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Under a new rule released today by the FAA, student pilots will no longer get their student pilot certificate from an aviation medical examiner. Instead, they can apply in person at a FSDO, through a designated pilot examiner, with a Part 141 flight school or a CFI. The TSA will vet the application, and then a plastic certificate will be sent to the student by the Civil Aviation Registry. Earlier proposals to charge a $22 fee and require a photo have been withdrawn. Student pilots still will have to visit an AME to acquire a separate medical certificate. The new rule takes effect April 1.

Student pilots who already have a paper certificate can continue to use it until it expires, according to the rule. Plastic replacements can be requested, but there will be a $2 fee. How long it will take for the TSA to complete its vetting process is not clear. The FAA says it will "take steps to expedite student pilot applications ... so they may exercise the privileges of the certificate as soon as feasible." The FAA estimates that the turnaround time "can be reduced to an average of 3 weeks or less, provided that initial security vetting by TSA indicates that the applicant is eligible for the certificate." If an applicant is deemed ineligible by the TSA on security grounds, he or she will be able to appeal that decision through the TSA's administrative procedures.

David Oord, AOPA's vice president of regulatory affairs, told AVweb today AOPA is hopeful that timeline can be expedited. Some schools, he said, try to solo students soon after they start, "similar to AOPA's 'one week to solo' project at last year's Sun n Fun." For now, he said, instructors and students should submit their student pilot application as soon as possible to be sure the certificate is issued in time for solo.

The FAA says it has another NPRM in the works that would require all pilot certificates to be resistant to tampering, alteration and counterfeiting, and to include a photograph and “biometric information.” The new rule issued today began with an NPRM issued in November 2010. The FAA received about 470 comments on that proposal.

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Boeing and Airbus reported upbeat year-end results recently, with both companies saying they delivered the most airliners ever in 2015 — a total of 762 for Boeing, and 635 for Airbus. "Global passenger traffic in most key regions is increasing," said Randy Tinseth, a Boeing VP for marketing. "Our customers continue to perform well in the marketplace." However, Boeing also said last week new orders for 2015 totaled 768, about half as many as 2014, when the company took in a record 1,432 orders. Airbus said on Tuesday it ended the year with 1,036 new orders in hand. Analysts have cited last year’s dive in oil prices as a factor in slowing orders for new airplanes — the low prices encouraged airlines to keep flying their old gas-guzzlers rather than upgrade to more efficient, but more expensive, new airplanes.

Despite the slowdown, there’s plenty of work to keep the doors open at both companies — at year’s end, Boeing had a backlog of 5,795 orders to fill, and Airbus reported a backlog of 6,787 aircraft. Airbus also said it plans to build up to 50 airplanes a year at its new facility in Mobile, Alabama, its first factory in the U.S., which opened in September. Boeing CEO Ray Conner said his team “did a fantastic job” last year getting airplanes built and delivered to customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. “This will continue to be our focus,” he said. He added that the company’s backlog “will help ensure a steady stream of deliveries for years to come.”

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A familiar growl will return to the skies over Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories Wednesday as the iconic Buffalo Airways returns to the air. The cargo and passenger carrier, made famous by the reality TV series Ice Pilots NWT, was grounded six weeks ago by Transport Canada over safety and administrative concerns. Transport Canada restored the company's operating certificate late Tuesday but said the company, owned by "Buffalo Joe" McBryan and his family, will be on a short leash to ensure it maintains the programs and paperwork it rectified during the long suspension. In a news release, TC said it will closely monitor Buffalo to "verify that its corrective action is implemented and sustained." It did not offer details on the shortcomings or their solutions.

Buffalo uses mainly 1940s- and 1950s-era DC-3, C-46 and DC-4 piston-powered aircraft to serve far-flung Arctic communities with freight and passenger service. The television show often depicted in-flight emergencies and other problems. It also showed a well-developed feud between the elder McBryan and Transport Canada officials. Reports from Yellowknife said Joe McBryan had agreed to step out of the management role at the carrier but he will continue as a pilot on the DC-3 that offers scheduled service between his home of Hay River and Buffalo's Yellowknife headquarters. During the grounding, passenger service was suspended but Buffalo maintained its cargo flights using chartered aircraft. None of the company's more than 100 employees was laid off during the suspension.

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Veterans of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, now in their 80s and 90s, are widely honored in the aviation world, but now they are taking up a new fight for equality — seeking the right to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. A bill introduced in Congress this week aims to secure that option for the WASP. The legislation would overturn a recent decision by the Secretary of the Army rescinding inurnment eligibility for WASP pilots, which they have had since 2002. “This decision is simply appalling,” said Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, one of the sponsors of the bill. “At a time when we are opening all positions to women, the Army is closing Arlington to the pioneers who paved the way for pilots like me and all women to serve in uniform. It doesn’t make sense.”

The WASP “fought, and died, in service to their country,” said Rep. McSally. “They trained in the military style: sleeping on metal cots, marching, and living under military discipline. They deserve the full honors we give our war heroes, and I’ll continue to fight until they get them.” The WASP were a group of about 1,100 women who flew non-combat missions during World War II. Their missions included ferrying aircraft across the country, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets for other aircraft. Thirty-eight WASP pilots died during their service. In 2010, the group received a Congressional Gold Medal. Nevertheless, the WASP were considered to be civilians. Neither they nor their families received military benefits.

Starting in 2002, Arlington allowed members of the group to have their ashes placed at the cemetery, with full military honors. The issue of the WASP’s recent rejection from Arlington was brought to light by the family of Elaine Harmon, a former WASP, who died in April 2015. When the family sought military honors for her at Arlington, they were denied by the Army. “We appreciate Rep. McSally taking the lead on this issue to right this injustice for military trailblazers who were ahead of their time,” said Whitney Miller, granddaughter of Elaine Harmon. Miller also has posted a petition at Change.org. “This was our grandmother’s last wish and we want to see this through," Miller said. "Not only was she a national hero, she was our family’s hero.”

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Bad Elf has canceled its Kickstarter funding campaign to launch an ADS-B tablet system for $299. The company hoped to raise $500,000 to get the units to market but the campaign stalled at about $230,000. Since the goal wasn't met, none of the orders processed through the Kickstarter site will be acted on and there will be no credit card charges. Although the campaign failed, Bad Elf says it still wants to proceed with the system. It says it's found a technical way to build its receivers for less money than other units on the market and wants to get them into the hands of pilots for the safety benefits. It will continue to work on getting the system to market but doesn't have a timeline.

Bad Elf estimates that 90 percent of GA pilots are flying without ADS-B and the weather and traffic information is a major benefit. Although traffic separation was the main goal for the FAA in setting up the system, it offered real-time weather as a carrot to encourage adoption. Bad Elf said the combination of the two services gives pilots powerful tools to execute their flights more safely. The company said the system will work with any iPad app and it's working with the app providers to ensure compatibility. The company was also offering AHRS capability for an extra $150.

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I’ve been reading a book called Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. Beyond its amusing title, it’s but an extended essay on the notion that the U.S. is the ideal place to breed and encourage cranks because the entire country was founded on imaginative ideas that challenged the old European wisdom. That means the U.S. is also fertile ground for conspiracy theories that prove absolutely impervious to reason or fact of any kind and that require not just casual suspension of disbelief, but active conviction that the laws of physics, chemistry and gravity don’t exist. In other words, lunacy.

This makes Las Vegas and the CES—Consumer Electronics Show—a marriage made in heaven and the ideal petri dish to introduce something like the Ehang 184, an eight-rotor, manned drone capable of carrying a single person and envisioned as part of a transportation network of such aircraft. The Ehang got a lot of attention, some of which labeled it among the top five craziest things to appear at CES.

But is it really so crazy? Yes, it really is, but not for the reasons so many reporters stated. Or at least none of the reports I saw bored into the real problem with the Ehang concept: economics. As you probably read, the Ehang 184 is envisioned to be a single-person dual-quad copter that’s entirely autonomous. You hop inside, punch up an app on an iPad and off you go, entirely autonomously, for up to 10 miles in a claimed endurance of 23 minutes. First of all, I doubt that endurance claim; I’d accept that it’s aspirational. It’s not technically insurmountable to get there, but I'm skeptical that Ehang has.

The autonomous flight part is also not a deal breaker. It’s being done routinely with unmanned drones and it’s technically feasible to apply it to larger vehicles. But the Ehang has no manual reversion—there are no controls for the occupant at all—the theory being that backup will be managed by an oversight network similar to that in place for automated mass transit all over the globe. That’s doable too, probably, but this is where I think the Ehang concept runs off the rails, to sneak in a mass transit metaphor.

If this is envisioned as a public transit device—and it seems to be—such a network would be vastly expensive to design, maintain and, above all, certify to aviation public transport standards. Economy of scale works for subway systems with 75 trains carrying 1000 people each, but I think it crumbles for vehicles carrying a single person, even if there are thousands of them, which is a delusional leap at a unit cost of $200,000 or more. In a public system, what kind of fare would that require? A lot, I’d think. Don’t forget, even at doubled or tripled endurance, you’ll need a lot of labor to handle and charge batteries. High unit cost and low volume are proven constants in aviation and quad-rotors and lithium-ion aren’t likely to change that for the foreseeable future. They might eventually.

I think the Ehang would be less crazy if it included controls for the occupant and if it were pitched not as a transportation system, but as a personal transportation device with a sport flying tilt. That would diminish the certification cost load, which will still be considerable for any electric vehicle, especially in the U.S. where certification of electric aircraft doesn’t even exist yet. And yes, that also suggests pilot training of some kind, which we all seem to think substantially reduces market potential. So pick your poison. Plot a path to bankruptcy through a vast investment in developing and certifying public transit, or a slower path by taking a smaller bite on a personally flown machine with at least a slim chance at profitable success. Still, the Ehang may be less dingbat than the Terrafugia TF-X, which has to both fly and be drivable on public roads. In a way, the Ehang reminds me of the original Eclipse jet concept that embodied great technological thinking but proved to be an economic bridge too far. The problem here is not the technology, but the underlying business plan that will allow the company to stay in business long enough to develop sustainable market penetration and actual profits. Eyes bigger than stomach is a common affliction in aviation startups, as it definitely was for Eclipse. It might even be a project requirement to embark upon such moonshots.

For an example of the less crazy, I’d point to the E-Volo VC200, which is conceived as a personal flying device, although with a 20-minute endurance and a similar $200,000-plus price tag, it’s none too practical, either. But it gets more practical and more realistic when you envision it with a hybrid generation system, which company principal Stephan Wolf told me last week that the company is considering. More important, the regulatory approvals are in place in Europe to do this, even as the U.S. lags. (What else is new?) I’ll have more on that later.

Worth noting is that an industrial giant no less than Intel has bought E-Volo's principle partner, Ascending Technologies. It appears that Intel is more interested in making chips for unmanned systems than it is manned multi-rotor flight, but it clearly sees a market. E-Volo, however, will push the manned side and I can see a niche market for such a thing, especially if the endurance bumps up to an hour or the hybrid concept materializes. Wisely, unlike Ehang, E-Volo isn't mapping a business plan to commercial transport certification and thus avoids the crushing costs of entering that market. 

Drone Registration Challenge

Also at CES, the FAA announced that as of last week, 181,061 drones—people, really—had been registered and the agency was thus far pleased with the results. This is despite the fact that this number represents only a small fraction of the total drones believed to be in the wild, which some estimate as many as 1 million. But it’s still progress.

But progress not without resistance from the regulated. John Taylor, a Silver Spring, Maryland, attorney and multi-rotor builder, has filed a suit in the D.C. Court of Appeals challenging the FAA’s authority to require registration. The basis in law, argues Taylor, is that Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 specifically prohibits the FAA from promulgating new rules regulating model aircraft if they’re flown for hobby purposes. The FAA may argue that required registration isn’t regulation, but we’ll see what the court says.

Despite opposing registration, the Academy of Model Aeronautics has not pursued its own suit, at least not yet. AMA had fought to have its members use their membership numbers in lieu of registration but the FAA demurred on that idea, missing an opportunity to build a sound relationship with modelers in exchange for antagonizing them in the name of one-size-fits-all regulation. To pour salt into that wound, some 30 RC clubs around the capitol area have been shut down from flying while the FAA figures out a special exemption. You can well understand why the modeling community is pissed; I sure do. They’re being asked to shoulder the burden of regulation that won’t solve problems they didn’t create, if even there are real problems with this technology.

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