Posts Tagged ‘Tom Haines’

The consequences of the sound bite

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

The law of unintended consequences is hard at work in this troubled economy. On the morning shows today, Wells Fargo Bank was being trounced for planning to go forward with a long-booked Las Vegas gathering of its top mortgage sellers. It was to be an elaborate affair, reward for a year of hard work in tough times. When the media pointed out that the company had received some $25 billion in bail out funds, Wells Fargo began back pedaling and after a couple of attempts to vindicate itself, finally caved and canceled the event. Bummer for those planning to go.

It’s hard to defend a lavish event like that when you’re on the public dole. But remember that one function of the bail out is to stimulate the economy. So, how many Las Vegas hospitality workers will be laid off or at least have their hours cut back because Wells Fargo failed to show? Those people’s livelihoods depend on people coming to town, booking hotel rooms, dropping a wad of cash at the casino, riding that roller coaster on top of the Stratosphere, and, my favorite, visiting the Star Trek extravaganza at the Hilton.

Here’s the aviation connection you’ve been so patiently waiting for: Congress and the media have been drubbing on the business aviation industry as if it were some evil cartel that needs to be stamped out of existence. Thanks to the Big Three Automakers and Citibank’s unwillingness to even attempt to justify their use of business aircraft, we have a feeding frenzy of negative attention to anything with wings or a rotor.

Congress and the media want to overlook the fact that general aviation spawns some 1 million jobs and contributes about $150 billion a year to the US economy–and it has a positive trade balance. Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Cirrus, Mooney, Piper–they’ve all had massive layoffs, devastating families. In an aviation town such as Wichita, it’s not unusual to have both spouses and multi-generations working for aviation manufacturers. What if they all get the axe because some congressman spewed venom against business aviation, forcing companies that use everything from Bonanzas to Beechjets to duck for cover and ultimately sell their airplanes? Bill Garvey, editor in chief of Business and Commercial Aviation does a masterful job of laying it out in layman’s terms in an op-ed piece in The New York Times this week.

No one is advocating the willy-nilly use of business aircraft or any other expensive asset by any company, whether they’re getting public funds or not. But let’s not trash an entire industry that produces good-paying jobs and contributes mightily to America’s economy and industrial might just for the sake of a poorly thought-out sound bite. There are, after all, consequences to such posturing. Just ask the thousands of aviation workers now lining up at the employment office.

Fly the Zeppelin!

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

Flying a Zeppelin is, well, a gas. Now you can experience it yourself. When I wrote the feature article in the February issue of AOPA Pilot , pricing and details of the pilot experience program hadn’t been finalized. Now Airship Ventures has the details on its Web site about how you can fly America’s only Zeppelin. For about $3,000 you can spend a day learning about the big airship and then climb aboard and fly it around the San Francisco area. Now, there’s a Father’s Day gift dad will appreciate more than that paisley tie. And don’t forget, Valentine’s Day is even sooner….(note to self, send URL to Brenda!).

Managed maintenance–the next big thing?

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

My 2009 prediction: This will be the year that “managed maintenance” goes from curiosity to mainstream for single-engine piston airplanes. Turbine aircraft owners for years have enjoyed the convenience of “Power by the Hour” maintenance agreements that cover all maintenance issues for engines and airframes. Such programs may not be cheaper than paying for individual maintenance items as they crop up, but the owners of expensive airplanes are willing to pay more for the convenience of being able to budget for maintenance with an assurance that some major gotcha won’t crop up.

Because of such maintenance programs and good maintenance tracking in general, the service life of parts for turbine aircraft is well known and understood. That’s typically not been the case in lighter airplanes. As a result, few companies have been willing to underwrite such programs and owners have typically not been willing to pay more for such convenience.

But that’s changing. Managed maintenance is starting to show up in various forms in the GA market. Cirrus Design, for example, just last week announced its CMX program that at least partially mirrors the turbine programs. Cirrus owners can sign up by paying between $2,900 and $3,900, depending on the model, and then pay between $3,179 and $3,667 for 100-hour blocks of essentially spinner to tailcone coverage for airplanes up to two to three years old. That may sound like a lot, but once you’ve paid the initiation fee it amounts to between $32 and $37 per flight hour for maintenance. Remember, you’re going to be paying something close to that for maintenance one way or another, so those are not all new costs.

SAMM takes another approach. The Savvy Aircraft Maintenance Manager was established by maintenance guru Mike Busch who has forgotten more about how to maintain an airplane than most of us will ever know. Under his program, owners pay his company a fixed annual fee that varies from about $500 for a simple fixed-gear single to $750 for a complex single, to $1,000 for a piston twin and up to $2,000 for a very light jet. For that fee, SAMM staff will manage your maintenance for you, intervening with the shop to make sure you are getting the best deals, hunting down parts, deferring what it determines to be unnecessary maintenance, and generally working on your behalf to assure you are getting a good value for your maintenance dollar. You’re still responsible for the maintenance bill, but in most cases SAMM oversight will reduce your costs enough over the course of the year to pay for itself.

Eastern Cincinnati Aviation, a sister company to Sporty’s Pilot Shop, recently announced a series of concierge services to simplify the life of an aircraft owner. Among them is the review of aircraft records and the creation of a maintenance schedule meant to maximize safety and minimize down time. Other services include such helpful items as putting the airplane into the hangar after flights and looking it over for maintenance squawks to making sure navigation data subscriptions are current and installed.

As a long-time aircraft owner, I have mixed reactions so such programs. I would enjoy the convenience of such services and the ability to budget for maintenance expenses. On the other hand, after all these years of being heavily involved in managing the maintenance–which is time-consuming, for sure–I think I would miss not being so involved.

What do you think? Will such convenience services catch on in a big way?

Business aircraft as scapegoats

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Let’s forgo the debate about what a bad PR move it was for the top executives of the Big Three automakers to each fly a business jet to Washington to plead for money from Congress. And for Ford and GM then to immediately cave in to the resulting media storm and vow to sell their business airplanes and close their flight departments. Chrysler charters business airplanes.

The latest–and most disturbing–news is that the government’s proposal for boot-strapping the manufacturers out of their financial quagmire requires them to sell their airplanes and to not use general aviation aircraft in conducting their business.

Even near bankruptcy, these are still three of the largest companies in the world–with plants, vendors, and customers all over the globe. They have every need for business airplanes. And while charter may be a solution for some situations, for regular users, it doesn’t take long to justify ownership.

Let’s remember that business aviation isn’t just about moving executives around. Business airplanes fly every day with critical replacement parts that keep assembly lines from shutting down. We have personal experience that Ford uses its airplanes that way. Companies move engineers and software specialists to factories to solve critical problems that might otherwise put thousands out of work. Business aviation allows teams of employees to efficiently work while en route to a convenient general aviation airport.

And speaking of efficiency, there are definite advantages to being able to access some 5,000 airports around the country versus only the 500 or so with airline service and only about 70 with frequent airline service–an ever dwindling number as airlines cut service to smaller airports in attempt to improve their own bottom lines. Nearly 100 cities have lost airline service in the last year alone.

Study after study shows that companies that own business aircraft handily outperform competitors in the same field that don’t use business airplanes. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the country and a model of efficient operations, has nearly 4,000 stories and more than 1.3 million employees. How can it manage such far flung operations from Bentonville, Arkansas? By the use of 20 some business jets. Founder Sam Walton was a pilot. The company hired its first corporate pilot in 1969 and has never looked back. As with most companies, Wal-Mart uses its airplanes to efficiently move employees of all levels, not just executives. By one count, 86 percent of the people aboard business airplanes are not at the executive level.

What the American taxpayers want is an efficient use of their tax dollars. What the government is doing with its prohibition on the use of business aviation is hamstringing the auto manufacturers from using a tool that may be valuable in some situations. No one is suggesting that general aviation is the right tool in all cases. Companies operating business aircraft purchase some $12 billion worth of airline tickets annually. Most of the time companies make wise, prudent choices in the use of business aviation–that trip from Detroit to DC being an exception. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Is it just me or are business aircraft just the latest scapegoat for poor business decisions and the desire by some politicians to score some PR points? What do you think?

Making sense of the Eclipse drama

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

You need a score card to keep up with the Eclipse Aviation developments over the last couple of weeks. Two weeks ago the struggling company missed payroll and some workers walked out. But then it got some funding and was able to meet payroll early the next week. Then, great news last week when the company announced that it had received EASA certification and certification of the much needed Avio NG 1.5 avionics system.

As I reported in my pilot report on the Eclipse 500 VLJ in the August issue of AOPA Pilot, Avio NG 1.5 turns the EA500 from a “near jet” to a “real jet.” The 1.5 upgrade places dual Garmin 400 navigators into the panel and upgrades the autopilot to give it the capabilities you would expect from a jet.

This week’s news that the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so that it can keep operating is not exactly a surprise, except maybe in the timing. As I noted in my column in the December issue of Pilot, more than one forecaster was projecting the company would cease operations in the first quarter of 2009. However, the bankruptcy filing may actually buy Eclipse some time to secure enough funding to allow it to emerge free of debt and with a trimmed down business model that allows it to be profitable on a couple of hundred units a year instead of the need to manufacture 1,000 or more a year.

What’s not clear yet is the impact of the filing on current position holders with deposits paid, those who have been seeking refunds since Eclipse raised the price substantially last summer, and those owning the 200 or so Eclipses already produced who need warranty coverage and long-promised Avio NG and other upgrades. My guess is that they will end up at the bottom of the creditors’ list. [Update: Eclipse late Nov. 25 notified Eclipse 500 owners, deposit-holders and those seeking refunds from deposits that they were mostly out in the cold. Warranties won’t be honored nor will contracts related to JetComplete maintenance programs. The individuals will be considered unsecured creditors. For more details, see a copy of the customer letter obtained by AOPA Pilot.]

At this point the only certainty is that there’s more to come in the Eclipse Aviation drama. Stay tuned.

Flying motorcycle the next roadable airplane?

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Speaking of Holy Grail (see my earlier post–hey, you gotta keep up here!), Samson Motorworks claims it has the utmost in roadable aircraft with its new SkyBike. The SkyBike is a three-wheeled, two-seat motorcycle with a telescoping main wing and a canard. Powered by a shrouded single propeller driven by a rotary engine, the vehicle will supposedly fly at 130 mph–although it hasn’t flown yet.

The company is developing several models of the vehicle. The SkyBike is the kitbuilt version and due out first, although exactly when isn’t clear. The SwitchBlade will be the FAA-certified version. The SkyBike prototype is under development at Swift Engineering in San Clemente, California.

The idea is that you drive the vehicle like a motorcycle to the airport. There, you extend the telescoping wings and takeoff. At takeoff, the flat panel instrument display transitions from automotive instruments to aviation instruments.

SkyBike is the brainchild of inventor Sam Bousfield. He claims the canard layout, with main wing in the back, serves a dual purpose. For safe ground design and to reduce the potential for overturning, the center of weight is kept low and to the rear. Having a main rear wing places most of the lift where the majority of the weight is located, complimenting safety on the ground with safety in the air. Additionally, a canard is also stall-resistant, affording an added margin of protection.

The company offers an email newsletter through its site for those who want to follow the project throughout development.

So, what’s your pleasure? Terrafugia’s Transition or Samson’s SkyBike?

Accidental finding may help engines of the future

Monday, November 24th, 2008

The Holy Grail for a new generation of turbine engines is some sort of ceramic surface for turbine blades to allow the engines to run even hotter than they do today with advanced metal alloy blades. A solution, found accidentally in a government lab, may be on the horizon.

It’s sort of a geeky article, but is reporting that scientists at the Department of Energy’s Ames labs discovered the new ceramic alloy by mistake in 1999 when they were attempting to find a substance that would generate electricity when heated. It didn’t work, but the result was an alloy of boron, aluminum, and magnesium–BAM for short. The substance is slicker than Teflon and almost as hard as diamonds. The thinking is that for some applications, simply coating the blades of pumps would allow for longer life and better lubrication.

So if it works there, might it be a solution for turbine blades? Time will tell.


George leaves Joe Pilot at home

Monday, November 17th, 2008

In more than 20 years writing for AOPA Pilot I’ve had the privilege of flying more than 100 models of airplanes. One of the most memorable was a Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats. I spent a couple of days piloting the big airplane around Long Island Sound, even landing on the East River in Manhattan. It was great fun and I was impressed at how easy it was to manage the hulking airplane. It was truly like flying a Cessna 182.

So, too bad that in the future some pilots will miss out on the fun. You see, the U.S. Army is working on a version of the Caravan that will be “optionally-piloted.” That’s Army-speak for remote controlled. Aviation Week and Space Technology is reporting the Army has already flown the Caravan Optionally Piloted Aircraft (COPA). It plans to deploy the COPAs for utility transport in “routine, but sometimes dangerous battlefield and ‘area of interest’ reconnaissance and patrol missions.” Sounds like trying to get into Teterboro at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning.

While remote controlled implies a pilot is required on the ground, COPA will also be configured for possible autonomous missions–meaning you enter the flight plan, wind it up, and let it go. Like a bird-dog, it comes back home after completing its mission.

The Caravan isn’t alone among GA airplanes perhaps destined to leave the pilot behind. Boeing has proposed the use of an unmanned Gulfstream G550 business jet in a military application and the Diamond DA42 piston twin is another that is being developed as an optionally-piloted vehicle. Of course, the real concern is whether these things can truly operate safely autonomously or remotely without the need for airspace restrictions for the rest of us–an ongoing debate.

Makes you wonder what “optionally-piloted” really means. Does it mean you Joe Pilot are welcome to fly, but if you get sleepy or the weather (or lead in the air) gets a little too dicey you can hand the whole mess over to George? Meanwhile, the next day, George may be assigned a mission where Joe gets left home alone to sulk. Not much fun there.

Should we lobby for a new federal mandate: No pilot left behind?

Brave new world!

Hard to beat GA utility

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

It’s hard to believe that more than 31 years after I first soloed an airplane I still get jazzed about how much fun it is to fly general aviation airplanes–and how efficient such flights can be.

A few days ago we had a need to move an airplane from Frederick, Maryland, to Brandywine Airport northwest of Philadelphia. We were taking the airplane to Penn Avionics at OQN for some avionics work. Senior Editor Dave Hirschman (minutes after landing the Sweepstakes Archer on the 20+-hour return from AOPA Expo in San Jose!) posed that we move the airplane to Penn ASAP before the weather went bad. I agreed.

So I fired up my Bonanza at about 4 p.m. and flew in formation with Dave up to Brandywine–about a 35-minute flight. Minutes after landing there, we were southwest bound back to Frederick in the Bonanza, landing at FDK at about 5:45 p.m. after a glorious night flight.

Google Maps shows that driving the trip would take more than 2.5 hours each way, including a circuitous journey around Baltimore. So imagine if you needed something else done around Philadelphia and didn’t have access to an airplane. You’d need most of a business day to accomplish what we did in less than 2 hours.

Days later I’m still thinking, “How cool is that?”

What are your favorite uses for a GA airplane? Share them with us. And don’t forget to let non-pilots know about the Let’s Go Flying! web site where they can learn about the utility of GA flying. We shouldn’t keep this a secret.

Roadable airplane, part deux

Friday, November 7th, 2008

Given the amount of comments to my blog posting on the Terrafugia Transition roadable airplane a few weeks ago, pilots don’t lack for opinions about the project.

I met with Terrafugia CEO/CTO Carl Dietrich at AOPA Expo to learn more about the project. See the story on AOPA Online. Addressing a common thread among the 77 comments to the previous blog posting, Dietrich asserts that the Transition is not meant to be a replacement for a car, but is instead an airplane that can be used on the road. It is a vehicle meant for pilots and not something designed to allow every Pontiac driver to take to the air. It will have a steering wheel for ground operations and a stick for controlling the vehicle in flight.

Dietrich, obviously passionate about the project that he started with three partners, believes the airplane will fly in a few weeks, possibly in early December.