Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

Do Piston Engine TBOs Make Sense?

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When are piston aircraft engines most likely to hurt you?

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

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

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

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

Ulrich study (hours)

Ulrich study (years)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Pilots and Planes Will Become Obsolete In The Near Future . . . And What We Can Do About It (Part 1)

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

It is not at all farfetched to believe that the pilots and planes that we all know and love are, well, on their way out – that we are at the end of an historical era.  The indicators are all there, both in terms of what we know about the past and by observing the current trends that surround us.

History tells us that everything changes.  So it is inevitable that the present paradigm will give way to something new.  The only question is when and how.  To understand this, we must begin by describing the larger environment in which we find ourselves – providing a context for understanding the other forces that are in play.  As it happens, the context is unprecedented and extraordinary.

We are living in within the highest rate of change in the history of humanity.  Never before has our species (or any species, for that matter) experienced the converging exponential forces that are presently catapulting us toward the horizon. No matter which dimension you choose – technology, social values, agriculture, science, energy, climate, government, et.al. – we are confronted with situations that would largely have been considered implausible as late as five years ago.

Enabled by the global neural system we call the Internet, the increasing interaction within support systems (and our values and perspectives) are rather amazing. Changes in one area ricochet across many others, generating cascading shifts that follow each other with shorter and shorter intervals.   The metabolism of the whole human experience is amplified by the feeding of trends and events on each other, producing larger and larger impacts.

It’s within this context of rapidly accelerating breakthroughs (and the erosion of the legacy systems) that a number of trends have established themselves that will have direct impact on the future of GA.  These weak signals or early indicators are harbingers of what are sure to become larger, converging forces that will usher in a new era in aviation.

Technology

The combination of ubiquitous connectivity, increasing bandwidth, advanced sensors and decreasing cost is assuring that Autonomous Systems (aka drones and unmanned aerial vehicles) will become an increasing larger segment of the global aircraft fleet. The Navy has flown its first drone from an aircraft carrier, the Air Force is having a hard time hiring the number of drone pilots that it needs, and the Marine Corps is already using a drone cargo helicopter in Afghanistan.  Large drone cargo aircraft are already being designed and UAVs are very rapidly proliferating throughout the law enforcement, news gathering and research communities.  The FAA has certified the first commercial drone and forecasts that 10,000 of them will be in the air over the US by 2020.

Cargo Drone envisioned by Dorsal Aircraft Corp.

Cargo Drone envisioned by Dorsal Aircraft Corp.

Artificial Intelligence is on the horizon. Strong AI agents will act like humans – they will research, collect information (from sensors and other sources), interact with other agents and humans and make decisions.  Think of them as a pilot that knows what the weather is, is constantly aware of the state of the airframe, powerplants, communicates with ATC, filed the flight plan, and flies the aircraft. Advanced Voice Recognition will allow the AI to interact directly with humans. Augmented Reality already has the capability to superimpose information from databases located anywhere on the planet onto the synthetic image generated by the AI controller/pilot.  Advanced Materials are also being developed that will have thousands or millions of miniscule computers embedded within them that will signal the state of any aircraft component (temperature, pressure, etc.) on a real time basis to the AI pilot.   It’s not certain when this capability will become commercially available but I’d guess we’ll begin to see applications within a decade. In any case, they are certainly coming.

The integration of these capabilities (and others) present the rather real possibility of getting into an aircraft in the not too distant future, telling the techno cab driver-controller where you want to go and sitting back while it determines the ideal route and then takes you there.  If this seems farfetched, keep in mind that technological advances are more than doubling every 18 months so application in 2020 won’t be just five or ten times better than today but will be over 500 times more capable. Ponder that for a minute.

This kind of explosive development also raises the distinct possibility of the emergence of things like levitation into the civil fleet in the not too distant future.  There are a number of private efforts underway to develop this capability and an application of the technology has been reported in the major aviation press to already be an integral part of the wing design of the B-2 bomber.  In any case, levitation would obviously produce an aircraft that didn’t look like or operate like those we see at our local airport.

(To be continued next month)

What General Aviation Can Look Forward to in 2014

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Kicking off the shiny new year by sharing some things that I’m looking forward to in 2014. What excites me about these developments is their potential to have far-reaching impact on the aviation community and the industry that supports it.

 

ICON A5

A5ICON gets a lot of flack from the traditionalists in the aviation community. But with with first pre-production aircraft on track to be completed in mid-2014, and the first deliveries of production aircraft planned later this year, this is a product  is looking less like vaporware everyday. Partnering up with Cirrus Aircraft (Folks who know a lot of about building composite aircraft) for production seems like such a smart move. Why re-invent production techniques when you’re reinventing the experience of flying for the fun of it?

A modern, clean sheet aircraft design which reimagines what flying for fun can be has a ton of potential. The ICON A5 is product which feels like a mashup of a jet ski and a seaplane to offer something completely new. Team ICON has focused their efforts not on the dwindling traditional aviation community, but on a much broader market for recreational motorsports. Everything ICON does is feel more at home at luxury motorsport dealership, not the stodgy milquetoast spaces we associate with today’s aviation brands.

Ditching the airspeed indicator, for a far more intuitive Angle Of Attack system is a great example of how this is a product designed for folks who aren’t pilots. (Yet.)

No single product I know of has as much potential to suck otherwise unsuspecting “civilians”  into the aviation lifestyle.

 

Cessna 182 Turbo Skylane JT-A

JTAI love this airplane. The new JTA-A even looks better. As the old saying goes, the C-182 Skylane isn’t great at anything, but it’s good at everything. This is product where the world called, and Cessna listened. A proven legacy airframe, is getting a new heart. This bird sips Jet-A.

Bolting a SMA SR305-230 diesel engine and a new cowling onto this workhorse airframe should be a winner. Burning Jet-A gets you 30-to-40-percent lower fuel burn per hour, faster cruise, better climb, and no mixture control to futz with.

Cessna knows the market for newly built light aircraft is overseas, and anything burning avgas is going to have limited utility due to the constraints on 100LL infrastructure around the world. This is the year the market makes the the move to Jet-A.

 

Redhawk 172

RedhawkOn the other end of the spectrum, the folks at Redbird (Folks who have done a great job bringing some great training technology in reach of far more flight schools than ever before.) are taking a different approach. Back in the 1970′s when the manufactures were churning out airframes at a rate that made the efficient to build, they were relatively affordable to buy. The folks at Redbird are essential recycling legacy airframes to make training aircraft affordable again.

With the cost of a newly built 172 often climbing out of the reach of many flight schools, Redbird will start remanufacturing old 172s, stripping them down to the bare metal, and offering 172 Redhawks to the training industry.

They’ll start by hanging Continental‘s Centurion turbo-diesel engine, which sips Jet-A at just 4.5 gallons per hour, (Again, more Jet-A) install Aspen Avionics’ Evolution glass panel in a new interior, and new paint. Everything about the Redhawk will be tuned for the demands of a busy flight school.

Redhawk will be a package solution for flight schools. Including insurance, leasing “power by the hour,” with an innovative lease program through partner Brown Aviation. This could mean that more schools could get better access to more modern equipment. Flight schools will be free to concentrate on finding customers, not financing. The beta program starts in Spring.

 

Mooney is Back

MooneyJust when it seems like the idea of building airplanes designed for personal transportation seems to be going the way of the betamax, Mooney is starting the production lines back up this year.

These are some really nice traveling machines. Simple trainers they are not. They don’t have all the features you find in more modern designs, but if the prices can be kept reasonable, they could be competitive again.

This is a product with a lot of fans. It’s nice to see another option in the marketplace of aircraft well suited to private aviation.

 

Space Tourism

Virgin GalacticStarting in 2014. Folks who bought a ticket will starting climbing aboard rocket ships that will take them into space.

Now I  won’t be able to afford a ride, (for a long while) but then again I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy a ticket on the earliest airlines 100 years ago either. Virgin Galactic will commence sub-orbital hops above the Kármán line, with a view of the curvature of the earth, and some zero G thrown in for good measure.

Sir Branson has compared SpaceShipTwo to the Ford Trimotor of of our time. I’m good with that. Mostly because I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

 

Demo Teams Back In Action

T- BirdsAir shows are the largest outdoor professional sports in North America. These performances and static displays are the backbone of the air show experience. Last year’s sequestration debacle caused the outright cancellation of many air shows around the country.

Now the economic impact aside, the impact to recruiting can be debated other places…

…but the impact on inspiration is clear. The inspiration air shows deliver have a huge impact on aviation, aerospace more broadly, and across the board STEM education is huge.

Nothing delivers the tonnage of inspiration like an air show.

…and if you don’t like air shows, we just can’t be friends.

 

So that’s what I’m looking forward to. How about you? What did I miss? What do you look forward to the most?

Happy New Year everyone. Let’s make it awesome.

 

 

“Moneyball” for General Aviation

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Flight time is the secret sauce to success.

It’s like getting runs on base.

I wrote that headline because, “Sabermetrics for Flight Schools, Flying Clubs, and Anyone Who Wants to Make A Buck In Aviation,” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

I find the movie “Moneyball” inspiring. It’s a movie as much about business as it is about baseball. Anyone managing an aviation business can find inspiration here too. Its how the business model of OpenAirplane came to be.

“It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them.”

– Peter Brand in “Moneyball”

The book, and the movie are the story of how the Oakland A’s, a team out spent and out gunned by it’s competitors, finished 1st in the American League West with a record of 103 wins and 59 losses, despite losing three free agents to larger market teams. They built a championship team like, “an island of misfit toys,” using sabermetrics.

Sabermetrics is the term for the empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity. So let’s look at how this discipline, which demystified the voodoo of the business of baseball, can be applied to the business of aviation.

Jason Blair, former Executive Director at NAFI, has spent a lot of time researching what makes flight operations tick. He offers up what he’s learned in his seminar for industry folks called, “Skills for Flight Training and Aircraft Rental Operators to Increase Profitability.” Using one of the handy spreadsheets Jason has been gracious enough to publish can be enlightening, (sometimes scary) and very useful.

Modeling profitability of rental aircraft yields our industry’s version of sabermetrics. It’s flight time. More specifically, its flight hours flown on an airframe, or utilization that makes or breaks the business. Like the focus on getting on base make a baseball team a winner, optimizing the business on number of flight hours flown by each airframe is the secret sauce to success in flying business.

To grossly oversimplify this…

Fly more hours = make more money.
The cost of getting the airplane doesn’t matter near as much.

Utilization is the single biggest influencer on price and profitability for airplanes. It’s this single metric that has the biggest impact on the business. The effect of utilization is significantly more influential than the effect of the acquisition cost of the airplane.

For example, let’s model utilization vs. cost…

If we decrease the hours flown by 25%, the rate for profitable rental increases by 17.3%. If we increase the hours flown by 25% the rate for a profitable rental falls by 9.4%.

but…

If we decrease the acquisition cost of the airplane by 25% the rate for a profitable rate drops by 3.7%. If we increase the acquisition cost by 25%, the required rental rate also only bounces up by the same percentage.

This example shows the asymmetrical influence flying more hours per year has on profitability and affordability of the airplane.

Flight hours flown per year really is the single most influential metric on the profitability of the business that you can manage. This is why we built OpenAirplane from the ground up to do one thing at scale, which is to drive up the number of flight hours and drive better utilization of the fleet.

Operators who optimizes their business to create more flying hours will win.

 

The missing link in simulation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Several months ago I mused about the how ever-advancing computer technology has led to a marked improvement in simulators for the light GA market. After my post was published, reader Keith Smith alerted me to a corresponding service he had developed called PilotEdge. His company’s mission is to add a level of realism to the general aviation FTD that not even the multi-million dollar Level D boxes have thus far been able to offer.

I was intrigued. What could possible transform an inexpensive Flight Training Device that way? In a word: radios. As Keith said, “People use [simulators] for things they can’t easily do in the airplane because they lack real ATC and real traffic. If you had those elements, an ordinary end-to-end flight would now be beneficial in the sim, because it would more accurately model the workload associated with conducting the flight.”

That’s when it hit me: I’ve been training regularly in a full-motion Level D Gulfstream IV-SP simulator for a few years now, and despite the accuracy with which the cockpit, visuals, and motion are replicated, it’s never been exactly like flying the actual jet. I never spent much time thinking about why. Adding live air traffic control and filling the skies with actual traffic, operated by humans who spoke on the radio would completely revolutionize the experience, because for better or worse, pilots invest tremendous energy and attention on those two elements. We have to listen for our call sign, respond to queries, and interact with other people on a continual basis.

This isn’t about radio skills (although the service would definitely be useful for that purpose), it’s about workload. Keith related the story of a sim pilot who was so busy in the traffic pattern dealing with a Skyhawk ahead of him and a King Air on a three-mile straight-in for another runway that he failed to notice that he only had two green “gear down” lights.

The shower of sparks was impressive — but nothing compared to the look of horror on his face. He was sure he had confirmed the landing gear position. In fact, he heard the gear coming down and felt the vibration, but a badly timed call from the controller asking him to widen out on downwind distracted him and he never finished the checks. His radio work was perfect, but he failed to prioritize the necessary tasks. You couldn’t duplicate that without PilotEdge.

Bringing the workload closer to real world levels reveals chinks in the student’s armor; in fact, it’s exactly what instructors do with their students in real life: give them a heavy workload to see how they deal with the stress.

Imagine running an emergency in the simulator — say, an engine failure or depressurization scenario — and how much better it would be with a controller on the other end of the radio. You declare an emergency, and they start asking you about fuel remaining, souls on board, what are your intentions, do you need assistance, etc. That’s realism. It’s also a great opportunity to learn things a simulator normally never teaches you, like the fact that ignoring ATC is sometimes the best and safest option when you need to fully focus on flying the airplane. Imagine a copilot trying to read a challenge-response checklist to you in one ear while ATC is yammering away in the other.

Instructors using the PilotEdge service have a textual “back channel” to the controllers and can request scenarios like lost comm, a late go-around, poor vectoring, holds, and literally anything else a real controller would throw at you.

How It Works

The goal is 100% fidelity. ATC services are as realistic as PilotEdge can make them. They used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain SOPs for Southern California towers, approach control, and Center sectors. They also familiarize themselves with local airport customs by listening to LiveATC.net. The sim controllers are paid by PilotEdge and use the same phraseology and procedures utilized by FAA-certified ATC specialists.

But “live” ATC is not very realistic if you’re the only one in the sky. So PilotEdge uses what they call “traffic shaping”. Rather than merely hoping for traffic, they coordinate actual pilots with simulators in remote locations to be at the right place at the right time flying a specified route to create that traffic. And they’re on the frequency as well. Listening for your call sign is something you have to do as much or more in the simulator than you’d be doing in real life. You’ll wait for departure, get stepped on during transmissions, and do all the other things that would happen in a real airplane.

PilotEdge’s service area covers Southern California. Some of their traffic is live, while the rest is computer-generated. PilotEdge has 400 drones flying around the area at all times in Echo and Golf airspace, squawking 1200 and not talking to anyone. They’re programmed to fly exactly as real-world “non-participating” targets do. They’re in the VFR practice areas, the Palos Verdes aerobatic area, and so on. They have military aircraft flying at high speed on military training routes, light GA aircraft on multi-hour cross-countries, gliders (again, without a transponder) flying ridge lift off of Warner Springs and around Mojave, etc.

Here’s a three minute overview of the PilotEdge service:

The Genesis

I’d never heard of a service like PilotEdge before, but Keith said they are not the only one providing ATC services for simulators. The difference is, the “other guys” are using voice-recognition software limited to prepackaged scenarios rather than a room full of human controllers who can deal with — and dish out — anything you can dream up.

Keith Smith started with an early internet-based attempt at simulating air traffic control called VATSIM, which began by using text and later went to Voice-Over-IP.

“That’s where the idea came about; I was a controller there for seven years or so. It’s got lots of flaws for commercial use, but it was the genesis. I couldn’t convince other pilots to use VATSIM due to technical difficulty, so I built PilotEdge from the ground up, licensed the radar scope technology, and off we went.

The radio source code is fairly complicated, but beyond that the service is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Technology is not the key. The secret is our operating model: ATC services provided fifteen hours a day, no requirement for scheduling in advance, and it’s just like the real ATC system.

Also, VATSIM strictly prohibits commercial use, whereas we are built for that purpose. Once a fee is charged, a volunteer service like VATSIM gets complicated. Who gets paid and who does not?”

I asked him how the reception has been for PilotEdge. “It’s a tricky question to answer. It depends on the market. Right now we’re sitting at around 400 users and we’ve been there for 3-4 months. We bring some flight schools on, others drop out. The middle of the market has not been strong, but relationships on the upper-end have made up for it. But we’re a small company, only two years old and definitely still a start-up as far as funding goes.”

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the "virtual" tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the “virtual” tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

On the light GA side, PilotEdge is about building radio skills and proficiency at a low cost. With the price of flying spiraling upward at an alarming rate, it’s getting too expensive to operate a real airplane just to build mastery of radio communication.

Even so, it’s been hard for PilotEdge to get much traction with the prototypical flight school. These FBOs tend to be run by people who are overworked. Changes to their programs — especially if it’s an FAA-approved Part 141 syllabus — are difficult to make, and the main emphasis for these companies is keeping the leaseback airplanes flying. Likewise, instructors need to build time, so they want to fly, not sit in a simulator.

Keith feels he’ll be most successful with home users and corporate training centers, because all they do is simulation. The center of market is going to be soft because simulation is not as mature there (although that’s starting to change due to the Redbird Effect).

Expansion on the Horizon

Chicago Jet Group recently obtained an STC to put CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication — basically ATC via text) into Falcons and Gulfstreams, and they contacted PilotEdge to help provide training. VATSIM started with text-only, so it’s an easy transition. Keith said anyone who worked with VATSIM would feel right at home.

I wondered if PilotEdge would ever expand their service area beyond SoCal, and he responded by saying that airspace is airspace, but if the need arose, sure. They picked ZLA because there are simple, moderate, and highly complex areas around SoCal. Keeping the service area restricted increases density of traffic and that congestion helps training and realism. Having said that, there is a company looking to provide PilotEdge service for the New York area because they have a commercial contract to fulfill for that region.

The brass ring for a company like PilotEdge is, of course, the major training centers like Simuflite, FSI, and Simcom. Even NASA has shown an interest.

They’re already making some inroads there via a partnership with ProFlight LLC, a Part 142 training facility in Carlsbad, CA. Founder Caleb Taylor has deployed PilotEdge in their simulators and is basing their business model on that service. Their goal is not just recurrent training, but continual training where pilots can come in any time at no cost and use the device, solo. Well, if it’s used solo, there’s no instructor pretending to deliver ATC (badly, in most cases). So, enter PilotEdge.

Additionally, during ground training, where simulators are not generally used until after classroom training is complete, they want to use their $6 million sim as a training aid. Students will jump in the cockpit and practice using all the systems, including the FMS. There, too, ATC has a role. Lastly, students enter the flight training portion of the formal initial or recurrent program and log their sessions with an instructor. But they will be encouraged to follow up with a bunch of solo sessions, again, with PilotEdge.

All Roads Lead to Savannah

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

Keith knew that I fly Gulfstreams for a living and mentioned that they’re working with the folks in Savannah as well. Of course, that piqued my curiosity pretty quickly. He said that Gulfstream is using PilotEdge to save on certification costs related to the avionics in the G650. They’re developing the first FMS update for that airplane, and traditionally the human factors certification takes place in the actual jet. That’s expensive. Operating a G650 costs thousands of dollars per hour. PilotEdge allowed them to move that work into a simulator with full FAA blessing.

“We’re a small company nobody’s heard of, but the Gulfstream project got us in the door at FlightSafety. But even then, they were under the impression that it was voice recognition software, a synthetic product using rigid scenarios.”

It’s Not Just for Pilots

PilotEdge can work in reverse, too. Sacramento City College trains controllers before they go to Oklahoma City for formal coursework with the FAA. They setup a lab with simulators and use PilotEdge to get trainees a leg up on the intricacies of keeping a flurry of flying aluminum sequenced and separated.

Keith said they just put together a proposal for the Mexican Navy as well. Again, competitors use voice recognition software, but that technology doesn’t scale easily when the language in question is Spanish rather than English. He said PilotEdge’s pricing is also superior.

Speaking of English, no matter where you go — and I’ve been on virtually every continent — controllers and pilots are supposed to be capable of communicating in English. There’s no other way to ensure a pilot whose native language is Portuguese can talk to a controller in China who’s primary tongue is Mandarin. So a huge aspect of the international training market is dictated by the ICAO Level 6 English requirements. That regulation has teeth to it, and everyone’s struggling to get their people up to speed. Guess who can help with that?

The Bottom Line

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody’s come up with a service like PilotEdge before Keith Smith and his team made it happen. As previously noted, the requisite technology has been with us for many years. In some ways PilotEdge is almost anachronistic. From manufacturing to fast food, industries are moving toward greater automation and a lower employee count. PilotEdge is doing the exact opposite, supplanting automated ATC simulation with live humans. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had the misfortune to interact with a couple of these computerized programs in the past and always come away wishing I could get the last two hours of my life back.

The combination of a new generation of simulators and PilotEdge’s addition of air traffic and ATC has the potential to vastly improve the way pilots train while simultaneously reducing the cost of obtaining everything from a sport pilot certificate to a turbojet type rating. I can see this powerful duo creating an aviation equivalent of the smartphone explosion and helping turn the tide toward a more prosperous future.

Perhaps evolutionary is revolutionary after all.

Fly it Forward! The Williamson Flying Club inspires the love of flight & educates their business community.

Friday, October 25th, 2013

It is not every day that we hear about dedicated volunteers who think outside the box to inspire the love of aviation and to educate members of the business community. However that is just what the Williamson Flying Club has done in western New York. I dare you not to be inspired after reading about this engaged group of volunteers at KSDC Williamson-Sodus airport. Take their lead and find ways at your local ‘drome to get into the spotlight.

The Williamson Flying Club

Founded in nearly sixty years ago by five local pilots, the Williamson Flying Club [WFC] purchased land in the nearby town of Sodus to establish an airport in 1957.  Beginning as a small grass strip, the airport now is the 7th largest General Aviation airport in New York State, with approximately 70 based aircraft, 50 hangars, a 3800′ runway with GPS RNAV approaches, AWOS and a fuel farm. Managed by the Board of Directors of the Williamson Flying Club, the airport is a public-use reliever airport and is the only hard-surfaced runway in the county.  It boasts over 25,000 operations per year.  On field business include the club-managed FBO, and two maintenance facilities.  According to New York State economic development reports, the airport contributes $2.3 Million to the local economy and $115,000 in school, property and state and local taxes.  All of this comes at no cost to the local towns, county or county taxpayers.

In 2013 the Williamson Flying Club created the Williamson Flying Club Aviation & Aviation Sciences Scholarship awarded to a graduating high school student who chooses post-secondary study in an aviation-related field at a college, university or trade school.  The scholarship is $1,000, payable in $250 amounts each year over four years, or $500 each year for two-year programs.

Williamson Flying Club

Pictured, left to right, Jake DeGroote (Founding Member), Stephen Murray (Secretary), Sheila Sperr, John Sperr, Paul Sperr (Scholarship Winner), Joe Ebert (President) and Bob Herloski (Treasurer).

Scholarship winner Paul Sperr received a certificate and will be receiving $1000 over the course of his four years of study at the University of Buffalo. Paul is a 2013 graduate of the Williamson High School.

Paul was valedictorian and he will be majoring in Aerospace Engineering.  In addition to the scholarship funds, Paul also received a membership in the Williamson Flying Club, and they have invited him to use his membership to learn more about aviation, meet pilots and mechanics and maybe some day, start taking flying lessons.

 

 

The WFC shows the value of an airport to the business community

Photo Credit: Joe Ebert

Attendees received a promotional bag, pen and wine with custom label.

Williamson-Sodus Airport [KSDC] was invited by the Wayne County, New York, Economic Development/Industrial Development Agency to present an overview of the airport’s economic impact to the region to a group of about sixty decision-makers which included local town and government leaders, state and federal representatives, county tourism, planning and economic development officials.  Local business leaders,bankers and real estate developers also attended.

The day-long event began at the airport, with County Supervisor Jim Hoffman welcoming the attendees.  The airport presentation followed, which discussed the size, scope and capabilities of the airport, the airport land that is available for compatible non-aviation development, as well as the obligations the airport has to remain an airport “in perpetuity”, due to grant assurance obligations.  As club President Joe Ebert remarked, “from an economic development standpoint, it’s important that potential investors who make decisions based on the presence of an airport have confidence that the airport will be there in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years or more!”

Each attendee boarded the bus that took the group on a tour of the region to learn more about the region’s economy and opportunities for economic development.  Attendees were given a canvas airport logo’d bag to carry all the items they would gather that day, a copy of the presentation and a nifty airport logo’d pen.

Custom wine labels featuring airport

Custom wine labels featuring airport. Photo Credits: Joe Ebert

When the group returned to the airport, having just completed a wine tasting at Young Sommer winery just a few miles down the road,  each participant was surprised with a split of an award-winning fruit-blended wine from the winery, custom labeled for the airport.

The “Fab Five” who created the Williamson-Sodus airport had vision, passion and perseverance.  It seems to me that nearly sixty years since its inception, the flame has not flickered.  The scholarship entices the youth, the wine might entice the long in the tooth, but the educational and economic value to the community is boundless.  Airports such as KSDC prove that they are good neighbors and an asset to the surrounding communities.

Now it is time for you to think out of the box.  As I am fond of saying, there are three kinds of people: those who watch their lives happen, those who make their lives happen, and those who wonder how life happens.  The Williamson Flying Club made it happen.  You can too.

 

Skip the MBA. Learn to fly instead.

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

 

Venn Diagram - Aviate - Navigate - Communicate

The best business advice I’ve ever been given came from my flight instructor.

Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. …in that order.”

Success in the cockpit relies on managing bandwidth. It turns out, so does success in any business. As my friend Steve [@StephenForce] likes to say, flight training is all about bandwidth packing. Making a business work is no different.

I try to balance consuming ideas and immersion. Much of what I’ve consumed in the last couple of years has been business advice and counsel. Eighteen months ago I had no idea what a “cap table,” was or what the heck, “preferred stock,” meant. I immersed myself in the lingo as I went about the business of starting a business. I’ve come a long way through immersion.

As I consumed most everything I could get my hands on to help me through each stage of the project, it struck me how many aviation analogies you find in business books. (Second only to military analogies by my count.) Startups have, “runway,” which is calculated from a, “burn rate.” We, “launch,” products and we hope the business, “takes off.” You get the idea.

Many businesses fail because of distraction. Don’t believe the hype. Human beings are terrible at multitasking. Entrepreneurs are notoriously distracted people. (Just ask my team, they’ll tell you after the laughter subsides.) Prioritization of attention is a critical life skill for both flying and business. Fixation is the enemy of any good instrument scan, and it can completely blow up you calendar too. Managing a business like we manage a cockpit may not be for everyone, but here’s my idea. Cockpit discipline can be a guide for how to structure time and help you manage your bandwidth better.

AVIATE – (Operations, customer service, production, finance, etc.) The tasks that make a business a business are the foundation. When I see businesses disappointing people, it seems most often due to distraction from the basics. My primary flight instructor taught me long ago, “Never drop the airplane to fly the mic.” Aviating must come first. If you’re a retailer, you should first and foremost be good at selling stuff. If you’re a flight school, you should prioritize your focus on tasks that get people flying. If you make stuff, make it better. See what I mean? In my case, since launching OpenAirplane I’ve tried my level best to always make the operational tasks my priority. Personally, this kind of discipline has never been my strong suit. I’ve adapted.

NAVIGATE - (Product management, design, planning, strategy, etc.) In flying and in business, we should always be asking ourselves, “What’s next?” My friend Jason [@TFPofFLYING] likes to stress how important it is to always, “stay ahead of the airplane.” The same discipline can be applied to your work. In every business there are opportunities to look ahead within to improve experience, refine processes, expand or cut offering to make the business run better. Sometimes we get task saturated and get buried in the day to day operations, but unless there’s the discipline to regularly step back and turn the focus to planning, we’re plowing forward without a map.

I’m a student of the design of business. Our industry mostly evolved; very little around us was designed. Much of the industry doctrine in aviation isn’t a product of regulation or design; it’s a product of inertia. On the commercial side, look at the lowly boarding pass as an example. Good luck trying to make sense of those things. Recently someone actually took on a redesign of the boarding pass. The results will make you wonder what took so long.

COMMUNICATE – (Marketing, advertising, public relations, promotions, etc.) I’ve been in some sort of marketing role my entire career. I default to it. But others do not; I get that. Our industry has evolved to be exceedingly efficient at communicating to our own community. Beyond preaching to the converted, the industry for the most part is incompetent. Lack of communications is killing us. Go to Oshkosh, and you’ll be saturated by the message of how amazing aviation is. But imagine trying to penetrate the aviation community from the outside. You might as well be holding an iPhone in a camera store.

Communications is a muscle few aviation businesses take seriously. There is a huge market opportunity for those who invest in outreach. Props to the folks at Icon Aircraft [@ICONAircraft] for making it a priority to grow the pie, not just carve it up.

One of our Operators nailed it when he shrewdly observed, “Aviation expects excellence, but it seldom rewards it.” Turns out the mental pegboard for achieving the balance we need may already be right here.

I try my level best to attack each day with the discipline I learned in my primary flight training.

AVIATE
NAVIGATE
COMMUNICATE

It’s helped me hack my productivity, and maybe it can help you too. That, and starting every day with the Shepard’s Prayer couldn’t hurt.

There is a recipe for disruption

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

“A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

– Eric Riese, [@ericries] author of The Lean Startup

I continue to be very much inspired by how Tyson Weihs [@tysonweihs] and the team at Foreflight [@ForeFlight] completely disrupted the experience in the cockpit by helping so many of us do away with paper charts. You can see Marc Andreessen’s concept of how “…software is eating the world,” at work right there in our flight bags.

If there ever was an industry ripe for disruption, aviation should be at the top of the list.

Have a look at how SurfAir [@isurftheskies] has broken the mold for how commercial air travel works, swept the pieces off the floor and glued together a completely new concept of how people can use airplanes to get around. Note that they didn’t just come to market with a new business plan for how to run an airline or charter company. By making flying an all-you-can-fly membership service, the Eyerly brothers [@wadeeyerly & @DCMEII] came to market with a completely new business model. Netflix was successful because it attacked the friction points in renting DVDs. Maybe SurfAir will end up doing the same thing for short haul air travel.

Stop writing business plans. (Really, quit it.) Jason Fried [@jasonfried] founder at 37 Signals here in Chicago, famously offered, “Unless you are a fortune-teller, long-term business planning is a fantasy,” in his book REWORK. The ugly truth is that business planning is really just business guessing.

Aviation doesn’t need new business plans, we’re well beyond that. We need new business models.

Luckily for us, we’re able to skip the arduous exercise of writing the classic thirty page business plan. Creative writing is better left to artists rather than the MBAs anyways. Instead, let’s chart ideas using the Business Model Canvas.

Business Model Canvas

Business Model Canvas

 

The Business Model Canvas is one of the foundational tools in a doctrine for creating new products and services which has taken both corporate America and those who seek to escape it by storm – known as Lean Startup.

While many aviation enterprises definitely could be described as lean, that’s usually not by design, nor is it what we’re talking about. Lean Startup is a movement which first took hold in the tech startup community, but has spread across just about every industry. The methodology has become popular in both the creation of new companies and been applied within large corporations. We need more lean startups solving the wicked problems faced across the aviation ecosystem. Safety, utility, costs, access, and experience all need dramatic improvement.

The great thing about Lean Startup is that it’s a great inoculation against building stuff that people don’t want. Aviation as an industry has always been really good at building both products and services which nobody wants.

Grab a whiteboard, sketchpad or sticky notes and get to work. You don’t need an MBA or a budget to be inspired. We now have the methodologies to tackle the tough problems. It’s time for new business models. Together we can reverse the declines and create new ways to grow the aviation economy, ecosystem, and community.