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Going Direct: July 4th Edition: Is Flying Free Enough?

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We pilots pride ourselves in taking part in the most private and unfettered leisure activity that humans ever came up with. In the United States, that’s pretty much what it is. Free. If I want to go flying, I drive to the airport, I park my car, I walk out to my plane and I go flying. The county lines aren’t written anywhere in the sky. There are no speed traps in Sunset Valley to boost their tax revenue. You can pass from Texas to Oklahoma or Maryland to Virginia, theoretically, without seeing any “Now Entering” signs. And if you stay out of certain large swaths of airspace the government has cordoned off for military use or for security purposes, you can pretty much fly anywhere you feel like without getting permission from ATC or talking to a soul, so long as you stay clear of clouds within certain tolerances, don’t go over 17,999 feet, have a valid pilot certificate and medial authorization, have completed your currency in terms of a flight review or equivalent, have a recognized medical certificate for the type of plane you’re flying, don’t go too fast, fly at the right altitude and avoid flying over football stadiums and nuclear power plants. And when you come in to land, make sure you use the proper pattern altitudes, communicate as required with ATC—if they acknowledge your existence at all, because standard practice in Class B airspace is for the controller to not even respond to you if they’re too busy.

Pilots need to know all of this stuff and comply with it with, in most cases, no margins allowed. If all or most of that sounds free, well, I agree with you.

Freedom has always given us the freedom to do what we want when we want, so long as we abide by the rules. And in aviation, it seems sometimes as though there are nothing but rules. In fact, learning “to fly” is largely learning what the rules are that put demands on you and limit what and how and where and when you can fly. Some of them make perfect sense, like talking with ATC before you do a quick touch and go at Dallas Forth Worth International (I’m joking, don’t even do that WHEN talking with ATC, as if they’d let you) or flying the proper arrivals at Oshkosh when the flying circus is in town. Some rules are less easy to understand, like staying certain distances away from clouds when VFR…I’ve been flying for a few decades and have yet to figure out how far 500 feet from a ragged puffy cloud is. And others, like many of the FAA’s seemingly arbitrary medical standards, are impossible to understand. You just do it.

And when you have to do something that you can’t even figure out why you have to do it, let alone how to do it, it calls into question the idea of freedom. AOPA, for all the good they do, and its’ a lot, are largely politically reactive and not proactive. That is, they don’t do much to cut out the bad stuff in the regs that make us less free to fly; they just keep the feds from piling more bad stuff on top of it. Thanks, AOPA, for that.

But how about undoing a lot of the rules that keep us from exercising our 1776th Amendment to the Constitution that says that pilots ought to be able to fly in relative peace with only as much regulation as there needs to be in order to keep us and our passengers and ground bound citizens of earth relatively safe.

I’m not talking about any kind of wholesale repealing of the laws of the air, just a common sense paring down and common-sensing (a word now if it wasn’t before) of the existing regulations.

There may not be a Second-and-a-Half Amendment to the Constitution, but maybe there should be, one that states in no uncertain terms that pilots have a right to own and fly planes without even the need to mention a militia at all. What I’m all for is common sense plane laws. Because living in a nation that prides itself on the freedom of its citizens needs to be reminded on a regular basis why it exists, to serve the people of the land, and not vice versa. When it comes to planes, that balance definitely needs to flipped, at least in my humble, one-citizen’s opinion.

 

 

 

The post Going Direct: July 4th Edition: Is Flying Free Enough? appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: Does Your FAA Medical Mean Anything?

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I was talking on the phone yesterday with a friend who’s had the distinct non-pleasure of going back and forth with the FAA about his special issuance medical. In the spirit of full disclosure, he has two health issues the FAA is concerned about, one, atrial fibrillation, that’s arguably justly concerning, and the other, prostate cancer that’s been treated.

This isn’t about what a morass of bureaucracy the FAA’s medical division is, and it is. Want to talk to a live person? Good luck. Want to leave a voicemail for them to follow up on? Ha! My buddy after all this time finally got the paperwork from the FAA for his special issuance, and it took nine months to do so, only to be informed by the FAA that his medical clock started ticking when he started the process not when he finished it, so all this work was for three months of flying. Then he gets to start again.

My even bigger issue is that the FAA is concerned about his prostate cancer, which isn’t there any more. The heart issues I get. If someone has a stroke or a heart attack—and they can come without warning—while flying, then it could be game over for everybody onboard, that is if he could no longer fly the plane and if the person in the other pilot position couldn’t fly it either. It’s exceedingly rare when that happens, maybe a couple of times a year, maybe a few more times that are suspicious but can’t be proven. Still, I get their concern, even if the risks aren’t very high. I mean, every time we go flying the engine could quit over a landscape of water and alligators, but we do it anyways. There’s risk.

But the prostate cancer is another issue altogether. With this one, what is the FAA really worried about? This is the slowest spreading cancer, and if it goes bad and the person gets sick, you can bet he is not going to be out flying. In short, it’s an illness that doesn’t have a sudden onset component and that the pilots affected by it will self regulate. So why is the FAA getting involved? You got me. I have to assume it’s because they’re big and powerful, so they can.

Just how important are flight physicals to safety of flight? I think they have a really minor impact on it. In fact, I wonder if aviation would be safer if every pilot instead of getting a regular flight physical attended a three-hour long presentation on how to avoid in-flight loss of control. If the FAA were to do that, the accident rate might not drop precipitously, but it would save more lives that flight physicals do.

How do I know this? I don’t. But the evidence strongly suggests that safety education results in fewer accidents and fewer deaths. Although they don’t publicize it much, the airlines have achieved a nearly perfect safety record due to the innovative safety programs they’ve adopted, not to mention the requirement that airline pilots get checked every six months, as opposed to every two years for most of us, or even less, depending on your age and the type of medical certification you opt for.

Ideally, politics and medicine would be separate disciplines (admitting that the term “discipline” is generous when applied to politics). Medicine is a science, and while it’s practiced imperfectly, the idea has its roots in the scientific theory. In medicine that translates into treating patients with medications and procedures that the evidence shows work and have the fewest associated risks. So as researchers study the effect of particular treatments, doctors can then modify their practices in order to come up with better outcomes.

Another central tenant of medicine is to do no harm. This can be tougher to stick to than you might think. To do no harm might be to avoid doing a surgery when doing it gives the patient worse odds than not doing it. Again, evidence based care rules the day, and individual outcomes and overall survival rates almost always increase, sometimes dramatically, when doctors use best practices based on hard evidence.

So let’s get back to the FAA and the subject of medical certification. If the FAA requires pilots to get a medical certificate to go flying a certified airplane, and they do, shouldn’t there be an evidence-based model to justify that decision? Who is benefitting? How many lives are saved? How long should pilots go between flight physicals, and what evidence supports those intervals? The answer to all of these questions is, we don’t have supporting data on any of those practices. So if the FAA keeps a pilot out of the cockpit because they’re taking a medication that’s on the agency’s banned list, right or wrong that is  doing harm to the pilot, and if there isn’t any evidence showing that there’s an increased risk to the pilot or the public, then that’s unethical.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the FAA to provide supporting documentation for its medical determinations. After all, if the agency is making decisions based on what’s best for the public, it will be able to produce the evidence and that evidence will support those decisions, right?

In some cases, that’s certain to be the case. With pilots who’ve undergone major coronary surgery, the FAA would surely be able to find data to back up their determinations. The problem comes when they can’t find any supporting data or when the data they can find contradicts the FAA’s actual practices. In those cases, I think the agency should be required to amend their guidance to reflect the evidence.

BasicMed has proven a popular route to medical certification. It’s not as basic as I’d like, but when the FAA studies the safety implications of it, I’m guessing it will find that there’s been no loss of safety for pilots flying under BasicMed. That should be all the evidence it takes to make conventional certification a lot more basic itself.

 

The post Going Direct: Does Your FAA Medical Mean Anything? appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: The Latest E-Plane’s Unsettling Launch

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When you think leaders in aviation technology coverage you normally think “CNN,” right? Nope, neither do I. So it might have been a bit of a surprise to some of us when Kitty Hawk, the company that’s making those polycopter ultralight watercraft machines, gave the exclusive first flight of its single-seater “Flyer” to CNN, and not just CNN but a reporter who has no aviation experience. I get it. The message they want to send is that this product isn’t for pilots. It’s for anyone. Okay…

If you’re asking how someone who’s not a pilot can go flying in a single-seat aircraft, you’ve got a good question. The Flyer (admission: it’s hard for me to call it that even in my head) is not an aircraft at all. It’s an Aerial Recreational Vehicle (ARV), a type of thing that’s regulated by FAR Part 103. That’s right. It’s an ultralight. Ultralights got their start in the 1970s, and by 1980 were so popular that the FAA figured it had to do something and so drafted and approved Part 103, which defined ultralights and attempted to make them so light and so slow that they’d present limited risk to their occupants. Short term, it was a huge success and an even huger disaster. Companies were cranking out hundreds of hang gliders a year, and in some cases, hundreds a month. The downside was there were in equally short order hundreds of crashes, untold numbers of deaths and injuries galore. The message that ultralight companies wanted to send was that their products weren’t for pilots. They were for everyone. The sad truth is, not everyone can or should be flying. That doesn’t mean that aviation isn’t for large number of people—I think that it is. It’s just not for everyone who walks in off the street and decides that “that looks like fun” and puts their money down.

Let me get this right there and say this: The aviation press is the enemy of aviation marketers who want to make a really big splash and in the process avoid the inherent messiness of aviation reality. I’ve gotten used to that over the years, and I long ago lost track of how many questions I’ve asked of PR types to be greeted by a glib sound bite, outright antagonism or stony silence. Admittedly, these folks are often of one or two descriptions, non-pilots or pilots coming from the outside of the aviation industry who’ve decided that they will transform the aviation world.

We’ve seen this with companies over the ages, and almost none of them are particularly well known, because they typically don’t last long—physics and human nature are always their undoing.

I don’t know for sure which one Kitty Hawk is, clueless marketer or clued in marketer, but early results are not encouraging. The website has almost no technical information about the aircraft (I’ve got an email out to them requesting details, but they have not had a chance to respond yet.) , and their exclusive first flight to CNN was disappointing.

The craft was flown by a CNN reporter who, according to the story, had about an hour of training before the flight, and the flight itself was over water and never went higher than 10 feet AGL (AWL?) or faster than 6 mph. The craft itself looked less than stable, as it went through constant small corrections in pitch and roll.

The thing that the Flyer has going for it is this: it really does do the flying for you. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s bad for me, because I want to do the flying, and it’s good for Kitty Hawk because we don’t want everyone to do the flying.

The flight itself was successful, in that nobody got hurt and nobody got wet. The Flyer is supposed to have a battery endurance of 20 minutes, a limit that I’m certain is driven by the Part 103 restriction that powered ultralights weigh no more than 254 pounds, though the FAA can let you boost that weight limit a little if it has amphibious gear. The Flyer took off from and landed on a dock. Is it amphibious? Seems an important detail to gloss over. And what happens if the drive system goes kaput? Will it autorotate? Sure doesn’t look like it to me. For now, maybe the self-imposed 10-foot ceiling is their safety net. Still, I wouldn’t sign up for that dunking.

Also of interest was Kitty Hawk referring to the Flyer as a “Flying Car.” In what way is it a car? It has no way of propelling itself forward on the land. Perhaps by “flying car” they mean a “car replacement that flies?” They say the project will lead to a “world free from traffic.” Really? We can forgive enthusiasm in marketing, but “a world free from traffic” is just bad teenage fantasy.

Lastly, and my griping on this subject will be done for a bit, the name really bugs me. I get that the company, which was founded by Google’s Larry Page, is a borrowing from the history of aviation by using every Wright Brothers icon they can come up with that their audience might relate to. But please. The Wrights were brothers who were doing something that nobody had ever done before, and their hardscrabble start up was built not with big Silicon Valley dollars but with genius, guts and determination. The appropriation of the legend of the Wrights seems gratuitous, and let me remind of one more thing. The Wrights spent zero minutes and zero dollars on branding and self-congratulations and a lifetime on innovation.

And before anyone comes down on me for raining on Kitty Hawk’s aerial parade, let me say that I applaud what the company is doing. But it’s critical for all of us in aviation to be straight with our audience, pilots and non-pilots, about risk. FAQ number one for this or any aircraft program should be, “Can I get hurt or killed doing this?” And the answer will always be “yes.” Then it’s great to continue on telling the audience how your particular technology will limit that risk. That’s a great place to bring up innovation.

The post Going Direct: The Latest E-Plane’s Unsettling Launch 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.