Sun ‘n Fun Archive

Playing with fire(crackers) . . .

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Shoenfeldt Firecracker “It’s a squirrel,” said Pat Halloran, the pilot of the Shoenfeldt “Firecracker,” a wood-winged bullet of an air racer from the 1930s–and the coolest airplane at Sun ‘n Fun.

It’s got an 18-foot wingspan, an impossibly tiny amount of wing area, and a 440-cubic-inch Ranger engine. The gear retracts with a hand crank, and Halloran, a retired Air Force general who flew fighters in Korea and the U-2 and SR-71 after that, said the airplane is a handfull to fly.

“Visibility on the ground is non-existent,” he said. “In the air, you’ve got to hold onto it every second.”

Halloran has flown the airplane about 70 hours and expects to add significantly to that total in the coming days. After Sun ‘n Fun, he’ll fly the Firecracker back to its home at Flabob Airport in Southern California. The airplane holds about four hours of fuel–but Halloran says the urge to escape from the cramped cockpit is too strong to ignore after about 2.5 hours.

Oh. The airplane’s top speed? It went about 300 miles an hour in the late 1930s when famed Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier was racing it. But Halloran said he won’t push it that hard . . .

Watch out for the birdie

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Flew down to Sun ‘n Fun yesterday, in Tom Haines’ A36 Bonanza. Aboard were Haines, Ian Twombly, and myself.

Took the usual route, Frederick to Montebello, to Lynchburg, to South Boston, then on to Sand Hills and a destination in South Carolina. First leg: 2+45 to Marion County Airport (MAO).

Next leg took us over Savannah. About five miles north, a controller stopped in mid-sentence, saying “I think I hear a Mayday.”

We heard it too. On 118.40, the approach frequency at SAV. ” … 172WG …. hit a bird …. medical attention….” came the broken transmissions from the Skyhawk. The pilot was immediately cleared to land.

As we overflew the airport we could see the ambulance driving to the approach end of Savannah’s Runway 9. From our perch at 4,500 feet we saw the Skyhawk flying down final. The landing appeared unventful, with the airplane remaining on the centerline.

“I think it’s bird blood,” the stricken pilot said. Sighs of relief all around. Makes you think. I’ve ALMOST flown into birds–or is it the other way around?–so I know that instant feeling of imminence. This pilot’s experience made me wonder if I could pull off as good a landing.

Recession, and the “D” word

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Woke up this morning, and there was CNN’s economic reporter, talking about recession and–ugh–depression. Then they ran a tape of Robert Reich saying that the nation has a 20-percent chance of landing in a full-blown depression. Way to start the day.

Out at the airport, I asked several manufacturer’s representatives what they thought about this economic angst. What was the word? Hawker Beechcraft can’t keep up with the demand. Pilatus still has a line of customers buying the “old” PC-12–current production models that will be phased out as the NG models (with the Honeywell Apex panel) are brought to market. “Getting an airplane sooner is more of a priority than getting the glass,” a salesman said.

Over at Diamond, a salesman didn’t take the bait when I suggested that customers may not be getting Diamonds fast enough. “We don’t have that problem” came the terse reply.

Corporate demand remains very, very strong for turbine aircraft, as it’s tied to healthy profits. In the owner-flown, piston market, bad economic news may be having an early impact.

Moral: Let’s not talk up the D-word. Owner-flown aircraft purchases are largely emotional. We don’t need the chattering classes on 24/7 cable/satellite to put us all in a bad purchasing mood. Besides, this isn’t 1929. There are many protections against financial swings. Just look at Bears Stearns’ recent bailout.


Looking beyond Garmin

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Sun ‘n Fun has been dominated by all manner of announcements about Garmin’s new synthetic vision system. It’s being installed on TBM850s, all Cessna pistons, Diamonds, you name it. Golf carts will be next. Guess no one noticed that Honeywell Bendix/King’s new Apex glass cockpit has just been certified in the Pilatus PC-12. The new PC-12NG (next generation) is the launch airplane for this long-awaited avionics suite, and serial number 100–the first of the batch–is on display here. What’s the new cockpit look like?

Pilatus PC-12

A lot cleaner than the previous offerings, with four giant LCDs (one PFD and two MFDs are standard) and a complete redesign of the overhead panel. The start sequence is new, too. Just turn on the battery switch, then hit the starter. The rest of the start sequence, including the avionics power-up, is automatic. There are dedicated pushbuttons for calling up the nav display’s bearing pointers/CDI needles. To me, this sure beats tapping away at a single bearing selector switch until you get the nav display you want–as in other brands.

With 780 airplanes delivered, the PC-12 is the world’s best-selling turbine airplane. The new, average-equipped NG model will go for $4 million. Big money in troubled economic times. But the orders keep rolling in, says Pilatus’ Mike Haenggi.

Zipping to FLA in a matter of hours

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

I’d like to report that America West/USAir did a bang-up job of transporting me and my belongings from my home town in the central coast of California to the west coast of Florida. When everything works airline travel is hard to beat, especially timewise. I awoke at 4 a.m. PDT on Wednesday, and touched down at the Tampa airport at 4:02 p.m. Florida time. I rode aboard a jet-powered commuter from San Luis Obispo to Phoenix; 50 minutes later the A-320 I was on pushed back, and three hours and 20 minutes later it touched down at Tampa. There was even an empty seat next to me!

This sort of makes up for the airline experience I wouldn’t  wish on my worst enemy that took place as I tried to return from Phoenix after visiting Deer Valley airport during Super Bowl weekend.  My 5:35 p.m. flight was cancelled, then the 8:30 p.m. flight was cancelled. Two hours later the America West/USAir staff told us there would be no more flights that day. It took two more hours before the counter crew finished writing up hotel and taxi cab vouchers. The day finally ended when I was told that there was a confirmed seat for my flight home in two days. At least the concourse manager didn’t call the airport police to haul me away as she did one customer who was very distressed at not being able to get home to her sister’s memorial service.

The moral of these two widely different airline experiences seems to be: you pays your money and you takes your chances.


An avgas bargain?

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Not long ago, $4 a gallon avgas seemed outrageously expensive. Now, with prices often topping $5 a gallon, finding prices at less than $4 seems like a bargain.

Headed to Sun ‘n Fun this week, I sought out the cheapest fuel near my route. Using the new radius search feature on AOPA’s Airport Directory Online I found avgas for $3.96 at Marion County (MAO), South Carolina. The sleepy little airport (ours was the only airplane in sight on the ramp) proved a quick and easy stop for us en route from Frederick, Maryland, to Lakeland, Florida. Other nearby airports were charging between about $5 and $5.50, meaning I saved at least $45 on my purchase of 44 gallons. Actually, the fuel price was showing as $4.24 a gallon in the directory–still the cheapest in the area, but I was only charged $3.96. The experience supports the notion that even if fuel prices are not completely current in a listing, you can usually count on the cheapest price being the cheapest and the most expensive being the most expensive–regardless of the actual dollars and cents on any one day.

To use the feature, go to the page noted above. At the bottom of the page, enter in the radius search field an airport ID near where you expect to stop for fuel and choose a radius. The search will return airports within the radius and their fuel prices.

The member survey at the AOPA tent shows the cost of aviation as a primary concern. Here’s one way to help manage those costs.

Bottom feeding

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Go to enough airshows and you can’t help but run into a wide cross-section of journalists. Some are professionals; others less so, but all share a fascination with airplanes and aviation. One of the more interesting groups is the “bottom feeders,” those that eke out a living on the industry’s fringes. Waiting for Embraer’s press conference to begin yesterday, I overheard two of the latter discussing their trade.
“You have to learn how to live on nothing,” one of them said. “To survive, you need to get at least 10 contract writing and/or photo gigs, because most of them only pay a couple hundred dollars or less. Recently I’ve started hiring interns to hunt down photos and graphics, because this can take up a lot of time you need to chase down work. It’s great because they’re smart kids and you don’t have to pay them anything.”
I wish these guys luck, but can’t help but wonder if they’d find full-time employment easier. Independence–or the illusion of it–must make it all worthwhile. Hope they like Top Ramen. I’m reminded of the weather-battered Europeans I’d see at the Paris and Farnborough air shows–these people would spend the entire show clinging to the airport fence, telephoto lenses ready to capture crashes as they occurred.
Several years ago, one of them hit paydirt at Paris, courtesy of the show daily I was working for at the time. A Russian Sukhoi fighter smacked into the runway and fireballed during an aerobatic demonstration–he caught it at the precise moment the crew were blasting away from the wreck in their rocket-powered ejection seats. The price? $2,500 for a Page 1 photo. Bottom feeding doesn’t get any better than that!

S-TEC eyes turbine market

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

S-TEC, which owns a majority chunk of the general aviation autopilot market, is setting its sights on aging turbine-powered aircraft.

Speaking at Sun ‘n Fun Wednesday, Greg Plantz, the company’s marketing vice president, said the first targets are likely to be older designs whose “legacy” autopilot systems are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain. The main issue, he said, is the international criteria for reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM), which require a very high level of autopilot and altimetry system performance. Older Cessna Citations are likely candidates for the S-TEC treatment, Plantz said, as are 1970s-vintage Embraer Bandierante and [Bombardier] Shorts turboprops.

The turboprop choices struck me as a little odd, considering the relatively small numbers of these types remaining in service, and the fact that they typically operate below RVSM altitudes. “It’s a logical step, because we’re already on King Airs, Conquests, and Twin Commanders,” he said. Maybe I’m missing something. Can anybody shed some light on this?

Holding down the fort

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Well, here I am, alone in the quiet offices at AOPA headquarters. All the editors have gone, gone to Sun ‘n Fun every one. Everyone except Associate Editor Jill Tallman and me. What, they don’t allow female editors at Sun ‘n Fun? Oh, yeah, Senior Editor Machteld Smith is there representing. You go, girl.

Actually I am Mistress of the Blog this week. It’s our inaugural foray into the medium, and as I have been reading–and editing (everyone needs an editor, you guys, which I guess begs the question about who is going to edit me…)–the entries, I am impressed. Sure, we have some of the top aviation writers in the country on staff, but who knew they could be so entertaining on the fly? Take Dave Hirschman’s observations in “Dave’s SNF Marketing Survey” and Al Marsh’s plea for the Dominican Republicans, “Someone, Anyone, Fly to the Dominican Republic.” Good stuff. And those of us at headquarters agree that Hirschman and Senior Editor Paul Richfield’s accounts of their individual trips to Lakeland (“The Easy Way vs. The Hard Way”) truly capture the value, convenience, and joy of general aviation compared to the dreaded “airlines.”

Have fun, dear editors. We are here, taking care of business. But I’m wearing my jeans and sneakers to the office tomorrow. It’s my passive-aggressive form of protest–who wouldn’t rather be in Florida in April at a great airshow?

Dave’s SNF marketing survey: Aspen/Synthetic Vision/Sport Cub/GPS

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Totally unscientific, anecdotal, and preliminary (but probably right).

* Aspen Avionics glass panel is a winner. The crowd outside the company’s booth has been big throughout the first few days at Sun ‘n Fun, and interest is building. Every vendor selling the displays has been pleased at the response to the vacuum-gauge replacement, and I think the company will sell tens of thousands of units for piston-aircraft retrofits. The jury’s still out on Aspen’s future MFD and whether the company will replace the other four gauges in traditional instrument six-packs. But it’s putting vacuum-driven, mechanical attitude indicators and directional gyros on the endangered list.

* Synthetic Vision is unstoppable. I’ll bet 95 percent of the owners of Garmin G1000 aircraft eventually add the software upgrade. Diamond is offering Garmin “Synthetic Vision Technology” (SVT) as a $10,000 option on new DA-40s, and that’s going to put pressure on other aircraft manufacturers to match. At that price, few will be able to resist. Grand Rapids Technology and Chelton pioneered GPS-based synthetic vision–but Garmin is going to make it an industry standard.

*The Sport Cub is my favorite LSA. If it doesn’t rekindle a resurgence in tailwheel aircraft, nothing will . . .

*Hand-held GPSs are getting bigger. Way bigger. The displays on some of the new models are giant. So are the boxes themselves. Maybe it’s driven by the aging pilot population (and our inability to read small print). But portable GPSs are beginning to resemble the ancient stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, and they probably weigh about as much. The main differences are the portables require cigarette-lighter adapters–and we’re a lot more likely to follow GPS commandments . . .