Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

Rulemaking Adjusts Training Device Credit for Pilot Certification

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

On Wednesday, December 3, 2014, the FAA issued a direct to final rule that will increase the allowed use of aviation training devices (ATDs) for instrument training. The rule will double the allowances under 14 CFR section 61.65(i) to 20 hours for credit in an ATD and allows flight schools operating under part 141 Appendix C to have a 40 percent training credit in an ATD for the instrument (IFR) rating. Previous allowances for ATD use were capped at 10 hours under part 61 and 10 percent under 141. The rule also removes the requirement to use a view-limiting device in the ATD. The comment period for the direct final rule will close Friday, January 2, 2015. The rule will become effective Tuesday, January 20, 2015, if no adverse comments are received.

In concert with this rule change is an update to Advisory Circular 61–136A, FAA Approval of Aviation Training Devices and Their Use for Training and Experience, which has been revised to improve guidance for the application and approval of these training devices. The AC also provides additional guidance on ATD use for training and how to properly log the time.

Finally, it looks like the FAA is coming around to agreeing with what we CFIIs have known for years. The airborne cockpit environment is a horrible classroom in which to teach. It’s noisy, full of distractions, occasionally unpredictable and, if the airplane is not tied down with the engine shut off, it is constantly moving through space-time. Frankly, any sane human being is scared of it, at first, though few would admit to it.

Ground school evolved from these realizations. Most flight instructors will acknowledge the learning benefits of imparting knowledge in quiet, well-lit, calming environments.  On the ground, in an ATD, CFIs can control how any flight lesson is going to play out.

Why? Because they hold most of the cards; no sudden ATC amendments to lesson plans, no unexpected flashing alternator-out lights, no tilted, giving up the ghost gyros mid-lesson and no unanticipated airspace restrictions or weather anomalies. That is, unless the CFII programs any of those anomalies into the ATD. Total control. Every teacher I know, no matter what discipline or age group, will tell you that really does feel good.

Students may not know it (they are often aching so badly for flight time that the thought of being in an ATD turns their stomachs) but flight simulation by computer is truly an extension of all the good things that ground school imparts to students. Doubling up on the ATD time, especially for IFR students, can easily shorten training time, sometimes cutting it in half, because it is easy for the instructor to program the ATD to quickly set up for repetition. Want to fly seven ILS approaches in an hour? No problem? Need to practice four different holding pattern entries? We can slew you instantly to any location, altitude, attitude—and you can take it from there. Over, and over, until you fly it right.

Cutting training time, however, is just one benefit of the ATD. The other is its cost. Most FBO-owned ATDs cost less to operate than an aircraft. That cost savings is passed to the student, who can save from one third to one half what it would cost to perform the same lesson in an aircraft.

Yes, this time the FAA knows what it is doing and has the stats to back up the decision. So make sure you get on the Federal Register site and let the FAA know we like the new ATD regulation. Do it before January 2!

Here is the link:

A Self-Evident Solution

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Times are tough for general aviation, and we need a solid partner and advocate in Washington now more than ever. Unfortunately, the FAA is proving to be the exact opposite—a lead weight—and it’s becoming a big problem.

Complaining about the FAA has been a popular spectator sport for decades. I feel for those who work at the agency because most of the individuals I’ve interacted with there have been pleasant and professional. They often seem as hamstrung and frustrated with the status quo as those of us on the outside. In fact, I took my commercial glider checkride with an FAA examiner from the Riverside FSDO in 2004 and consider it a model of how practical tests should be run. So I’m not suggesting we toss the baby out with the bathwater.

But somewhere, somehow, as an organization, the inexplicable policy decisions, poor execution, and awful delays in performing even the most basic functions lead one to the conclusion that the agency is beset by a bureaucratic sclerosis which is grinding the gears of progress to a rusty halt on many fronts.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: Opposite Direction Approaches Banned

If you’re not instrument-rated, the concept of flying an approach in the “wrong direction” probably seems… well, wrong. But it’s not. For decades, pilots have flown practice approaches in VFR conditions for training purposes without regard for the wind direction. There are many logical reason for doing so: variety, the availability of a specific approach type, to practice circling to a different runway for landing, and so on. John Ewing, a professional instructor based on California’s central coast, described this as “going up the down staircase”.

For reasons no one has been able to explain (and I’ve inquired with two separate FSDOs in my area), this practice is no longer allowed at towered fields. Here’s what John wrote about the change:

…the FAA has decided that opposite direction approaches into towered airports are no longer allowed. To the uninitiated, practice approaches to a runway when there’s opposite direction traffic may seem inherently dangerous, but it is something that’s been done safely at many airports for as long as anyone can remember. One example in Northern California is Sacramento Executive where all the instrument approaches are to Runway 2 and 90% of the time Runway 20 is in use.

At KSAC, the procedure for handling opposite direction approaches is simple and has worked well (and without incident, to my knowledge): The tower instructs the aircraft inbound on the approach to start their missed approach (usually a climbing left turn) prior to the runway threshold and any traffic departing the opposite direct turns in the other direction.

For areas like the California Central Coast, the restriction on opposite direction instrument approaches has been in place since I arrived in June and it has serious implications for instrument flight training since the ILS approaches for San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara are likely to be opposite direction 90% of the time. For a student to train to fly an ILS in a real aircraft, you need to fly quite a distance. Same goes for instrument rating practical tests that require an ILS because the aircraft is not equipped with WAAS GPS and/or there’s no RNAV approach available with LPV minima to a DA of 250 feet or lower.

The loss of opposite-direction approaches hurts efficiency and is going to increase the time and money required for initial and recurrent instrument training. As good as simulators are, there’s no substitute for the real world, especially when it comes to things like circling to land. Between the low altitude, slow airspeed, and division of attention between instruments and exterior references required for properly executing the maneuver, circling in low weather can be one of the most challenging and potentially hazardous aspects of instrument flying. If anything, we need more opportunities to practice this. Banning opposite-direction approaches only ensures we’ll do it less.

Example 2: The Third Class Medical

Eliminating the third class medical just makes sense. I’ve covered this before, but it certainly bears repeating: Glider and LSA pilots have been operating without formal medical certification for decades and there is no evidence I’m aware of to suggest they are any more prone to medical incapacitation than those of us who fly around with that coveted slip of paper in our pocket.

AOPA and EAA petitioned the government on this issue two years and nine months ago. The delay has been so egregious that the FAA Administrator had to issue a formal apology. Obviously pilots are clamoring for this, but we’re not the only ones:

Congress is getting impatient as well. In late August, 32 members of the House General Aviation Caucus sent a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging him to expedite the review process and permit the FAA to proceed with its next step of issuing the proposal for public comment. Early in September 11 Senators, who were all co-sponsors of a bill to reform the medical process, also asked the Department of Transportation to speed up the process.

So where does the proposed rule change now? It is someplace in the maze of government. Officially it is at the Department of Transportation. Questions to DOT officials are met with no response, telling us to contact the FAA. FAA officials comment that “it is now under executive review at the DOT.”

The rule change must also be examined by the Office of Management and Budget.

When the DOT and OMB both approve the proposal—if they do—it will be returned to the FAA, which will then put it out for public comment. The length of time for comments will probably be several months.

After these comments are considered, the FAA may or may not issue a rule change.

It occurs to me that by the time this process is done, it may have taken nearly as long as our involvement in either world war. Even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll have an acceptable outcome.

Example 3: Hangar Policy

The commonsense approach would dictate that as long as you’ve got an airplane in your hangar, you should be able to keep toolboxes, workbenches, American flags, a refrigerator, a golf cart or bicycle, or anything else you like in there. But the FAA once again takes something so simple a cave man could do it and mucks it up. The fact that the FAA actually considers any stage of building an airplane to be a non-aeronautical activity defies both logic and the English language. Building is the very essence of the definition. People who’ve never even been inside an airplane could tell you that. In my mind, this hangar policy is the ultimate example of how out of touch with reality the agency has become.

Example 4: Field Approvals

These have effectively been gone from aviation for the better part of a decade. It used to be that if you wanted to add a new WhizBang 3000 radio to your airplane, a mechanic could get it approved via a relatively simple, low-cost method called a field approval. For reasons nobody has even been able to explain (probably because there is no valid explanation), it became FAA policy to stop issuing these. If you want that new radio in your airplane, you’ll have to wait until there’s an STC for it which covers your aircraft. Of course, that takes a lot longer and costs a boatload of money, if it happens at all. But the FAA doesn’t care.

Homebuilts put whatever they want into their panels and you don’t see them falling out of the sky. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Example 5: RVSM Approvals

Just to show you that it’s not only the light GA segment that’s suffering, here’s a corporate aviation example. The ability to fly in RVSM airspace—the area between FL290 and FL410—is very important. Being kept below FL290 is not only inefficient and bad for the environment, it also forces turbine aircraft into weather they would otherwise be able to avoid. The alternative is to fly at FL430 and above, which can mean leaving fuel and/or payload behind, or flying in a paperwork-induced coffin corner.

Unfortunately, RVSM approval requires a Letter of Authorization from the FAA. If the airplane is sold, the LOA is invalidated and the new owner has to go through the paperwork process with the FAA from step one. Even if the aircraft stays at the same airport, maintained by the same people, and flown by the same crew. If you so much as change the name of your company, the LOA is invalidated. If you sneeze or get a hangnail, they’re invalidated.

From AIN Online:

Early this year the FAA agreed to a streamlined process to handle RVSM LOA approvals, but for the operator of a Falcon 50 that is not the case. He told AIN that he has been waiting since April for an RVSM LOA.

Because the LOA hasn’t been approved, this operator can fly the Falcon 50 at FL290 or lower or at FL430 or above. On a hot day, a Falcon 50 struggles at FL430. “The other day ISA was +10,” he told AIN, “and we are just hanging there at 43,000 at about Mach 0.72. If we had turbulence we could have had an upset. We’re right there in the coffin corner. Somebody is going to get hurt.”

On another recent flight in the Falcon, “There was a line of storms in front of us. We’re at FL290. They couldn’t let us climb, and I was about to declare an emergency. I’m not going to run my airplane through a hailstorm. It’s turbulent and the passengers are wondering what’s going on.”

When forced to fly below FL290, the Falcon burns 60 percent more fuel, he said. The company’s three Hawkers have a maximum altitude of FL410, and LOA delays with those forced some flights to down to lower altitudes. “We had one trip in a Hawker before it received its RVSM LOA,” he added, “and they got the crap kicked out of them. Bobbing and weaving [to avoid thunderstorms] over Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska in the springtime, you’re going to get your [butt] kicked.” The Hawker burns about 1,600 pph at FL370, but below FL290 the flow climbs to more than 2,000 pph.

It’s bad for safety and the FAA knows it. If they were able to process paperwork quickly, it might not be such an issue, but many operators find that it takes many months—sometimes even a year or more—to get a scrap of paper which should take a few minutes at most.

Show Me the Money

So what’s behind the all this? Americans love to throw money at a problem, so is this a budget cut issue? Perhaps the FAA is a terribly cash-starved agency that simply isn’t given the resources to do the jobs we’re asking of it.

According to the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, that’s not the case. He testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure earlier this week that the FAA’s budget has been growing even as traffic declines:

The growth of the agency’s budget has been unchecked, despite the managerial failings and the changes in the marketplace. Between 1996 and 2012, the FAA’s total budget grew 95 percent, from $8.1 billion to $15.9 billion. During that same period, the agency’s air traffic operations dropped by a fifth. As a result, taxpayers are now paying the FAA nearly twice as much to do only 80 percent of the work they were doing in the 1990s.

Over that same 16-year span, the FAA’s personnel costs, including salary and benefits, skyrocketed from $3.7 billion to $7.3 billion—a 98 percent increase—even though the agency’s total number of full-time workers actually fell 4 percent during that time.

Self-Evident Solutions

Okay, we’ve all heard the litany of issues. From the inability to schedule a simple checkride to big problems with NextGen development or the ADS-B mandate, you’ve probably got your own list. The question is, how do we fix the problem?

I think the answer is already out there: less FAA oversight and more self-regulation. Look closely at GA and you’ll see that the segments which are furthest from FAA interference are the most successful. The Experimental Amateur-Built (E-AB) sector and the industry consensus standards of the Light Sport segment are two such examples. The certified world? Well many of them are still building the same airframes and engines they did 70 years ago, albeit at several times the cost.

Just as non-commercial aviation should be free of the requirement for onerous medical certification, so too should it be free of the crushing regulatory weight of the FAA. The agency would make a far better and more effective partner by limiting its focus to commercial aviation safety, promoting general aviation, and the protection and improvement of our infrastructure.

Are You Overinsured?

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Cessna 172RG gear-upI received a plaintive email from Bob, the owner of a Cessna 172RG Cutlass who found himself in an unexpected predicament. Seems he had an unfortunate gear-up landing. The airplane suffered only minimal damage, largely limited to minor belly damage and the outer four inches of the prop tips curled back. The engine had only about 100 hours SMOH at the time of the incident. Surely, all of this would be covered by insurance.

Unfortunately, Bob was about to learn a painful lesson about hull insurance:

“When I bought the $60,000 hull insurance policy, I didn’t read the fine print that said $60,000 wasn’t really available to fix the airplane in the event of a mishap. The actual amount available is the $60,000 policy limit minus the salvage value. The insurance company claims that they can get about $15,000 for the airplane for salvage, which only leaves me with about $45,000 to get the airplane fixed.

“Now here’s the rub: The repair shop has given a flat-rate bid of $41,000 plus tax to repair the airframe and do the requisite post-prop-strike engine teardown inspection. However, the bid explicitly excludes the cost of any necessary engine repairs beyond replacement of routine parts (rings, bearings, gaskets, etc.). The engine shop tells me that if the teardown inspection reveals that crankshaft and/or crankcase is damaged, the additional cost to repair could wind up being tens of thousands of dollars.

“Looking at the risk equation: In the best-case scenario, the repair cost is $41,000 plus tax and the insurance will cover it (just barely). In the worst-case scenario (if the case and crank are bad), I could wind up being out of pocket as much as $20,000, which would be painful. Alternatively, I could let the insurance company take the airplane, accept the $60,000 payout, and move on. But the airplane is only minimally damaged, and losing it under these circumstances would also be painful. What should I do?”

I discussed the various options with Bob. I pointed out that should he opt to have the aircraft repaired, even in the best-case scenario he would wind up with an aircraft that had substantial damage history and impaired resale value, and in the worst-case scenario he’d wind up seriously underwater (i.e., having a lot more invested that the aircraft was worth).

I suggested that setting aside his emotional attachment to the machine, the most logical course of action might well be to take the $60,000 and go shopping for another airplane. I also suggested that if Bob decides to repair the airplane, he might do better working with a smaller engine shop that specializes in prop-strike teardown inspections, and I offered him a couple of referrals.

Twin perils

Bob’s predicament reminded me of my recent phone conversation with Jack, a  friend who owns a Cessna T310R like mine. Jack flies it about 250 hours a year on business. Its a gorgeous machine, with RAM engines, Black Mac props, recent paint and interior, and a panel full of glass that leaves me drooling in envy.

In the course of a wide-ranging chat about flying and airplanes, our conversation turned to aircraft insurance. Jack and I compared notes on what insurance agencies we each used, who underwrote our policies, and what annual premiums we were paying. Jack’s premiums were about double what I was paying. As we pursued the matter further, Jack revealed that he was carrying nearly $300,000 worth of hull insurance on his airplane.

“Wow, that seems like an awful lot of hull coverage,” I said. “Have you looked at Controller or Aircraft Shopper Online or Trade-A-Plane recently? The piston twin market is really depressed right now. I bet the current fair market value of your airplane isn’t anywhere close to $300,000. I doubt it’s not more than $200,000.”

Jack admitted that he hadn’t been paying much attention to the market lately, and that it was certainly quite likely that his airplane wouldn’t fetch anywhere near $300,000 if he tried to sell it now. “But I figure that if I wrecked my airplane, I bet it would take at least $300,000 to buy a replacement and get it equipped and refurbished to match what I’m flying now.”

More coverage might be worse

Cessna 310 wreckage

If this were your airplane, would you prefer to repair it or just take the money and run?

I explained to my friend the perils of buying too much hull coverage.

“Jack, if you overinsure your hull for $300,000 coverage limits and then you have an accident that seriously trashes the airplane, you’ve got a real problem. Rather than declaring your airplane a total loss and handing you a check for $300,000, the insurance company might reimburse you for $175,000 in repairs. That could mean that you might be flying the airlines for 6 to 12 months while your aircraft is being extensively rebuilt, and in the end you’d wind up owning an aircraft with extensive damage history and impaired resale value.  This is probably not the outcome you want.”

At the same time, underinsuring the hull is also perilous. If Jack insured his hull for $130,000 and then made a gear-up landing with only minimal damage to the airframe, the insurance company could declare the aircraft a “constructive total loss” and hand Jack a check for $130,000. The company would then take possession of the Jack’s plane. Again, this is probably not the optimum result for Jack.

As a general rule of thumb, if you have an aircraft accident and the estimated cost to repair exceeds 75% to 85% of your hull insurance policy limit (sometimes called “stated value”), the company will declare the aircraft to be a total loss, take possession of the wreck, and pay you the coverage limit (less any deductibles). The insurance company will then try to obtain whatever value they can from the wreck, either by selling it to a salvage yard or by having it repaired and selling it on the market. On the other hand, if the estimated cost to repair is less than 75% to 85% of your policy limit, the insurance company will let you keep your aircraft and pay for the repairs. It’s the insurance company’s decision whether to “total the airplane” (not yours), and they make that decision whichever way they consider to be in their best interests (not yours).

The moral here is always to insure your aircraft for its current fair market value—not more nor less.

What’s it worth?

VREF aircraft valuation serviceIt’s prudent to reevaluate the fair market value of your airplane annually prior to renewing your aircraft insurance policy. Your hull coverage limits should be adjusted up or down each year as necessary to reflect the realities of the market.

For this purpose, many aircraft owners utilize AOPA’s online VREF Aircraft Valuation Service available free to AOPA members. Another method is to research the asking prices of comparable aircraft on major aircraft listing sites like ControllerAircraft Shopper Online, Trade-A-Plane, and Barnstormers. When checking comps, keep in mind that actual sale prices are usually 5% to 10% below the listed asking prices.

Liability limits

In addition to hull coverage, your aircraft policy insures us for liability in case you hurt someone or something while operating your aircraft. The liability coverage pays for a lawyer to defend you (or your estate) in the ensuing civil litigation, and if the plaintiffs prevail it will pay them damages up to the policy coverage limits.

The overwhelming majority of aircraft owners purchase $1 million of liability coverage. That’s because it’s generally accepted that anything less than $1 million is simply not sufficient to protect against air crash litigation, and more than $1 million can be hard and expensive to get in today’s aviation insurance market.

But not all $1 million liability policies are created equal. Some offer $1 million “combined single limit” coverage (colloquially known as “smooth”), while other policies include per-person or per-seat sublimits—often $100,000 per person or $100,000 per seat.

There’s a huge difference between “smooth” and sublimit coverage. If you crash and your sole passenger sustains severe injuries, a smooth policy will pay up to a million bucks to cover his damages, while a sublimits policy will pay only 10% of that amount.

Not worried because you never fly with anyone but family and close friends in your airplane? Think again. If you and your sibling or closest friend die in a crash, you can bet that your passenger’s widow or kids will hire the most aggressive personal injury lawyer she can find to sue your estate and make sure your widow or kids wind up with as little as possible.

Sublimit coverage might be okay if you always fly solo or if you have minimal assets, but most airplane owners don’t fall into that category. For most of us, smooth liability coverage is a must—and it’s becoming harder to find. Some underwriters won’t write anything but sublimit liability coverage, and others will renew smooth coverage for existing customers but won’t offer it to new applicants.

So next time your aircraft insurance comes up for renewal, take some time to think about what hull and liability coverage limits you want.

It’s like magic… I am hooked

Saturday, November 15th, 2014
Smiles say it all

Smiles say it all

This past week I was scheduled to fly my first Pilots N Paws flight with a very pregnant doggie  from the Central California Coast to Northern California.  It turns out the little Momma was too close to her whelping date so the mission was scrubbed.  Since I have family in NorCal, I was going anyway so I offered a ride to my girlfriend Shelby.  Although Shelby and her daughter had never been in a small plane, she jumped at the opportunity of a 1 hour 25 minute flight instead of a 5 hour drive.

The morning of the flight came and we had pea soup fog right down on the deck.  We waited a bit and drove the 20 minutes down to the airport.  Shelby and Saylor were very excited about getting to fly and both peppered me with questions.  Saylor wanted to know about what clouds were made of, and if we would land on them. Shelby however had done her homework.  As a business owner herself she saw the benefit in flying versus driving and had spent the prior few days researching flight schools, requirements for the private pilot certificate and even airplane types.  As we pulled up to the gate and accessed the airport, their faces just lit up. I think as pilots we sometimes take for granted driving onto the airport, looking into the hangars, having a commercial airline landing a couple hundred yards from us.  None of this was lost on Saylor and Shelby.

As I pulled the airplane out and started my pre-flight a couple of friends stopped by to say hello. One is a long time FedEx pilot who also has a Cub and the other a newly minted girl-pilot who just purchased a Cessna 152.  When they found out that Shelby was interested in becoming a pilot, the conversation became very animated and lively.  Shelby got to go and check out the 152 while we waited out the ceiling.

Beautiful Saylor

Beautiful Saylor

I loaded up the girls and gave them my briefing on emergencies, communication and comfort and we were off.  It has been awhile since I have flown someone new to flying.  I am pretty used to loading up Mooney Lucas Aviation Puppy, my son and going. The flight was very smooth and the girls continued to be very excited.  After I leveled off I let Shelby fly.  She really seems to be a natural.  She was able to maintain altitude and fly to heading.  As we got close to descent, I explained the traffic pattern and what I would be doing in the approach to landing.

Future Pilot Shelby

Future Pilot Shelby

Squeak squeak and we were down. Shelby said, “It’s like magic, I am hooked!” Although the Pilots N Paws flight would have been very satisfying, I have to say that these flights with Saylor and Shelby were just a ton of fun.  We need more pilots and even more than that, we need airport lovers.  As we enter this season of Thanksgiving perhaps we can all reflect with gratitude of our talents, zeal, and freedoms of the air.  Let’s share that enthusiasm with others. Be generous with our “magic” and perhaps we will entice more into our fold.

Let’s Use Drone Technology to Expand Business Aviation

Friday, November 14th, 2014


Business and transportation go hand-in-hand. To prosper, businesses need to service existing customers in a fashion that maintains their loyalty. To expand, businesses must reach new markets. Without swift and cost-effective transportation, business persons are limited in their ability to maintain and grow their activities.


Hence the need for Business Aviation, which I assert could be used by a larger segment of the public if we made flying easier. An ancillary benefit from facilitating use of General Aviation aircraft for business transportation would be more discretionary and pleasure flights, just as we use automobiles as an essential element in everyday activities.


While part of the joy of flying is mastering a challenging task, using a GA aircraft for routine business or pleasure transportation is not easy—certainly not as easy as driving a car. We seem to take for granted that just about anyone with a driver’s license can rent an unfamiliar car at a strange airport and safely venture off onto a stormy night. Such is the ease of operation of the typical car. If GA aircraft were as easy to operate, I assert that society be the beneficiary.


Technology enables an aerial vehicle about the size and aeronautical complexity of the average General Aviation aircraft to fly remotely over any area of the globe to rain Hellfire missiles on our enemies. We certainly could use elements of that drone technology to make GA aircraft more user friendly.


Consider the following scenario for an Advanced General Aviation Aircraft (AGAA): Flight plans for our hypothetical AGAA begin with the pilot entering his or her desired path into a home computer or tablet. An app such as ForeFlight evaluates weather and navigational facilities along available routes and selects the optimum path for safety and minimum fuel burn. The proposed flight planning system for an AGAA avoids routes that conflict with IFR traffic, and the resulting plan is transmitted to the autopilot of our advanced aircraft.


Depending on the inclination of the pilot, the flight could be flown totally on autopilot or manually. If the latter mode were selected, technology would provide desirable handling qualities for ease of manual flight and automatic correction should the pilot inadvertently approach the boundaries of the aircraft’s flight envelop. Engine monitors would continuously assess the health of the engine/aircraft, alerting the pilot to issues that might present problems. Nearby traffic would be presented to the pilot of our AGAA, and the system’s autopilot would take over if needed to avoid a midair.


Considering the state of today’s avionics equipment for General Aviation as well as the extensive use of drones in military and civilian applications, such an Advanced General Aviation Aircraft is technically feasible. Furthermore, I believe that an AGAA would be welcomed by a latent market for such a form of transportation. Many people express a desire to fly, start lessons, obtain a student certificate, but drop out before earning their private or becoming active aviators. Only about 40 percent of student pilots advance to private status, and about half of the holders of private certificates remain active beyond their first 100 hours of flying. Our community’s dropout rate reflects the potential for GA if aircraft were more user friendly and productive for the average person.


Being user friendly implies being more affordable. If an aircraft were easier to operate for business and pleasure, the demand for aircraft would be expanded significantly and costs would be reduced. If Detroit sold automobiles at the same rate that Wichita sells GA aircraft, the average family car would cost well over a million dollars.


It is time for our community to aggressively develop an Advanced General Aviation Aircraft.

Dreams Deferred?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

If your heart is tied to aviation then you probably felt a little bit crushed, deflated, last month, when the aerospace world took one step forward, then two big steps back, all in one week.

Google executive Alan Eustace rose to, then fell from 135,000 feet on October 25, breaking a fairly recent record of just under 128,000 feet set by Felix Baumgartner in a much publicized Red Bull-sponsored stunt just a couple years ago. Eustace, unlike Baumgartner, performed his feat in relative obscurity. He told the press afterward that he wanted to make sure the gamble worked before publicizing it. What was unusual about the skydive was that Eustace used only a pressure suit and an 11 million cubic foot balloon to ascend—no fancy pressure capsule needed.

Eustace had clearly studied the Baumgartner jump, because he chose a different freefall position, and wore in his pressure suit a forced-heated-air system to keep his faceplate from fogging. The result was a much more stable five minute freefall to earth—one he could actually watch from inside his pressure suit. The gambit was a risk, and it worked out. One step forward.

On the other hand, just five days later Orbital Sciences had to destroy an Antares rocket and payload seconds after liftoff when one of the rocket’s venerable engines failed. The company had been purchasing the engines from Russian sources. Company CEO David Thompson told press that the company will find different engines for its rockets from now on.

Hot on the heels of this news came the inflight breakup of SpaceShipTwo, killing the co-pilot, Michael Tyner Alsbury, and injuring its pilot, Peter Siebold. The aircraft was in its final flight testing regime, and was expected to begin taking passengers into near-earth orbit sometime in 2015.

There is no question of that happening now. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, is clearly heartbroken and deeply concerned as the crash investigation progresses. The NTSB hints at possible causes, but I won’t be an armchair investigator and go into any details about an ongoing NTSB investigation here. The lay press are bad enough at that.

One step forward, two big steps back. The result is that the budding commercial space industry had a very bad month in October; and we are left with questions about the wisdom of how NASA contract monies are being spent; and even whether the dream of space tourism is a reasonable possibility, given today’s technology.

Personally? I want to see Branson shake it off and get back to the task of innovating, for the sake of humanity. Sure, those first flights are going to be little more than joyrides, but think of the possibilities that kind of technology may have for our future. Aerospace is about speed and altitude and moving people and materials as quickly and efficiently as possible. It always has been about that, at the core. Branson’s dream could jump us forward—something that hasn’t happened since the days of Concorde.

Or it could be a false path, as Concorde turned out to be. The thing is, we won’t know until we try. I hope he keeps trying until the universe finally grants him success.

Flying Cars

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

I’m a professional futurist and perhaps the most common question that I’ve received on radio interviews and after speeches is, “So where’s the flying cars? You futurists have been predicting that forever.”

First of all, that’s not true. There have been some science fiction folks, of course, that always had some variation of a car that flies, but I don’t know of any real futurist that “predicted” that we’d have flying cars at any particular time.

That said . . . they’re coming!

You can’t look across the breakthroughs that are happening in a variety of technological areas and at the same time notice the new crop of flying/driving machines that are soon to be sold and on the drawing boards, and not believe that something’s going on.  Change is in the wind and, like drones, there will be far more flying cars in the not very distant future.

I’ve covered a rather sexy planned flying car here in the past but thought you might like to see a couple that could be closer in.


Terrafugia, of course, is the biggest kid on the block, sporting a bunch of MIT graduates who have had a flying model of their initial Transition car/plane for about two years.  You can make a down payment, with delivery anticipated to be sometime soon.

Their ultimate objective is the TF-X, shown below. They had a mockup of this car/plane at Oshkosh this summer.  It’s a vertical takeoff and landing machine that is really quite extraordinary.

Here’s where you can see an animation of this rather cool vehicle.

Terrafugia TFx. Image courtesy of Terrafugia.

Terrafugia TFx. Image courtesy of Terrafugia.


From Slovakia comes the AeroMobil 3.0, one of the most futuristic looking entries in the flying car field.  It flies at 125 mph or more for 430 miles and can max out at over 100 mph on the ground and cover distances exceeding 500 miles.  The AeroMobil 3.0 is undergoing flight testing now (you can see a great video here).

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

A pretty cockpit for two. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

A pretty cockpit for two. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

Making an impression

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Whether we like it or not, pilots are perceived in the wider society as people who are special, smart, capable, with maybe just a hint of the heroic about us. They see us as risk takers. Of course the truth is somewhat more nuanced than that. Still, the fact that we are pilots makes an impression on people. An impression that can last for years. That makes the importance of the impression we make of real importance. If we leave a sense of professionalism and integrity, that’s good. If we come off as rebels who have no use for authority, that’s not so good.

Recently I got a reminder of this exact lesson from my own past.

A Facebook friend request came my way from a name I didn’t recognize. I took a look at the requester’s profile and found they live roughly 2,000 miles distant. Clearly, we don’t cross paths on Main Street, or in the grocery store. But the requester’s profile photo included an airplane. Because of that, I surmised the individual must be a pilot, possibly someone who read one of my columns or magazine articles, so I accepted the request from what I thought was a kindred spirit. Facebook, true to form, alerted this individual that I had accepted their request. We are now Facebook Friends.

Later in the day I found a message from my new connection that asked, are you the same Jamie Beckett who worked as a flight instructor in Meriden, Connecticut in 1992?

That question caught me by surprise. Responding in the affirmative, I hit the “send” button while harboring a considerable amount of curiosity. Within a few minutes the original question was given some much appreciated context. “You were my first flight instructor.”

Searching my logbooks later in the evening I found my new friend and I had flown together less than half a dozen times. I have no recollection of our flights, frankly. Perhaps they shifted to another instructor, or maybe they ran short of cash. It’s at least possible a work or family scheduling issue kept them from the airport. It doesn’t really matter what the reason might be for us having only a handful of lessons together. But apparently, the experience of flying made enough of an impression that my mystery student pursued it throughout the years, eventually fulfilling their goal and becoming a pilot.

What blows me away is that I remained in their memory for all these years. Twenty-two years to be exact. But then, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I remember the instructors who made a significant impression on me during my time in flight school. Some of my fellow students have stayed in touch as well. Today we run the gamut, from corporate pilots to freight dogs to airline crewmembers, and me…the general aviation nut in the bunch. All these years later and we all still find each other to be good company, we are fascinated by the work we each do, and find a genuine interest in the stories we have to share and the adventures we’ve had along the way.

Somewhere along your path, you’ve made an impression on someone, too. Hopefully it was a good one. Knowing that we do indeed make a lasting impression now and then might make it a little easier for us to smile a little brighter, listen to our students, instructors, co-workers, passengers, and friends a little more closely, and perhaps go out of our way to be helpful and courteous more often.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing from one of my old students. I’m glad to know I helped them get somewhere they wanted to go in life. And now, I’ve gotten a great reminder of how deep and lasting the impression we make can be.

Man, I just flat out love this business. I hope you do, too.

Upset Recovery Training vs. Aerobatics

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Upset recovery training has been all the rage over the past couple of years. A Google search of that exact phrase returns more than 24,000 results. There’s a professional association dedicated to such training. ICAO even declared aircraft upsets to be the cause of “more fatalities in scheduled commercial operations than any other category of accidents over the last ten years.”

Nevertheless, I get the impression that some folks wonder if it isn’t more of a safety fad than an intrinsic imperative. It’s hard to blame them. You can hardly open a magazine or aviation newsletter these days without seeing slick advertisements for this stuff. When I was at recurrent training a couple of months ago, CAE was offering upset recovery training to corporate jet pilots there in Dallas. “If I wanted to fly aerobatics, I’d fly aerobatics!” one aviator groused.

He didn’t ask my opinion, but if he had, I’d remind him that 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time in straight and level flight — especially when the aircraft in question is a business jet. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that even your typical Skyhawk pilot is a virtual aerobat compared to the kind of flying we do on charter and corporate trips. For one thing, passengers pay the bills and they want the smoothest, most uneventful flight possible.

In addition, these jets fly at very high altitudes – typically in the mid-40s and even as high as 51,000 feet. Bank and pitch attitudes tend to stay within a narrow band. Yaw? There shouldn’t be any. The ball stays centered, period. We aim for a level of smoothness that exceeds even that of the airlines. Passengers and catering may move about the cabin frequently during a flight, but it shouldn’t be because of anything we’re doing up front.

Fly like that for a decade or two, logging thousands and thousands of uneventful, straight-and-level hours and the thought of all-attitude flying can become – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. I’ve even seen former fighter pilots become squeamish at the thought of high bank or pitch angles after twenty years of bizjet flying.

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of things that can land a pilot in a thoroughly dangerous attitude: wind shear, wake turbulence, autopilot failure, mechanical malfunction (hydraulic hard-overs, asymmetric spoiler or flap deployment, etc.), inattention, and last but not least, plain old pilot error. Look at recent high-profile accidents and you’ll see some surprisingly basic flying blunders from the crew. Air France 447, Colgan 3407, and Asiana 214 are just three such examples. It may not happen often, but when it does it can bite hard.

So yes, I think there is a strong need for more manual flying exposure in general, and upset recovery training in particular. This isn’t specific to jet aircraft, because some light aircraft have surpassed their turbine-powered cousins in the avionics department. I only wish the 1980’s era FMS computer in my Gulfstream was as speedy as a modern G1000 installation.

Defining the Problem

To the best of my knowledge, neither the NTSB or FAA provide a standard definition for “upset”, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we pretty much know it when we see it. The term has generally come to be defined as a flight path or aircraft attitude deviating significantly from that which was intended by the pilot. Upsets have led to loss of control, aircraft damage or destruction, and more than a few fatalities.

As automation proliferates, pilots receive less hands-on experience and a gradual but significant reduction in stick-and-rudder skill begins to occur. The change is a subtle one, and that’s part of what makes it so hazardous. A recent report by the FAA PARC rulemaking workgroup cites poor stick and rudder skills as the number two risk factor facing pilots today. The simple fact is that windshear, wake turbulence, and automation failures happen.

The purpose of upset recovery training is to give pilots the tools and experience necessary to recognize and prevent impending loss of control situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s why teaching recovery strategies from the most common upset scenarios is actually a secondary (though important) goal.

What about simulators? They’ve proven to be an excellent tool in pilot training, but even the most high fidelity Level D sims fall short when it comes to deep stalls and loss of control scenarios. For one thing, stall recovery is typically initiated at the first indication of stall, so the techniques taught in the simulator may not apply to a full aerodynamic stall. Due to the incredibly complex and unpredictable nature of post-stall aerodynamics, simulators aren’t usually programmed to accurately emulate an aircraft in a deeply stalled condition. Thus the need for in-aircraft experience to supplement simulator training.

Upset Recovery vs. Aerobatics

It’s important to note that upset recovery training may involve aerobatic maneuvering, but it does not exist to teach aerobatics. Periodically over the years, discussions on the merits of this training will cause a co-worker to broach the subject of flying an aerobatic maneuver in an airplane which is not designed and built for that purpose. This happened just the other day. Typically they’ll ask me if, as an aerobatic pilot, I would ever consider performing a barrel or aileron roll in the aircraft.

I used to just give them the short answer: “no”. But over time I’ve started explaining why I think it’s such a bad idea, even for those of us who are trained to fly such maneuvers. I won’t touch on the regulations, because I think we are all familiar with those. I’m just talking about practical considerations.

Normal planes tend to have non-symmetrical airfoils which were not designed to fly aerobatics. They feature slower roll rates, lower structural integrity under high G loads, and considerably less control authority. You might have noticed that the control surfaces on aerobatic airplanes are pretty large — they are designed that way because they’re needed to get safely into and out of aerobatic maneuvers.

That’s not to say an airplane with small control surfaces like a business jet or light GA single cannot perform aerobatics without disaster striking. Clay Lacy flies an airshow sequence in his Learjet. Duane Cole flew a Bonanza. Bob Hoover used a Shrike Commander. Sean Tucker flew an acro sequence in a Columbia (now known as the Cessna TTx). However, the margins are lower, the aerobatics are far more difficult, and pilots not experienced and prepared enough for those things are much more likely to end up hurt or dead.

Sean Tucker will tell you that the Columbia may not recover from spins of more than one or two turns. Duane Cole said the Bonanza (in which he did inverted ribbon cuts) had barely enough elevator authority for the maneuver, and it required incredible strength to hold the nose up far enough for inverted level flight. Bob Hoover tailored his performance to maneuvers the Shrike could do — he’ll tell you he avoided some aerobatic maneuvers because of the airplane’s limitations.

Knowing those limitations and how to deal with them — that’s where being an experienced professional aerobatic pilot makes the difference. And I’m sure none of those guys took flying those GA airplanes upside down lightly. A lot of planning, consideration, training and practice went into their performances.

Now, consider the aircraft condition. Any negative Gs and stuff will be flying around the cabin. Dirt from the carpet. Manuals. Items from the cargo area. Floor mats. Passengers. EFBs. Drinks. Anything in the armrest or sidewall pockets. That could be a little distracting. Items could get lodged behind the rudder pedals, hit you in the head, or worse.

If the belts aren’t tight enough, your posterior will quickly separate from the seat it’s normally attached to. And I assure you, your belts are not tight enough. Getting them that way involves cinching the lap belt down until it literally hurts. How many people fly a standard or transport category aircraft that way?

Now consider that the engine is not set up for fuel and oil flow under negative Gs. Even in airplanes specifically designed for acro, the G loads move the entire engine on the engine mount. In the Decathlon you can always see the spinner move up an inch or two when pushing a few negative Gs. Who knows what that would do with the tighter clearances between the fan and engine cowl on an airplane like the Gulfstream?

Next, let’s consider trim. The jet flies around with an electric trim system which doesn’t move all that quickly. The aircraft are typically trimmed for upright flight. That trim setting works heavily against you when inverted, and might easily reach the point where even full control deflection wouldn’t be sufficient.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the more I learn about aerobatics, the less I would want to do them in a non-aerobatic aircraft – and certainly not a swept wing jet! Sure, if performed perfectly, you might be just fine. But any unusual attitude is going to be far more difficult — if not outright impossible — to recover from.

Dang it, Tex!

Every time someone references Tex Johnson’s famous barrel roll in the Boeing 707 prototype, I can’t help but wish he hadn’t done that. Yes, it helped sell an airplane the company had staked it’s entire future on, but aerobatic instructors have been paying the price ever since.

Aerobatic and upset recovery training: good. Experimenting with normal category airplanes: bad. Very bad.

Carbon Monoxide, Silent Killer

Monday, October 20th, 2014

Danger, Carbon Monoxide
On January 17, 1997, a Piper Dakota departed Farmingdale, New York, on a planned two-hour VFR flight to Saranac Lake, New York. The pilot was experienced and instrument-rated; his 71-year-old mother, a low-time private pilot, occupied the right seat. Just over a half-hour into the flight, Boston Center got an emergency radio call from the mother, saying that the pilot (her son) had passed out.

The controller attempted a flight assist, and an Air National Guard helicopter joined up with the aircraft and participated in the talk-down attempt. Ultimately, however, the pilot’s mother also passed out.

The aircraft climbed into the clouds, apparently on autopilot, and continued to be tracked by ATC. About two hours into the flight, the airplane descended rapidly out of the clouds and crashed into the woods near Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Both occupants died.

Toxicological tests revealed that the pilot’s blood had a CO saturation of 43% — sufficient to produce convulsions and coma—and his mother’s was 69%.

On December 6 that same year, a physician was piloting his Piper Comanche 400 from his hometown of Hoisington, Kansas, to Topeka when he fell asleep at the controls. The airplane continued on course under autopilot control for 250 miles until it ran a tank dry and (still on autopilot) glided miraculously to a soft wings-level crash-landingin a hay field near Cairo, Missouri.

The pilot was only slightly injured, and walked to a nearby farmhouse for help. Toxicology tests on a blood sample taken from the lucky doc hours later revealed CO saturation of 27%. It was almost certainly higher at the time of the crash.

Just a few days later, a new 1997 Cessna 182S was being ferried from the Cessna factory in Independence, Kansas, to a buyer in Germany when the ferry pilot felt ill and suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. She landed successfully and examination of the muffler revealed that it had been manufactured with defective welds. Subsequent pressure tests by Cessna of new Cessna 172 and 182 mufflers in inventory revealed that 20% of them had leaky welds. The FAA issued an emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD 98-02-05) requiring muffler replacement on some 300 new Cessna 172s and182s.

About 18 months later, the FAA issued AD 99-11-07 against brand new air-conditioned Mooney M20R Ovations when dangerous levels of CO were found in their cabins.

Sidebar: CO Primer

Click on image above for high-resolution printable version.

Not just in winter

A search of the NTSB accident database suggests that CO-related accidents and incidents occur far more frequently than most pilots believe. Counterintuitively, these aren’t confined to winter-time flying with the cabin heat on. Look at the months during which the following accidents and incidents occurred during the 15-year period from 1983 to 1997:

March 1983. The Piper PA-22-150 N1841P departed Tucumcari, N.M. After leveling at 9,600, the right front seat passenger became nauseous, vomited, and fell asleep. The pilot began feeling sleepy and passed out. A 15-year-old passenger in the back seat took control of the aircraft by reaching between the seats, but the aircraft hit a fence during the emergency landing. None of the four occupants were injured. Multiple exhaust cracks and leaks were found in the muffler. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be incapacitation of the PIC from carbon monoxide poisoning. [FTW83LA156]

February 1984. The pilot of Beech Musketeer N6141N with four aboard reported that he was unsure of his position. ATC identified the aircraft and issued radar vectors toward Ocean Isle, N.C. Subsequently, a female passenger radioed that the pilot was unconscious. The aircraft crashed in a steep nose-down attitude, killing all occupants. Toxicological tests of the four victims revealed caboxyhemoglobin levels of 24%, 22%, 35% and 44%. [ATL84FA090]

November 1988. The Cessna 185 N20752 bounced several times while landing at Deadhorse, Alaska. The pilot collapsed shortly after getting out of the airplane. Blood samples taken from the pilot three hours after landing contained 22.1% carboxyhemoglobin. The left engine muffler overboard tube was broken loose from the muffler where the two are welded. The NTSB determined probable cause to be physical impairment of the pilot-in-command due to carbon monoxide poisoning. [ANC89IA019]

July 1990. While on a local flight, the homebuilt Olsen Pursuit N23GG crashed about three-tenths of a mile short of Runway 4 at Fowler, Colo. No one witnessed the crash, but post-crash investigation indicated that there was no apparent forward movement of the aircraft after its initial impact. The aircraft burned, and both occupants died. Toxicology tests of the pilot and passenger were positive for carboxyhemoglobin. [DEN90DTE04]

August 1990. About fifteen minutes into the local night flight in Cessna 150 N741MF, the aircraft crashed into Lake Michigan about one mile from the shoreline near Holland, Mich. Autopsies were negative for drowning, but toxicological tests were positive for carboxyhemoglobin, with the pilot’s blood testing at 21%. [CHI90DEM08]

July 1991. The student pilot and a passenger (!) were on a pleasure flight in Champion 7AC N3006E owned by the pilot. The aircraft was seen to turn into a valley in an area of mountainous terrain, where it subsequently collided with the ground near Burns, Ore., killing both occupants. A toxicology exam of the pilot’s blood showed a saturation of 20% carboxyhemoglobin, sufficient to cause headache, confusion, dizziness and visual disturbance. [SEA91FA156]

October 1992. The pilot of Cessna 150 N6402S was in radio contact with the control tower at Mt. Gilead, Ohio, and in a descent from 5,000 feet to 2,000 feet in preparation for landing. Radar contact was lost, and the aircraft crashed into a wooded area, seriously injuring the pilot. Toxicological tests on the pilot’s blood were positive for carbon monoxide. Examination of the left muffler revealed three cracks and progressive deterioration. The NTSB found probable cause of the accident to be pilot incapacitation due to carbon monoxide poisoning. [NYC93LA031]

April 1994. Fifteen minutes after takeoff from Long Beach, Calif., the Cessna 182 N9124G began deviating from headings, altitudes and ATC instructions. The aircraft did several 360- and 180-degree turns. The pilot reported blurred vision, headaches, nausea, labored breathing, and difficulty staying awake. The aircraft ultimately crashed in a vineyard near Kerman, Calif., and the owner/pilot was seriously injured. Post-crash inspection revealed numerous small leaks in the exhaust system. The pilot tested positive for carbon monoxide even after 11 hours of oxygen therapy. [LAX94LA184]

October 1994. A student pilot returned to Chesterfield, Mo., from a solo cross-country flight in Cessna 150 N7XC, complaining of headache, nausea, and difficulty walking. The pilot was hospitalized, and medical tests revealed elevated CO which required five and a half hours breathing 100% oxygen to reduce to normal levels. Post-flight inspection revealed a crack in an improperly repaired muffler that had been installed 18 hours earlier. [CHI95IA030]

March 1996. The pilot of Piper Cherokee 140 N95394 stated that she and her passenger became incapacitated after takeoff from Pittsburg, Kan. The airplane impacted the terrain, but the occupants were uninjured. Both were hospitalized, and toxicological tests for carbon monoxide were positive. A subsequent examination found holes in the muffler. [CHI96LA101]

August 1996. A Mankovich Revenge racer N7037J was #2 in a four-airplane ferry formation of Formula V Class racing airplanes. The #3 pilot said that the #2 pilot’s flying was erratic during the flight. The airplane crashed near Jeffersonville, Ind., killing the pilot. The results of FAA toxicology tests of the pilot’s blood revealed a 41% saturation of carboxyhemoglobin; loss of consciousness is attained at approximately 30%. Examination of the wreckage revealed that the adhesive resin that bound the rubber stripping forming the firewall lower seal was missing. The NTSB determined probable cause of the accident to be pilot incapacitation due to carbon monoxide poisoning. [CHI96FA322]

January 1997. The fatal crash of Piper Dakota N8263Y near Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H. (described previously). [IAD97FA043]

December 1997. Non-fatal crash of Piper Comanche 400 N8452P flying from Hoisington to Topeka, Kansas (described previously). [CHI98LA055]

December 1997. A new Cessna 182S was being ferried from the factory in Independence, Kan., to a buyer in Germany when the ferry pilot felt ill and suspected carbon monoxide poisoning (described previously). [Priority Letter AD 98-02-05]

Overall, deaths from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning have dropped sharply since the mid-1970s thanks mainly to lower CO emissions from automobiles with catalytic converters (most CO deaths are motor vehicle-related) and safer heating and cooking appliances. But CO-related airplane accidents and incidents haven’t followed this trend. The ADs issued against Independence-built Cessna 172s and 182s and Mooney Ovations demonstrates that even brand new airplanes aren’t immune.

CO Checklist

Click on image above for high-resolution printable version.

Close calls

In addition to these events in the NTSB accident database where CO poisoning was clearly implicated, there were almost certainly scores of accidents, incidents, and close calls where CO was probably a factor.

In January 1999, for example, a Cessna 206 operated by the U.S. Customs Service was on a night training mission when it inexplicably crashed into Biscayne Bay a few miles off the south Florida coast. The experienced pilot survived the crash, but had no recollection of what happened. The NTSB called it simple pilot error and never mentioned CO as a possible contributing factor. However, enough carboxyhemoglobin was found in the pilot’s blood that the Customs Service suspected that CO poisoning might have been involved.

The agency purchased sensitive industrial electronic CO detectors for every single-engine Cessna in its fleet, and discovered that many of the planes had CO-in-the-cockpit problems. On-board CO detectors and CO checks during maintenance inspections have been standard operating procedure for the Customs Service ever since.

How much CO is too much?

It depends on whom you ask.

EPA calls for a health hazard alert when the outdoor concentration of CO rises above 9 parts per million (ppm) for eight hours, or above 35ppm for one hour. OSHA originally established a maximum safe limit for exposure to CO in the workplace of 35 ppm, but later raised it to 50 ppm under pressure from industry.

The FAA requires that CO in the cabin not exceed 50 ppm during certification testing of new GA airplanes certified under FAR Part 23 (e.g. Cessna Corvallis, Cirrus SR22, Diamond DA-40). Legacy aircraft certified under older CAR 3 regs required no CO testing at all during certification.

Once certified, FAA requires no CO testing of individual aircraft by the factory, and no follow-up retesting during annual inspections. A March 2010 FAA SAIB (CE-10-19 R1) recommends checking CO levels with a hand-held electronic CO detector during ground runups at each annual and 100-hour inspection, but in my experience very few shops and mechanics do this.

UL-approved residential CO detectors are not permitted to alarm until the concentration rises to 70 ppm and stays there for four hours. (This was demanded by firefighters and utility companies to reduce the incidence of nuisance calls from homeowners.) Yet most fire departments require that firefighters put on their oxygen masks immediately when CO levels reach 25 ppm or higher.

It’s important to understand that low concentrations of CO are far more hazardous to pilots than to non-pilots. That’s because the effects of altitude hypoxia and CO poisoning are cumulative. For example, a COHb saturation of 10% (which is about what you’d get from chain-smoking cigarettes) would probably not be noticeable to someone on the ground. But at 10,000 feet, it could seriously degrade your night vision, judgment, and possibly cause a splitting headache.

After studying this hazard for many years and consulting with world-class aeromedical experts, I have come to the following conclusions:

  1. Every single-engine piston aircraft should carry a sensitive electronic CO detector.
  2. Any in-flight CO concentration above 10 ppm should be brought to the attention of an A&P for troubleshooting and resolution.
  3. Any in-flight CO concentration above 35 ppm should be grounds for going on supplemental oxygen (if available) and making a precautionary landing as soon as practicable.

Smokers are far more vulnerable to both altitude hypoxia and CO poisoning, since they’re already in a partially poisoned state when they first get into the aircraft. Because of COHb’s long half-life, you’d do well to abstain from smoking for 8 to 12 hours prior to flight.

Choosing a CO detector

Five CO detectors

Five CO detectors (left to right): chemical spot, UL-compliant residential (Kidde), non-UL-compliant (CO Experts 2015), industrial (BW Honeywell), TSO’d panel-mounted (CO Guardian 551).

Chemical spot detectors:Stay away from those ubiquitous el-cheapo adhesive-backed cardboard chemical spot detectors that are commonly sold by pilot shops and mail-order outfits for under trade names like “Dead Stop,” “Heads Up” and “Quantum Eye.” They have a very short useful life (about 30 days), and are extremely vulnerable to contamination from aromatic cleaners, solvents and other chemicals routinely used in aircraft maintenance.

These things often remain stuck on the instrument panel for years, providing a dangerous false sense of security. What’s worse, there’s no warning that the detector is outdated or has been contaminated—in some ways, that’s worse than not having a detector at all.

Even when fresh, chemical spot detectors are incapable of detecting low levels of CO. They’ll start turning color at 100ppm, but so slowly and subtly that you’ll never notice it. For all practical purposes, you’ll get no warning until concentrations rise to the 200 to 400 ppm range, by which time you’re likely to be too impaired to notice the color change.

Residential electronic detectors:Although battery-powered residential electronic detectors are vastly superior to those worthless chemical spots, most are designed to be compliant with Underwriter’s Laboratory specification UL-2034 (revised 1998). This spec requires that

(1)   The digital readout must not display any CO concentration less than 30 ppm.

(2)   The alarm will not sound until CO reaches 70 ppm and remains at or above that level for four hours.

(3)   Even at a concentration of 400 ppm, it may take as much as 15 minutes before the alarm sounds.

For aircraft use, you really want something much more sensitive and fast-acting. I like the non-UL-compliant CO Experts Model 2015 ($199 from It displays CO concentrations as low as 7 ppm and provides a loud audible alarm at concentrations above 25 ppm. It updates its display every 10 seconds (compared to once a minute for most residential detectors), which makes it quite useful as a “sniffer” for trying to figure out exactly where CO is entering the cabin.

Industrial electronic detectors:Industrial CO detectors cost between $400 and $1,000. A good choice for in-cockpit use is the BW Honeywell GasAlert Extreme CO  ($410 from This unit displays CO concentrations from 0 to 1,000 ppm on its digital display, has a very loud audible alarm with dual trigger levels (35 and 200 ppm).

Purpose-built aviation electronic detectors:Tucson-based CO Guardian LLC makes a family of TSO’d panel-mount electronic CO detectors specifically designed for cockpit use. These detectors detect and alarm at 50 ppm (after 10 minutes), or 70 ppm (after 5 minutes), and will alarm instantly if concentrations rise to 400 ppm. The digital display models ($599 and up) will show concentrations as low as 10 ppm. Available from Obviously, panel-mount detectors cannot be used as a sniffer to locate the source of a CO leak.

For more information…

There is an outstanding October 2009 research paper titled “Detection and Prevention of Carbon Monoxide Exposure in General Aviation Aircraft” authored by Wichita State University under sponsorship of the FAA Office of Research and Technology Development. The paper is 111 pages long, and discusses (among other things):

  • Characteristics of CO-related GA accidents
  • Evaluation of CO detectors, including specific makes and models
  • Placement of CO detectors in the cabin
  • Exhaust system maintenance and inspection

This research paper is available online at: