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The FAA announced Monday that it will offer $500 rebates to owners who install ADS-B Out systems, but the program will be limited to one year and 20,000 owners on a first-come, first serve basis. Furthermore, because the FAA believes single-engine piston owners may be the most reluctant to equip with ADS-B, rebates will apply only to single-engine piston aircraft. New aircraft and owners who have already equipped will not be eligible, according to FAA Associate Administrator Michael Whitaker.

In a press conference Monday, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said even though the rebate program is small, the agency hopes it will prime the pump for more equipage. “We don’t want to get to January 2020 and have such a low rate of compliance that we can’t realize the full benefits of NextGen,” Fox said.  “This is a way of kick-starting more activity in getting people putting more equipage in their planes. It won’t get everybody, but it will start to get a wave and start to move the dial on numbers," Foxx added.

The exact number of airplanes yet to be equipped remains nebulous. Whitaker said about 20,000 aircraft—18,000 of them GA airplanes—have been equipped and the total equipage requirement might be about 160,000. Whitaker said the total could be as little as 120,000, in which case more than 100,000 may still need to be fitted with ADS-B.

“Our message to aircraft owners is relatively simple. It’s time to equip. The 2020 deadline will not change. Apply as soon as the rebate system is launched to reserve your spot and get a rebate,” Whitaker said. The program will begin this fall and you can find out more information on the FAA’s website at this link.

Foxx noted that because of competition in the ADS-B market, prices for the hardware are as little as $2000, although he didn’t mention that installation costs will double that number for aircraft owners.

AOPA, GAMA and AEA released a joint statement after the press conference applauding the FAA’s decision to issue rebates. “We are pleased that the FAA is offering a rebate program to provide some relief for aircraft owners who install ADS-B Out equipment, and we hope the general aviation community will take full advantage of this opportunity," said AOPA President Mark Baker. AEA's Paula Derks and GAMA’s Pete Bunce expressed similar sentiments. 

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The pilot of an Embraer Phenom failed to turn on crucial de-icing equipment during an approach to the airport in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on December 8, 2014, causing a deadly crash, the NTSB said in its probable-cause hearing today. All three people on the jet and three on the ground were killed. “Pilots must rely on checklists and procedures because relying only on memory can have deadly results,’’ said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart. “The pilot’s failure to turn on the de-icing system in an icing situation proved to be disastrous.” By not taking possible icing into consideration, the pilot set approach and landing speeds that were too slow for conditions, leading to an aerodynamic stall at an altitude at which a recovery was not possible, the board said. The airplane crashed less than a mile from the runway.

The board recommended to the FAA and GAMA that they develop a system that would automatically alert pilots when ice-protection systems should be turned on in certain airplanes. “Because pilots are human and therefore fallible,” said Hart, “this crash is a reminder that automated alerts to pilots can, and do, save lives.” The NTSB also recommended to NBAA that it develop enhanced pilot-training guidelines for flying in winter weather conditions, including the use of ice protection and adherence to checklists. Hart also noted that Embraer had installed a cockpit voice and data recorder on the jet, although it was not required to do so, and that data “enabled a richer understanding of what occurred.” A report from the NTSB board meeting is posted online; the board's final report on the accident will be posted in a few weeks.

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Aurora Flight Sciences has successfully tested new technology that will enable pilots to remotely fly standard helicopters, the U.S. Defense Department said last week. The sensor package, called the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System, or AACUS, enables a soldier to control the aircraft via an intuitive application on a tablet computer. “The AACUS is a sensor package that when installed on an aircraft allows for it to be unmanned,” said Marine Capt. Christopher Alfaro, logistics officer for the project. “Which means we can put this kit on any aircraft and as long as we do the science and engineering behind it, it can fly autonomously.” The AACUS system is designed to quickly detach and attach to various aircraft used by the Marine Corps.

The project’s mission is to make flight in a combat environment safer and easier for the pilots. “This system is going to allow pilots to let the system do the risky jobs,” said Marine Maj. Jason Jewell, an Osprey pilot. Jewell said he expects to begin testing the AACUS on the UH-1H Huey helicopter by this time next year. Aurora said they plan to implement the technology into the Marine Corps fleet in 2018. The recent flight tests were completed using a Bell 206 helicopter, in Bealeton, Virginia, on May 25.

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With a $20 million X Prize in play, 16 private companies are vying to be the first to launch a mission to the Moon, and now one of the contenders, Moon Express, may be just weeks away from being the first to gain government approval for its plan. “Until now, only governments have undertaken space missions beyond Earth orbit, so we’ve become a regulatory pathfinder out of necessity,” Moon Express said in a statement. “We are eagerly awaiting a determination.” The FAA is leading a multi-agency review of the plan, and according to CNN, sources said a decision could come as early as this month.

Sixteen teams are vying for the Lunar X Prize, which requires the winner to successfully place a robot on the Moon that will travel at least 500 meters and transmit high-definition images and video back to Earth. The deadline is the end of 2017. Moon Express is based in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company's plan, according to The Wall Street Journal, is to launch from a New Zealand site with a 52-foot Electron rocket built by Rocket Lab Ltd. Onboard thrusters then will propel the spacecraft to the Moon, a trip that could take up to several weeks.

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At one time in this country, government problem-solving consisted of throwing money at whatever obstacle seemed to be impeding progress. Sometimes it even worked. Of late, the philosophy has shifted to cutting taxes, driving deficits and acute budgetary paralysis. I’m not sure where the FAA’s decision—apparently—to help fund installation of ADS-B systems fits, exactly.

As is supposed to be revealed Monday, the agency is considering a $500 rebate to owners who equip their aircraft with ADS-B and thus become members in good standing of the NextGen system. Will this stimulate what everyone agrees is lagging equipage on the part of owners who are persistently and consistently unimpressed with the benefits of ADS-B? One can, for the sake of the agency’s plans, only hope.

Because there are now so many ADS-B offerings out there, it’s hard to put a price point on the average or typical cost of an ADS-B Out installation. At the bottom of the spectrum are non-TSO’d boxes suitable for experimental aircraft for about $1300. The lowest conceivable price—all-in—for a certified aircraft is probably around $4000 or a little less. But with at least 34 different products to choose from—you read that right—you can spend as much as $15,000 on an ADS-B upgrade if you have money to burn. And some owners actually can afford that. I’d estimate that the average budget ADS-B install will cost around $5000 to $5500.

So does a $500 pot sweetener make much of a difference? I’d guess no. When I ran the rebate idea by our inhouse avionics guru, Larry Anglisano, he snortled a snortle that implied “that’s your best offer?” Still, both of us agreed that some owners will take the offer. If I needed to install ADS-B in the Cub, which I don’t, I certainly would. Why not?

We’ll probably never know, but I wonder why FAA/DOT reached the point of actually funding even a token percentage of the installations. Certainly, one reason is that owners aren’t accepting ADS-B at nearly the pace the FAA hoped and what will be necessary to meet the 2020 mandate without end-game chaos. So far, the FAA says about 18,000 GA airplanes and 500 or so commercial aircraft have equipped. The total number of aircraft that will need to equip is rubbery. I’ve seen numbers as low as 160,000 and as high as 199,000 from GAMA. Even at the lower end of the estimate, that means as many as 150,000 airplanes remain to equip in the remaining 42 months before the mandate kicks in. That works out to about 900 systems a week. That’s a lot of avionics work and I’m beginning to believe those who said the industry won’t have the capacity and we’ll see a huge logjam a year from now.

I also wonder if someone in DOT didn’t run some numbers and figure out that system safety will actually diminish if equipage doesn’t reach some critical mass by a certain date and that it would be a more economical tradeoff to just buy the systems for those recalcitrant owners. As a point of public policy, I like that kind of thinking. But to work, the carrot would have to be a lot bigger. Maybe half the cost of the lowest-priced systems, say about $2000. That would be a much bigger investment, of course—maybe about $350 million to $400 million—but NextGen is a $40 billion system, so it’s no more than 1 percent of the total. Could that deliver a big payback in improved safety? It could, considering many of those aircraft would then have onboard weather and traffic where they don’t have it now.  And those already equipped would be able to see them in adjacent airspace.

If the FAA wanted to get really creative, they could put the same team on ADS-B as jollied along the approvals for Dynon avionics in certified airframes announced at Sun ‘n Fun in April. That might knock another grand off low-end installation costs.

While I understand why people are resistant to installing this equipment, the least valid reason to me is anger at regulation and government mandates funded by the individual. For better or worse, the government has decided that ADS-B is the cornerstone of future air traffic control. Refusing to play based on principle is like moving to Canada because you don’t like election results. (This year, I may make an exception…)

So, once again, owners have to decide whether to equip now, later or at all. If you don’t need to fly in mandated airspace, as is the case for me, you don’t need to bother. If you can mostly avoid it, you can probably wait, but I don’t think waiting is going to yield either substantially less expensive or more capable systems. Meanwhile, you miss the benefits of having ADS-B and everyone who has paid for the upgrade tells us it’s worth it and they’re satisfied with the investment.

Anyone who owns an airplane for serious travel shouldn’t wait much longer, in my view. Like not even a year because whether the people who say the shops will get slammed are right or not, having an airplane that you really need grounded for lack of ADS-B would be kind of silly. Take the 500 bucks and be happy. I wouldn’t wait around for a better offer.

Tuesday addition: In yesterday's press conference, SecDOT Anthony Foxx said the FAA wanted to put its money where its mouth was with regard to ADS-B equipage, hence the rebate program. The agency is paying for this effort--a total of $10 million, by my count--out of its ADS-B budget. In other words, it scraped up the money. To be fair, if it had wanted a larger program, a congressional appropriation would have been necessary and the likelihood of getting that through the House is exactly zero, in my estimation.

Having said that, I don't see that this rebate program is going to help much, but I can see some negatives. One of them came pixeling into the inbox more or less immediately. Wrote one reader, "The FAA $500 ADS-B rebate is a slap in the face for every law abiding proactive citizen who equipped his/her airplane already. First we pay higher prices due to less competition, then we have the additional hassles due to necessary updates while the system gets ready for prime time. That´s all ok, it was our choice. But then, the $500 is not FAA´s money. It is the money we as taxpayers pay to the government. So now in addition to the activities to get ADS-B going, the proactive have to pay additional money to the procrastinators. No wonder the political climate is slowly changing for worse," wrote Gerd Pfeifle, of Vero Beach, Florida. 

That comment goes to the argument that the requirement to equip with ADS-B is either a tax, a toll or a user fee. Take your pick of those; it's either one of them or all of them. The FAA is clearly financing its expensive new system on the backs of users. In that context, as I said above, I would have preferred a much larger program, like half the cost of a budget install as a basic investment in the safety of transportation infrastructure. Foxx crowed about the U.S. system being the safest in the world and we got it that way by investing in it. I thought that undercut his argument that DOT was putting its money where its mouth is. 

What will be viewed, I think, as a trivial assistance to owners, is symptomatic of a larger malaise inflicting the U.S. As part of a general conviction that the government is incompetent, we've come to a knee-jerk aversion to investment in basic transportation infrastructure and we're paying the price for it in $6000 avionics invoices.

 

 

 

 

 

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