Menu

HAARP Project under new management: Watch for the TFR

The High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is a research program that has been used to study the ionosphere since 1990. The facility, north east of the Gulkana Airport, is home to radio transmitters and an array of antennas that can transmit 3.6 megawatts of energy into the atmosphere, in support of research projects.  It doesn’t operate very often, a few times per year at present, but when it does, pilots don’t want to be in the path of this beam of radio energy.  Consequently, we should be on the lookout for a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) that will be activated during campaigns, to avoid flying over the facility.  The next campaign is from September 21-25, but there will be others to follow.  Make sure to check NOTAMs, in case this TFR is active when you are flying in the Copper River Basin, or transiting the area to or from the Alaska Highway route to Canada.

Social media notice of the September research campaign at the HAARP facility near Gakona. Watch for a TFR when the facility is in operations.

What is HAARP?
Located about 16 nautical miles northeast of the Gulkana Airport (GKN), the facility houses a 33-acre array of antennas, and when operating, can send pulses of energy into the upper reaches of the atmosphere to stimulate this zone, providing a means to study what happens there. Research has potential implications for understanding properties ranging from the aurora to long-range communications. Until recently, the Air Force operated the facility, in support of Department of Defense research interests, primarily dealing with communication and navigation interests.  In 2015, the facility was transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute to operate.  For more information on the facility, see the frequently asked questions document at http://gi.alaska.edu/haarp/faq.

Why a TFR?
AOPA has followed the operation of the HAARP facility for many years, primarily out of concerns with possible disturbance to aircraft navigation and/or communications systems. While managed by the Air Force, operations were conducted as a Controlled Firing Area (CFA), meaning that the Air Force had to shut down their transmitter if an aircraft came within a prescribed distance.  They used a radar system to detect aircraft and shut down the transmitter if an aircraft got too close.  When the Geophysical Institute took over operations, FAA re-examined those procedures and decided that the CFA was not adequate, in part due to the high-altitude nature of the impacts. The TFR language is expected to define an area from the surface to FL250.

The HAARP Facility north east of the Gulkana Airport, will have a TFR protecting the airspace around the facility when in operations, similar to this graphic. Check NOTAMs for details and active times.  Map courtesy of SkyVector.com

The HAARP Project has re-established a phone number that pilots may call during times the facility is operating.  They have also temporarily re-established a VHF radio frequency, to allow pilots to contact the facility while airborne. These mechanisms should allow pilots operating in the area to have a direct line of communication to obtain more detailed information than the NOTAM is expected to contain, given the real-time nature of changes in the experimental world.  AOPA has also requested that the facility be charted on the Anchorage Sectional, to make it easier for pilots to become familiar with the location of the facility.  In addition to a NOTAM for a TFR, during operations pilots may call the HAARP site, near Gakona, at 907-822-5497, or on VHF radio frequency 122.25 MHz.  Information will also be available on Facebook and Twitter at @uafhaarp.

Stay tuned for more information as the transition from Air Force to university operations proceed. And make sure to check NOTAMs to find out when the TFR is activated.

Think like an upside down wedding cake: three-tiered airport advocacy works

Unique airplanes on display at AOPA,Norman

Having just returned from Norman Oklahoma and the AOPA Regional Fly-In I was impressed to see the record attendance numbers at the two-day event. Over 7500 people and 500 airplanes came to enjoy the Friday educational seminars and the Saturday events. This year, AOPA broke the mold of the wildly successful regional fly-in by adding Friday seminars, which educate both the pilot, and non-pilot (as with Pilot Plus One/Right Seat Ready). In observing the event at Norman, I was reminded of the three-tiered model of airport advocacy. In action were local pilot groups, the eleventh annual Aviation Festival, the University of Oklahoma, state-level aviation associations, and of course nationally AOPA.

Jan Maxwell, co-founder Right Seat Ready! companion seminar.

As pilots, we are all used to looking at Class B airspace as an upside-down wedding cake. We understand that the first level extends from the ground upward; a larger ring sits on top of that, and a still larger ring above that. I have long believed that in terms of airport advocacy we need to subscribe to a three-tiered model. Much like Class B, we have the central core being the boots on the ground, local level. Above that are the state level and finally the national level. Let’s take a closer look:

Tier 1 – Local Advocacy: Local wisdom is the best source of information at an airport. Who better understands current issues, history, and future needs better the pilots who are based there? What can you do locally?

  • Join your local airport organization.
  • Find out who your AOPA ASN volunteer is.
  • Attend Airport Land Use Meetings.
  • Host community events at your airport.
  • Form a business relationship with your City or County Planners.
  • Attend all City or County sponsored airport meetings.
  • Attend Airport meetings.
  • Look for chapters of state aviation organizations in your town/area/region.
  • Use media to the airport’s best interest [newspaper, radio, social media, TV].
  • Create a good working relationship with your airport manager.

 Tier 2 – Statewide Organizations: Not every state has its own general aviation organization. But a quick Google search will tell you if your state does. Statewide airport advocacy organizations are important because they maintain statewide contacts, information, and strategies. Further, our statewide groups can also advise and assist the local airport groups when issues arise.

Tier 3 – National Organizations: Our national aviation organizations are a critical piece of the three-tiered airport defense strategy. Membership insures that each maintains its ability to support statewide or local airport/pilot organizations. If you do not belong to AOPA, EAA, NBAA, you should. Critical to interfacing with our congressional representatives, lobbying that national pilot organizations provide a large presence in Washington, DC. This voice serves to remind DC of the importance of general aviation to the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

As a resident of California, I get the pleasure of seeing the three-tiered model in full effect coming up October 13th and 14th at historic San Carlos Airport [KSQL]. The California Pilots Association  in conjunction with the San Carlos Airport Association is presenting AirFest 2017. The two-day event sponsored by ACI Jet,  features a Friday night wine and food reception with AOPA President, Mark Baker. Saturday’s workshops range from safety seminars and airport advocacy to disaster preparedness. All three levels of local state and national are working together to provide educational, social and advocacy.  I would encourage everyone to think like an upside down wedding cake when it comes to advocating for GA and airports. Think globally and act locally. The more we promote general aviation the more we protect our airports.

CalPilots Airfest 2017

 

 

 

New regional first officer pay agreement

Every month it seems that more evidence comes out about how extreme the pilot shortage is getting. I got an email tonight that was as clear as could be that it’s getting worse. ExpressJet Airlines, which at one time was the regional feed for Continental and is now owned by SkyWest Airlines, has been struggling for awhile to find enough qualified pilots to staff its airplanes. The union leadership at ExpressJet and ASA (also owned by SkyWest) has agreed to allow the company to hire pilots with previous FAR 121 experience and pay them based previous years of service.

That means that a former Comair pilot with 15 years of experience can get hired and get paid at year-10 pay. The news release doesn’t get very specific, but since ExpressJet only has an eight-year scale for first officers, it could mean that the 10-year pay includes captain time.

If so, that would mean that a new hire with the appropriate experience will get paid $81 per hour versus $37 per hour—a difference of $44. Further, the benefit of previous experience is also being extended to the 401(k) plan and vacation. The new pilots will still be at the bottom of the seniority list, so they’ll be on reserve, they’ll be junior FOs, and they won’t be hired as “street captains.”

Still, this is a huge step. It’s an admission that current recruiting efforts for pilots are not bearing any fruit. To take that a step further, it’s of even greater significance that the union agreed to this, because this practice goes against almost 100 years of industry norm.

It has the potential to ruffle some feathers among the pilots on property, but—in theory—it shouldn’t, since those hired previously are still getting paid based on total experience. If I read the press release correctly, pilots who were previously hired and would have met the requirements to get paid more will also get a pay bump. The only catch to this new rule is that the new-hire pilot is required to have left his or her previous carrier on good terms. In other words, it’s OK to have been furloughed or to have resigned, but if you were fired, you’re out of luck.

There’s virtually no chance of this sort of deal coming to fruition at the majors, since the number of pilots applying for those jobs far exceeds the number of jobs available. It also helps that the pay at the majors is also substantially greater than the pay at the regionals.

Still, this is a deal that can’t be made without at least some blessing of management at the majors, since they’re the ones that pay the regionals, and this is going to drive up the block hour cost of regional flying. For regional pilots who have checked out of the industry for awhile, this just might be the enticement they need to come back. We’ll see how the details pan out, but this could be a golden opportunity for many.—Chip Wright

Ratio of Work to Reward in Aviation

The last number of months have featured some form of long flight to highlight differences in international flying, whether it is something silly or the occasional time things work out well. With the coming of August, heat was relatively ongoing and oppressive, which also meant that haze levels were very high. Couple bad air with brown (“golden”) hues in most places due to our hot and dry summer, and the ingredients were not present for any useful distance flying. I did, however, fly a tremendous amount of times in August, staying local each time, enjoying some basic Cub flying.

That lends to an interesting idea, one that fuses the idea of low and slow Cub flying together with our anathema to user fees. The general concept in America is that there are user fees for every single action for a flight overseas; click the microphone and an itemized bill comes. While that can be the case in some places and some kinds of flying, there is a more insidious theory that comes in to play, and it does a great job of killing off pleasure flying: rigmarole and senseless requirements for basic flights.

I was going to use the word “bureaucracy,” as it implies unneeded steps to accomplish something, though it has an indelible relationship to paperwork. In the case of flying, not a lot of paper is changing hands in flight, though the concept of arbitrary and duplicitous steps to achieve something, which reality does not, in theory, require any of those steps, is conceptually equivalent. Europe adds nonsense into flight procedures, and that arbitrariness has a way of killing off the desire to go flying – whether or not those procedures involve paying a fee.

Most European airports have a landing fee. That means that every flight involves a visit to the office to pay said fee. In most cases, there is more than one thing going on, so a wait may be involved. Some airports need to have absurd amounts of detailed information about the flight, for which a full invoice must be prepared to comply with European tax rules. After that, payment with a credit card is another complex step, for which some airports will charge an additional fee (stopping now to recalculate the invoice due to the added fee). This extra 10 to 15 minutes is wasted, and is an anachronism separate from the financial impact of the fee itself.

Fortunately, my home field allows for unlimited takeoffs and landings for a monthly fee of €20, so I found a way to sidestep the flamenco dance of paperwork involved with going flying. However, Spain adds a new wrinkle that many other European nations do not: all flights to, from, or through controlled airspace require a flight plan. In that case, as I have previously mentioned, I have to firm up where I am going, which is directly opposite of the idea of Cub flying. I often set out with one thing in mind, keeping multiple alternates available, as visibility is localized, and despite the best of webcams and weather forecasts, reality means that laying eyes on the flight path is often the best indicator. Toss in filing from the Mac at home, activating by phone due to terrain obstructions, and having to contact control authorities–  by now I am tired talking about it. If one wishes to avoid towered fields, then calling in advance, on the day of the flight, is wise to ensure someone will show up to fuel the airplane, which is just as fatiguing. Even if they do bother to show up, it is often a long wait to get fueled. These machinations are opposite of the idea of flying with the door open at 60mph, which I why I stayed in La Cerdanya in August, out of controlled airspace. What is the point of the freedom of flying if it is suffocated with stupidity?

While Europe does a fantastic job of adding unnecessary requirements to simple flights, the concept there being a ratio of extra steps to misery holds true in America as well. There is a reason that those who fly a twin, a business jet, or an airliner smile when they see a Cub, and usually say something like: “That is real flying.” The sheer size and complexity of a panel on modern aircraft, with elaborate checklists, and a multitude of things that must be managed would mean that a pilot wouldn’t be looking out with the door open if he or she could in such an airplane, because there is too much to do (and all of those checklists would blow away). I recall from my complex aircraft training days: “BCGUMPFS” as a mnemonic for the final checklist. In the Cub, it is only “C,” carb heat.

We all make our choices of aircraft based on what we intend to get out of them. The point remains that a Cub represents a simplicity that translates into pure fun, whether in Europe or America. The thing about choosing an aircraft, and therefore an associated level of complexity, is that it is up to the pilot to choose the work/reward ratio. When it comes to certain international flying environments that are filled with superfluous requirements, that freedom is taken away from the pilot to choose, and imposed on everyone, and has the effect to dampen the desire to hop in the plane for a quick flight. What is a matter of aircraft design in America can morph into a more complex political and regulatory matter here. My caution is to be aware that complex flight requirements can be just as obstructionist to general aviation as a new fee.

August was a month filled with tons of flying, though all of it was local. I practiced the art of enjoying myself, as flying in Cerdanya is just like flying in America: open radio calls, a basic traffic pattern, and nothing else. Hop in and go, look out the window for airplanes, and look down below with the door open at cows grazing. Regardless of what it costs to get the plane in the air, I think the essence of general aviation requires the raw freedom of hopping in, taking off, and picking the path as one flies.

As my reminiscing for American aviation continues, I have released my 12th book “American Texture: Canvas from the Sky,” my first work covering a national subject. It contains images from all over the country of textures and patterns as taken from the Cub over a number of years.

All images below taken within 30nm of my home field in La Cerdanya, Spain.

Here I am ranting about a dry and hot August, and we did get snow at 9,000 feet during a brief and sharp cold snap….

Base leg runway 25. This is a motorcycle race, temporarily created between the wheat harvest and subsequent tilling a week later.

When the haze abated, the clouds rolled in.

Cumulo-granite. Tosa d’Alp (8,488 feet) – hill behind the house.

Somewhat clear – though haze is evident. Airfield in center right.

While it looks clear, note the haze below. This is during a strong Tramontane event, which creates serious mountain waves (with clear mountain air), and draws in the marine layer to lower elevations.

Tosa d’Alp again – with the infrared camera. I took up this medium of photography as it sees through haze.

Another mountain wave event – hazy below, dangerous above, ok in La Cerdanya.

Crosswind leg, runway 25, infrared.

Puigpedros – Andorra, France, and Spain in this image. Mountain peaks were clear, though haze was in all quadrants lower down.

Thunderstorm on the French side, infrared.

 

 

Getting Lucky

One of the coolest things about working in the aviation field is that you get to see and experience a lot of really cool, unusual events with a view that most can only dream of having. Some aren’t so great, but it’s the good ones that you remember and cherish. I’ve seen the space shuttle launch from abeam Cape Canaveral on the Fourth of the July; that same day, I saw the oldest ship in the Navy, the Constitution, under sail in Boston.

Recently, I was scheduled to fly during the total solar eclipse. Prior to the flight, my captain and I did some research about the path of the eclipse, and we each took some screen shots of various maps and time tables. Our flight plan from Houston to New York had us crossing Nashville within a few minutes of the cone of totality. An ATC ground delay worked in our favor, and we were able to adjust our speed such that we would cross the path of the eclipse at the exact time that the moon would be blocking out the sun. As luck would have it, I had the only unobstructed view on the plane. The sun was almost directly overhead, but my window curved up just enough that I was able to look up and back (with my viewing glasses on, of course!) and watch the moon and sun cross paths.

The excitement was evident everywhere. Our passengers were chatting about the eclipse as they boarded, and the traffic on the radio was amplified. There were a number of NASA aircraft following the event, recording observations and collecting data that will be studied for years. As we neared Nashville, a number of aircraft were asking for vectors and even holding patterns with the hope of being able to experience the entirety of the eclipse. They were all denied.

By the time the sky began to darken to a noticeable extent, the sun was mostly covered. When the eclipse was actually taking place, the outside air temperature dropped enough that the smooth ride we were experiencing began to deteriorate to continuous light chop. We should have anticipated this, but we didn’t, and while my view of the eclipse—sans glasses—was spectacular, getting a decent picture was virtually impossible because of the ride. That said, I was able to get some video of the darkness with just a hint of light off in the distance. The ground was lit up, and stars were visible in the sky. It was an unforgettable experience.

My logbooks are mostly mundane flights from A to B, but there are, sprinkled throughout, events that will stay with me forever: 9/11, the loss of the shuttle Columbia, my first flights with my kids, first trips to certain locations, and some sunrises and sunsets that are etched in my memory. My job has allowed me to see much from both the ground (I also seen a total lunar eclipse) and the air that I’d never see otherwise. Those hours, and those memories, are to me a treasure chest filled with gold that I’d never trade.

Storm Operations

As I write this, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are still working their way towards Tennessee and Kentucky. Houston is underwater, and the totality of the destruction is just beginning to be understood. I was on the ground in Houston as the rain began to fall, and I flew around the storm on my next flight to go south towards Central America. The next day, the weather up and down the east coast was effected. And as the storm dissipates, all eyes are wearily turning toward Hurricane Irma, which is still a week away and forecast to become a Category 4 fury of wind and rain.

In addition to the personal preparation and, in too many cases, the aftermath, companies and businesses have to cope as well. The airlines all had their own strategy, some borne of experience, and some based on the particular dynamics of the storm. Harvey developed very quickly, and didn’t provide a lot of time for contingency planning.

As the track of the storm became more certain, airports were shut down. Houston Hobby (HOU), which is further south, was shut down first. At Intercontinental (IAH), the initial plan by United, the main stakeholder, was to run a full schedule through the storm. In order to allow the employees to tend to their personal situations, Southwest and United flew in employees from around the country who volunteered to work in Houston. However, the storm stalled, and like a well-planned military invasion, the plans were drastically altered as soon as the first shots were fired.

Both companies began flying evacuation flights to move as many people as possible, and eventually shut down operations. IAH sits at an elevation of nearly one hundred feet, and is north of the city, so it had less exposure to the brunt of the storm and the rain, and as soon as the airport authorities felt it was safe to allow people to and from the airport, it was opened. The first flights in were humanitarian, bringing back stranded flight and cabin crews, food, water, and other critically needed supplies. In the meantime, damage assessments must be made of the terminals, parking garages, etc. From a navigation standpoint, the ILS antennae, VORs, etc. also need to be checked, and possibly flight-tested.

The recovery from the storm—any storm of this magnitude—takes even more work. Planes are stranded, and may be out of their normal maintenance schedule. Crews are all over the planet, and many of them just want to get home to help their families. Hotels in and around the two airports are full, assuming they can even open. Crews that live and are based in Houston may not even have uniforms they can wear to work.

Behind the scenes, hundreds of people are working extra shifts, flying extra flights, and doing the jobs of three people, all while trying to juggle the disruption to their own personal lives. Passengers, after all, still have tickets, and extra seats are hard to come by on other carriers.

And all eyes are turned east, to the Atlantic, hoping that Irma will turn to the north, but knowing that if she doesn’t, that this scene may be repeated in just a few short days.

The Big Lie: ATC Stuck in the 1960s

The debate on so-called “ATC privatization” is not a new one. A Google search of the phrase yields 171,000 results, many of them news articles going back more than a quarter century.

AOPA, EAA, NBAA, and most other alphabet groups are pushing back against the most recent iteration of this idea, probably because of the current administration’s support for the concept and the feeling that unsteady funding from Congress is causing some people to take another look at it.

I’m highly opposed to privatization for a number of reasons. In general, I prefer a competitive marketplace where possible, as this provides the best product at the lowest price for the consumer. But there are some areas where multiple vendors just aren’t an option. Air traffic control, it seems to me, is one of those. But I’ll leave the argument against ATC privatization to the pros. The folks at AOPA, EAA, etc. have articulated that far better than I ever could.

What I’m concerned about right now is the patently false idea that air traffic control in this country is somehow mired in the 1960s. I’ve read recent articles from the Reason Foundation, Steve Forbes (who, as a major user of general aviation, ought to know better), the Orange County Register, and a number of other publications proffering this claim. It’s fake news – demonstrably false. Whoever peddles this stuff either has no idea what they’re talking about, or is intentionally putting forth a lie.

I spent the early part of the 1980s living in Alaska, frequently hanging out at the Anchorage ARTCC because my cousin worked there. I used to take flight data progress strips off the huge dot matrix printers and put them in those little plastic holders and run them to the various sectors. I saw the vacuum tube powered computer equipment they were using. I flew with my cousin in those round gauge equipped airplanes, and marveled at the sophistication of Silver Crown avionics.

Today? Visit any Center and you’ll find modern computers have replaced all that old stuff. From trainers to airliners, we’re flying almost exclusively based on satellite navigation. That didn’t even exist in the early 80s, let alone the 1960s! Our airways were defined solely by ground-based navaids. VOR navigation was a luxury, and NDB usage was ubiquitous. People were still flying around using four course ranges!

Today, T and Q routes are rapidly supplanting the old stuff. When I’m up high enough to get over traffic, I will often be cleared direct from coast to coast. That would’ve been impossible in the 1960s.

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Our arrival and departure procedures are optimized for routing and traffic. We’ve got radius-to-fix segments on approaches, satellite overlays for many of the remaining ground-based procedures, and even GPS-based precision approaches which require almost no equipment beyond that which exists in orbit.

As I understand it, air traffic control weather radar, to the extend they had it 50 years ago, was a marginal mish-mash of green shades providing information which was difficult to interpret and limited in scope. Today they’re using ASR and NEXRAD-derived WARP systems which provide infinitely better weather data to controllers and, by extension, aviators. Heck, over the past 20 years I’ve noticed the marked improvement in the way controllers are able to route traffic around weather. They aren’t doing that with divining rods.

Back then, ATC’s radar network was limited and ground based. That system is being replaced by satellite-based ADS-B technology which provides better coverage, faster updates, and many other benefits – including traffic and weather data beamed directly into the cockpit.

The list goes on and on. How about the ATC towers? We’re starting to utilize “remote” towers which don’t even require the physical presence of a controller at the airport. Would that have been possible in the 1960s? Of course not.

Let’s talk about filing flight plans. In the 1960s, you had to physically go to an airport to visit a weather specialist to find out what Mother Nature was doing. Then you’d write out a flight plan by hand on a piece of paper and give it to the FSS specialist, who would do… well, something with it. Within a half hour, you might be able to obtain your clearance. That was pretty speedy for 1960!

Today, you get all that information on a smartphone and can file a flight plan with that same app. I’ve seen a clearance show up within 30 seconds after filing. Part of that is due to the advance of computer technology, but a big piece of it is also the way our ATC system is able to interact with the modern internet. From NOTAM and weather dissemination to airspace design, virtually nothing of the old system is still in use. VHF voice communication represents one of the few exceptions, but even that is being supplanted, especially on oceanic routes.

The bottom line here is that our air traffic control system is NOT stuck in the 1960s. Those who believe it is should talk to a few pilots and controllers. Sure, we have plenty of traffic delays in aviation. Much of that is due to weather – something no ATC “reform” is going to fix. The rest of the congestion is due to a lack of runway and airport capacity. Remember all those airports which were closed? They were called “relievers” for a reason. All those runway and airport expansion ideas which were quashed? You see the result every time you’re #10 in line for departure at a major airport.

Equating delays with ATC is as illogical as claiming the freeways are congested because of faded highway signage. If people want to support ATC “privatization,” I can respect that viewpoint. But letting hyperbole, sensationalism, and misinformation into the conversation serves us all poorly.

If you want to look at facts — and I hope you do — then the answer is clear: America’s air traffic control system is the largest, safest, most efficient, and modern one on Earth.

Alaska Governor recognizes role of aviation

Governor Bill Walker has declared September to be Aviation Appreciation Month in Alaska.  In his proclamation, the Governor recognized some of the ways that aviation stands out here:

  • Providing access to 82 percent of the communities in the state—that are not connected to our sparse road system
  • As operating 242 airports across the Alaska, more than any other state in the nation
  • Supporting the economy, not only by providing basic transportation infrastructure, but by generating almost 17,000 jobs tied to the airports at Anchorage and Fairbanks alone.
  • Including backcountry airstrips among the components of the aviation infrastructure important to Alaska

Please join us in celebrating aviation during the month of September, with thanks to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities staff who plan, design, build and operate airports; municipal governments that manage airports in their communities; maintenance facilities, parts suppliers, flight schools, aviation organizations and many other stakeholders that keep us flying!

 

The Shameful Lycoming Rod Bushing AD Affair

In late July, as tens of thousands of GA aircraft owners were converging on Oshkosh for AirVenture 2017, Lycoming published Mandatory Service Bulletin 632 titled “Identification of Connecting Rods with Non-Conforming Small End Bushings.” This was a very nasty service bulletin affecting Lycoming engines of all models that were built, rebuilt, overhauled or repaired during the past two years. Lycoming quickly published two revisions (632A and 632B) in rapid succession.

SB 632B addressed a problem with small-end connecting rod bushings (part number LW-13923) that were used in Lycoming factory new and rebuilt engines and shipped by Lycoming to overhaul shops and mechanics between November 2015 and November 2016. It turns out that there was a quality assurance problem with these bushings, and many of them had an outside diameter that did not conform with specifications. These bushings are pressed into the small end of Lycoming connecting rod assemblies using a hydraulic press. If the bushings are too small in diameter, the press-fit isn’t secure and the bushings can migrate out of the connecting rod when in service. That’s exactly what seems to have happened to a relatively small percentage of these non-conforming bushings, hence the mandatory service bulletin.

Lycoming Rod Bushings: Good vs Bad

Lycoming rod bushings.

Lycoming used these bushings in-house to build connecting rod assemblies, some of which were sold to overhaul shops and mechanics between November 2015 and February 2017, and most of which went into Lycoming factory new and rebuilt engines. Any engine that has these non-conforming bushings, whether built by the factory or overhauled or repaired in the field, are affected by SB 632B.

Why is SB 632B so nasty?

SB 632B requires that all engines that might possibly contain these non-conforming bushings have all their cylinders removed within the next 10 hours. With the cylinders removed, the securing of all small-end connecting rod bushings then must be tested using a special tool (“ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool”) to apply a calibrated force to each bushing to see if it can be displaced. If the bushing moves during this press-out test, then the connecting rod assembly must be removed from the engine and sent to Lycoming, and a new connecting rod assembly with a known-good bushing must be installed. Lycoming initially estimated that the press-out test will have approximately a 20% flunk rate, but from what we’ve been hearing that estimate may turn out to be way too optimistic.

Lycoming ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool

Lycoming ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool

As someone deeply involved in piston GA maintenance, I find what SB 632B requires to be a horrifying prospect. The requirement to remove all cylinders within 10 hours is bad enough; there is a long history of catastrophic engine failure after removal and replacement of all cylinders in the field that I’ve written about extensively. But the prospect of having 20% or 30% or 40% of the connecting rods removed and replaced in the field represents a far greater risk, because the majority of mechanics have never before performed this operation (notably tightening rod bolts to a specified stretch using a special micrometer). The rod bolts are the most highly-stressed component in the entire engine, and tightening them properly is ultra-critical. In my opinion and the opinion of every highly experienced A&P/IA I’ve spoken with, this is NOT work that should be attempted by line mechanics in the field working on engines mounted in airplanes. It really should be done only by an experienced technician in an engine shop with the engine mounted on a stand with unencumbered access.

In short, I quickly concluded that that the cure called for by Lycoming would very likely be worse than the disease, and that it’s likely that there may be more catastrophic engine failures caused by maintenance errors in performing SB 632B than would be caused by the migrating bushing problem that SB 632B addresses. After conferring with a few very experienced A&P/IAs who have much more experience maintaining Lycoming engines than I do, I also concluded that there is a far less invasive and risky and expensive method that would effectively detect bushing migration and mitigate the safety risk without creating a bigger one in the process.

Owner organizations respond

While in Oshkosh, I spoke to several Lycoming executives who indicated that they expected the FAA’s New York Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) to start the wheels in motion to issue an emergency Airworthiness Directive the following week that would mandate compliance with SB 632B. I then sought out AOPA’s David Oord, with whom I’d recently worked so successfully on dealing with the Continental camshaft gear issue. Dave and I discussed that the FAA had not issued an Airworthiness Concern Sheet (ACS) about this Lycoming bushing issue in order to solicit input from the affected aircraft owner associations, something they had promised to do when we met with the FAA Engine and Propeller Directorate at a GA engine summit meeting in 2015. Dave and I agreed that it would be appropriate for AOPA to ask the FAA to do that so we would have a reasonable time to research this issue and provide the FAA with a thoughtful response before their AD process began, and Dave promised he’d make some calls as soon as he returned to his office.

On Tuesday, Dave phoned to tell me that that he’d heard back from the FAA, and that they said they would not be able to issue an ACS because they considered the issue too time-critical. Dave pressed for input to the process from the aircraft owner community, and the FAA agreed to try to set up a conference call between aircraft owner representatives, key FAA personnel, and representatives of Lycoming. That sounded better than nothing.

The next morning, I was awakened by another phone call from Dave, who told me that the FAA was willing to do a conference call, but it had to be TODAY. Yikes! We identified several other qualified aircraft owner representatives to be on the call to represent Cessna and Piper owners, and all agreed to participate.

The call was scheduled for 3 pm Eastern. I spent two hours drafting a bullet-point document containing our questions, concerns, and proposed alternative solution to SB 632B, and emailed it to Dave, who sent it to all the participants expected to be on the call from the FAA, Lycoming, and the owner associations.

Stonewalled!

The conference call took place as scheduled and lasted for an hour. However, Lycoming declined to answer ANY of the questions we posed to them, telling us that the information was proprietary and Lycoming was sharing it solely with the FAA and no one else.

Lycoming would not tell us how many displaced bushings have been found, how many connecting rod failures had occurred due to bushing displacement, what the distribution of engine times was when bushing displacement was detected or connecting rod failure occurred. They would not tell us how many engines they expected to be affected. They would not even tell us how much the special ST-531 press-out tool would cost, or how soon they could get enough of these tools out in the field to perform the required test.

The FAA would not tell us, either, saying that they were not permitted to release any of this information without Lycoming’s permission (which clearly was not forthcoming). We spent the better part of an hour asking questions but got no answers. It was absolutely exasperating.

We spent the rest of the time on the call trying to convince Lycoming and the FAA that there was a far less invasive and risky and costly way to deal with the displaced bushing problem, and we described it to them in detail. But it became clear that Lycoming and the FAA had already decided that SB 632B was necessary, despite the maintenance-induced failure risk, and that they were not interested in considering any alternatives.

As the call concluded, I felt totally disgusted with the total lack of cooperation exhibited by Lycoming and the FAA. I have been involved in working with the FAA on numerous Airworthiness Directives during the past two decades, and this was unquestionably the most unreasonable performance I’ve seen.

Shameful and disturbing

On Thursday, we worked with Dave to create a formal joint letter to the head of the FAA’s New York ACO. In it, we expressed our disappointment in how the FAA seemed to be dealing with this issue, and included the bullet-point document I’d created outlining our questions, concerns, and recommended alternative to SB 632B. In the letter, we specifically asked the FAA to approve our proposed minimally-invasive alternative as an Alternate Means of Compliance (AMOC) as outlined at the end of the document.

Needless to say, the New York ACO convened a Corrective Action Review Board (CARB) that rubber-stamped Lycoming’s requested corrective action in record-breaking time. On August 9, the FAA issued AD 2017-16-11 mandating compliance with SB 632B and putting numerous Lycoming-powered GA aircraft on the ground and their owners in jeopardy both moneywise and (IMHO) safetywise.

I find this whole sorry episode very disturbing for several reasons.

In discussing this situation with companies like Rick Romans and Aircraft Specialties Services and Zephyr Aircraft Engines who are in the business of re-bushing Lycoming connecting rods in the field, it appears that the problem with these loose Lycoming connecting rod bushings has been well-known by industry insiders for more than a year. Several of those firms told me that they stopped installing Lycoming-supplied rod bushings many months ago in favor of PMA-equivalent bushings from Superior Air Parts that fit properly. Given that this problem has been known for quite some time, it seems to me that the FAA could and should have taken a bit more time to solicit and consider input from folks who would be most affected, especially alternative methods of addressing the problem in a less risky fashion, before publishing an emergency AD.

Furthermore, I find it unconscionable for the FAA to justify such a draconian rulemaking action on data that it refuses to disclose to the very people who will bear the burden of that rulemaking. I understand that if a manufacturer provides information to the FAA that the manufacturer identifies as proprietary, the FAA is not permitted to disclose it. But it seems to me that the FAA should be forbidden from using such proprietary data to justify issuing an AD. The federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) guarantees that members of the public who will be affected by federal rulemaking shall have a say in the rulemaking process. I’m not a lawyer, but clearly rulemaking made in the kind of secret “star chamber” fashion that characterized AD 2017-16-11 makes a mockery of the spirit (and perhaps the letter) of the APA.

Come on in, the water’s fine: Flying, Family and Fun at EAA Seaplane base

Flying, Family and Fun at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Seaplane base

Experiencing the Seaplane Base at EAA/OSH for the first time was at once thrilling and relaxing. I have attended EAA AirVenture nearly every year since 2008. On Monday morning of convention, I found myself with a few “unscheduled” hours. So, I mentioned to my friend that I wanted to go to the Seaplane Base. A few minutes later we were pulling up to the parking lot having a good time teasing the gate attendants, who thought we were sisters, about whether they were brothers. After years of pulling into to various EAA parking lots, the vibe at the base was noticeably different. The area is lush and green; the trees were swaying in the breeze as we followed a bark path to the base. A few weeks before I had posted on Facebook that I was hoping to get a seaplane ride this year. I was pleased to get an offer from Don Smith to come out and get a tour and a flight in his 2015 Husky.

Pontoon Boat Tour Captain

Once arriving to the base you are met with warm smiles and a great view of airplanes bobbing up and down at their tie-downs. Nearly immediately, we were asked if we wanted a pontoon boat tour of the lagoon, which we quickly accepted. During the boat, tour the history of the seaplane base was shared as well as the details about how the base comes together once a year through the labor of a team of dedicated volunteers.  According to The Story of AirVenture Seaplane Base by Richard A. Steeves since the early 30’s the Vette family has owned over 27 acres of lakefront land along the shore of Lake Winnebago. “John Vette Jr. was one of the “Early Birdmen,” who flew and owned quite a variety of aircraft, including the amphibious Duck for the navy during W.W.II. After the war, he opened a business south of Oshkosh, near the family farm. Among his employees, an engineer named Al Ziebell developed a friendship with Bill Brennand, with whom he enjoyed fishing for walleyes along the lakeshore. By 1949, they decided it would be much easier if they had a boathouse near the shoreline for storing their gear, so Bill bought 1.9 acres of Vette land around the inner harbor. In 1957 Bill bought a Piper J3 on floats, and with help from Al and others, built some ramps for seaplane storage when they were not off on fishing trips to Canada.” In the early 70’s EAA’s Paul Poberenzy began negotiations to make the Seaplane Base a part of EAA’s annual convention. According to AirNav, the owners of 96WI continue to be the Vette family with John and his sister Burleigh.

Much like Burning Man’s 88NV Blackrock City Airport, 96WI the Vette/Blust Seaplane Base is active only one week a year and is created and maintained by volunteers. The rest of the year the Seaplane Base reverts to 20 plus acres of serene lakeside woodlands. Starting with a work party on Memorial Weekend and ending shortly after convention, the Seaplane Base welcomes hundreds of airplanes and visitors.

Don Smith

There are educational seminars daily including topics from the FAA, the Coast Guard, and the Department of Natural Resources. Women Soar You Soar also brought many aviation- minded girls out to the base for a tour and a ride. From karaoke night to the famous Watermelon Social sponsored by Wipaire, there is something going on at the base every day at AirVenture.

A quick walk around the grounds led us to Don Smith, a longtime volunteer.  Don has an enthusiasm for aviation and the base that is just infectious. It was such a pleasure to be able to fly with someone that knew every detail about the seaplane base and Lake Winnebago. We taxied out past a controller in the OSH pink shirt. He waved as we came out of the lagoon area to the lake-proper.

A different kind of tower controller

The lake was a bit choppy which made take off a little bumpy, but within a minute or so, we were airborne over the lush landscape. I have flown in a seaplane only once before in Northern California. Don was quick to point out methods for determining wind direction and speed. Although he offered to let me fly, I chose just to be a passenger to soak up the sights and sounds. Flying over the water and the farmlands took me back so a simpler time. I could easily imagine what it would have been like to fly in the 40’s and early 50’s. On short approach to final, I could see folks sitting on the beach and under the trees enjoying the show. Don had a great landing and we taxied back to his spot buoy #1.

Later in the week, I had the pleasure to attend the Watermelon Social sponsored by Wipaire. I had been at convention all day where the pace is more hurried and busy. It was so lovely to be able head to the base and just relax and renew. It is hard to describe the vibe at the lakeside, I suppose the best way to put it is everyone operates on “island time.” I can say that I never met at stranger while there, from the fellow working the first aid stand who gave me a cold bottle of water on a hot day, to the folks working in the booths that dotted the path.

Rod Machado once said to me, “Airplane folks are the best folks.” I have to agree with that. The volunteers who annually build this paradise should be proud of themselves. Visitors are greeted warmly, educated, and engaged. The scenery is stunning and the warm camaraderie greatly appreciated. A big thank you to Don and the gang at the seaplane base. The memories will be with me always and I will be coming back next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

« Older posts