Archive for the ‘GA community’ Category

Another Successful Flight of Haywire Airlines…Fly it Forward!

Saturday, October 18th, 2014
Haywire Airlines Captain and First Officer

Haywire Airlines Captain and First Officer

 

I was an airport kid. As a family we attended airport days. Heck I even learned to drive a car, at an airport. We flew a lot, in state, and out to visit relatives. Most times as we taxied or parked my father would exclaim, “Another successful flight of Haywire Airlines!” That would always make me laugh and today makes me smile.

My father, now 92, is the one who inspired me to become a pilot. But I didn’t get the bug right away or even as a young person. In 2002, I was visiting our hometown for a family reunion and it was airport day. My Dad landed in his Mooney. My brother landed in his V-tail Bonanza. I thought “What is wrong with this picture?” that was in July and I had my license in September.

My Dad made flying look easy.  He was a primary trainer in WWII at Rankin Field in Tulare, CA. He tells great stories of antics with Tex Rankin and Sammy Mason. During his time at Rankin he met my Mom on a blind date, then took her for a ride in the Stearman. He said she liked the flight and he knew that she was going to be a great mate.  64 years later they were still in love, when she flew West.

So thanks to my Dad, I am a pilot. I try to Fly It Forward to kids and adults alike. Mid-October brings cool, crisp flying weather and a close to the busy airport day and air show season for me. Recently I took an opportunity to re-read some posts from an AOPA Red Board thread I began in 2012 about who inspired us to become pilots. This quote on mentoring by Benjamin Franklin sums this concept up nicely: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” My hope is that as we reflect on those who mentored us that we might take up the mantle and Fly it Forward for another. Enjoy the stories, perhaps put your own in the comment section, and better than that, be someone else’s inspiration.

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When I was growing up, my dad was a controller at a Class D airport- Camarillo, CA. I hung out there a lot when I was 11-15 years old, and knew the make and model of planes by sight. One day when I was 12, a pilot offered rides to the controllers, and my dad talked him into taking up our family. I got to the airport and there was a beautiful yellow PT-17 Stearman, done in the Navy trainer scheme. I waited anxiously for my turn to go up- watching him take off and land from the base of the tower with my other family members. Finally, it was my turn.

The ride was unbelievable! Wearing a leather cap, we flew around Saticoy and over by Santa Paula. Early on in the flight, he showed me how to control the plane with the control stick, and let me fly just about everywhere! I was speechless during the whole flight! When we were back on the ground, I looked up at him and offered him the $6 I had in my pocket for gas. I looked at him like he was a god. He just smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Keep your money, but if you ever have the chance to pass this along, do it.” To this day, I still do!
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I’ve been fascinated, even obsessed, with aviation my entire life, but never got around to becoming a pilot. In 2001 at the Watsonville (WVI) airshow, I went for a flight in CAF’s B-17 “Sentimental Journey”.

After the flight, I was talking with the pilot, last name Kimmel. I told him that I had wanted to be a pilot forever but hadn’t gone ahead and started taking lessons. Kimmel grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “What are you waiting for? Get off your butt and do it!” Two days later I was back at WVI taking my first lesson.

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I grew up in a very poor family and area and no one I knew had any interest in aviation. I can remember times when there was no money and very little food to eat even though my father worked hard. Because we had nothing as kids we dreamed of things we would one day do. One summer day when I was four years old I was lying on my back in the shade of a tree just looking up at all the big fluffy white clouds sailing across the sky, and then I heard a noise coming closer. Out of the clouds came a beautiful 4-engine airplane and having never seen one I had no idea what it was but it was huge! It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and it was just dancing in and out of the clouds. And right then and there my dream of one day flying an amazing machine like the bomber I had seen was born. That was in 1961 and when I announced that evening to my family that I was one day going to be a pilot, you can guess the reaction. Sitting at the dinner table eating corned beef hash because potatoes were about the only thing we could afford, I was laughed at by my brothers and sister, and mom said she hoped I would one day be rich and I could fly her all around the world. Dad told me that a man has to have a dream to work toward and that was a grand one.

The years rolled by and every time I heard an airplane I would look up and dream. Finally I graduated high school and 6 weeks later I married my high school sweetheart and I was due to leave for boot camp in 60 days. During this time I flew for the first time, it was on the day of my first lesson. It was everything I ever dreamed of in an old 172 and I was in love. As so often happens life soon got in the way and I stopped taking lessons after about 8 hours. Off to boot camp and later we built our own home. Some more years went by and finally my wife told me that I should go back to flying since I loved it so much. What a wonderful wife. I started taking lessons again but with a different instructor and he was amazing. When I was ready to quit because I could not learn to land he kept encouraging me and let me continue to beat up his airplane. Never once did he get upset and believe me he had good reason. He has the patience of a saint. After many hours and many bad landings I finally got it. I went for my check ride in 1985 and I passed!

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I was 14, my cousin was an instructor, and got my parents’ permission to fly me from Meadowlark airport in Huntington Beach (where she was teaching) to Reno. It was a T210 (N732WF), and she was checking out a new pilot in this plane. I sat in the back seat. I don’t remember much about the flight, but I do recall going through some clouds shortly before landing, and she turned around and asked me if I saw the landing gear down. I didn’t know it was a retract, and I was concerned that she was concerned that we might not see a wheel out there! It was a little rough during the approach and she was convinced I’d never get in another airplane as long as I lived! The truth was, I actually thought, “This is SO COOL! I’m gonna be a pilot in TEN YEARS!”
The next summer, I spent a few more weeks in the Reno area. She took me for a ride in a Mooney (N201DK), and this time I got to sit in the right seat. I got to fly over Lake Tahoe and got a real taste for it. This time, I updated my goal: “In FIVE YEARS, I’m gonna be a pilot!” She gave me the best piece of advice a 15-year-old kid could get: Just identify your goal, eliminate the obstacles, and all that’s left is success!

Just over one year later, and two days after my 17th birthday, I earned my PPL. That was many years ago, and I’m now a 737 Captain for a major airline, and she’s an inspector supervisor with the FAA. We haven’t flown together since then, but I do try to Fly it Forward through Young Eagles 20-some kids last year, and 40-ish this year. I sit right seat in my 182 for those flights, and put the kids in the pilot seat. I enjoy it, but they LOVE it, and if even one of those kids decides to take it further, it’ll have been worth it.

High Flight

High Flight

Nearly Empty Skies

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

This morning I heard an airplane take off. It was a throaty roar of a single engine piston airplane, and though I didn’t see it, I’d swear it was a Cessna 182. It was a wonderful noise. It was a noise I associate with home.

You see, I’ve been traveling on the Iberian Peninsula for a month, and in that time I saw or heard general aviation aircraft less than a half a dozen times. It was the oddest sensation, asking locals if there was an airport in the area for small aircraft, and seeing faces draw a complete blank. The question wasn’t being lost in translation. The small airports are so quiet these days that the people had no real experience with light aircraft.

I’d researched general aviation in Portugal and Spain before I left the U.S., and had high hopes of encountering at least some aeroclub flying, similar to what I had found traveling in South Africa, but it was not to be. Even the flight training going on in the countries seemed anemic in comparison to the activity here in the U.S. Sad, too, because in both countries the GA airports were there. They were just seriously under utilized.

In Spain the complaint is that handling fees, a combination of security restrictions and onerous, unnecessary services (bus rides on the ramp to and from the general aviation terminal) are strangling general aviation pilots. Even though mandated tariffs are relatively inexpensive, the companies providing the services are padding these fees so much that, according to AOPA Spain, they approach the cost of operating the airplane for the cross country flight.

The most aviation I saw over the course of a month traveling the peninsula north to south, was in the little town of Evora, where Skydive Portugal had a Cessna 206 running all day one Saturday, taking neophytes up for tandem jumps. It was great to watch the airplane head off, climbing to 13,00o MSL, and then disgorging its load. There is nothing quite like the snap and swoosh of a chute opening above you, followed by the hoots and laughter of the tandem riders, who seemed unanimoScreen shot 2014-10-10 at 4.48.04 PMusly thrilled both by the freefall and by the fact that the chute opened on command. They’d live to jump another day!

But other than the Cessna 206 hauling skydivers there was just one or two general aviation movements on the field over the four days I was there. This, even though Embraer has a large, modern metal and composite factory just off the north end of the runway, where it is making parts for its Legacy 450/500 aircraft, along with parts for military aircraft.

I have to admit that it made me sad to see so few aircraft flying in two countries where the weather and the terrain is perfect for general aviation. It seems that onerous fees, combined with struggling economic trials have put serious challenges to pilots in Portugal and Spain.

My hope is that they can overcome the trials and re-emerge as great countries for general aviation flying in Europe. That way, the next time I visit, I can see the Iberian Peninsula the way I most enjoy, from the air.

 

Liability: The Price We Pay

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

As large as the aviation industry looks to those on the outside, once you’re on the other side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a very small world. One of the big challenges facing that world has been from product liability issues.

The $100 screw. The $9.00 gallon of fuel. The $5,000 part that costs $50 at a local hardware store. We’ve all seen it. I recall the day a friend told me the seat back for my Pitts S-2B, which is literally a small flat piece of ordinary plywood, cost something like $600. I’m not averse to parts manufacturers turning a profit, but that left my mouth hanging open. My friend? He just shrugged and walked away, as though this was ordinary and normal. The saddest part is that I realized he was right. It is.

Liability concerns are a major expense and motivator for many industries. That’s why Superman costumes come with warnings that “the cape does not enable the wearer to fly”, Zippo cautions the user not to ignite the lighter in your face, and irons are sold with tags advising against ironing clothes while they’re being worn. But for general aviation, this sort of thing is dragging the lot of us down as surely as a cement block tossed into the murky waters of the East River.

The classic example of this phenomenon can be seen in the high cost for new products like airplanes. Look at the sharp rise in the price of a new Skyhawk over the past thirty years. The first one was built in 1955, so the research and development costs for this model must have been recouped decades ago. A new Bonanza is a cool million. Low production volumes and high liability costs — a chicken and egg pair if there ever was one — are prime culprits for that inflation.

In fact, for about a decade, the general aviation industry essentially stopped producing new piston airplanes. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, product liability was such that nearly every major OEM exited the business. The insurance costs rose, the manufacturers had no choice but to pass that on to the consumer, who was summarily priced out of the market. Sales fell, per-unit liability costs rose further, and the cycle spiraled downward until even those companies which still had an operating production line were only turning out a handful of airplanes per year.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 helped somewhat. Aircraft manufacturers started producing planes again. The Cirrus, DiamondStar, Columbia, and other such advanced aircraft were brought to market. New avionics systems were developed. But the liability problem never went away. Frivolous lawsuits still abound, grinding away at our diminished world like a wood chipper consuming a sturdy log. Manufacturers have been sued for things as idiotic as not telling a pilot that the engine wouldn’t operate without fuel. I don’t have to tell you how this lunacy looks to people from other countries, do I?

I often wonder, what would an aircraft like the RV-6 cost if it was certified? You can buy one for as little as $45,000 today. Speaking of Amateur-Built aircraft, liability is one of the primary reasons advancements such as electronic ignition proliferate in the E-AB world when they’re almost unheard of in aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate.

Mike Busch has penned many articles about the ways liability concerns drive decisions in the maintenance business. The result? Lower efficiency, higher cost, and at times even a decrease in the level of safety that is supposedly paramount. But it goes beyond that. Many products which would otherwise be brought to market are not because liability issues tilt the scale away from taking that risk in the first place.

Even proven, well-established products are sometimes lost to this phenomenon. Seven years ago, the largest manufacturer of aircraft carburetors, Precision Airmotive, abruptly decided to stop making, selling, and supporting them. In a letter to customers on their web site, they wrote:

Precision Airmotive LLC has discontinued sales of all float carburetors and component parts as of November 1, 2007. This unfortunate situation is a result of our inability to obtain product liability insurance for the product line. Precision Airmotive LLC and its 43 employees currently manufacture and support the float carburetors used in nearly all carbureted general aviation aircraft flying today. Precision has been the manufacturers of these carburetors since 1990. These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year. After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.

Nonetheless, Precision has seen its liability insurance premiums rise dramatically, to the point that the premium now exceeds the total sales dollars for this entire product line. In the past, we have absorbed that cost, with the hope that the aviation industry as a whole would be able to help address this issue faced by Precision Airmotive, as well as many other small aviation companies. Our efforts have been unsuccessful.

This year, despite the decades of reliable service and despite the design approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain product liability insurance for the carburetor product line. While we firmly believe that the product is safe, as does the FAA, and well-supported by dedicated people both at Precision and at our independent product support centers, unfortunately the litigation costs for defending the carburetor in court are unsustainable for a small business such as Precision.

Even if you don’t own an airplane, you’ve probably noticed that aircraft rental is prohibitively difficult and expensive. Companies like OpenAirplane are trying to make a dent in this formidable problem, but many aircraft types simply cannot be rented at all for solo flight anymore. Seaplanes, aerobatic aircraft, twins, turbines, and many other types might as well not exist unless you have the cash to buy them outright. And those that are still rented require extensive checkouts, form filling, and a large expenditure of time, money and energy. Why? To check every possible box off when it comes to liability. The manager of one FBO here in Southern California told me in no uncertain terms that it wouldn’t matter if Bob Hoover himself walked through the door, he wouldn’t get one iota of consideration in that regard. Does that sound right to you?

There’s an obvious answer here. If you’re thinking tort reform, you’re only half-right. Suing manufacturers for accidents that are clearly not their fault simply because the plaintiff knows they’ll settle is only ensuring the next generation won’t be able to fly. The real solution is to — in the words of a pilot I know — put on our big-boy britches and come to terms with the fact that life in general, and aviation in particular, involves risk. From the Doolittle Raiders to the folks at Cirrus Aircraft, history shows over and over again that risk is a part of every successful venture. We’d all love to live in a world where there is no risk, where following the dictates of Title 14 would ensure nothing ever goes wrong and nobody ever gets hurt. It’s a fallacy.

Crushing liability costs aren’t limited to carbs. And many parts of our airplanes are manufactured by a very small number of companies. Prop governors come to mind. Vacuum pumps. Brakes. Fasteners. If one firm is having trouble staying in business, odds are the others might be as well. It doesn’t portend a rosy future for the industry, especially when you consider that many of the advances we now enjoy came from small companies just like Precision Airmotive.

Sure, with Experimentals you have more freedom to put what you want on your aircraft. But many of the components on experimental aircraft are certified anyway. Most of them essentially have certified engines, props, skins, wiring, brakes, tires, fasteners, etc. This liability issue affects everyone regardless of what it says on the plane’s airworthiness certificate. This sort of thing isn’t limited to aviation. But GA is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the implication that anyone involved in it must have deep pockets. The end result is a case like this one, where a jury awarded $480 million verdict against an aircraft manufacturer even though the NTSB indicated pilot error was the cause.

Liability concerns hurt everyone in aviation, not just those with reciprocating single-engines. I’ll give you one example from the corporate and charter business that I work in: time and time again, thousands of dollars of catering from one of our charter flights will go untouched by the passengers. We’ll land at our destination with a eighty pounds of beautifully packaged and prepared food. Five-star presentation of the highest-quality and healthiest food you’ll see anywhere.

At the same time, just beyond the airport fence are people who go to bed hungry. Logic dictates that we might want to put two and two together. But because the operators and customers of these aircraft are high net worth individuals who would certainly find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit at the first indication of food poisoning or other malady, load after load of this food goes into the trash every single day all across the country. Over the past three years I’d imagine the total weight of the food from flights I’ve flown that went into the trash would total a couple of tons.

While lawsuits and courtrooms certainly have their place, I personally think it’s high time our society acknowledged the fact that safety does not equate an absence of risk. Failure to do so is putting us, our industry, our economy, and even our way of life at risk. That’s the cost of the society we’ve built. Is it worth it?

A little decorum can go a long way

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

It may not surprise you to know that I spend a good deal of time using social media each day. It’s a tool. Think of it as a digital Leatherman, or a Swiss army knife that thrives on the binary system. But like any tool, social media can be used for good, or it can create a lot of damage. It’s the user’s choice.

Because I’ve been fortunate enough to have a remarkably interesting life (at least from my perspective) that has allowed me to be a musician in Greenwich Village, a pilot in Florida, a political office holder, and even a novelist, I am connected to a tremendously varied group of people via social media. Some are musicians, but most are not. Some are actors, or writers, or pilots, but that’s not the mainstream of my social media network any more than it is the mainstream of American life. Yet this disparate group of individuals have all come together through the Internet to lurk, or comment, or make plans because we all have at least one thing in common. One thing that binds us together, gives us a sense of connection and maybe even an impression of a common purpose.

Last night, quite late, one of those connections threw their last straw onto an already strained camel’s back. They crossed the line. As a result, I unfriended someone on Facebook. This is perhaps only the second time I’ve done that. The first was because someone I had never met, but had a professional connection to, became abusive and argumentative with other friends who took a position that differed from their own. This second instance was similar. Being abusively arrogant is not attractive, not in any realm.

The world is a wonderful, weird, and thoroughly engaging place. It is made no less amazing by the fact that none of us, and I mean absolutely none of us agree on everything. In fact, a case could be made that it is our diversity of thought that makes life so fascinating. Yet there are those who cannot tolerate a difference of opinion. They cannot allow someone else, even if it is someone they know nothing about, to voice a perspective that differs from their own. No, when presented with such a circumstance they empower themselves with the responsibility of judging the rest of us, convicting us of thought crimes, and punishing us by blathering away incessantly about how wrong we are.

To be honest, I could live with that. I don’t like it, but I could live with it. But then a small number of these types step across that line in the sand and transition from being judgmental bullies into truly mean spirited soldiers of righteousness. It’s not enough to let the world know they disagree with someone else. No. They have to try to ruin the opposition’s life. They hurl insults. They question motives. They pull out all the stops to make it clear to all who might read a given post, that the person who disagrees is evil, vicious, stupid, racist, ignorant, malicious, and possibly even dangerous.

That’s where my button gets pushed. But as in life, I have learned there is a truth in social media. You can unplug. There is no rule that says you must engage these people. You can simply stop reading their posts, stop replying to their taunts, and even close the door to them lurking into your life. On Facebook at least, you can unFriend them.

This matters to the aviation community for reasons that should be obvious, but apparently aren’t. We are a large, diverse group of people. Yet we account for only a small fraction of the larger population. We are largely misunderstood and to some degree, distrusted. That’s unfortunate, but it is true.

As with any large group, we disagree on many points, which is healthy. However, the method of disagreement is important. We each, like it or not, represent the aviation community in some way. Perhaps our thoughts and impressions are noted by only a dozen or so family and friends. Others entertain or enrage thousands, even tens of thousands with ideas, commentary, and visions of what is, or what might be. It is incumbent upon us, all of us, to welcome those differing ideas, even if they fly in the face of our own beliefs. We can discuss ideas. We can share opposing views. But we should not go to battle with each other. After all, each of us at some point has realized that we are occasionally wrong. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, and sometimes the topic is too subjective to be able to establish right and wrong.

I will concede that it is at least possible that you, the reader, is the owner of the most powerful, insightful, and creative brain to have ever been produced by human kind. And yet, that does not excuse you (or me) from the basic rules of social grace. Be polite. Even in disagreement, show respect for the other party or parties you are engaged with. In the long run, we are much more respected for our willingness to politely entertain a boor, than we would ever be for our efforts to silence or squash them.

The social network has long arms. They wrap all the way around the world. What you put there will come back to you one day as a representation of what kind of a person you are. Do your best. Accept that all of us err from time to time. But try not to be mean spirited. That’s unbecoming. It’s generally counter-productive, too. And that is a true statement no matter what business you’re in, regardless of what the topic of conversation might be.

Combat confusion in the cockpit

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Flight instructors know this: the cockpit of an aircraft in flight is a horrible classroom. Conditions are changing by the milisecond, and through it all you are moving, most of the time in three dimensions. With so much to pay attention to, student pilots are easily befuddled, leaving them paralyzed, and unable to decide what to do next. It takes a lot of training to prevent that kind of paralysis in human pilots. Why?

Confusion is easy to create. Lion tamer Clyde Beatty lived to a ripe old age by simply bringing a perfectly symetrical four legged chair into the ring with him when he met his big cats. When he held a chair in front of the lion’s face, the lion tried to focus on all four legs of the chair at the same time. With its focus divided, the lion became confused and was unsure about what to do next. When faced with so many options, the lion’s basal instinct was to freeze and wait, instead of attacking.

confusionHumans, being mammals, have brains that work the same way when innundated with conflicting information. Imagine how that plays out in the clouds when your panel lights up with a caution light, or a series of cascading failures. How about when that beautiful Garmin 1000 multifunction screen goes blank? Ach! Can you cope quickly to save the flight?

You can if you’ve got a mind practiced in focusing. The key word here is practice.

Researchers have pinned down four different types of concentration: Broad-external attention is good for assessing the total environment. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to miss things because you’re being distracted or paying attention to something that’s irrelevant. Broad-internal attention is good for developing a game plan or strategy. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to think too much, causing “paralysis by analysis.” Narrow-external attention is good for focusing on a single, primary target and blocking out distractions. When used inappropriately, it can lead you to be so focused on one thing that you miss something else that’s important. Finally, there is narrow-internal attention, which is good for focusing your thoughts on several mental skills, such as body awareness, energy management, or imagery. When used inappropriately it can, however, cause you to “choke.”

Harnessing these four types of concentration, and tapping into the one you want in the moment is an art both studied and practiced extensively by elite atheletes, and we can learn from them. To practice concentration it is best to start in a quiet place, then work your way into practicing where there are lots of distractions (best for learning how to tune them out, and discovering when to tune them in, too).

Start by working in a flight simulator (a pc sim is fine). Fly an approach to land as slowly as you can, all the while paying attention to all the details in the movements you make handling the controls, setting the instruments and running the checklist. Do it again closing your eyes at points during the approach and note how your body feels. Pay attention to all the physical sensations throughout your body.

Next, step away from the sim and go for the Grid exercise. Take a 10” X 10” block grid on a piece of paper and randomly placed the numbers 00 through 99 in each block. While timing one minute, find and put a slash through as many numbers as possible, in sequence, starting with 00. Start at different numbers, do only odd or even numbers, or go backwards from 99 to 00 to mix things up. After you get better at this, go back to practicing in the sim with distractions such as loud noises or distracting spouse in the room.

Finally, learn to shift your attention. This is a little bit like taking the camera lense and focusing in the foreground or the background. You want to do this with both your eyes and your ears. It can be practiced in the flight sim, or at your local coffee shop on a busy morning. Concentrate on what you hear. Identify each sound in the room separately and label it. Next, broaden your focus and simultaneously listen to all the sounds together without labeling them. Then concentrate on your body. Pay attention to your bodily sensations, such as the way you feel against the chair. Label each sensation as you notice it. Next, try to experience all the physical sensations together without labeling any particular one. Lastly, concentrate on your mind. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Let each thought and feeling appear by itself. Next try to empty your mind, let go of your thoughts and feelings, and relax.

Now, take the attention-shift exercise into the flight sim with you and alternate your focus between each instrument in the virtual panel in front of you. Then shift your attention to whole systems (radios, EFIS, engine, hydraulic, pressurization or oxygen). Finally pull back and absorb the complete picture, including your situational awareness of where the aircraft is in its virtual space.

It works. You’ll notice subtle differences that could be the beginning of a big problem much more rapidly, and, if you’ve studied up, you can correct a myriad of problems in-flight, or get your machine safely on the ground before a little fault becomes a game-ender.

AirVenture: Ominous Clouds Ahead

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Like many thousands of other aviation geeks around the world, a small Wisconsin town holds a special place in my heart. Once a year my friends, former & current colleagues, former classmates, former professors, and favorite airplanes gather in Oshkosh to celebrate all things aviation. Hosted under the wing of the Experimental Aircraft Association, the annual celebration of all things airplane was this year another great time to meet up with fellow aviation fans.

For my inaugural Opinion Leaders post last year, I wrote about the demographic challenges faced by AirVenture in the future. These challenges haven’t gotten any easier in the past year. As a matter of fact, they’ve only gotten worse. While attendance was up, aviation enthusiasts were greeted with this sight in several of the display hangars:

If AirVenture is supposed to be the pinnacle event for aviation enthusiasts around the world, empty booths and non-aviation related vendors are a foreboding indication of where the future lies for our passion. This past year, the Experimental Aviation Association significantly raised prices for booth space, which priced out several aviation nonprofits from having space this year. In addition, the number of booths that one attendee I spoke with described perfectly as “carnie-type” significantly increased: those selling personal massagers, saunas, a number of pain relief/skincare creams, and most confusing, a booth selling pots and pans in the FlyMarket area of the show.

While the increase in the number of booths dedicated to pain relief and other associated problems of aging might be a better indication of the changing demographics of AirVenture, the sheer number and placement of these non-aviation booths was surprising and disconcerting. AirVenture is an understandably expensive proposition for EAA, but allowing prime real estate to go to non-aviation vendors defeats the purpose of having an event from an organization that touts itself as being the “Spirit of Aviation.”

There were apparently more attendees at Oshkosh this year than in past years, but I found it very easy to get around the display areas of the show during the second half of the week, quite unlike the  crowded throngs of years past. Something about the equation of AirVenture is off…and aviation suffers for it. That said, some basic changes could do well to reinvigorate the show and open it up to a broader audience, particularly those that will carry the show well into the future. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Devote an area of a display hangar to local/regional/national aviation nonprofits (with an emphasis on the future generation of aviation enthusaists  at a discounted display rate. If we are truly interested in fostering the future of aviation at a grassroots level, these organizations are the ones that work in tandem with Young Eagles to foster interest in our communities. A display area dedicated to these organizations could work well at promoting to attendees and sharing of best practices among other groups. This area should be either subsidized or discounted, as the current display booth rates have priced the vast majority of these organizations out of the market.
  • Better promotion of opportunities at AirVenture for middle school, high school and university students. The College Park/Education & Interactive Zone is a fantastic idea, but does not receive nearly the attention or promotion it should. While universities do their best to promote their presence at the space, EAA needs to be the one driving families looking at employment/college/other opportunities. KidVenture is prominent in materials, announcements and other promotions. Trams stopping at the College Park area rarely announced the area’s goals, mentioning the forum buildings and nothing else.
  • Innovative approaches to “weaker” days at the show and other special events. EAA said that attendance was up 20% on the Saturday and Sunday of AirVenture. Sunday’s attendance was likely reduced throughout the day by a series of thunderstorms that put a damper (literally) on activities. The last day of AirVenture continues to be a “lost” day for attendees, booth staff, volunteers and the like. The Thunderbirds were a likely draw, but they won’t be coming back to AirVenture every final Sunday. Why not get creative with a final day special? Alternatively, it might just be better to scale back the show entirely on Sunday and leave time for vendors to pack up and leave in the morning. This year’s AirVenture included a career fair and College Mixer. Neither were well promoted to attendees and the public. Instead, offer free or 1/2 price admission on the day of to those attending these events. What better way to get the younger generations and their families involved?

While AirVenture continues to be the pinnacle celebration of aviation, EAA and other partner organizations need to be aware that these warning signs for the future of Oshkosh have drastic implications for where we will be in the next 10-20 years.

Why does what happens at Santa Monica Airport matter?

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Santa Monica airport has been in the news lately. Most recently supporters of closing Santa Monica Airport lost a round in court. A Los Angeles judge dismissed a lawsuit that challenged a November ballot measure to protect the facility from closure. More information on the ballot initiative can be found here. Since this blog is supposed to address issues of national concern I decided to ask a few of my aviation friends from New York to Oregon a pretty simple question. “Why does what happens at Santa Monica airport matter?” I think you will enjoy their answers.

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Cub in Dandelions

While even the thought of closing Santa Monica airport strikes to the heart of someone who is a pilot, it also strikes to the soul of many of us non-pilots. Why would that be, if we are only connected to aviation indirectly? The short answer is because it is really about more than just the freedom of flight…it is about plain, old freedom. It’s about the freedom to have a voice, to have a vote. To not be outmaneuvered by outside interest groups and lawyers looking for loopholes and technicalities. Even the consideration of closing down an airport, let alone one with such a fabled history, fills my mind with the classic battles of good and evil. So is this where I raise the flag, bring out the apple pie and march to support the underdog? In my simplistic, creative mind…maybe. Because keeping Santa Monica airport open is symbolic to keeping airports open all around the country. And symbolic for letting us all know that we all should have a voice in our freedoms.

Jim Koepnick, Aviation Photographer, Oshkosh Wisconsin

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The future of Santa Monica Airport is significant for a number of reasons. One is the very important issue of community security. Anyone who lives in Southern California or visits there frequently knows the entire, heavily populated area is just one car wreck away from gridlock. If, God forbid, some major catastrophe hits the area, the airport could instantly become worth its entire landmass in gold when you consider it could be the only way to quickly get emergency crews and supplies, and medical transports, into and out of the community. Ask anyone impacted by Hurricane Katrina about how valuable community airports became in getting even the basic supplies into the area.

In the aviation safety world, much is emphasized on human factors. One such factor that should be considered is the fact we have a tendency not to appreciate or understand the importance of something until it is already gone. Too often, we are easily sold ideas based on misguided information. This seems to be the case in Santa Monica and other areas threatened with airport closures. People build a home close to the airport and then complain about the noise. Then, developers see gold on the property and jump into the fray to convince community leaders that the property is a gold mine of tax revenue just waiting for them. The fact is airports are already a gold mine that contribute much more than is ever effectively recorded in economic impact. Most important is the airport’s contribution to the community’s peace of mind in the event air transportation of people or supplies is needed in an emergency. How can you put a price tag on that?

Mark Grady, Aviation writer, speaker and filmmaker

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

If you keep up with any aviation news from any of the alphabet groups, you know that there has been controversy surrounding the Santa Monica airport for the past several years.

The issue is not unique to Santa Monica. At any given time, dozens of airports in the country are being pressured to shut down and the empty space turned into tax generating commercial, industrial or residential use. This shortsighted view is a dangerous one. Airports serving general aviation as well as airports serving air-carriers are part of this country’s transportation infrastructure. The argument that general aviation airports exist only to serve the “fat cats” and their private jets is a hollow one. I’ll counter it by asking why an airliner full of inebriated tourists traveling from Honolulu to LAX on their way home from a cruise is more important than an business jet with the CEO of a multibillion dollar international corporation traveling from Honolulu to Santa Monica to close an important deal that will benefit the local economy? It isn’t!

The billions of dollars lost by US airlines in the past decade are testament to the failed business model that the majority of them operate under. At least corporate and business aviation pays their bills. Let the airlines continue to run themselves into the ground at the major airports. Corporate and business aviation needs the “Santa Monicas” of this country to continue building the economic health of this country after the beating it has taken in the past decade.

Jonathan “JJ” Greenway flies corporate jets internationally for a Hong Kong based company, is a CFII and active aircraft owner who lives in Frederick Maryland.

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Heavenly Ovation

To explain why an airport somewhere far away from me matters, requires one to understand that aviation matters to me, deeply, profoundly. Aviation requires a network of infrastructure from fuel service to air traffic control to landing surfaces. Without that infrastructure, my life as I know it cannot exist. There is no way to unwind the two. Our government and forward thinking people always understood that if you could just shorten the travel time of the trade and commerce routes the world could and would change. Today, global aviation is the driving force in a massive international economic globalization. Our national aviation infrastructure, as well as federal, state and municipal budgeting to be part of that infrastructure, makes air transport possible. Rural airports provide essential services, emergency and medical transport and mail service. Community airports provide the places where pilots can train to enter the professional field, stop-overs for corporate businesses maximizing efficiencies, fuel stops for pilots ferrying passengers, cargo, mail, as well as for personal travel, and the all-important time building of pilots who might eventually join the professional ranks. Larger, municipal airports provide economic generators, protect airspace, link commerce hubs and provide jobs. International airports bring the people and goods around the world that drives our global economy.

There is an old, well-told and famous tale of a small town pilot, flying circuits in his small single engine fabric plane, looking across the ramp at the flight instructor, imagining that someday, she or he too will have that kind of time and experience. The flight instructor meanwhile is looking at the light twin taking off on a run to deliver packages and goods wishing for the day when he or she can land that dream job of flying a twin. The twin pilot is looking skyward at the regional jet launching for a mid-sized city. The regional jet pilot looks longingly at the the major airline departing ahead of him, just about to take off for an international destination. The heavy jet levels at FL 380 and watches the International Space Station [ISS] cross the sky ahead of him in the darkness, thinking how cool it would be to fly the space shuttle. Meanwhile the shuttle pilot completes a re-entry, passing a light plane pilot flying circuits over a grass field, thinking that guy has it made. This story has been told and re-told, but today the point is that every aspect of aviation relies on every other aspect of aviation. There is no flight without the infrastructure. If we want to fly to India tomorrow, we must have a rural field in Indiana, a municipal airport in Santa Monica, an internationl airport at LAX. We need fuel service, maintenance technicians, hangar space, landing surfaces, air traffic controllers, rural grass strips, cheap old airplanes laden with history and the latest technology to avoid thunderstorms and all the technicians, unskilled ramp workers, dispatchers, airport design architects, airspace managers, aeronautical engineers, military applications, flight instructors and aviation enthusiasts to make that happen and keep it alive. The alternative is to shrink the world to the size of a highway, and to slow the pace of economics to 60mph.

Rebecca Fisher, Pilot for major airline, airplane owner (C180), float plane instructor and back country air taxi pilot living in Talkeetna, Alaska

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What happens at Santa Monica matters because it’s such a high profile case. The message needs to be that GA is less of a risk than the boulevard running past your front door and the noise it introduces to your neighborhood is substantially less in every regard than that delivery truck or leaf blower that folks accommodate without even thinking. As with so many other airport “controversies,” the Santa Monica Airport battle is about pilots trying to fend off a land grab from cynical commercial and government concerns trying to exploit residents’ fears to accomplish their questionable development goals.

Robert Goyer, Editor in Chief, Flying Magazine, Austin Texas

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

When municipalities are faced with budget pressures and look to airport closure as a means to save money, budget planners look at the cost of operating an airport vs. the cost of revenue the airport generates at the airport. That’s an entirely shortsighted metric. The economic impact an airport has on a community or region can’t be measured solely by the revenue generated at the airport, yet that’s often the basis of a decision to close an airport.

Our local airport, Williamson-Sodus, has an annual operating budget of roughly $145,000, which is covered by airport revenues with little to spare. A recent New York State Economic Development study estimates the impact the airport has on the local region is $2.7 million annually. That means $2.55 million of local economic impact is due to the existence of the airport. That would never be seen by the bean counters looking only at the airport ledger.

The challenges municipalities face that force them to close or consider closing an airport are not a reflection of the airport. When I see an airport close, no matter where it is, I see a community whose leaders lack vision. Unfortunately, it’s the community that suffers the loss.

Joe Ebert, Board Member, Past President Williamson-Sodus Airport, New York

 

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

My ad agency specializes in two sectors, aviation and tourism. I believe these two sectors fit nicely together as general aviation airports are an under utilized asset for the cities they serve, and are a gateway to bring valuable tourism business into their areas. I have worked for years to recommend to my tourism clients that they need to promote the benefits of their region to pilots seeking new destinations, because pilots generally have discretionary income and are always looking for new places to fly their airplanes.

The financial contributions that airports bring to a city can be found in many areas, from jobs to secondary spending and yes, tourism purchases. Transient pilots flying into an airport like Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO) need rental cars, meals, hotel rooms and fuel, and many continue their spending in the region by visiting local attractions or conducting business. Each airport – whether it’s a large field like KSMO or a small strip at the edge of a rural town – represents a money machine for the area, and they need to be identified as such. To close any airport means a guarantee of often substantial losses to the region, and because of this, each and every airport needs to be preserved.

Dan Pimentel, founder of the Airplanista blog and President/Art Director of Celeste/Daniels Advertising, Eugene, Oregon.

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The answer to the question depends largely on who you are, where you live, and what sort of life you hope to live in the future. If you’re an aircraft owner who bases his or her airplane at Santa Monica the answer is obvious. For the sake of convenience and comfort, that individual would prefer Santa Monica to remain open. That aircraft owner would prefer to keep their friends, their connections, their hangar, and their normal routine in place.

But what about the kid living nearby? What good does an airport do for a teenager living on South Bundy Drive? That kid grows up with airplanes zipping over his or her house day after day. Piston driven propellers drilling holes through space as turbines turn heat to thrust and propel business owners, movie stars, and trophy wives off to Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York. What good does that do?

It’s a fair question. The answer is simple. It provides opportunity that can’t be delivered by any other means.

Perhaps that kid can pull down a part-time job at the local Circle K, or the garage across the street. But what if he or she could wrangle an entry-level position at a flight school, or one of several maintenance shops on the field, or the FBO, instead. That entry level job might lead to a career in the aviation or aerospace industry, taking that teenager farther economically, socially, and geographically than they ever dreamed. It’s happened before. In fact it’s happened tens of thousands of times.

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

 

There are no guarantees in life, of course. Not for Santa Monica and not for any other airport, industry, or individual. But where there is opportunity, there is hope. Where there is hope, people persevere and thrive even under the most challenging circumstances. With Santa Monica Municipal up and running there is industry, entertainment, a pervasive incentive to pursue education as a lifelong goal – and there is hope. Without it, there might be a slightly larger park, or a cluster of high-rise condos, or an office park. None of which can inspire the dreams, the innovation, or the historically significant production Santa Monica Municipal Airport has given the world.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport matters for the same reason the United States of America mattered to my immigrant great-grandfather. It matters because it is the only destination of its kind in the world. And if it is allowed to perish, there will never be another to replace it. Never. And that would be a shameful thing.  Jamie Beckett, Writer, Winter Haven Florida

 

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Many thanks to my friends who answered this important question.  And thanks to those of you who read this piece and perhaps came up with some answers of your own.  I would encourage you to find out more about the charter amendment and further to contribute to funding this worthy battle. http://www.smvotersdecide.com/

Judgment, and the Day

Monday, August 18th, 2014

It was windy yesterday—blowing hard out of the south and gusting to near 40 knots, according to the anemometer mounted on the top of the FBO building that sits midfield at our little airport tucked into the Mad River Valley, near Warren, Vermont. Weather was inbound. But for the day conditions were still high overcast, with just a few scattered, scraggly cumulous. Nothing towering. Maybe some wave action from the wind flowing over the undulating Green Mountains and White Mountains to the south and east.

Sometimes it is better to be on the ground than in the air.

Sometimes it is better to be on the ground than in the air.

Definitely some turbulence.

All that, and I wanted to fly. No, seriously, I was aching to fly. Just two days before I’d had the opportunity to get back into a Schleicher ASK-21 two-place fiberglass sailplane. A sexy ship if there ever was one, with an excellent 40:1 glide ratio and plenty of capability (even for aerobatics, if you are skilled in that realm).

Sunday’s flight with Rick Hanson (who has been with Sugarbush Soaring so long no one I know can remember the place without him and his wife, Ginny) was all about re-familiarization. I’d flown a ship just like her the year before, in Minden, Nevada. Vermont’s conditions, on that Sunday, at least, were tame compared to the way I’d gotten my butt kicked by rising thermals and developing dust devils in the high Nevada desert. This year staying behind the tow plane, even boxing its wake was just an exercise, not a wrestling match.

Thermaling came back to me pretty quickly, too. Last year the thermals were leaning towers, tilting with the afternoon valley winds. This year, though they moved with the prevailing flow, they seemed a little wider. Finding that ball of rising air in the middle seemed easier, more intuitive. Maybe it is just that I’ve only let a year go by. Before Minden I’d had a two year hiatus from soaring. It could be that two years is just too long, leaving me just too rusty and out of practice.

In any case, by Monday’s flight I was feeling competent. My instructors that day were John and Jen, and they were a dream to fly with (as they all have been, really). It was an excellent day for soaring, with light winds and towering cumulous streets of clouds that did not over develop. One expert soaring pilot riding a capable steed made his way to Stowe, Vermont, and back. And yes, someone else called (actually he had his wife call for him, hmmm…) to ask for an aero-retrieve from 40 miles east. The good news was that he’d landed at an airport.

Landing out. That’s soaring-speak for not making it back to your point of origin. An aero-retrieve means you pay the tow plane to fly to you, and then give you a tow home. Some pilots combat this problem by flying a motor glider, firing up the engine when they get to the point where they are too low to return to their home base, perhaps because they misjudged the lift conditions, or how long the lift would hold out at the end of the day. Other pilots use better judgment to make sure they get back to home base every time.

My instructors on Monday spent plenty of time helping me “see” all of the possible acceptable off-airport landing sites in the valley, and just beyond. We were high enough to see the Adirondacks looming over Lake Champlain, and hear the Québécois’ French chatter in Canada, which I could see clearly to the north with every circle as I climbed to cloud base, rolled out, pushed over for speed, and commenced to glide to the next decent thermal.

We crossed the valley practicing wing-overs, crazy-eights, stalls and steep turns, until they felt I knew all the possible quirks of the fine machine I’d chosen to master. Landings required another skill—understanding that I was much closer to the ground at flare than in my usual ride, the RV-10. That took a bit of coaching, too, but ultimately I got the visual picture and our touchdowns were smooth and on the mark. The thing about sailplanes: though you can control your trajectory to landing nicely with dive brakes, you don’t get to go around if you come up short or long. Making it back to home base from altitude is all about calculating your inertia, choosing your descent speed, setting your trajectory with your dive brakes, and making your initial pattern entry point, downwind, base, final and landing spots on speed and on altitude. Add airport traffic into the mix and you’ve got a great scenario for teaching any pilot great judgment skills.

By day’s end on Monday I’d thermaled, reviewed primary skills, proven my pattern, landing, and even emergency landing prowess, and received my sign-off for solo in the ASK-21. Tuesday’s conditions, however, were nowhere near what I’d proved myself in, and I knew it. The sailplane sat ready for me at the end of the runway, and the tow plane pilot, Steve, eyed me, waiting to know what I wanted to do. The wind was whistling through the gaps in the window frame of the not-ready-for-winter FBO. Sure, I’d flown in some gnarly winds in Minden. But not solo. In fact the last time I’d soloed a glider was in benign conditions over flat land.

“Um…no. I’m not going up today,” I said definitively.

Steve smiled. Good call.

That afternoon I hiked up a cliffside to sit on a sheltered hunk of granite that provided me a view of  half the Champlain Valley. It wasn’t quite as splendid as my perch in the sailplane, but it did sooth. The clouds streamed by, harbingers of the rain that would follow. I was happy to be on terra firma, and ready to fly another day.

Bursting bubbles with, ‘Birdmen’

Monday, August 11th, 2014

As an aviation enthusiast, you are no doubt aware of the legend of Orville and Wilbur Wright. You may even be familiar with the exploits of their arch nemesis, Glenn Curtiss. May I say with the best of intentions, however, you probably don’t know the whole story behind these amazingly talented men and the struggles they underwent. What most of us know is the legend, not the fact. The myths that surround real men are intriguing. But believe me, there is so much more to the story than most of us ever suspected.

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Goldstone’s intensely researched narrative, Birdmen. At 448 pages, it’s hefty. But so is the story Goldstone has to tell. Thank goodness Ballantine Books saw merit to the project. It’s amazing.

Most of us are aware the Wright’s were incredibly gifted engineers. These two men, without a high school diploma between them, bested the sharpest scientists of the day as they methodically experimented with the ever increasing complexity of machines they intended to fly. It’s hard to unsee what you’ve seen, or unlearn what you know—but imagine a time when nobody, absolutely nobody really knew how to get an aircraft into the air. Once airborne, there wasn’t a single person on the planet who had any idea how to control the thing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There were lots of ideas—but most of them were wrong. It took two ingenious men, well matched and completely driven to achieve their goal, to figure out the basics.

And that’s where the trouble started. Once the Wright’s flew, others wanted to fly. If they can do it, I can do it; or so the thinking went. Although it was a relatively small group of participants, interest was very high. And like today an amazing invention tends to spawn similar inventions. But how similar? When is the line of patent infringement crossed, and what might the cost be to prevent legal action through the payment of licensing fees? It’s one of the great tragedies of our industry that Wilbur Wright, the man who could reasonably be singled out as the driving force behind heavier-than-air-flight, became so embroiled in legal actions that he drove himself into a self-imposed prison of paperwork and unrelenting stress. Orville the craftsman could build the airplane, and tweak the motor, and fly as well as anyone in his day. But it was Wilbur who drove the team forward, and it was Wilbur who became so fixated on the legal processes necessary to gain ownership of the skies that he gave up aircraft design and a seat at the controls of his own aircraft in favor of endless meetings with businessmen, and lawyers, and judges.

Curtiss got airborne after the Wrights, and certainly learned a great deal from what the pioneering brothers had done. But when he got into the game he came on like gangbusters. He innovated, he pushed the limits of the machinery. He became a sensation and so did his aircraft. The former motorcycle racer placed ailerons between the wings of his biplane, doing away with wing warping. He created new control systems, increased horsepower, and built the first functional seaplanes. He even invented tricycle gear.

If you have a penchant for aviation, you really should consider reading Birdmen. Our industry is nearly 111 years old, yet already we’ve lost so much of its history. Lawrence Goldstone rediscovers a significant portion of it for us, packages it up into a beautifully written story, and shares it with the world.

Read it. Seriously. Go read this book.

It may be a stretch to say the Wrights and Curtiss hated each other, but they certainly weren’t exchanging Christmas cards or birthday greetings. Which makes it all that much more ironic that the companies founded by the Wrights and Curtiss would one day become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

Separated by a fiercely competitive spirit and the quest for wealth and fame, the Wrights and Curtiss have been united by history and commerce. The companies these giants founded, now bound together as a single entity, continue to thrive to this day. You owe it to yourself to know the story behind the story. You’ll find it in Birdmen.

Regulations Are Written In Blood: Why Planesharing Is Grounded For Now

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

 

planesharing is grounded until further notice

In aviation, we say that “regulations are written in blood.” Pilots often complain about regulations, but they generally recognize that those regulations are often based on experience and events that have cost others their property, their lives, or both. We know that the legal environment of aviation often lags behind reality. Technical innovations can make older regulations obsolete. But sometimes the innovation doesn’t change the relevance of the regulations or dilute the blood in which they are written.

Planesharing Explained

Laws should serve as a safety net, not a noose. Aircraft are expensive to own and operate. Now, more than ever, making aircraft more useful and ubiquitous is critical for the survival of aviation. Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, VBRO, GetAround, and BoatBound make it easy to put substantial assets like cars, boats, and homes to work. There is no federal statute that makes renting out your spare bedroom generally illegal.

“Planesharing” tries to apply the same model to private air travel. Planesharing is the concept of pilots use services on the Internet to post details of their upcoming flights in the hopes that potential passengers will find the flight information, join the pilots on their flights, and split the cost of the flight with them.

Startups like Flytenow, AirPooler, ShareMySky, AiirShare, Pro Rata Share, Wingman, and others have developed business models around facilitating planesharing. Venture capital should not be seen as some kind of signal that startups can ignore the rules the rest of us have to live by.

Pilots have been legally sharing the costs of privately operated flights for decades, but purpose-built online apps like these have made this kind of sharing more like commercial flying.

How Private and Commercial Flying are Different

It is sometimes said that the most dangerous part of a flight is the drive to the airport. That’s true, but only if you’re flying with a commercial operation. Airline (Part 121) and charter (Part 135) flying is something like 500 times safer than operations conducted by private pilots (generally conducted under Part 91). There’s good reason for this. Airlines and charter operators have to achieve rigorous certification of their aircraft, facilities, operations, and pilots and maintain that certification through constant monitoring, training, and investment. If you look at the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) in printed form, the requirements take up about an inch of thickness and that’s just the regulations themselves. Aircraft inspections happen at least every 100 hours of operating time. Operating specifications, maintenance records, pilot manuals, maintenance manuals, dispatcher manuals, and other necessary paperwork fills many linear feet of shelf space. Pilot experience could be as low as 250 or so hours, but most pilots flying for commercial operations have thousands.

Private operations, (under Part 91) on the other hand, don’t have to do as much. They’re subject to maybe a half inch of regulations and a few operating manuals. Private pilots might have as little as 50 hours of flight time. A mechanic may only be required to even touch the aircraft once a year.

It’s reasonable to accept more risk when flying with a private individual vs. a commercial operator. Flying a helicopter in combat has a lower accident rate than flying single piston engine airplanes. Remember folks, flying isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it is terribly unforgiving.

The Regulations and How Planesharing Gets Pilots In Trouble

This difference is the basis for the different FAA regulations for commercial and private operations. The regulation that applies to private pilots (FAR 61.133) says that “no person who holds a private pilot certificate may act as pilot in command of an aircraft that is carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire; nor may that person, for compensation or hire, act as pilot in command of an aircraft.” That same regulation goes on to say that “a private pilot may not pay less than the pro rata share of the operating expenses of a flight with passengers, provided the expenses involve only fuel, oil, airport expenditures, or rental fees.”

Planesharing depends on the “pro rata share” part of the regulation. As long as a private pilot operating under Part 91 collects only part of the money for the flight, he or she is in the clear, right? But let’s be honest. Privately this easy, and only when you start fishing about for people we have no prior relationship with do any of these new apps make anything easier. Blurring the lines between private and commercial flying is a problem. The confusion is in the uninitiated passenger believing that he or she is getting the commercial level of safety when the pilot is operating under the much more permissive rules of Part 91.

So the FAA typically applies a two-part litmus test.

1. Is the pilot “holding out” the service to the public? Put another way: How much does an operation look like an airline or charter service? FAA Advisory Circular AC-120-42 says that one becomes “a common carrier [i.e., an operation that requires the more rigorous certification] when it holds itself out or to a segment of the public as willing to furnish transportation within the limits of its facilities to any person who wants it.” What does a planesharing pilot do? Lists his or her flight and invites anyone with money to come sit in one of the other seats, right? Short of the person being overweight for the aircraft or being disagreeable in some way, a planesharing pilot is offering to furnish transportation to all comers.

2. Do the pilot and the passenger(s) have “common purpose” for the flight? The regulations (and all FAA guidance and rulings to date) clearly contemplate friends or family loading into a Cessna 172 and flying somewhere for dinner or sightseeing. The FAA requires that everyone in the aircraft have something in common about the mission. Planesharing encourages passengers who have no preexisting relationship with the pilot (otherwise, why is an online service necessary for them to find each other?) and it is almost certain that the pilot and passengers will have different objectives once they arrive at the destination. What are the chances that perfect strangers will turn out to be heading to the same golf course, restaurant, or shopping district? Even local flights which start and end at the same airport, which the FAA regulates as sightseeing flights are regulated. Air tour pilots are required to keep within a limited distance from the airport, submit to more drug tests, and hold at least a commercial pilot certificate.

It is possible to engage in planesharing in a compliant way. You build a group of friends over time, say on Pilots of America or a similar message board. You all agree to meet at a regional airport and fly in Bob’s Cessna 206 down to Sun ‘N Fun in Florida in March for three days to see the airshow and drool on the latest aircraft. You split the cost when it’s all over. Great.

But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, does anyone really think that many planesharing flights would work this way? A majority of them? Fewer? Any? The FAA administrator and staff are reasonably intelligent. The FAA can identify a sham when the FAA sees a sham and so can we. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that most flights under the planesharing model are not legal under the current regulations. The arguments made by these companies that the rules don’t apply to them just don’t hold water.

Could the FAA come up with a safe harbor under the rule? Sure. What would that look like? A demonstrable pre-existing relationship between the pilot and passengers of at least such-and-such a duration, supported by family relationship or documentary evidence like date-stamped e-mail correspondence? A requirement that pilot and passengers all do the same thing at the destination, supported by a file folder full of consecutively-numbered concert tickets or a guest check with the appropriate number of entrees?

At what point do the administrative costs outweigh the benefit of such a safe harbor? It’s complicated. Previous legal interpretations from the FAA like here and here make this clear as mud. Creating a safe harbor under current regulation would be really tough. We’ve got to balance personal choice with public expectations of safety.

Anyway, we’re going to find out soon.  At least AirPooler and FlyteNow have petitioned the FAA for an administrative ruling about the legality of planesharing. The FAA told the pilot community that it would rule by mid-June, but that deadline has come and gone while the FAA continues to think about the issue. In the meantime, good on AirPooler for recently advising pilots to hold off on listing flights pending the FAA’s ruling. My opinion doesn’t really count for much. The ball is in the FAA’s court. Enforcement actions are possible and even likely before the smoke clears.

Why So Serious?

If you’ve read this far, you might wonder why I’m disparaging a potentially helpful and cool new aspect of the sharing economy. I love innovation and new ideas as much as anyone. I have a dog in this fight. But it’s a different dog and I’ve defined the fight for what I believe is a better way.

For aviation, collaborative consumption isn’t anything new. We’ve been buying and leasing back airplanes to flight schools and flying clubs for decades. The rest of the world was just catching up with us. There’s still plenty of room for innovation in the business of aviation. Two of my favorite examples are ForeFlight and SurfAir. They’ve disrupted the experience, without ignoring the rules.

Regulation and innovation can coexist. My own example is OpenAirplane which tackles the problem that we can solve legally by making more aircraft accessible to more pilots. The idea is to make everyone’s pilot certificate more useful.

In a nutshell: It used to be that each airplane rental operation (and its insurance company) required that a pilot do a local checkout flight in the airplane before renting it. OpenAirplane standardized the checkout process and with support of insurance industry. Now, pilots go through a single annual checkout flight that tests their skills and verifies that they are as safe and competent as the FAA requires. The standards are pretty much the same ones that the FAA uses when initially certifying pilots and they’re evaluated by designated flight instructors who are familiar with the process. After that Universal Pilot Checkout, the pilot can rent the same kind(s) or airplane(s) at any participating facility (currently more than 60 across the US). It’s all completely legal.

While planesharing could expand the addressable market for our company, we’re not willing to put pilots at risk of violations or worse. OpenAirplane solves as much of the problem as we can solve without breaking the law. We put more pilots in more airplanes more often. We don’t do anything for non-pilot passengers yet, but only because – well – illegal.

But we still frequently get lumped in with planesharing operators when folks talk about developments in aircraft availability. We’re not a planesharing operation. And we don’t want to be unless he rules change. Planesharing can’t solve the problem that it claims to solve without a deregulation of private aviation or a big shift in FAA doctrine.

You Can’t Fool Newton and Bernoulli

The principles defined by Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli govern the safety of flight. They don’t care about social networks or online collaboration, no matter how innovative or cute. And mountains of evidence tell us that Newton and Bernoulli favor the better-maintained aircraft, better-trained pilots, and more comprehensive operating procedures that one finds almost exclusively in commercial operations. As long as the safety of passengers – or at least honesty with passengers about the wildly different risk profile that they face in an aircraft with the average a planesharing pilot – is the point, planesharing doesn’t work.

The FAA regulations allocate privileges to pilots based on a careful balancing of those privileges with the skills and experience that they have demonstrated. Planesharing, as currently conceived and practiced, encourages private pilots to operate de facto charter services or air carriers. It’s a bad idea. Unless the FAA reverses its position, planesharing remains grounded.