Ron Rapp

Contracting: A Great Career Option for the Professional Pilot

April 16th, 2014 by Ron Rapp

As much as one may love flying, it can be a tough career choice. Many pilots struggle through the food chain only to end up discouraged, if not downright hating their job. We’re all aware of the reasons: low pay, long days, little respect, too much time away from home, difficult working conditions, commuting, regulatory hassles, bankruptcies, furloughs, and ruinously expensive training.

Quite a list, isn’t it?

Ours is a small community; word gets around, and it begs the question, how many have bypassed a flying career altogether because of it? I once read a survey suggesting that most pilots would not recommend the field to their children. Of course, many vocations are in this rickety boat. Even formerly high-flying professions like physician and attorney have lost their luster. The message: “it ain’t what it used to be”.

On the other hand, life is often what we make of it. From bush flying to firefighting, there are many different gigs out there for those willing to take Frost’s road-less-traveled. For the past three years, for example, I’ve been flying as a “contract pilot” and truly enjoy it.

The Contractor

Ready to Ride

It’s kind of a generic term, since anyone who flies as an independent contractor rather than a traditional, W-2 employee fits the definition, but I’ll focus on Part 91 and 135 corporate/charter flying because that’s what I know best.

Contract pilots function as a kind of overflow labor. Operators might need temporary help in the cockpit for a variety of reasons: a full-timer is sick, on vacation, leaves the company, times out due to regulatory limitations, or is unavailable for some other reason. God forbid, maybe they ran into trouble with a checkride or medical exam. Perhaps a trip requires multiple pilots due to length or logistics.

Some companies find it advantageous to run tight on full-time labor and supplement with contract pilots since there are no annual costs for training or benefits. They only have to pay contractors when they’re actually used, so as the flight schedule ebbs and flows, they can gracefully scale their workforce up or down without the inefficiency of, say, leaving full-time, salaried pilots sitting at home for an extended period.

For the pilot, there are both pros and cons to life as a contractor.

The Pros

  • You’ve got some control over your schedule and can decline trips. I really hate doing that, because a) I don’t want the company to stop calling me, and b) you never know when things will slow down, so it’s smart to sock away some acorns for the winter. But if you’ve got a big vacation planned or your best friend is getting married? You’re ultimately in control.
  • We can work for multiple operators, which can provide a bit of protection if the flying slows down at one company.
  • You aren’t tied to a seniority system. If you’re an experienced captain at company A, you needn’t start over as the lowest-paid right seater at company B.
  • Contractors earn far more per day than full-time employees, and therefore needn’t work as many days to reach a given income level. That means better quality of life, especially if you’re married and/or have kids.
  • Contract pilots are typically paid by the day. I might have a five day trip consisting of a flight to Hawaii followed by three days on the island before flying home. That’s five days “on the clock”. It can be a more lucrative system than one where you are compensated based on flight hours. Operators are essentially purchasing your time.
  • You’ll travel the country, if not the world. Instead of a few major airports, on larger aircraft like the Gulfstream, you’ll see places you’d never dream of. Though I haven’t been there — yet — North Korea and the South Pole have both been on the table. (Random note: Jeppesen does publish charts and procedures for Pyonyang!)
  • I always get an honest sense of gratitude from the operators for whom I fly, because by definition I’m helping them out when they really need a pilot. For example, I recently got a call from a Part 91 Gulfstream operator whose pilot broke his arm in the middle of a trip. I airlined out the same day and flew that evening’s leg to Las Vegas, keeping the aircraft on schedule.

The Cons

You knew there had to be a few, right?

  • Contractors inherit all the hassles of being your own boss. Does anyone work harder? From providing your own benefits (don’t get me started about healthcare) to paying self-employment taxes, it’s not always the carefree work-and-go-home experience of a full-time employee.
  • You pay for your own training. On a jet, the annual recurrent training costs run in the thousands. I currently allot $15,000/year for recurrent training and associated costs (airfare, hotels, food, incidentals) on my airplane. The expenses are deductible, which helps a bit, but I figure my first month’s work each year is spent digging my way back to financial “zero”.
  • You can’t control when the phone rings. That can mean short-notice trips and/or weird hours.
  • It can be hard to plan your life out when you never know what days you’ll be working. I average about 10 days a month away, so my philosophy has been to just plan my social life as usual, and make sure people know I sometimes have to reschedule or cancel.
  • Work can conflict with itself. I’ve had three operators call me for a trip on the same day. I can only be in one place at at time, so I “missed out” on two of them.
  • No guarantee of work. But then, history has shown that there are no guarantees in life or aviation for anyone, are there?
  • It can be tough getting started. As with many careers, the best entrée is knowing someone who can get you in the door. Initial start-up costs of obtaining a type rating can be a major barrier.

Throttles

I like contracting because when a trip is offered I know it’s because the operator wants to use me rather than has to use me. Contracting represents some of the best that flying has to offer: adventure, interesting destinations and passengers, phenomenal aircraft, and decent pay for the work I do.

So why don’t more people jump into contracting? Awareness, for starters. Not everyone knows about this little niche. Also, it can be tough to break in to the business. You don’t have to know someone on the inside, but it certainly helps.

The initial expense is probably the largest impediment. The best compensation is found on the larger aircraft, and that means an expensive type rating funded solely by the contractor. Some pilots speculate on their ability to get work by obtaining the type before they have a job to use it on. Unless you’re well-heeled, that’s a big financial risk, but it works out for some people.

There is a rather circuitous way around the type rating burden: start off as a salaried employee and switch to contracting after a couple of years. That way the operator pays for your training and in exchange you accumulate a significant body of experience on the airplane.

FAA to the Rescue! Not.

I should note that contracting in the Part 135 world is a bit harder than it used to be. In the old days, if you were typed and current on an aircraft, you could fly for any charter company that operated that kind of plane. It wasn’t uncommon for a contract pilot to fly for several operators. A few years ago — for reasons no one has been able to adequately explain — the FAA essentially did away with that capability.

Today, a five-figure recurrent only entitles you to work for the certificate holder under whom you trained. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran of ten years and 10,000 hours in a Gulfstream IV; if you went to recurrent on Company A’s OpSpec, as far as the FAA is concerned, when you move to Company B you are completely unqualified to operate a G-IV on any Part 135 flight until you’ve been through another recurrent… at your own expense, of course.

At first, this seemed like a potential deal-breaker for contract pilots, but it can help as much as it hurts. Just as the change make it harder for a contractor to work for multiple operators, it also makes it more challenging for that operator to replace a contract pilot since a successor wouldn’t be legal to fly until they went back for recurrent training.

Walking the Aviation Tightrope

Contracting does have something in common with scheduled airlines: it’s not right for everyone. If you’re the type that wants a fixed schedule or has to know exactly how much your bi-weekly paycheck is going to be, this ain’t the place. In addition to all the attributes of a good corporate or charter pilot, contracting requires the ability to run a business and cope with uneven income. Some months will be fantastic. Others, not so much. Even when business is slow, though, I get something valuable: more time at home with friends and family. Like I said at the top, life is what you make of it.

But the ability to earn a six figure income right off the bat while working a relatively small number of days? For me at least, it’s more than worth it. What I want in my flying carer is sustainability, the capacity to survive on this aviation tightrope, and ironically that’s what contracting provides. I want to fly without hating it, and that means avoiding the soul-crushing schedule and monotony of many professional flying jobs.

Mike Busch

How Do Piston Aircraft Engines Fail?

April 9th, 2014 by Mike Busch

Last month, I tried to make the case that piston aircraft engines should be overhauled strictly on-condition, not at some fixed TBO. If we’re going to do that, we need to understand how these engines fail and how we can protect ourselves against such failures. The RCM way of doing that is called Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA), and involves examining each critical component of these engines and looking at how they fail, what consequences those failures have, and what practical and cost-efficient maintenance actions we can take to prevent or mitigate those failures. Here’s my quick back-of-the-envelope attempt at doing that…

Crankshaft

CrankshaftsThere’s no more serious failure mode than crankshaft failure. If it fails, the engine quits.

Yet crankshafts are rarely replaced at overhaul. Lycoming did a study that showed their crankshafts often remain in service for more than 14,000 hours (that’s 7+ TBOs) and 50 years. Continental hasn’t published any data on this, but their crankshafts probably have similar longevity.

Crankshafts fail in three ways: (1) infant-mortality failures due to improper materials or manufacture; (2) failures following unreported prop strikes; and (3) failures secondary to oil starvation and/or bearing failure.

Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen a rash of infant-mortality failures of crankshafts. Both Cnntinental and Lycoming have had major recalls of crankshafts that were either forged from bad steel or were damaged during manufacture. These failures invariably occurred within the first 200 hours after the new crankshaft entered service. If the crankshaft survived its first 200 hours, we can be confident that it was manufactured correctly and should perform reliably for numerous TBOs.

Unreported prop strikes seem to be getting rare because owners and mechanics are becoming smarter about the high risk of operating an engine after a prop strike. There’s now an AD mandating a post-prop-strike engine teardown for Lycoming engines, and a strongly worded service bulletin for Continental engines. Insurance will always pay for the teardown and any necessary repairs, so it’s a no-brainer.

That leaves failures due to oil starvation and/or bearing failure. I’ll address that shortly.

Crankcase halvesCrankcase

Crankcases are also rarely replaced at major overhaul. They are typically repaired as necessary, align-bored to restore critical fits and limits, and often provide reliable service for many TBOs. If the case remains in service long enough, it will eventually crack. The good news is that case cracks propagate slowly enough that a detailed visual inspection once a year is sufficient to detect such cracks before they pose a threat to safety. Engine failures caused by case cracks are extremely rare—so rare that I don’t think I ever remember hearing or reading about one.

Lycoming cam and lifterCamshaft and Lifters

The cam/lifter interface endures more pressure and friction than any other moving parts n the engine. The cam lobes and lifter faces must be hard and smooth in order to function and survive. Even tiny corrosion pits (caused by disuse or acid buildup in the oil) can lead to rapid destruction (spalling) of the surfaces and dictate the need for a premature engine teardown. Cam and lifter spalling is the number one reason that engines fail to make TBO, and it’s becoming an epidemic in the owner-flown fleet where aircraft tend to fly irregularly and sit unflown for weeks at a time.

The good news is that cam and lifter problems almost never cause catastrophic engine failures. Even with a badly spalled cam lobe (like the one pictured at right), the engine continues to run and make good power. Typically, a problem like this is discovered at a routine oil change when the oil filter is cut open and found to contain a substantial quantity of ferrous metal, or else a cylinder is removed for some reason and the worn cam lobe can be inspected visually.

If the engine is flown regularly, the cam and lifters can remain in pristine condition for thousands of hours. At overhaul, the cam and lifters are often replaced with new ones, although a reground cam and reground lifters are sometimes used and can be just as reliable.

Gears

The engine has lots of gears: crankshaft and camshaft gears, oil pump gears, accessory drive gears for fuel pump, magnetos, prop governor, and sometimes alternator. These gears are made of case-hardened steel and typically have a very long useful life. They are not usually replaced at overhaul unless obvious damage is found. Engine gears rarely cause catastrophic engine failures.

Oil Pump

Failure of the oil pump is rarely responsible for catastrophic engine failures. If oil pressure is lost, the engine will seize quickly. But the oil pump is dead-simple, consisting of two steel gears inside a close-tolerance aluminum housing, and usually operates trouble free. The pump housing can get scored if a chunk of metal passes through the oil pump—although the oil pickup tube has a suction screen to make sure that doesn’t happen—but even if the pump housing is damaged, the pump normally has ample output to maintain adequate oil pressure in flight, and the problem is mainly noticeable during idle and taxi. If the pump output seems deficient at idle, the oil pump housing can be removed and replaced without tearing down the engine.

spun main bearingBearings

Bearing failure is responsible for a significant number of catastrophic engine failures. Under normal circumstances, bearings have a long useful life. They are always replaced at major overhaul, but it’s not unusual for bearings removed at overhaul to be in pristine condition with little detectable wear.

Bearings fail prematurely for three reasons: (1) they become contaminated with metal from some other failure; (2) they become oil-starved when oil pressure is lost; or (3) main bearings become oil-starved because they shift in their crankcase supports to the point where their oil supply holes become misaligned (as with the “spun bearing” pictured at right).

Contamination failures can generally be prevented by using a full-flow oil filter and inspecting the filter for metal at every oil change. So long as the filter is changed before its filtering capacity is exceeded, metal particles will be caught by the filter and won’t get into the engine’s oil galleries and contaminate the bearings. If a significant quantity of metal is found in the filter, the aircraft should be grounded until the source of the metal is found and corrected.

Oil-starvation failures are fairly rare. Pilots tend to be well-trained to respond to decreasing oil pressure by reducing power and landing at the first opportunity. Bearings will continue to function properly at partial power even with fairly low oil pressure.

Spun bearings are usually infant-mortality failures that occur either shortly after an engine is overhauled (due to an assembly error) or shortly after cylinder replacement (due to lack of preload on the through bolts). Failures occasionally occur after a long period of crankcase fretting, but such fretting is usually detectable through oil filter inspection and oil analysis).They can also occur after extreme unpreheated cold starts, but that is quite rare.

Thrown Connecting RodConnecting Rods

Connecting rod failure is responsible for a significant number of catastrophic engine failures. When a rod fails in flight, it often punches a hole in the crankcase (“thrown rod”) and causes loss of engine oil and subsequent oil starvation. Rod failure have also been known to cause camshaft breakage. The result is invariably a rapid and often total loss of engine power.

Connecting rods usually have a long useful life and are not normally replaced at overhaul. (Rod bearings, like all bearings, are always replaced at overhaul.) Many rod failures are infant-mortality failures caused by improper tightening of the rod cap bolts during engine assembly. Rod failures can also be caused by the failure of the rod bearings, often due to oil starvation. Such failures are usually random failures unrelated to time since overhaul.

Pistons and Rings

Piston and ring failures usually cause only partial power loss, but in rare cases can cause complete power loss. Piston and ring failures are of two types: (1) infant-mortality failures due to improper manufacturer or assembly; and (2) heat-distress failures caused by pre-ignition or destructive detonation events. Heat-distress failures can be caused by contaminated fuel (e.g., 100LL laced with Jet A), or by improper engine operation. They are generally unrelated to hours or years since overhaul. A digital engine monitor can alert the pilot to pre-ignition or destructive detonation events in time for the pilot to take corrective action before heat-distress damage is done.

Head SeparationCylinders

Cylinder failures usually cause only partial power loss, but occasionaly can cause complete power loss. A cylinder consists of a forged steel barrel mated to an aluminum alloy head casting. Cylinder barrels typically wear slowly, and excessive wear is detected at annual inspection by means of compression tests and borescope inspections. Cylinder heads can suffer fatigue failures, and occasionally the head can separate from the barrel. As dramatic as it sounds, a head separation causes only a partial loss of power; a six-cylinder engine with a head-to-barrel separation can still make better than 80% power. Cylinder failures can be infant-mortality failures (due to improper manufacture) or age-related failures (especially if the cylinder head remains in service for more than two or three TBOs). Nowadays, most major overhauls include new cylinders, so age-related cylinder failures have become quite rare.

Broken Exhaust ValveValves and Valve Guides

It is quite common for exhaust valves and valve guides to develop problems well short of TBO. Actual valve failures are becoming much less common nowadays because incipient problems can usually be detected by means of borescope inspections and digital engine monitor surveillance. Even if a valve fails completely, the result is usually only partial power loss and an on-airport emergency landing.

Rocker Arms and Pushrods

Rocker arms and pushrods (which operate the valves) typically have a long useful life and are not normally replaced at overhaul. (Rocker bushings, like all bearings, are always replaced at overhaul.) Rocker arm failure is quite rare. Pushrod failures are caused by stuck valves, and can almost always be avoided through regular borescope inspections. Even when they happen, such failures usually result in only partial power loss.

Failed Mag Distributor GearsMagnetos and Other Ignition Components

Magneto failure is uncomfortably commonplace. Mags are full of plastic components that are less than robust; plastic is used because it’s non-conductive. Fortunately, our aircraft engines are equipped with dual magnetos for redundancy, and the probability of both magnetos failing simultaneously is extremely remote. Mag checks during preflight runup can detect gross ignition system failures, but in-flight mag checks are far better at detecting subtle or incipient failures. Digital engine monitors can reliably detect ignition system malfunctions in real time if the pilot is trained to interpret the data. Magnetos should religiously be disassembled, inspected and serviced every 500 hours; doing so drastically reduces the likelihood of an in-flight magneto failure.

The Bottom Line

The bottom-end components of our piston aircraft engines—crankcase, crankshaft, camshaft, bearings, gears, oil pump, etc.—are very robust. They normally exhibit long useful life that are many multiples of published TBOs. Most of these bottom-end components (with the notable exception of bearings) are routinely reused at major overhaul and not replaced on a routine basis. When these items do fail prematurely, the failures are mostly infant-mortality failures that occur shortly after the engine is built, rebuilt or overhauled, or they are random failures unrelated to hours or years in service. The vast majority of random failures can be detected long before they get bad enough to cause an in-flight engine failure simply by means of routine oil-filter inspection and laboratory oil analysis.

The top-end components—pistons, cylinders, valves, etc.—are considerably less robust. It is not at all unusual for top-end components to fail prior to TBO. However, most of these failures can be prevented by regular borescope inspections and by use of modern digital engine monitors. Even whey they happen, top-end failures usually result in only partial power loss and a successful on-airport landing, and they usually can be resolved without having to remove the engine from the aircraft and sending it to an engine shop. Most top-end failures are infant-mortality or random failures that do not correlate with time since overhaul.

The bottom line is that a detailed FMEA of piston aircraft engines strongly suggests that the traditional practice of fixed-interval engine overhaul or replacement is unwarranted and counterproductive. A conscientiously applied program of condition monitoring that includes regular oil filter inspection, oil analysis, borescope inspections and digital engine monitor data analysis can yield improved reliability and much reduced expense and downtime.

Jolie Lucas

Community Events Make Airport Good Neighbor pt. 2

April 4th, 2014 by Jolie Lucas

 

Fight to keep your airport an airport

Engage to keep your airport an airport!

Last month we talked about airport days, charitable events such as Toys for Tots, and Fly-In Movie Night as ways to get the public out to your local airport.  This month we will follow up with part two focusing on some more complex strategies that will yield even better results.

Young Aviator Camp: Approach your local YMCA, Parks and Recreation, or Boys and Girls Club and ask about putting on a day camp for children.  Most airports have a green space, campground or empty hangar that can be used as a classroom area. Topics could include: What is General Aviation?, Fundamentals of Flight, Basic Navigation, Mechanics, How to Become a Pilot, Careers in Aviation, and Charitable Flying.

Young Eagles: EAA chapters have a tremendous amount of impact on the youth in our local communities when they hold a Young Eagles day. EAA Chapter 92’s Robert Baker reports on their recent Saturday event, “Fantastic day at Chino today. Beautiful weather, beautiful kids and parents, the beautiful Planes of Fame Air Museum and especially our awesome beautiful EAA 92 Ground Crew and Pilots. We really showed our passion for aviation, educating and flying over 60 Young Eagles and chapter friends.” You will be tired after a day-long event like this, that takes weeks to plan. But you will be what I call “happy-tired.”

Young Eagle Ground School

Young Eagle Ground School

Public Radio and Television: Public radio and television are oftentimes overlooked by those of us in general aviation, yet they are constantly on the look out for community based stories.  Why not contact your local station about an upcoming event at your airport?  EAA 92 mentioned above, had their Young Eagles event filmed for an upcoming segment on PBS.

4-H Aero, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts: Both Boy and Girl Scouts have merit badges in Aviation.  Why not offer a daylong workshop to help the kids get their badges?

Service Club Speaker: Why not talk with your local service club, or chamber of commerce about using YOU as a speaker?  This is a perfect opportunity to talk with a captive audience about the value of general aviation and general aviation airports.

Emergency Responder Appreciation Event: Each of our communities have unsung heroes. Our local emergency responders might love to come to the airport for an Appreciation Event.  Why not have a pancake breakfast, spaghetti feed, or burger fry and invite your local ambulance, search and rescue, law enforcement pilots, fire fighters and other emergency responders.  If you don’t feel like cooking, perhaps speak to your local Rotary, Lions Club, American Legion, Masons or Elks Club about cooking.

School Assemblies: Elementary schools have requirements about science education.  Aviation falls into that category.  Why not talk with your local principal about doing a fundamentals of flight assembly for your local school?  You could have RC models to illustrate lift, thrust, drag and gravity.  Perhaps you could show our promotional video “What is General Aviation?”  End your presentation with ways that the children can come to your airport. Remember children, bring their parents!

Young Eagle Pilot Joe Finnell

Young Eagle Pilot Joe Finnell

Becoming a living definition of General Aviation

In order to promote General Aviation, we need to define it for the non-flying public effectively.  It is very important to be positive and focus on the ways that G.A. helps our communities and our citizens.  When I meet someone at a Mooney Ambassador event I ask if they are a pilot, or know a pilot.  If not a pilot, I ask if they ever wanted to learn how to fly.  If yes, have they made steps toward learning, and if not, why not?   Even those folks who do not wish to become pilots would benefit from knowing how General Aviation affects them on a daily basis.

Do Something! “That’ll Never Happen Here” is something that I hear a lot.  Whether “that” is an airport closure, runway closure, or flight restriction, we need to be on guard for apathy in our pilot population.  What is the opposite of Apathy?  Passion! Mobilize volunteers, organize and overcome apathy.  Please make a commitment today to inspire the love of flight.

 

 

Jack Olcott

Why I Am Not Surprise, Just Disappointed

April 4th, 2014 by Jack Olcott

Each morning I read a New York newspaper that is world renowned for its journalistic excellence but is often taken to task by conservatives.  Its coverage is complete, and for the most part its articles are well researched.   Recently, however, an Op Ed writer demonstrated a stereotype and uninformed attitude toward corporate jets, as if those two words were an affront to America.

 

Segments of the press as well as parts of the Obama Administration seem to have a blind eye toward the role that Business Aviation plays in the economic growth and quality of life of our nation.  Transportation is an enabling technology for business success.  Without the ability to bring the ebb and flow of commerce to all of America, including those rural areas where workers are available and quality of life is good, our nation would concentrate industry in locations served only by the Airlines.  In addition to limited economic development, such massing of industry in urban centers would lead to more congestion and other social problems.

 

Scheduled Airlines provide service to about 10 percent of the locations in the USA with public-use airports, but most business-friendly schedules connect about 1 percent of cities and towns with airports available to business.   Consider that statistic—99 locations out of every 100 with public-use airports lack business-friendly service by scheduled Airlines.  Except between major hubs, scheduled air carriers are unable to facilitate efficient business travel for companies that wish to see customers or manage employees in several cities in one day or avoid time-consuming overnight stays.

 

Furthermore, the scheduled Airlines do not want to serve locations where the demand for public air transportation is low.  Even at major hubs, schedules have been cut to assure higher load factors. Airline departures from secondary hubs have been reduced by over 20 percent in the last five or so years.  The Airline business model simply does not address many needs of business.  Our nation requires Business Aviation to fill the transportation gap not served by the Airlines.  In fact, the Airlines and Business Aviation are partners in providing our nation with safe and efficient transportation needed for economic development.

 

Critics argue that owners of corporate jets get unfair tax breaks and do not pay their fair share for use of the nation’s Air Traffic Control system.  They fail to realize, or acknowledge, that a business aircraft is treated like other capital assets.  To be subject to the tax rules for depreciation and deductions of operating costs, the asset must be ordinary and necessary to the furtherance of the company’s business.  Business use must be the primary reason for the company’s ownership, and when used personally appropriate adjustments must be made to the company’s and the individual’s tax liabilities. If a company provides too much personal use, the corporate jet is not considered a business asset.

 

I believe a corporate jet receives greater scrutiny than any other company asset.  The IRS is quick to examine any claims to deduct aircraft expenses.  Shareholders often exhibit the same skepticism as the press and the government.  Thus Boards of Directors are very careful that a corporate jet is managed with a degree of professionalism and honesty that passes the most careful review.

 

The fare-share issue has been well vetted.  All users of corporate jets pay a fuel tax that compensates the government for Business Aviation’s marginal use of an ATC system that would exist even if all corporate jets and private aircraft were grounded.

 

Regarding the use of a corporate jet to assure efficient use of time and to provide security while traveling, no one seems to question why our nation’s CEO must use Air Force One.   Nor should critics of Business Aviation fail to attribute the same needs to company CEOs.

 

I urge all who understand and appreciate the benefits of Business Aviation to inform friends and colleagues about the reasons why corporate jets are beneficial to our nation’s wellbeing, even for the many citizens who do not use them directly.  (The company with a business aircraft may well be their employer or customer.)  By doing so, we who believe in Business Aviation’s many benefits to our nation may not be so disappointed when a respected journalist addresses corporate jets.

John Petersen

Why Pilots and Planes Will Become Obsolete In The Near Future . . . And What We Can Do About It (Part 2)

April 2nd, 2014 by John Petersen

Within the context of rapidly accelerating breakthroughs (and the erosion of the legacy systems) a number of trends have established themselves that will have direct impact on the future of GA. In addition to technological changes, which we covered last month here, the following weak signals or early indicators are harbingers of what are sure to become larger, converging forces that will usher in a new era in aviation.

Economics
The economics of GA are rapidly shifting – toward China. Many well-known brands (Cirrus, Glastar, Continental et. al.) are already owned by Chinese companies and almost every jet manufacturer is doing some kind of joint venture with Chinese manufacturers and sales organizations. Many of these companies are owned by the government of China and as they gather the knowledge and intellectual property associated with building and selling GA aircraft the manufacturing will move away from the more expensive U.S. base and the ability of American companies to compete will rapidly decrease. The present industry is moving offshore.

Government
The unprecedented initiatives by the U.S. government to counter “terrorism” in the last decade are cutting off the natural ways in which young people historically became interested in and familiar with aviation. The fences around almost all airports guarantee that no youngsters can sit on the grass watching touch-and-goes or wander or into a hangar and strike up a relationship with an airplane owner. This is effectively cutting off one of the largest historical sources of pilots and eliminating the possible budding interest in aviation that the present community has been based upon.

Social
At the same time, social culture is changing and flying an airplane is not as interesting and exciting as it was to earlier generations. Time magazine, for example, has claimed that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have replaced the car culture of the past, allowing teens to connect with each other without needing a car. The same could be said for the perceived value of an aircraft.

There are a number of other contributing forces, but you get the idea. Big change is in the works that is going to reconfigure how airplanes work and the relationship of pilots to them. It is inevitable.

What to do
We’re essentially behind the power curve. Increased efforts to revive the familiar past will necessarily fail as the embedded driving forces inexorably reconfigure both the rules and playing field. What we must do is innovate our way into a new era that allows American companies to invent the next variant of personal air transportation. We must redefine what airplanes and pilots are. This is the only solution – invent a new future.

As it happens, the pieces are available to begin to do that. Predictably the solution revolves around some of the key aspects of the present system: image of flying, cost of entry (expense and effort associated with training), cost of aircraft, interface with the government, etc.

If GA is not to become a bunch of old guys flying old airplanes then we must reposition general aviation in such a way that it appeals to younger generations. Here is a plan.

  • Begin by building a coherent vision for the next era. Take a systematic look at the trends in place, both positive and negative, and then build an integrated and plausible picture of what we would prefer a new future to look like. The vision would particularly include a considered notion of how general aviation could augment the lives of young people in a new way that was consistent with the current trends that inform their lives. This will take time and concerted effort.
  • Identify what needs to happen to enable the new vision to emerge. Include issues related to: appeal and perceived value, barriers to entry, cost of operation, new technologies, interface with the US government, ability to change, etc.
  • Develop a new positioning for U.S. general aviation. Work with appropriate professionals to discover the best, next image for GA – something that particularly appeals to the market of prospective pilots/owners.
  • Generate buy-in by the present U.S. aviation community. Sell the new approach to the major stakeholders within the GA community. Develop high level buy-in.
  • Cluster resources around required key capabilities or issues that must be addressed. Constitute interest groups around necessary areas of effort. Work with funding sources like NASA to funnel development resources to high impact and leverage areas.
  • Find and encourage incentives. Work with government agencies to develop incentives focused on solutions for key capabilities or issues.
  • Generate early successes. Emphasize areas of effort that will produce rapid, positive results.
  • Undertake a campaign to reposition GA in the minds of new prospects. Develop a major communications campaign aimed at changing the minds of target Americans about the value, accessibility and benefit of GA.

Make no mistake about it, this is a big deal. It is nothing less than an industry/ community-wide effort to remake general aviation, both internally and in the minds of Americans. It would cost a lot of time and money but it would be worth it.

This is about redirecting the future into a direction that is different from where it is now headed. It’s possible to do, in fact, many large corporations and industries have reinvented themselves in the past. So, now is the time for GA to invent its next life. The longer we wait, the harder, more expensive and less likely it will become.

Amy Laboda

Look out for Big Blue!

March 31st, 2014 by Amy Laboda

I remember watching with amazement as a rather large (in comparison to other aircraft in the pattern) silhouette of a JetBlue Airbus A-320 lumbered onto final during the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In last year.  It startled more than one uninformed show-goer as it settled to the runway.

The flight, which had come from Orlando International Airport, was full of teenagers, some who were flying in an airplane for the very first time. It was the brainchild of JetBlue and a host of other aviation youth organizations and aviation academies and public schools throughout the country. The 70 students on board that day were released to tour the Sun ‘n Fun grounds, to discover what aviation was about, from the ground on up.

“When we were coming down on the airplane, they [kids] wanted to sit on the wing to actually look at the wing as it operates in flight so they could see what we talk about in school; flaps moving, thrust reversers moving,” said Anthony Colucci, a teacher at Aviation High School, in Long Island City, New York, who brought several teens.

The kids were easy enough to spot in the crowd, wearing their JetBlue caps. But they weren’t alone. Mixed into the general attendance were a few other teens, some older, some younger, brought in by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (which sponsors an aviation summer

JetBlue brought an Airbus full of teens to Sun 'n Fun to teach them about aviation.

JetBlue brought an Airbus full of teens to Sun ‘n Fun to teach them about aviation.

camp and aviation high schools in several locations around the country), several Aviation Explorer groups, Civil Air Patrol youth divisions, the Air Force Academy, Build-A-Plane, Eagle’s Nest youth groups and the charter school Central Florida Aerospace Academy, founded right on the grounds of Sun ‘n Fun itself.

That school has grown prodigiously with the opening of its building (privately funded) just a few short years ago. It is pumping out young men and women who are well-prepared for technical careers as avionics repair specialists and mechanics, and is sending others on to universities around the country for additional education in aviation management, air traffic control, flight and meteorology. It’s a plan for re-energizing aviation through direct recruitment and education of youth, and its working.

I’ve heard word from one of JetBlue’s vice president’s of talent, Bonnie Simi, that another A-320 full of teens is expected on-site Wednesday, April 2, for Sun ‘n Fun 2014. Watch for it in the pattern, and be sure to thank the volunteers and various outreach groups participating to bring these impressionable teens, our hope for tomorrow, into the event in such a grand way.

And while you are at it, consider what you might be able to do to contribute. Have a morning you could spend in a classroom talking aviation?  Are you a flight instructor who could take on one pro bono student? Do you have an aircraft kit or project you could donate to a youth group?  If you are reading this blog you’ve probably got something you can contribute. Consider it your bequest to the continuation of a good thing: aviation as we know it. Here’s to the next century, and the next. It’s up to us.

 

Jamie Beckett

Winning the uphill battle

March 26th, 2014 by Jamie Beckett

Let’s face it, trying to get non-aviation people to jump on the aviation bandwagon isn’t easy. Yet, this is no time for despair. It can be done. Here in my neighborhood we’re doing it. Not without resistance, not without sacrifice, and not without a few bruised egos and dented reputations. But it’s happening. Wanna know the secret to making progress at city hall?

The key to making real progress is finding the resources and using the creativity that allows you to speak in a language the non-aviation community understands. That’s right. Don’t waste another minute trying to figure out how to make the benefits of aviation apparent to them. Flip the game-board over and take a whole new look at how we communicate with the non-aviation audience – an audience that far outnumbers our flying brothers and sisters, incidentally.

In a very real sense, we need them more than they need us. Oh sure, they do need us. But they won’t know that unless aviation dies completely, and that’s not an experiment we need to play with. So let’s look to success. Let’s speak their language on their terms and get right into their comfort zone.

It’s working here in central Florida. Truly it is.

When I was tasked with presenting to the city commission a five point plan our airport advisory committee developed, I didn’t spend one minute of my valuable podium time trying to teach the five politicians and assembled staff why aviation matters. Similarly, I didn’t talk about the potential aviation has to help people reach their potential, or how tourism might benefit from a more vibrant airport. Nope, I talked about real estate. Commercial real estate. That’s something the non-aviation consumer understands.

I said this, essentially. Imagine the airport isn’t an airport. Imagine that it’s a mall. A large piece of commercial property that you own and manage. It’s underperforming. You have no anchor stores, only a single outlet in the food court, a couple kiosks and a storefront or two rented – but overall you’ve got a lot of empty space to lease and no tenants lining up to sign contracts.

That’s entirely true – and because it is, it got their attention. It doesn’t really matter if the management team understands aviation. I don’t really care if they can differentiate between an AWOS installation and the PAPI lights. They have to understand this much simpler message – they have no idea what the positive attributes of the property are. They also have no idea what the negative attributes of the property are. But I do. The members of the airport advisory committee do. We’re professional aviation geeks. We not only know how aviation works, we know who works in the field. We have contacts, known in the real estate business as leads. If dealt with appropriately leads can turn into tenants. Tenants provide jobs and economic value.

The message is subtle, maybe a little subliminal, but it’s there. The commissioners think to themselves, “I don’t know how to find leads, but these aviation nuts hanging out at the airport do. They’re willing to help. Heck, they fleshed out a five point plan to revitalize the airport and breathe new life into our local economy. Maybe it’s time we let them have the ball and run with it for a bit. Maybe.”

It’s not a perfect solution, admittedly. There is still lots of work to do. But we’re in the door, we’re being taken seriously, and the five point plan is being adopted as our new method of doing business. That’s a win in my book. We could use more success in this business. So consider the unconventional act of speaking like they speak rather than wishing they could talk like we do. It’s easier. It’s faster. And at least in our case, it’s been a more successful approach to a problem that goes back decades at our airport.

Good luck. And be sure to come back and let the rest of us know how it went for you. We’re all in this together. So let’s all get into the game and work together to achieve some real victories.

Max Trescott

Instrument Changes: Approaches without IAFs and Vectors to Fixes

March 24th, 2014 by Max Trescott

 

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My article about a “new” third way to start an approach, by flying to the intermediate fix (IF), drew many comments, including one asking “wouldn’t it be best to establish yourself earlier on the approach earli
er than the IF.” Another flight instructor explained that, in the case of the GPS 31 approach into Palo Alto, the IAF locations are inconvenient (unless you’re flying in from Japan!) and are over mountainous terrain, which is why most pilots start this approach at the IF. Now, even the FAA doesn’t consider an IAF a necessity and many approaches are charted without any IAFs!

First, my thanks to longtime friend Hilton Goldstein, for pointing out a number of approaches that lack an IAF. Hilton is the brains behind WingX, an integrated aviation app for the iPhone and iPad that provides just about every function a pilot might need for planning and flying a flight. He reviews every new instrument procedure chart before it goes into WingX, which is how he spots interesting procedures.

But first let’s go to the source, the Air Traffic Control Handbook, Order 7110.65U. Last year, section 4-8-1 Approach Clearance, was updated and now says in part:

“Standard instrument approach procedures (SIAP) must begin at an initial approach fix (IAF) or an intermediate fix (IF) if there is not an IAF.” [emphasis added].

Newark Liberty International (KEWR) is a great example. By my count, they have a total of 14 approaches that lack an IAF; all begin at an IF. An example is the RNAV (GPS) RWY 11 approach, which starts at the IF, MUFIE. Note the chart is marked RADAR REQUIRED, as are all charts for procedures starting at an IF.

Looking for the RADAR note is one possible clue that an approach might lack an IAF and start at an IF. At KEWR, 14 approaches have that restriction and all start at an IF. Well technically, one of them doesn’t have an IF, but it was probably an oversight.

If you look at the VOR RWY 11 at KEWR, you’ll note it starts at PINEZ. The next fix, LOCKI, can be identified as the Final Approach Fix (FAF) since it shows a Maltese cross at LOCKI in the profile view. An intermediate segment begins at an IF and terminates at an FAF, in this case LOCKI. Thus PINEZ should be an IF, though it’s unmarked. So technically, the FAA cannot clear an aircraft to start this approach at PINEZ, since per JO 7110.65U, an approach must begin at “an intermediate fix (IF) if there is not an IAF.” My guess is “IF” will be added to PINEZ in a future chart revision.

Why don’t these approaches have an IAF? Probably because it simplifies things in what’s already some of the most congested airspace in the United States. Besides, per the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook, “The purpose of the initial approach segment is to provide a method for aligning the aircraft with the intermediate or final approach segment.”

In most cases, an aircraft can start at an IAF from any direction. Depending upon the angle of arrival at an IAF, an aircraft may need a lot of space and time to get turned around and straightened out, hence the need for the initial segment.

But airliners flying into a major metropolitan airport like Newark are usually vectored in an orderly line more than 100 miles out from the start of an approach. Thus they’re well lined up and hairpin turns aren’t required as they start an approach. In that kind of structured environment, there’s no need for an initial segment to get lined up and hence no reason not to start at an IF. So what do you think? Will the IAF slowly fade away in the future, except in non-radar environments?

Vectors to Fixes Outside the FAF
Another change last year in section 4-8-1 of 7110.65U says that aircraft can now be vectored to start an approach at any fix, as long as it’s 3 NM or more outside of the FAF. Typically in the past, vectors have been to join the final approach course along a leg, not to a particular fix (except for the IAF and IF). Here’s the exact text:

“Where adequate radar coverage exists, radar facilities may vector aircraft to the final approach course, or clear an aircraft to any fix 3 NM or more prior to the FAF along the final approach course in accordance with Paragraph 5-9-1, Vectors to Final Approach Course, and Paragraph 5-9-2, Final Approach Course Interception.”

Looking at Paragraph 5-9-2, one finds that controllers must assign a heading that cannot exceed 30° from the final approach course. Thus we end up with the following maximum intercept angles for joining the final approach course at a fix:

  • 30° when at fixes outside the FAF, except for:
  • 90 ° for intercepts at the IF, and
  • any angle for intercepts at an IAF.

I’d venture to say that the majority of approaches don’t have any other fixes outside the FAF, other than the IF and IAF, which were covered by prior rules. Yes, you’ll find lots of feeder fixes outside the IAF, but you can typically join these at any angle. So while this rule change may give pilots and controllers another option on some approaches, it’s not clear to me that it offers much new benefit. If you’re aware of an approach where having this option offers a significant operational advantage, please share it with readers in the comments.

One thing we know for sure that’s constant is change. And that the rate of change is accelerating. Which means pilots and controllers alike will need to spend even more time learning about future changes and how they affect they way we fly. Perhaps that’s why a pilot certificate is often called a license to learn.

Ron Rapp

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

March 19th, 2014 by Ron Rapp

For as long as I can remember, “no news” has been “good news” when it comes to rules and regulations in the world of aviation. From field approval policy to sleep apnea to CBP searches and security theatre, any diktat emanating from Washington or Oklahoma City was sure to involve increasing demands of time and money while diminishing the usefulness and enjoyment of general aviation. That was the trend.

What a breath of fresh air it is, then, to hear of a well-suported and coordinated effort in both houses of Congress to enact legislation which would eliminate formal medical certification for many aviators.

Like the House bill, the new Senate legislation would exempt pilots who make noncommercial VFR flights in aircraft weighing up to 6,000 pounds with no more than six seats from the third-class medical certification process. Pilots would be allowed to carry up to five passengers, fly at altitudes below 14,000 feet msl, and fly no faster than 250 knots.

When the bill was first offered in the House of Representatives as the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act, it seemed like a long shot. Congress is not a known for acting boldly to free Americans from the heavy yoke of regulation, so one could be forgiven for not getting their hopes up. But now things are different: there’s a matching bill in the Senate, the House iteration has 52 co-sponsors, and the Congressional General Aviation Caucus has grown to more than 250 members.

Is it a done deal, then? Not at all. There’s no guarantee of passage or that President Obama would even sign the bill into law. But the sponsors and caucus members represent a good mix from across the political spectrum, and there are no special interests of any significance who benefit from the medical certification machinery, so I believe the prospects are encouraging.

This Pilot Protection Act is exceptional for several reasons. First, it goes far beyond even the historically pie-in-the-sky proposal fronted collectively by AOPA and EAA. When was the last time that happened? I can’t recall a single example. Typically we’ll ask for X and end up feeling extraordinary fortunate to get even half of it.

That AOPA/EAA submission, by the way, has languished on the FAA’s desk for two years and has yet to be acted upon by the agency. If one needed proof of just how sclerotic the bureaucratic machine has become, this is it. The delay is egregious enough to have warranted an official apology from FAA Administrator Huerta.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that this is a legislative move rather than a regulatory one. It’s an important distinction, because regulations are instituted with relative impunity by agencies like the FAA, while Congress passes laws that are not nearly as vulnerable to bureaucratic vagaries. In other words, if the FAA instituted the very same change in medical certification through regulatory channels, they could alter or reverse those improvements just as easily. A law, on the other hand, should prove far more durable since the Feds must comply with it whether they like it or not.

It’s a shame that this common-sense change requires a literal Act of Congress. And what does it say about the FAA that a body with 9% approval rating is coming to the rescue of the private pilot? Were it to remain in the FAA’s corner, this medical exemption would probably never see the light of day. I don’t just mean that it would not be approved, I mean it would never even be acted upon at all.

There is a certain schadenfreude which comes from watching the FAA, which is known for soliciting comments from the aviation industry only to ignore that input, suffer the same fate at the hands of the House and Senate. My only question is: what took so long? The last time Congress lent the industry a helping hand was with the General Aviation Revitalization Act. That was in 1994 — twenty years ago. While I’m thankful they’re finally getting off the bench and into the game, this boost is long overdue. I sincerely hope they will not only see it through, but look for other ways to help bring a uniquely American industry back from the brink.

An easing of the medical certification requirements will not fix all of GA’s woes. But if the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, perhaps this will at least get us headed in the right direction.

One final note: if you haven’t called your Representative and Senators to express strong support for H.R. 3708 and S. 2103, respectively, please do so! Unlike FAA employees, these folks are up for re-election in eight months. The closer we get to November, the more likely they are to listen.

Mike Busch

Do Piston Engine TBOs Make Sense?

March 13th, 2014 by Mike Busch

Last month, I discussed the pioneering work on Reliability-Centered Maintenance (RCM) done by United Airlines scientists Stan Nowlan and Howard Heap in the 1960s, and I bemoaned the fact that RCM has not trickled down the aviation food chain to piston GA. Even in the 21st century, maintenance of piston aircraft remains largely time-based rather than condition-based.

mfr_logo_montageMost owners of piston GA aircraft dutifully overhaul their engines at TBO, overhaul their propellers every 5 to 7 years, and replace their alternators and vacuum pumps every 500 hours just as Continental, Lycoming, Hartzell, McCauley, HET and Parker Aerospace call for. Many Bonanza and Baron owners have their wing bolts pulled every five years, and most Cirrus owners have their batteries replaced every two years for no good reason (other than that it’s in the manufacturer’s maintenance manual).

Despite an overwhelming body of scientific research demonstrating that this sort of 1950s-vintage time-based preventive maintenance is counterproductive, worthless, unnecessary, wasteful and incredibly costly, we’re still doing it. Why?

Mostly, I think, because of fear of litigation. The manufacturers are afraid to change anything for fear of being sued (because if they change anything, that could be construed to mean that what they were doing before was wrong). Our shops and mechanics are afraid to deviate from what the manufacturers recommend for fear of being sued (because they deviated from manufacturers’ guidance).

Let’s face it: Neither the manufacturers nor the maintainers have any real incentive to change. The cost of doing all this counterproductive, worthless, unnecessary and wasteful preventive maintenance (that actually doesn’t prevent anything) is not coming out of their pockets. Actually, it’s going into their pockets.

If we’re going to drag piston GA maintenance kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or at least out of the 1950s and into the 1960s), it’s going to have to be aircraft owners who force the change. Owners are the ones with the incentive to change the way things are being done. Owners are the ones who can exert power over the manufacturers and maintainers by voting with their feet and their credit cards.

For this to happen, owners of piston GA aircraft need to understand the right way to do maintenance—the RCM way. Then they need to direct their shops and mechanics to maintain their aircraft that way, or take their maintenance business to someone who will. This means that owners need both knowledge and courage. Providing aircraft owners both of these things is precisely why I’m contributing to this AOPA Opinion Leaders Blog.

When are piston aircraft engines most likely to hurt you?

Fifty years ago, RCM researches proved conclusively that overhauling turbine engines at a fixed TBO is counterproductive, and that engine overhauls should be done strictly on-condition. But how can we be sure that his also applies to piston aircraft engines?

In a perfect world, Continental and Lycoming would study this issue and publish their findings. But for reasons mentioned earlier, this ain’t gonna happen. Continental and Lycoming have consistently refused to release any data on engine failure history of their engines, and likewise have consistently refused to explain how they arrive at the TBOs that they publish. For years, one aggressive plaintiff lawyer after another have tried to compel Continental and Lycoming to answer these questions in court. All have failed miserably.

So if we’re going to get answers to these critical questions, we’re going to have to rely on engine failure data that we can get our hands on. The most obvious source of such data is the NTSB accident database. That’s precisely what brilliant mechanical engineer Nathan T. Ulrich Ph.D. of Lee NH did in 2007. (Dr. Ulrich also was a US Coast Guard Auxiliary pilot who was unhappy that USCGA policy forbade him from flying volunteer search-and-rescue missions if his Bonanza’s engine was past TBO.)

Dr. Ulrich analyzed five years’ worth of NTSB accident data for the period 2001-2005 inclusive, examining all accidents involving small piston-powered airplanes (under 12,500 lbs. gross weight) for which the NTSB identified “engine failure” as either the probable cause or a contributing factor. From this population of accidents, Dr. Ulrich eliminated those involving air-race and agricultural-application aircraft. Then he analyzed the relationship between the frequency of engine-failure accidents and the number of hours on the engine since it was last built, rebuilt or overhauled. He did a similar analysis based on the calendar age of the engine since it  was last built, rebuilt or overhauled. The following histograms show the results of his study:

Ulrich study (hours)

Ulrich study (years)

If these histograms have a vaguely familiar look, it might be because they look an awful lot like the histograms generated by British scientist C.H. Waddington in 1943.

Now,  we have to be careful about how we interpret Dr. Ulrich’s findings. Ulrich would be the first to agree that NTSB accident data can’t tell us much about the risk of engine failures beyond TBO, simply because most piston aircraft engines are voluntarily euthanized at or near TBO. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t see very many engine failure accidents involving engines significantly past TBO, since there are so few of them flying. (The engines on my Cessna 310 are at more than 205% of TBO, but there just aren’t a lot of RCM true believers like me in the piston GA community…yet.)

What Dr. Ulrich’s research demonstrates unequivocally is striking and disturbing frequency of “infant-mortality” engine-failure accidents during the first few years and first few hundred hours after an engine is built, rebuilt or overhauled. Ulrich’s findings makes it indisputably clear that by far the most likely time for you to fall out of the sky due to a catastrophic engine failure is when the engine is young, not when it’s old.

(The next most likely time for you to fall out of the sky is shortly after invasive engine maintenance in the field, particularly cylinder replacement, but that’s a subject for a future blog post…stay tuned!)

 So…Is there a good reason to overhaul your engine at TBO?

Engine overhaulIt doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering) to figure out what all this means. If your engine reaches TBO and still gives every indication of being healthy (good performance, not making metal, healthy-looking oil analysis and borescope results, etc.), overhauling it will clearly degrade safety, not improve it. That’s simply because it will convert your low-risk old engine into a high-risk young engine. I don’t know about you, but that certainly strikes me as a remarkably dumb thing to do.

So why is overhauling on-condition such a tough sell to our mechanics and the engine manufacturers? The counter-argument goes something like this: “Since we have so little data about the reliability of past-TBO engines (because most engines are arbitrarily euthanized at TBO), how can we be sure that it’s safe to operate them beyond TBO?” RCM researchers refer to this as “the Resnikoff Conundrum” (after mathematician H.L. Resnikoff).

To me, it looks an awful lot like the same circular argument that was used for decades to justify arbitrarily euthanizing airline pilots at age 60, despite the fact that aeromedical experts were unanimous that this policy made no sense whatsoever. Think about it…