Archive for October, 2013

Carrier Landing

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

2nc0 airportSome airports are just tougher than others. Short, narrow, and high are descriptive terms for Mountain Air (2NC0) in Burnsville, North Carolina. The specs, as currently reported, are a 2,900-foot long by 50-foot wide runway at a 4,432-foot elevation. The private strip is nestled in the mountains with a country club and restaurant overlooking the runway—a ground-based “Vultures Row.” Navy carrier pilots will feel right at home as the watchers grade and comment on every landing. The only thing missing is the closed-circuit TV that records everything for the entire ship to see.
Flying into Mountain Air is definitely an A-game activity, much like a carrier landing. Over the last 19 years, nine accidents were reported—and perhaps a few that didn’t hit the record books (true of all airports). Two were fatal, including one that I wrote about involving a Columbia 350.

All the crashes involved high performance aircraft either going long or over-compensating and winding up short. Included were a Baron, a Comanche, a PC-12, a Mooney, a Saratoga, a Cirrus, the aforementioned Columbia, and a Citation (still scratching my head on that one). The latest is an A36 Bonanza that just crashed this month. No details from official sources yet. You can review the other accidents on the ASI website. By the way, when reviewing airport data from AOPA’s flight planning page on the website, there’s a link to ASI’s airport accident page (look for the ASI logo) that’s an opportunity to not go where others have gone before at any particular airport.

The information for the airport as quoted in one of the NTSB reports: “Mountain Air Country Club Airport, Burnsville, North Carolina, was a private, mountaintop airport with an elevation of 4,436 feet. The paved surface for Runways 32 and 14 was 2,875 feet long and 50 feet wide. Runway 14 began atop a steeply sloping terrace with an abrupt drop-off at the approach end, departure end, and left side of the threshold. The published Airport Information Summary card stated, ‘Runway 32 has an uphill incline of 46 feet. Runway 14, thus, downhill 46 feet. Recommended approach unless there is significant tailwind is runway 32.’ The card also stated, ‘High banks on right hand side of approach ends of both Runways 14 and 32, within 20 feet of edge of pavement… Mountainous terrain in area. Caution: Mountain turbulence, approach downdrafts, density altitude.’”

Several thoughts: One is that the performance data for most Part 23/CAR3 aircraft is a “wee bit optimistic” for most of us as stated in the Truth-in-Performance article. We recommend starting with a 50 percent pad for whatever the manufacturer says to clear the 50-foot obstacle, and then as you get really good maybe scale back a little. Note that approach downdrafts and mountain turbulence are not part of the computations—nor can they be. Do you feel lucky?

Please understand this is not a slam against Mountain Air airport, merely a reminder that sometimes either we or our aircraft may not be up to the task on a given day due to weather, proficiency, or the interaction between the hardware and the available real estate. Sometimes driving up the hill to enjoy the view after landing at the valley airport is a really good idea.

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?