Archive for 2013

Engine Enigma

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Porsche PFM 3200 aircraft engine Technik Museum Speyer, Germany

Last week’s blog generated a number of excellent comments largely to the point that we shouldn’t be paying for all the government we’re getting. Brandon responded that $50K for a Lycoming IO540 was too much and that he could get a similar car engine for about $10K installed. Reading between the lines, perhaps he’s concerned about the FAA’s certification burden on the engine manufacturers. I completely agree with the sentiment, but there are some areas where we really do need bulletproof equipment. There may be some debate whether FAA’s engine directorate is providing that function—I can’t answer that.

But let’s look at the differences between car engines and aircraft powerplants (specifically piston)—they’re not equal. There have been some great automotive conversion experiments but none, to my knowledge, have fully lived up to the promise of being commercially viable.

Car engines typically run at 20 to 30 percent of rated power and almost never hit 100 percent unless you still have teen drag-racing fantasies. Race cars are another place where engines are routinely ridden hard—hold that thought. Aircraft engines operate at 100 percent on every takeoff and then spend most of their lives at 65 to 75 percent.

In the experimental world, VW and Corvair air-cooled engines have been modified with varying degrees of success. Some large block V-8s have also been tinkered with, and I flew an experimental Cessna 172 on a really hot Kansas afternoon with a Ford Escort 4-banger. It had a belt-driven gearbox because the rpm/torque ranges of car engines just won’t work with propellers. You can’t just bolt a prop onto the front. A really stout reduction-gearing system is needed, which impacts cost (significantly) and weight and balance (significantly). Let’s just say that the Escort-powered Cessna’s performance was lackluster, and let it go at that.

Mooney and Porsche conducted perhaps the best commercial experiment in the mid 80’s with a 210-horsepower modified Porsche engine. The engine had a racing heritage and thus was theoretically capable of operating in those high percentage ranges. Apparently a thermodynamic barrier wasn’t factored in. If you ran the car at 100 miles per hour the fuel burn would probably be in the 5 to 6 gph range (racers help me out). The airplane needed about 11 gph and it was designed to go 2,000 hours TBO. Most race car engines might last for a couple of races and then be replaced—not the typical aviation profile.

Too many of Mooney’s Porsche engines were shelling out at 400 to 600 hours. It was a marketing disaster, and Mooney PFMs were retrofitted with big bore Continentals at the factory’s expense.

Now to Brandon’s point, the Porsche engine was certified but not especially reliable. Our experience with old technology engines is generally good. The manufacturers have some other economic realities that have nothing to do with the FAA: product liability and low volume. As I’ve said all along, the aviation cost challenges are multi-faceted, and if they were easy to address they would have been. That said—we shouldn’t stop trying. I don’t like the alternative.

Balance Point—Safety Vs. Cost

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

iStock_000001618028XSmallBetween the sequester and the government shutdown, the endless summer of taxpayer and user funding has dried up. By the time you read this, the debt-limit crisis will be deferred or exacerbated. Mark Baker, AOPA’s new president, noted on several occasions during last week’s Summit that the FAA has some tough choices to make.

The FAA has many essential roles in the functioning of the national airspace system, aircraft certification, and safety efforts. But there are others that merely add to paperwork and payroll.

Here are a few items that I’d like to see the leadership address in collaboration with the users:

  1. AOPA and EAA’s petition for the third-class medical exemption should be approved. The number of annual pilot-incapacitation accidents is down in the “noise level.” That’s a technical statistical term meaning we can hardly measure it! Several friends, who also happen to be aviation docs, have openly admitted their inability to prognosticate when a pilot will physically dope off in flight. More than a few mentally drop off line in the judgment department—and we can’t predict that either!

    During the last nine years, the light sport aircraft (LSA) “experiment” in medical self-certification has been a success by any measure. Lighter-than-air and glider pilots have always had this privilege and guess what? No carnage. The medical certification process costs the FAA millions and the pilot community many more millions, and it provides little safety benefit. Time for a change?

  2. Part 23 rewrite—lower the cost of GA aircraft both for initial construction and for retrofit. Mods to old aircraft today must meet current specs even though the proposed modification might be a huge improvement over original equipment. But if the new product does not quite measure up to the current rule—the perfect being the enemy of the good—no dice. The current GA business model for light aircraft does not work. The Cessna 172 should be renamed the C-374K, which is about what a new one costs these days. Cessna is not alone and there are many reasons why the costs are high, ranging from product liability to excessive overhead. But we can start with some common sense on design and retrofit. Time for a change?
  3. Stop the re-issuance of flight instructor certificates. I’ve been confused for decades as to why the FAA felt it necessary to reissue flight instructor certificates every two years. There is no quibble with the requirement for a biennial CFI refresher but we don’t need a new certificate. It should be handled like pilot currency. You may not act as a CFI if you haven’t attended a flight instructor refresher course (FIRC) or otherwise renewed your certificate, but we don’t need a new piece of plastic to verify that someone is current. A decade ago we estimated that thousands of hours of FAA time went in to this with no measurable benefit to safety. Time for a change?
  4. Right size the number of towered airports. Let’s drop the charade that all or no towered airports are expendable. There are legitimate criteria that go beyond several air carrier flights per day, or that a location is GA only, or that it’s a contract or federally staffed tower. Activity, traffic mix, and complex airspace are starting points for a reasonable discussion. And some of the big airports probably don’t need staffing around the clock. Most places except the freight hubs could close up at midnight and reopen at five a.m. Time for a change?
  5. Your turn to add or subtract from the list. It’s a guarantee that services will be cut—seems like we should be at the table to say what’s needed and what we can do without. Where can the industry or pilot community pick up where the FAA leaves off?


Politics and Safety—Santa Monica

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

SSGN Poster_BLUE_smallWhat follows is my op-ed piece scheduled to appear in the Santa Monica Mirror on Friday, October 11. All pilots should be interested when politics start to trump safety and operational considerations. We understand the problems at SMO caused by decades of poor zoning—there are strong viewpoints on both sides. There are also legal considerations and binding contracts. That is a battle for AOPA. The Air Safety Institute will stick to safety by presenting a safety seminar in Santa Monica at the end of the month for area pilots:

“While an aircraft accident that results in a loss of life is an obvious tragedy, it should never become an opportunity to score political points with wild speculation. But that quickly became the case in Santa Monica last week.

Led by Airport Commission Chairman David Goddard, one has to question the motives and sense of decency of those who are so anxious to close Santa Monica Airport that they will rush out in front of television cameras even as the wreckage is still smoldering.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, “Goddard estimated that the crash site was about 150 feet from residences. Had the plane not hit the hangar, it could have gone up an embankment and gotten over a wall before slamming into homes, he said.”

A key word there is “estimated” and dealing in hypotheticals of what could have happened is absurd before the NTSB firmly concludes probable cause. Goddard is perhaps the only airport commissioner in the nation intent on closing his own airport with innuendo.

What is factual is that the Sept. 29 aircraft accident was entirely contained on the airport, causing no harm to those living nearby. The airport is separated from homes by trees, an uphill embankment, a hefty brick wall, and a road.

The exaggerations did not stop with Goddard. Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Bonin was quoted as calling for the airport to close, saying that “There have been more than 80 crashes related to this airport since 1982.”

Records show otherwise. Contrary to L.A. Councilman Bonin’s claims, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) data shows there have been 38 accidents since 1982, 25 of them contained on the field itself. And, there has never been an off-airport fatality associated with aviation activities in recorded history.

emas_runwayWhat is even more disturbing than airport and city officials taking advantage of this accident to further their political agenda, is their refusal of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) offer to install aircraft arresting material. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) called for the FAA to install an engineered material arresting system, or EMAS. It is collapsible material placed at the end of runways that slow or stop aircraft in an emergency. The FAA offered to install EMAS at Santa Monica, numerous times. The city has rejected all such offers. If they are truly concerned with safety, why not?

Incidentally, Rep. Waxman is again calling for more safeguards. We think it’s time the city accepts the FAA’s offer.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is keenly aware of the concerns that involve airports and communities. We work with airport communities on a daily basis and we understand full well the concerns of those who live near airports. But other cities and residents have found workable solutions that allow their airports to continue to thrive and contribute to the community’s well-being. So can Santa Monica.”