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The FAA today published its final rule for the commercial use of small drones under 55 pounds. The rule requires commercial drone operators to be at least 16 years old, pass a security background check and hold a “remote pilot certificate,” which can be attained by passing an “initial aeronautical knowledge test” at an FAA-approved test center. Operators also can qualify if they have a current FAA pilot certificate and take an online UAS course from the FAA. “With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

The rule includes a number of restrictions. Operators must always have their drone within sight, and fly only one drone at a time. Flights are restricted to sunrise to sunset, but are OK'd for up to 30 minutes before or after if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lights. The maximum allowed altitude is 400 feet above the ground or a structure. The maximum flight speed is 87 knots (100 mph). Industry reaction has been mixed so far, with some users finding the new rules manageable for their missions, while others will continue to advocate for greater flexibility. For example, Amazon’s plans to use drones for home package delivery won’t be possible under the new rule, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Huerta said today’s rule is “just our first step.” The agency already is working on additional rules that will “expand the range of operations,” he said. The new rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years, according to the FAA. The rule takes effect in August.

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In response to a flood of opinions about Icon’s proposed purchase agreement for buyers of its A5 light sport aircraft — which included an airplane life limit and liability limits — the company said last month it would amend the agreement, and this week the company released copies of the new documents. The new contract removes several of the more controversial stipulations and tweaks others. “We’ve listened carefully to the feedback [from customers],” Icon said in a letter to customers (PDF) on Monday. “The spirit of the agreement has two primary objectives: (1) vigorously promote safety through responsible flight operations by the operator, and (2) confront the product liability crisis that has crippled GA for decades. We believe it’s the right fight – one that can help all of GA. That said, we should have done a better job sharing our philosophy and soliciting your feedback in advance. We’ll own it and have tried to remedy it with the revised version.”

The new buyer’s agreement is about 20 pages — about half the length of the original — and is split into two parts, a purchase agreement (PDF) and an operating agreement (PDF). The company has reformatted and restructured the document to make it “more reader-friendly and less overwhelming.” The new agreement also includes an expanded privacy policy, to clarify how Icon will use information from the A5’s flight data recorder, “to give customers confidence that this data will be (1) treated confidentially and (2) available to them if requested.” The 30-year airframe life limit in the original contract is now gone. “Airworthiness will be governed by the recurring 10-year overhaul and thorough inspections,” says Icon.

 

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Bombardier will sell its amphibious aircraft program to Viking Air Ltd., the two Canadian companies announced today. The agreement covers the type certificates for all variants of the CL-215, CL-215T and Bombardier 415 airplanes, which are used worldwide as water bombers for firefighting. “This transaction supports our goal of rebuilding a clear path to profitable earnings growth,” said Alain Bellemare, CEO of Bombardier Inc. “While the amphibious aircraft program is part of our long history, this divestiture positions Bombardier to better focus on our core, higher-growth businesses — business jets, commercial aircraft, and rail transportation.” Bombardier has had the program on hold since December 2015.

Viking will assume responsibility for product support, parts and service for the fleet of 170 water bombers in service with 21 operators in 11 countries. Viking said it will work from a newly acquired and specially repurposed 50,000-square-foot facility in Calgary. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed. Viking, which also manufactures and supports the Twin Otter line, said it will add up to 40 workers in Victoria and Calgary to support the new product. Bombardier said the 50 employees affected by the sale will be transferred elsewhere in the company.

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Three small general aviation airplanes have crashed at off-airport sites in the last two days, killing one pilot and injuring another. In Houston, Texas, a Piper PA-24 crashed onto the flat roof of a Macy’s distribution center about five miles northwest of Hobby Airport, just before midnight on Sunday. "I was watching it, and I just seen it like struggle," witness Jonathan Siguenza told the local Click-2 news. The FAA said the 52-year-old pilot was flying in from St. Louis when the airplane lost power. The aircraft clipped the side of the building before landing on top. The aircraft was substantially damaged; the pilot was taken to a hospital, but was expected to recover. The other crashes took place on a freeway and a train track.

In Georgia, the pilot of a Cessna 182F told ATC this morning he was having mechanical problems and couldn’t make it to the airport. The pilot set down safely in the northbound lanes of Interstate 185; nobody was hurt in the incident. In Hayward, California, a pilot was killed on Sunday about noontime when his Piper PA-23 twin crashed into railroad tracks at a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. The site is about four miles east of Hayward Executive Airport. Bystanders tried to pull the pilot out of the burning airplane, according to local news reports.

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Aviation news events covered at a distance—by us, or anyone else—don’t always convey, shall I say, a lucid reality. I’ve been following the Kenn Borek Aviation rescue mission to the Amundsen-Scott Station in the Antarctic a little more closely than I might otherwise because I’ve got a little Twin Otter time and I’m curious about how they’re pulling this off.

The details are a real eye opener when you consider the conditions, the distances involved and the limitations of the airplanes. They’re making it sound like it’s all in a day’s work, but this is general aviation flying right out there near the edges of what’s possible with airplanes never intended to do what needs to be done here. Or at least do it over such great distances.

Kenn Borek is widely experienced in Antarctic operations, typically fielding as many as 17 airplanes on the continent during the summer flying season. But it’s the dead of winter down there now, so their assets are working in the northern hemisphere. That required moving two Otters from Calgary to Punta Arenas, Chile, the traditional jumping off point toward the Antarctic Peninsula. That’s about 6300 miles or 45 hours as the Otter flies. That’s a lot flight time, but at least there’s fuel and places to land along the way.

From there, it gets even more interesting. No matter how much tankage you stuff into it, the Otter doesn’t have the range to fly from Punta Arenas to Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole and return. (It’s at least 2100 miles, one way.) In fact, there’s no tankage combination that would make it work even one way while still leaving room for necessary equipment. So the Otters are stopping at a British research station halfway down the Antarctic Peninsula called Rothera. The station has fuel and rudimentary runway lighting, but no landing aids. During the summer, it's supplied by ship while the stations further inland are supplied by air, including Jet A for aircraft operations.

From Rothera, it’s another 1300 nautical miles to the Amundsent-Scott station, according to the National Science Foundation, although the map I dug up suggests it’s closer to 1700 miles. Kenn Borek is declining any press interviews until the trip is completed, but it appears that they’re flying DH-6 300-series Otters with a useful load right around 5000 pounds and 375 gallons of standard fuel, plus wing tip tanks. That gives a range short of 1000 miles, so obviously, ferry tanks are a must. But even so, the Otter can’t carry enough fuel for a round trip so their alternate is their departure at Rothera and, according to NSF, they’ll use a point of no return for that. (I’m writing this on Tuesday evening and we’ve just learned that the Kenn Borek Otter landed at Amundsen-Scott and will remain there for several hours, at least.)

A source who’s flown this remote region of the world in Otters told me that with ferry tanks installed, plus many pounds of survival and critical airplane equipment, such as engine blankets and heaters and maybe a start cart, there’s not much room for anything else in the cabin. So this will be no pleasure cruise for whomever is being evacuated. They're reportedly carrying two pilots, a medical technician and a fourth crew member. The second Otter, by the way, was brought along to provide SAR in the event the primary aircraft goes down en route. It's the one-is-none, two-is-one theory of survivability. Even so, the prospect of that is bleak, given the lack of daylight, possible high winds and temperatures in the mid minus 70s F. This is not the stuff of a Bass Masters Cold Weather Survival Kit. If the lead Otter were to break at the South Pole, would you send the second to rescue the mission, completely unsupported in the event it has problems? That's how doable goes to desperate in a heartbeat.

There’s really nothing between Rothera and the South Pole, with the exception of a summer-only station or two. Patriot Hills is one. It's unclear if it would be usable or even accessible during the winter, for there's no harsher or more remote region on the planet. A tip of the hat of the 40 hardy souls who are overwintering down there and to the gutsy pilots willing to fly one of them to urgent medical attention.

P.M. Update: Late Wednesday afternoon, NSF reported that Borek Air had completed the return trip with two patients from Amundsen-Scott to Rothera. The two will be flown to Punta Arenas, Chile, for further treatment. Well done, Kenn Borek. And a good word for the incomparable Twin Otter. Not many airplanes can operate in such harsh conditions with their mission profile stretched almost beyond recognition, but a DH6 can. Bravo!

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Without sophisticated sensor packages, modern drones are nothing but expensive RC airplanes. In this AVweb video, we look at some of the things drones can carry to observe the world below.

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Enjoy a moment of father-daughter bonding courtesy of Michael Brown, then click through for more photos of pilots enjoying the sky and their conveyances.

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The new Airmen Certification Standards for private pilot and instrument rating applicants will emphasize risk management while making checkrides more efficient, according to Doug Stewart. The pilot examiner and CFI, who served on the original FAA committee charged with rewriting test standards, says the result will be “safer pilots.” 

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