier. It’s backup only.

On the subject of backup, this gyro horn of plenty falls a little short. While most of them can legally serve as a primary AI where required, it’s not so easy to use for backup when installing aftermarket glass. It’s complicated and beyond the scope of this blog, but suffice to say owners are experiencing frustration in using these products to their fullest advantage. I’m not sure the manufacturers understand that. Nonetheless, at least we’ve got them and there is competition. Not to be a total ingrate, that’s a plus.

Sales Organization of the YearIt's probably too strong to say that the entire GA industry doesn't know how to sell anymore. But it's fair to say the glory days of really good sales organizations are gone or at least temporarily missing. An exception to that is Premier Aircraft Sales over in Ft. Lauderdale. They still do it the old way. Gathering leads, following up, closing the deal and providing the service.

As the year drew to a close, they sent out an e-mailer lucidly listing the tax advantages of buying an airplane before the end of the year and these are considerable. Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have even mentioned this, but it's news now because so few companies either remember how to do this or bother to try. These days, it's quite common to call a company selling a GA product or service and never get a call back. Even if I'm not buying, I find a lot to admire in sales professionalism. 

Best New Engine—It’s not like we saw a dozen of them, but Rotax gets props for introducing the 135-HP 915 iS at AirVenture in July. No one expected it and even though I spent a few days at the factory last year, it surprised me. I actually thought they would introduce a 150- to 160-HP four-cylinder and they still might.

Reading the tea leaves here, I suspect this engine is aimed primarily at one customer: the Icon A5. With the 100-HP 912, the airplane appears to be kind of doggy off the water, according to people who observed it at Oshkosh, and it hardly has an impressive cruise speed. More power would help both of those, the former more than the latter.

An engine like this does, however, open up some interesting possibilities. It could be the basis for new, higher-performance LSAs or perhaps even re-engining of existing designs. Nothing like another 35 HP to get the blood boiling. Overall, in a market lacking new engines, at least powerful ones, I was happy to see it.

Man of the Year—This ought to toss the proverbial bolus into the punch bowl. I’m picking Senator Jim Inhofe for his dogged work on coaxing the Pilot's Bill of Rights 2 through the Senate and on to the House—at least we hope. It takes determination and stamina to move anything through the Congress these days, much less getting as many co-sponsors as Inhofe did. He deserves credit.

For my standard selection metric here, I’m using the same reasoning that Time magazine always has: the single person who most changed the world in the preceding year. In the world of general aviation, Inhofe would be the guy, in my view, warts and all. And brother, does he have warts.

Recall that both iterations of the Pilot's Bill of Rights accrued from the Senator’s carelessness in landing on a closed runway in south Texas in 2011, later claiming that the NOTAMs were too hard to find and that approach cleared him to land. The airport has no tower so every pilot I know sees that for what it is: an unconvincing excuse.

Nonetheless, Inhofe made a gallon of lemonade out of his lemons and if the bill is passed into law, we’ll all benefit from relaxed standards for the Third Class medical. I’m a religious adherent to realpolitik and would be even if general aviation weren’t in the sad state it is. Whoever offers me help doesn’t have to meet my flawed standards for the perfectibility of human nature.  

And with that closing wart, I offer a tip of the editorial hat and best wishes for 2016.


(Note: A.M. additions; drones and Premier Aircraft corrects previous version.)

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Picture of the Week <="225441">
Picture of the Week

Day or night, rain or shine, AVweb readers always come through with breathtaking photos from and of airplanes. Laurence Balter of Kihei, HI kicks off our final installment of 2015 with a shot from the Molokai Cliffs of Hawaii. Click through for more pics.