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Going Direct: ADS-B: Big Problems and a Bigger Upside

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The future of aviation is bright, which is good, because is it wasn’t so amazing at its core, it would be really hard to see it with all of the obstacles between now and the future. The roadblocks include high costs, especially fuel costs, expensive maintenance and overhaul, aging airplanes, lead in our avgas, restricted access to airport ramps in larger cities and the gradual, ongoing extinction of great GA airports in big cities.

What lies beyond those vexing and hard or impossible to solve issues is a future defined by two things: affordable digital goodness and lower costs.

We’re already seeing the computer part of it with new, low-cost panel mount avionics that our do more and cost less than ever before, thanks to a recent and long overdue alliance between the FAA and the GA industry that did something I’ve been advocating for years, ditching the prohibitively expensive overkill of certifying avionics for light GA planes as though the electronics were headed for a wide-body Boeing.

And one really cool thing in our immediate future is ADS-B, the benefits of which we’re been partially enjoying for years but haven’t yet gotten the full taste of. The FAA in its wisdom disables much of the traffic capability of ADS-B from aircraft that are not yet sporting certified equipment—the weather is the carrot, so I guess this was the stick part of the FAA’s drive to encourage ADS-B equipage. But things will change once ADS-B is fully implemented, well, kind of fully implemented—there are probably 100,000 airplanes not yet equipped.

Once the switch gets flipped we see all the traffic there is to see on ADS-B, we’ll be flying for the first time in our lives with a reasonable sense that we know where the traffic is, what it is, what kind of a threat, if any, it poses to us, and how we should modify our course or altitude in order to avoid the conflict.

True, there will be planes not equipped even after the January 1, 2020, deadline. In fact there are likely to be many tens of thousands of planes not equipped in time. They will still be able to fly, so long as they stay out of ADS-B mandatory airspace, which means Class G everywhere and then some. So if you’re on a long cross country heading from Pennsylvania to Ohio and cruising VFR at 6,500 feet, might you see non-ADS-B traffic along the route? Sure. But remember that that traffic will by definition have to take off and land from airports outside of the ADS-B veil (I term I might have just invented). And you won’t see any jets or pressurized turboprops without ADS-B, because it’ll be required for the flight levels. Even above 10,000 with few exceptions for flights in very high terrain, everybody will have to be equipped. So ADS-B will be the rule of the air for many of us the way we fly on a daily basis, and that means we’ll know where all the other traffic is, at last.

In addition to traffic, we get weather, of course, and ADS-B weather has gotten better and will likely continue to get better. Is it as good as XM-Sirius Weather? It’s not. But is it good enough for most of us if we don’t want to pay subscription? Heck yeah, though satellite weather is terrific and pretty affordable, too.

To the point, I for one am looking forward to 2020, not only because it’ll be fun to say 2020 Vision about everything—well, it’ll be fun for about 15 minutes—but because ADS-B makes a lot of sense.

And with a number of new, lower-cost ADS-B options available for small planes, the pain of equipping is less than I thought it would ever be. In terms of cost, it’s not painless, but what in aviation is. The idea is, the rewards make up for the pain, and such will be the case with ADS-B.

The post Going Direct: ADS-B: Big Problems and a Bigger Upside appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: Ready for Rehab? GA’s Unseemly Addiction to Low-Lead Avgas

There are things to love about flying and there are things to hate about it. Turbulence, ramp fees and mid-TBO overhauls make the not-so-nice list. As do fuel prices.

One thing that doesn’t make the list of things most pilots hate about GA is our contribution of lead to the environment. The use of just a tad of lead in our avgas is the leading contributor of lead to the environment, but given the relatively small size of the GA fleet, we don’t take much heat for it.

Which is a good thing, because there aren’t any good options available just yet. In a very real way, we are addicted to 100LL.

A plane's gas tank being filled.

I’m halfway joking, of course, because none of us want to use the stuff. It’s expensive, it costs a lot and then there’s the price of it. If it cost a buck a gallon, we’d all want to wrap our arms around it and give it a big hug, but for now, it’s the thing standing between us and really affordable flying. I know, I know. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the engine block, but as much as many of us are ready and willing to pony up the dough for 60 gallons of $5 or $6 fuel for a one-way leg in a Skylane to somewhere cool, the “able” part of the equation is missing. For a lot of pilots, spending three or four hundred bucks for a trip that’s 300 miles out and 300 miles back seems like a lot. And if it seems like a lot to an airplane owner, then by definition it is a lot.

The problem is that there are few options for beating our need for the blue stuff.

Electric power is the Holy Grail. If it were here today as a viable replacement for avgas or Jet-A burning engines, those electric motors would be flying off the shelves. But they’re not here and they’re not really even close.

The other savior technology is diesel, and I’m a fan of diesel. Diesel aero engines are fuel efficient, quiet and cheaper to put fuel into because they use less of it and because you can put cheaper fuel into most of them. That 600-mile round trip referenced before in a diesel-powered Skylane would be about half the price for fuel, again, because it’ll burn a lot less fuel along the way and because they fuel could be cheaper, especially if the engines were approved to use diesel and not Jet-A only.

But diesels haven’t caught on because the engines themselves are expensive, a lot more expensive than the gas piston engines they replace, and when you work in the cost of the retrofitting, they’re hard to justify. This fact is being blamed for the slow sales that some say is the reason behind Textron Aviation’s decision to discontinue its Skyhawk 172 JT-A. (You can still get the same basic plane with the Continental diesel engine installed by STC after the fact, an option few are likely to ask for, though.)

The conclusion is that we’ll be sticking with our conventional aero engines for a while but putting unleaded fuel in them, that is if there winds up being a commercially viable and affordable 100UL out there. The FAA is wrapping up its tests this year and plans to announce its choice of fuels that make the cut. And there are promising players. What remains to be seen is how available those fuels will be and how much they’ll cost. Will they be cheaper than 100LL? With all the investment that will need to be put into development and production and delivery, it’s hard to see how they could be anything but substantially more expensive at the pump than 100LL. Though I hope I’m wrong about that. Because 100LL is going away soon, and we need a new fuel to continue doing our avgas thing. Which we’ll find a way to keep doing one way or the other, though the more expensive avgas gets, the less flying a lot of us will be doing.

 

The post Going Direct: Ready for Rehab? GA’s Unseemly Addiction to Low-Lead Avgas appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: Ready for Rehab? GA’s Unseemly Addiction to Low-Lead Avgas

There are things to love about flying and there are things to hate about it. Turbulence, ramp fees and mid-TBO overhauls make the not-so-nice list. As do fuel prices.

One thing that doesn’t make the list of things most pilots hate about GA is our contribution of lead to the environment. The use of just a tad of lead in our avgas is the leading contributor of lead to the environment, but given the relatively small size of the GA fleet, we don’t take much heat for it.

Which is a good thing, because there aren’t any good options available just yet. In a very real way, we are addicted to 100LL.

A plane's gas tank being filled.

I’m halfway joking, of course, because none of us want to use the stuff. It’s expensive, it costs a lot and then there’s the price of it. If it cost a buck a gallon, we’d all want to wrap our arms around it and give it a big hug, but for now, it’s the thing standing between us and really affordable flying. I know, I know. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the engine block, but as much as many of us are ready and willing to pony up the dough for 60 gallons of $5 or $6 fuel for a one-way leg in a Skylane to somewhere cool, the “able” part of the equation is missing. For a lot of pilots, spending three or four hundred bucks for a trip that’s 300 miles out and 300 miles back seems like a lot. And if it seems like a lot to an airplane owner, then by definition it is a lot.

The problem is that there are few options for beating our need for the blue stuff.

Electric power is the Holy Grail. If it were here today as a viable replacement for avgas or Jet-A burning engines, those electric motors would be flying off the shelves. But they’re not here and they’re not really even close.

The other savior technology is diesel, and I’m a fan of diesel. Diesel aero engines are fuel efficient, quiet and cheaper to put fuel into because they use less of it and because you can put cheaper fuel into most of them. That 600-mile round trip referenced before in a diesel-powered Skylane would be about half the price for fuel, again, because it’ll burn a lot less fuel along the way and because they fuel could be cheaper, especially if the engines were approved to use diesel and not Jet-A only.

But diesels haven’t caught on because the engines themselves are expensive, a lot more expensive than the gas piston engines they replace, and when you work in the cost of the retrofitting, they’re hard to justify. This fact is being blamed for the slow sales that some say is the reason behind Textron Aviation’s decision to discontinue its Skyhawk 172 JT-A. (You can still get the same basic plane with the Continental diesel engine installed by STC after the fact, an option few are likely to ask for, though.)

The conclusion is that we’ll be sticking with our conventional aero engines for a while but putting unleaded fuel in them, that is if there winds up being a commercially viable and affordable 100UL out there. The FAA is wrapping up its tests this year and plans to announce its choice of fuels that make the cut. And there are promising players. What remains to be seen is how available those fuels will be and how much they’ll cost. Will they be cheaper than 100LL? With all the investment that will need to be put into development and production and delivery, it’s hard to see how they could be anything but substantially more expensive at the pump than 100LL. Though I hope I’m wrong about that. Because 100LL is going away soon, and we need a new fuel to continue doing our avgas thing. Which we’ll find a way to keep doing one way or the other, though the more expensive avgas gets, the less flying a lot of us will be doing.

 

The post Going Direct: Ready for Rehab? GA’s Unseemly Addiction to Low-Lead Avgas appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: Memphis Belle Rises … Again

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The first post restoration of the B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle yesterday is a great story. An historic airplane, Memphis Belle was famous during and after WWII. It was the first B-17 to complete 25 bombing missions in Europe and return with its crew intact, an achievement that was about both luck and skill. The captain of the bomber, Robert Morgan, named the plane after his wartime sweetheart. Margaret Polk inspired by a famous riverboat called Memphis Belle. The pinup art on the side of the plane came from an Esquire magazine pinup illustration unrelated to either the girlfriend or the riverboat.

Memphis Belle with Original Crew
The original crew with Memphis Belle.

With the completion of the 25th successful raid, the Eighth Air Force had the B-17 flown back to the States, where the bomber, captained again by Morgan, went on a U.S. tour selling war bonds.

It’s where the plane after the war ended that’s cause for concern, not now, really, as it couldn’t have landed in a better home than the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

But up until 2005, when the museum acquired the plane its future was far from bright. It got saved from a government scrapyard in 1946 by the City of Memphis, which bought the namesake plane for $350 and put it on public display outside the armory and then, later, a different public display, all for more than 60 years in all. During that time it was stripped to the bone by vandals, thieves and souvenir hunters.

In 2004, the Air Force Museum, which since the 1970s was the owner of the plane but had it on loan to the City of Memphis, stepped in and brought it to Dayton for restoration.

That effort, as you’ll read elsewhere here, was incredibly expensive and took a long, long time, more to accomplish, more than a decade, in fact. Was it worth it? Hell yes! But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that there are many outfits that could have pulled off this restoration. There are just a handful that could have done it.

A few years ago when the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29 Fifi needed a new engine, the entire existence of the program was put into jeopardy, because to say that Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone engines are expensive is a huge understatement. The repair to the CAF’s Superfortress powerplant cost in excess of $100,000, and that was with no cylinders damaged.

Then there’s the question of who does the work. The CAF, which has active chapters in 26 states and a number of foreign countries, too, is greying, apparently at an even faster rate than aviation in general.

So that leads to the question, who is going to support the thousands of antique warbirds that live in museums and live-flying venues around the country and around the world? And support means resources, which means money, workers, facilities and materials. And for aircraft that actively fly, like the vast majority of CAF planes, those costs are not easy to meet and they are constantly on the rise as parts get harder to locate and aviation fuel gets more expensive.

Recruiting younger people to work on these planes—and to fly them, too—is the first step. Encouraging people to donate to the cause is critical, as well.

Efforts like the Museum of the Air Force to get Memphis Belle flying again helps a lot to put the focus on these flying masterpieces and priceless historical artifacts. Our job is to pitch in to help in any way we can, whether that means getting involved in the restoration and maintenance of these timeless birds or chipping in financially in any way you can.

The post Going Direct: Memphis Belle Rises … Again appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: The Disappearance of Malaysia 370

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A panel of experts assembled by the television magazine show 60 Minutes Australia has come down with its verdict on what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8, 2014. The mystery riveted a world audience wanting to know what had happened to the plane and its 239 occupants and generated a number of possible scenarios, including a few wild conspiracy theories that don’t merit further detail here.

The two major theories were these: The Boeing 777 suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure that depressurized the plane and killed everyone aboard while sparing the plane’s autoflight capability, which flew the plane until it ran out of fuel thousands of miles later, whereupon it crashed into the Indian Ocean.

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777
Experts believe the crash of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, similar to the one pictured above, was intentional. Photo by Laurent ERRERA from L’Union, France [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The second theory—and this is the one I’ve subscribed to and helped formulate—was that the disappearance and crash was a deliberate act, a suicide and mass murder. Under this scenario, one of the pilots would have depressurized the plane, disabling or killing everyone aboard and then flying the plane until it ran out of fuel and was crash-landed in the Indian Ocean.

The latter theory is the one that the 60 Minutes Australia panel settled upon. That’s not a big surprise, as it was always the theory that made the most sense with the least number of magic bullet explanations required.

In the weeks and months after the disappearance, I made dozens of appearances on television news shows, most regularly on CNN, where I explained the greater likelihood of the intentional act theory. Some of the basic tenets of my argument drive thinking today, including that when the plane began diverting from its flight path without any communications with ATC while not flying randomly away from the filed flight plan but by overflying other waypoints, something it’s hard to explain if mechanical failure were the culprit.

The 60 Minutes panel, which included experienced 777 pilots and accident investigators, discussed a few new or at least little-discussed pieces of evidence, including that the plane banked twice as it was overflying the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, of the plane’s home town. Experts also discussed the fact that the plane avoided airspace for neighboring countries, indicating that it was being deliberately flown to avoid radar detection. But perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence was a part of a wing leading edge that would have been crushed in a nose down impact but was instead nearly pristine, which strongly suggests that when the plane did crash into the ocean, it was under human control.

While there have been parts of Malaysia 370 recovered over the last two years, the crash site has never been located, though efforts continue.

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