Posts Tagged ‘general aviation’

Carbon Monoxide, Silent Killer

Monday, October 20th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidebar: CO Primer

Click on image above for high-resolution printable version.

Not just in winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CO Checklist

Click on image above for high-resolution printable version.

Close calls

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

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

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

How much CO is too much?

It depends on whom you ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing a CO detector

Five CO detectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information…

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

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

This research paper is available online at:

http://www.tc.faa.gov/its/worldpac/techrpt/ar0949.pdf

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

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?

Backdoor Rule Making?

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

On February 10, 2014, the Cessna Aircraft Company did something quite unprecedented in the history of piston GA: It published a revision to the service manual for cantilever-wing Cessna 210-series airplanes that added three new pages to the manual. Those three pages constituted a new section 2B to the manual, titled “Airworthiness Limitations”:

Cessna 210 Service Manual Section 2B

This section purports to impose “mandatory replacement times and inspection intervals for components and aircraft structures.” It states that the new section is “FAA-Approved” and that compliance is required by regulation.

Indeed, FARs 91.403(c) and 43.16 both state  that if a manufacturer’s maintenance manual contains an Airworthiness Limitations section (ALS), any inspection intervals and replacement times prescribed in that ALS are compulsory. FAR 91.403(c) speaks to aircraft owners:

§91.403(c) No person may operate an aircraft for which a manufacturer’s maintenance manual or instructions for continued airworthiness has been issued that contains an Airworthiness Limitations section unless the mandatory replacement times, inspection intervals, and related procedures specified in that section … have been complied with.

and FAR 43.16 speaks to mechanics:

§43.16 Each person performing an inspection or other maintenance specified in an Airworthiness Limitations section of a manufacturer’s maintenance manual or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness shall perform the inspection or other maintenance in accordance with that section…

Sounds pretty unequivocal, doesn’t it? If the maintenance manual contains an ALS, any mandatory inspection intervals and replacement times have the force of law.

The new ALS in the Cessna 210 maintenance manual mandates eddy current inspection of the wing main spar lower caps. For most 210s, an initial spar inspection is required at 8,000 hours time-in-service, with recurring inspections required every 2,000 hours thereafter. However, for 210s operated in a “severe environment” the inspections are required  at 3,500 hours and every 500 hours thereafter:

Cessna 210 inspection times

For P210s, the new ALS also imposes a life limit of 13,000 hours on the windshield, side and rear windows, and ice light lens.

What’s wrong with this picture?

To be fair, the eddy current inspection is not that big a deal.  An experienced technician can do it in a few hours. The most difficult part is that most service centers have neither the eddy current test eequipment nor a trained and certificated non-destructive testing (NDT) technician on staff. So most Cessna 210 owners will need to fly their airplane to a specialty shop  Since most airplanes will need to do this only once every 2,000 hours and since most of them fly less than 200 hours per year, one could hardly classify this recurrent eddy current inspection as Draconian. Similarly, not too many P210s are likely to reach the 13,000-hour life window life limit.

No, the issue isn’t the spar cap inspection or window life limits themselves—it’s the extraordinary method by which Cessna is attempting to make them compulsory.

Normally, if the manufacturer of an aircraft, engine or propeller wants to impose a mandatory inspection interval or a mandatory replacement or overhaul time on the owners of its aeronautical product, the manufacturer goes to the FAA and requests that an Airworthiness Directive (AD) be issued. If the FAA agrees and decides to issue an AD, it does so by means of a formal rule-making process prescribed by the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Ultimately, the AD is published in the Federal Register and becomes an amendment to Part 39 of thee FARs. That’s what gives the AD its “teeth” and makes it compulsory for aircraft owners to comply with it.

§91.403(a) The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition, including compliance with part 39 of this chapter.

The APA governs the way that administrative agencies of the federal government (including the FAA) may propose and establish regulations. It has been called “a bill of rights” for Americans whose affairs are controlled or regulated by federal government agencies. The APA requires that before a federal agency can establish a new regulation, it must publish a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) in the Federal Register, provide members of the public who would be impacted by the proposed regulation an opportunity to submit comments, and then take those comments seriously in making its final rule. The APA also establishes rights of appeal if a person affected by the regulation feels it is unjust or should be waived.

Because of the APA and other federal statutes, it is difficult for the FAA to issue ADs arbitrarily or capriciously. The agency first has to demonstrate that a bona fide unsafe condition exists, and that its frequency and severity of the safety risk rises to the level that makes rule making appropriate. It has to estimate the financial impact on affected owners. It has to provide a public comment period, give serious consideration to comments submitted, and respond to those comments formally when issuing its final rule.

As someone who has been heavily involved in numerous AD actions on behalf of various alphabet groups, I can tell you that the notice-and-comment provisions of the APA is extremely important, and that concerted efforts by aircraft owners and their representative industry organizations have often had great impact on the final outcome.

Through the back door?

That’s what makes Cessna’s action last February so insidious.

The addition of an Airworthiness Limitations section to the Cessna 210 maintenance manual was done without going through the rule making process. There was no NPRM and no comment period. Affected owners never had an opportunity to challenge the need for eddy current inspections of their wing spars. Cessna was never required to demonstrate that a genuine unsafe condition exists, nor weigh the cost impact against the safety benefit.Cessna 210 service manual By adding an ALS to the maintenance manual rather than ask the FAA to issue an AD, Cessna is attempting to bypass the APA-governed AD process and impose its will on aircraft owners through the back door.

Granted that the initial contents of the new ALS is not excessively burdensome. But if Cessna’s action is allowed to go unchallenged, it could set a terrible precedent. It would mean that any aircraft, engine or propeller manufacturer could retroactively impose its will on aircraft owners.

And if that happens, Katy bar the (back) door!

That’s why I’ve been working with my colleague Paul New—owner of Tennessee Aircraft Services, Inc. and honored by the FAA in 2007 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year—to challenge what Cessna is doing. On September 15th, Paul sent a letter that we jointly drafted to Mark  W. Bury (AGC-200), the FAA’s top regulations lawyer in its Office of General Counsel at FAA headquarters, asking him to issue a formal letter of interpretation as to whether compliance with the so-called mandatory inspection intervals set forth in section 2B of the Cessna 210 maintenance manual is actually required by regulation. We specifically ask Mr. Bury to rule on the question of whether retroactive enforcement of such a maintenance manual amendment by the FAA would constitute an APA violation.

The wheels of justice turn slowly at FAA Headquarters. We have been advised that AGC-200 has a four-month backlog of requests for letters of interpretation, so our request probably will not be looked at until the first quarter of 2015. But at least our request is in the queue. I am cautiously optimistic that AGC-200 will see things the way Paul and I see them, and will rule that a manufacturer’s publication of an ALS cannot be retroactively enforceable against aircraft owners unless the FAA issues an AD making it so.

Life on the Trailing Edge

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

"Manifesto" is the first book by Mike Busch A&P/IA.

I just got back from EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. It was a grueling week for me that included ten different Forums Plaza lectures, two “stump the IA” sessions at the AOPA seminar tent, and my first-ever AirVenture press conference. I’m still recovering.

AirVenture marked the release of my new book Manifesto, the first of what I expect to be a four- or five-volume series that anthologizes the most important of my aviation articles written over the past several decades. Manifesto is a short, pithy volume about maintenance philosophy. The next volume will be devoted to aircraft engines, and I’m hoping to have it out by the end of 2014.

One chapter of Manifesto is titled “How Mechanics Think” and addresses their extreme concerns about liability (both civil and regulatory), resulting in a compulsion to do everything exactly “by the book” and an aversion to trying anything new or different. It’s this aversion that is the subject of my blog post this month.

Tire Tactics

For the first decade after I purchased my Cessna 310 in 1987, I used Goodyear Flight Custom tires, which mechanics told me were “the gold standard” for GA aircraft tires. In 1998, I switched to Michelin Air tires because they were less expensive than the Flight Customs and were rated for the same weight and speed and reported to last just as long. I had just as good luck with the Michelins as I did with the Goodyears.

Then, in 2005, I decided to try Desser retreads after Aviation Consumer did a big competitive torture test of various tire brands (Goodyear, Michelin, McCreary, Condor), and found that Desser retreads fared even better than top-of-the-line Goodyear Flight Customs, even though they cost half as much.

Goodyear vs. Desser retreads

Are new tires (left) worth twice the price of retreads (right) that last longer?

I’ve used Desser retreads ever since, and Aviation Consumer was right: The darn things wear like iron. They’re dimensionally identical to new tires, so there’s never been any question about their fit in the wheel wells. Half the price, equal or better lifespan, perfect fit…what’s not to like? Could this be why most commercial aircraft operators and flight schools use retread tires, as do virtually all airlines?

In 2008, I started recommending Desser retreads for my company’s managed-maintenance clients. The reaction from shops and mechanics was astonishing. You’d have thought I’d just lit a stink bomb in church!

A number of shops flatly refused to install retreads, claiming they were taking this position “for liability reasons.” Others reacted with contempt and derision: “You’re serious about nickel-and-diming the maintenance by installing el-cheapo recaps on a half-million-dollar aircraft? Are you out of your mind?”

The fact that the biggest customers for retreaded aircraft tires are commercial operators, flight schools, and airlines didn’t seem to carry any sway with these mechanics. Nor the fact that Desser retreads beat Goodyear’s and Michelin’s top-of-the-line new tires in the Aviation Consumer torture test.

Silly me. I always considered saving money a good thing. To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen, “A hundred bucks here, a hundred bucks there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Six years later, all of my clients who followed my advice and opted for retreads and are very happy with their decision. Other clients demurred and sprung for the pricey Flight Custom IIIs, and they’re happy, too. I have learned not to push the issue. I still use Desser retreads on my airplane.

Spark Plug Wars

In 2006, I needed to replace the spark plugs on my airplane. My Cessna 310 has 24 spark plugs, so a full set of new plugs represents a non-trivial expense. While pricing out a set of Champion RHB32E massive-electrode plugs, I noticed that Autolite spark plugs were four bucks cheaper, a savings of $100 on 24 plugs. A hundred here, a hundred there….

Aviation spark plugsI’d used nothing but Champion plugs for the past 35 years, but as a world-class cheapskate I just couldn’t resist saving a hundred bucks, so I ordered the Autolites. When the new plugs arrived, I installed them and was very impressed. For one thing, the Autolite plugs are nickel-plated so they are much more corrosion-resistant than Champions (which are painted). For another, the Autolite threads start with a taper that makes them much easier to start in the cylinder spark plug boss. Subsequently, I learned that the Autolite plugs incorporated a fired-in sealed resistor assembly that solved the problem of high-resistance plugs that long plagued Champions.

Champion had dominated the aircraft spark plug market for as long as I could remember (and that’s a long time), but these Johnny-come-lately Autolites (first introduced in 2002) seemed like a better mousetrap. I’ve used Autolite plugs (which are now called “Tempest” after Unison sold the product line to Aero Accessories) ever since, and I love them. In 2008, I started recommending Autolite plugs to my managed-maintenance clients, and the blowback from their mechanics was truly breathtaking.

“My A&P was appalled that anyone would consider using Autolite plugs”, one owner told me. “Since he’s something of a curmudgeon, I asked my hangar neighbor (who’s an A&P) and was treated to a tirade about how he once tried a set of Autolites and they all died after 150 to 250 hours. I then wandered to another FBO on the field to take a straw poll of the two A&Ps on coffee break and was treated like a dummy who would sacrifice my airplane to save a few bucks.”

“I told my A&P this morning that I’d just installed Autolite plugs,” another owner said. “It was like throwing gasoline on a barbecue. I got out of there very quickly.”

Yet another owner received this inscrutable response from his A&P: “We like Champions, they’re better—but we use Autolites in our rental fleet and haven’t had any problems.” Translation: “If you’re paying for the plugs, we recommend the high-priced spread, but if we’re paying for them, well….”

I’ve never had an aircraft owner report any problems with the Autolite/Tempest plugs. Several manufacturers have issued service bulletins calling for Champion fine-wire plugs to be removed from service because they fail so often. Continental Motors now ships their new, rebuilt and overhauled engines strictly with Tempest plugs instead of Champions. Yet still I find that few A&Ps in the field stock anything but Champion plugs, and a few still refuse to install Tempests even when their customers specifically request them.

Where’s the Beef?

Why do so many A&Ps badmouth Desser retreads and Tempest plugs in the face of improved performance and cost-effectiveness? I’ve heard some owners suggest that it’s because there’s less mark-up on Desser tires than on Goodyears and on Tempest plugs than Champions. I’m not sure I buy that. In my experience, an A&P’s decisions are rarely motivated by greed, and are much more likely motivated by fear—specifically, fear of the unknown and fear of getting sued. Besides, a genuinely greedy A&P could find much more lucrative outlets for his greed than spark plugs and tires.

Tortoise and hare

Why are so many A&Ps late-adopters?

This resistance to trying new things—a “late-adopter” mentality—seems disturbingly common among A&Ps in my experience. It’s same psychology that causes some mechanics to discount the benefits of borescope inspections (often because they don’t own a borescope), spectrographic oil analysis, and digital engine analyzers (because they’re never learned to interpret the results), and to blame most cylinder problems on lean-of-peak operation (because they’ve never studied combustion theory and don’t realize that their Toyota runs LOP on the drive home from work).

Why are so many A&Ps skeptical of new-to-them products, methods and ideas? Why do so many choose to live life on the trailing edge of technology? Two reasons: lack of training and fear of being sued.

When I first earned my mechanic certificate (after having been a certificated pilot for 35 years), I was astonished to learn that the FAA has no regulatory requirements for an A&P to receive recurrent training of any kind. I found that shocking. If pilots have to go through recurrent training at least every two years, why doesn’t a similar requirement exist for the mechanics who maintain our airplanes?
In 2005, the FAA finally amended Part 145 to require mechanics who are employed by FAA certified repair stations to undergo initial and recurrent training. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But the majority of A&Ps who work on our piston-powered aircraft are not employed by a certified repair station, so they still are not required to get any recurrent training. And the recurrent training that repair station mechanics receive often tends to reinforce the old way of doing things rather than teaching them about new ones. As a result, it’s not uncommon to find piston-GA mechanics whose knowledge is seriously stale and out-of-date.

Fear of being sued—liticaphobia—is a serious deterrent to mechanics trying something new. Lawsuits against shops and mechanics once were rare, but they have exploded over the last two decades for reasons I will discuss in a future blog post. The cost of defending such lawsuits can be ruinous for an individual mechanic or small business. Mechanics and shops have become very reluctant to try anything new or different, for fear it might come back to bite them in court.

I am certainly not suggesting that all piston-GA mechanics suffer from stale knowledge and a fear of trying new products and methods. The smartest and most talented A&Ps I know are information junkies and leading-edge thinkers. But many mechanics are incredibly resistant to change, very reluctant to adopt new technologies and methodologies, and their opinions often lack any basis in actual hard data. Owners are wise to seek expert second opinions rather than accepting their mechanics recommendations as gospel.

It can take real work for an aircraft owner to find a mechanic who is willing to consider new products and modern maintenance methods, but in my opinion it’s worth the effort.

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.

The Ab Initio Flaw

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines, on the other hand, will probably never have trouble attracting people. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas?  For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas? For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

Addendum

Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.

Coming Together, we can do big things and small things

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

As I type my husband and I are en route to Oshkosh for AirVenture 2014.

On the first day, after having flown 5.5 hours, we landed in Dumas, Texas  at Moore County Airport[KDUX]. What a sweet airport. A nice young man driving a golf cart who called me Ma’am greeted us. Quickly after that Brandon Cox, the airport manager, arrived to help us pump gas. He asked if we would like to go into town. When I said that we would, he said, “We can take care of you.” Brandon gave us the keys to a nice sedan with no form to fill out, and no questions asked. This is one of the small things I love about G.A.

Shortly before we left California’s Central Coast a group of 20 or so volunteers helped to help get New Cuyama Airport [L88] re-opened after having fallen into disrepair. The workers painted, raked, removed weeds, and filled cracks in the asphalt. Although there is still some work to do, it is amazing what big things a group of spirited volunteers can do when working together.

On the second big travel day we stopped in Poplar Grove, Illinois [C77]. This is place is an aviator’s paradise. Tina Thomas of Poplar Grove Airmotive warmly greeted us.

Golf cart ride around C77

Golf cart ride around C77

Shortly after that future aviatrix, Makayla gave us a complete tour of the airport, Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum and environs. In addition to being an accomplished tour-guide and golf cart driver, 8-year-old Makayla really was an ambassador for her home airport. She told us who lived where, what they flew or drove, or what kind of dog they had. She says that she wants to be a pilot, and I believe she will do it.

Mikayla doing the Jeppesen

Mikayla doing the “Jeppesen”

Inside the museum Judi Zangs the general manager met us. She explained that the idea of wings and wheels was a walk back in time to the airfields and roadways of history and to share America’s love for the automobile and airplane.

When we arrived back at the FBO Tina had found a place for us to hangar the Mooney for the overnight and offered to take us into town and pick us up in the morning. The sort of warm hospitality shown us at Poplar Grove is another example of how we can all do large and small things to inspire flight and protect airports.

Now we look forward to a short 45-minute Mooney flight into OSH14. Attending Oshkosh is a treat for every aviation lover. But it is also a wonderful networking opportunity for those of us working in GA advocacy and airport protection. There are always so many things to do at AirVenture.

I am particularly intrigued by Dan Pimentel’s Airplanista blog and #Oshbash event that I will be attending.   In speaking with Dan, he says that, “The annual #Oshbash event primarily a meet up for #avgeeks that live on Twitter. It’s a chance for tweeps on there to put faces with names.” The program for #Oshbash 2014 is the GA Power Collective, a panel discussion featuring seven influential representatives from the major aviation associations and organizations. He says, “I had written an article on my blog in December, 2013 stating that my “Christmas wish for aviation” was to grow the pilot population to 1,000,000 certificated pilots…from the current number of approximately 552,000. My article said that the major associations need to stop working in silos and begin working together…as a collective…to develop one winning strategy to stimulate growth in the pilot community. It is clear that what we have now is not working. This must change if general aviation wants to have a future.” The discussion will be moderated by Pimentel. Panelists include: Frank Ayers Jr. Chancellor, Prescott Campus Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Dick Knapinski, Senior Communications Advisor, EAA, Dr. Peggy Chabrian, President, Women in Aviation International, Brittney Miculka, Director of Outreach, AOPA, Dan Johnson President, Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, Martha Phillips President, The Ninety Nines and Kathryn Fraser Director of Safety & Outreach, General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Personally I am anxious hear this lively discussion.

We simply cannot wait for a state or national aviation group to rescue our airport, be an ambassador for aviation, or provide a friendly face to our community. We have to do that for ourselves. We all must work together toward building the pilot population, preserving the pilots we do have, and protecting our airports.

I cannot wait to see all my “G.A. family” at Oshkosh. However it is a working vacation for me. At the end of the six days I will be tired, but it will be a happy tired.

Your Local Club: Members, Manpower, and Money

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Aero Club of Northern CaliforniaI’ve had great fun as President of the Aero Club of Northern California for the past 6 months. Local clubs and chapters are one of the many fun aspects of aviation and you probably already belong to one or more. If you’re not actively involved in running and/or participating in a club, please consider jumping in with both feet and becoming more involved. And if you’re in Northern California, please join our Aero Club and/or Like us on Facebook.

Clubs need your help. Another local club President told me that he volunteered a couple of years ago to be President “because he didn’t want to see the club fold.” As it was, the club hadn’t filed their required form 990 or 990N with the IRS for the prior 3 years, so it lost its 501(c)(3) non-profit status and now has to go through the application process again. Keeping track of those kinds of details are important for any non-profit club or organization. But how do you do that, when activity waxes and wanes over time and club officers come and go? By the way, that club is growing once again.

I still shake my head when I think of another local club I’ve belonged to in the past. At the first meeting of the year I attended, probably the January or February meeting, the newly elected President walked up to me and literally, the first words he said were, “We haven’t got your check yet.” Well, hello, nice to see you as well too. The art of warmly greeting and welcoming one of a club’s most precious resources—its members—was totally lost upon this fellow. As you might guess, the club didn’t do very well that year.

Earlier this year, I walked our board of directors through the 3 Ms: Members, Manpower, and Money. Without these, it’s hard for a club to grow and succeed.

We’re using the 3 Ms to focus our activities and so far it’s working. Membership is up by 60% over last year and we’re only halfway into the year.

Members has two important elements. First, we have to attract potential members and convince them to part with $40 each year to become a member, which is a non-trivial task. To do that, we have to have the second element in place: member programs and events attractive to members and potential members.

From a numbers perspective, our club has held just two events a year for the last few years. But they are outstanding events. The annual Crystal Eagle Award dinner is a world-class event that’s carefully planned for 8 months. Each dinner honors an individual whose accomplishments have significantly contributed to the advancement of aviation or space technology. The list of past recipients reads like a Who’s Who list of famous aviators and astronauts.

The “Eagle” is a large, beautiful piece of crystal glass we import from Italy. Our members then professionally mount it on a block of Redwood with a plaque. The dinner is also a fundraiser, raising money for scholarships that we award to students in S.F. Bay area aviation college programs.

This year, we have five events on the calendar, a significant increase over last year. We’re also moving toward a school year calendar of events, leaving the summer open for planning. That’s a practice we learned from the Aero Club of New England, which was founded over a hundred years ago! By the way, Aero Clubs are regional affiliate clubs of the NAA, the National Aeronautic Association. Check to see if one of the six regional Aero Clubs is located near you.

In addition to Members, a club needs Manpower, or volunteers. For the last few years, our board of directors did most of our club’s work. But that’s a formula for burnout, especially as we grow. Now, we never miss an opportunity to ask members to volunteer, so we can match them up with tasks to be done. We still have a long way to go in this area, but we’re making progress.

The last M is for Money. Obviously, any organization has to be able to cover its expenses. Our goal is to set member dues at a level that covers fixed expenses, so all additional money we raise can go to the scholarship fund. The silent auction, held at our annual dinner, is our most productive source of scholarship funds. There’s undoubtedly more we can do to raise money, but our initial focus is on improving the other two Ms first.

As I talk with other local club Presidents, I hear consistent themes. Members are getting older, it’s hard to find new younger members, and it’s difficult to find speakers for their regular monthly meetings.

We’ve taken a different approach to meetings. While the board of directors meets monthly, there are no regular monthly meetings for members! Members only meet at our major events, typically a luncheon presentation, dinner, or group tour. That takes the pressure off having to come up with an amazing speaker every four and a half weeks. Since the event dates are essentially random, members who might have a conflict with a regular monthly meeting can still attend. While they may have an occasional conflict with an event, at least they won’t have a conflict for every club meeting.

What challenges do your local clubs face and what solutions have you found?