Pilots Killed Piston Engine FADEC Advances

An almost universal lament among pilots is that we are flying piston engines that use decades old technology. That’s not entirely true, but you would be hard pressed to find a magneto on any other type of piston engine still in production.

Continental spent a ton of dough to change that situation starting in the late 1990s and its efforts were shot down. Not by the stuck in the mud regulators at the FAA, but by pilots. The very people who say they want technology advances.

The really big improvements in other piston engines such as those in cars and trucks have come from computer control of the entire engine operation. Automated and constantly adjusting control of ignition and fuel have made automotive engines more efficient, more responsive, easier to start, more drivable and more durable. Why can’t we have that in our piston airplanes?

In aviation we call computerized control of an engine full-authority digital engine computer (FADEC). The term came from the turbine engine world where redundant computers were handed the job of controlling fuel flow and other operating parameters to set power, and more importantly, always keep the jet engine within operating limits. I can’t think of a jet in production that doesn’t have FADEC engines.

Before FADEC pilots of jets would be charging down the runway gently moving the throttles to try to find a target fan rpm (N1) or engine pressure ration (EPR). Move the levers too much and you could overspeed and damage the engine. If you don’t move the levers far enough the engines don’t put out the expected power and takeoff performance suffers. Just when a pilot should be monitoring directional control and critical systems during takeoff roll in the pre-FADEC days we had our eyes glued to a couple gauges while we doinked around with the power levers.

Operating most piston engines doesn’t demand quite as much attention, but mismanagement of the controls can damage the engine, or result in less power than expected. FADEC can simplify piston engine operation to nothing more than moving a lever just like stepping on a gas pedal. FADEC would automatically optimize the mixture for all atmospheric and operating conditions to gain maximum engine performance and efficiency while also protecting the engine from the pilot who can use the engine controls in a damaging way.

A big hurdle on the way to piston FADEC was an uninterruptible electrical power source. The traditional piston engine with its magnetos and carburetor or mechanical fuel injection operates with total independence from the aircraft electrical system. And that’s good. Many piston airplanes have very rudimentary electrical systems, and more importantly, have only one of them.

At first it looked like only airplanes with totally redundant transport aircraft type electrical systems could use FADEC. To install the Porsche PFM engine Mooney created such an electrical system. The electrics worked OK, but the engine didn’t pan out.

But Continental was successful in convincing the FAA that a FADEC backup battery could do the job. FADEC doesn’t use that much power so it’s not hard to have a constantly charged dedicated battery with enough power to equal the fuel endurance of the airplane. If the main electrical system failed totally the backup battery would keep FADEC and the engine running until the fuel was gone.

There were several fits and starts on the way to FADEC certification. But Continental succeeded, first in naturally aspirated engines, and then for the turbos. I flew several iterations of the system and the final go worked very well. Just push the throttle and let the computer manage the engine. I even had the magnetic pickups installed on an accessory gear in my new engines in 2000 in the certainty that I would be converting to FADEC before long.

But Continental needed an airplane manufacturer to really launch FADEC. A logical target was Beech with the Continental powered Bonanza and Baron. Beech engineers loved the idea. Beech customers hated it. When Beech asked prospects they learned that not only didn’t sales prospects want FADEC, many wouldn’t buy an airplane with the system.

The problem was mixture control. Many, even most pilots, thought they were smarter than the FADEC computer. They wanted to run lean of peak or rich of peak, or somehow set the mixture to suit their conviction of how it should be done. FADEC, on the other hand, would run lean of peak  under some power settings and conditions, but then switch rich of peak for other conditions. And it did this without considering pilot opinion, only what testing showed was optimum for the engine.

So FADEC, fully developed and certified, faded away. Pilots who demand new technology, it turns out, don’t really want it if it interferes with lore, superstition, and years of experience.

It’s interesting that this is not an issue in some newer design engines such as the Rotax that doesn’t have decades of operating lore behind it. And if new diesels are successful they will all be FADEC so the pilot never had the chance to diddle with engine controls and won’t miss it.

But for the big majority of piston engines I now expect to die, or at least hang up my flying shoes, with mechanical fuel injection, magnetos and that supremely important mixture control still flying in most piston airplanes. My guess is that piston engine mixture and rpm operating techniques have passed into the realm of pilot religion, and all religions resist the new no matter what science may show. Just ask Copernicus.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 33 Comments

The Other Stall

If you have been flying for more than a few years you probably believe most stall/spin accidents happen in the traffic pattern. And you are likely convinced that the base-to-final turn is the deadliest spot for stall accidents. And I don’t blame you. That’s what you have been told by instructors and other “industry” types. It just doesn’t happen to be true. And hasn’t been true for many years.

Richard Collins and I have written many times that the takeoff and initial climb is the most common phase of flight for a serious stall accident. And the departure stall is the deadliest. But pilots either don’t believe us, or the myth of the base-to-final stall is simply too enormous for anybody to dethrone.

As usual, there is a caveat in the numbers. If you look only at homebuilts the deadly traffic pattern stall accident still dominates. But that fact also shines a light on the progress made in the certified world, and the very difficult and perhaps impossible task of reducing the number of takeoff/departure stall accidents.

I hadn’t run the stall accident numbers in several years, but the American Bonanza Society has. I recently completed the ABS online proficiency training course for my flight review and the section on stalls reminded me that nothing much has changed. In the Bonanza series takeoff/departure stall accounted for 40 percent of the stall accidents compared to 34 percent on landing. If you add the stall accidents that happened during missed approach or balked landing the power-on climbing away stall accident is even more common than one happening during approach or landing.

More importantly, no Bonanza stalled in the traffic pattern during the 10 years studied. And most landing stalls occurred over the runway and serious injury was uncommon. The takeoff/departure stalls, however, were most often fatal or caused serious injury.

This wasn’t always true. At one time, just as in the homebuilt record, traffic pattern stall accidents dominated the certified world, and were often fatal. The change in that record had to come from improved flying qualities designed into production airplanes.

A stall accident is caused by a combination of pilot decisions and airplane behavior. The pilot decision part comes when, for whatever reason, the pilot exceeds the stalling angle of attack. The airplane flying qualities component comes after the stall happens.

The Bonanza is a perfect example of how understanding of, and acceptance of, stall behavior changed over the years. The Model 35 Bonanza was designed right after the end of World War II and certified in 1947. Anybody who has flown one knows the V-tail Bonanza will almost certainly drop a wing very rapidly when stalled with full flaps. In 1947 that was perfectly “normal” and acceptable.

In 1984 Beech redesigned the control system in the A36 Bonanza to install dual control yokes in place of the original central control column. Because the control cable runs and other components were changed the “new” A36 went through a full flying qualities test. The wing drop at stall was still there, but no longer acceptable.

Beech devised big wedge shaped vortex generators to mount on the leading edge just ahead of the flap-aileron junction, and the A36 also has limited elevator travel. The VGs keep the ailerons active and effective through the stall to help keep the airplane level, and the elevator travel limits prevent pilots from driving the A36 to a seriously high angle of attack. In fact at higher weights or forward CG the A36 may not even stall in the conventional nose-down sense but enter a sink-mush.

A sink-mush or wings level stall can still lead to an accident, but as the Bonanza landing stall accident record shows, the results are much more survivable than the snap roll and sharp nose down pitch of some other designs.

The problem is that improved stall behavior and flying qualities can do little to resolve the takeoff/departure stall accident. The reason is that on takeoff pilots stall because they have no chance for continued flight. The airplane isn’t climbing over the terrain, trees or some other obstruction ahead and the pilot’s choice is to pull back and hope for enough climb, or fly full speed into the “wall.”

The takeoff/departure stall accident can’t be prevented by more training or improved airplane stall characteristics. The accident happens because the pilot decided the airplane can complete the takeoff when it really lacks the performance to do so. High and hot conditions, wind, contaminated runway surface and other factors all contribute, but they are not causes. Only the pilot’s belief that the airplane can make it over the obstructions causes most takeoff stall accidents.

In the certified world we have seen nice progress in taming the traffic pattern maneuvering and landing stall but almost none in resolving the departure stall accident. If more training is to help it won’t be in the cockpit. It must be a course that somehow convinces pilots that physics, not flying skill, determine takeoff performance and required runway and clearway length. When a pilot leaves no margin for his takeoff no amount of pilot training or experience can get more climb performance than the airplane is able to give.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 12 Comments

A Very Real Flying Medical Issue

During his forum talk at Oshkosh NTSB Board Member Dr. Earl Weener said that he had formed no specific position on possible changes in third class medical certification policy. The reason, he said, is because the NTSB has never conducted a study on the effectiveness of the medical certification procedures.

Dr. Weener did note that sudden incapacitation of a pilot in flight is quite rare. But something the Board is seeing more and more frequently during investigations of fatal accidents is the presence of over-the-counter medications in a pilot’s remains.

As we all know, many frequently used medications carry warnings that they can cause drowsiness, or interfere with the ability to concentrate. The warning usually advises against driving or operating machinery while taking the medication.

This type of warning is so prevalent that most of us don’t pay any attention. Just about every treatment for colds, or sneezes, or allergies, or even aches and pains carries a similar warning. I know I sure don’t lock away the car keys and stay home after swallowing a pill in the hopes of stopping a runny nose or other symptoms of a cold. I have often flown trips after taking medicine carrying such warnings.

What is frustrating investigators is that they can’t know for sure how the presence of totally legal and common medications in a pilot’s body contribute to the cause of an accident. The FAA restricts or permits specific prescription medications but as far as I know doesn’t take the same stance on over-the-counter medicines. How a particular non-prescription medicine will affect our flying is left up to us.

What age is teaching me is that behavior that was not an issue for my flying 30 years ago might be a very important factor now. For example, years ago I would fly for hours at the legal limits of altitude where supplemental oxygen is required and think nothing of it. I stretched the 30 minutes allowed above 12,500 feet without oxygen more than once and wondered what’s the big deal. I didn’t feel or perform any differently.

But now that I have crossed the threshold into official senior status I begin to notice the lack of air at 10,000 feet. And when occasional traffic or terrain forces me up to 12,000 feet I know it’s an altitude that I can’t tolerate for long.

I know that it must be the same for everyday over-the-counter medications. I ignored the warnings and kept on flying for years. But can I still do that? Will the same medicines have a different affect than decades ago? I don’t know.

The point that Dr. Weener and I are trying to make is that we are demanding the right to assess our physical fitness to fly without a third class medical system. In reality we already do that before every flight. And not all of us are making the safe decisions. Too many pilots are ignoring warnings on medications and are ending up dead in a crash. Did the side effects of the non-prescription medicine contribute to the cause of the accident?

Nobody has the answer yet. But if we continue to ignore the most basic fitness to fly alerts and takeoff after downing a drug that warns against driving and operating machinery we are undermining our claim that we safely manage and enforce our own medical standards. Of course, a third class medical certificate in no way changes the way we use over-the-counter medicines. But ignoring warnings on drugs erodes our claim that we already manage our personal medical fitness to fly. Pilots keep ending up dead with drugs that warn against driving–much less flying–in their systems, and that doesn’t sound responsible to me, and certainly not to the non-flying public.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 45 Comments

What To Do While Waiting for Third Class Medical Reform

We were all disappointed that FAA administrator Michael Huerta couldn’t tell us what is in the notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) that he signed off on before coming to Oshkosh. The actual contents of the NPRM must remain secret until it is reviewed by FAA parent Department of Transportation, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) considers financial implications of the rule for both pilots and the government.

There is lots of speculation about what the NPRM proposes, but the people who know for sure aren’t talking. Administrator Huerta says we won’t be surprised by the NPRM, but that can be read in at least two different ways. Those who expect nothing but bad from the FAA won’t be surprised if they get it in the NPRM. Those of us who remain hopeful can believe we won’t be surprised because the NPRM grants fairly wide latitude for personal flying with a driver’s license as medical certificate.

I’m guessing along with everyone else on what the NPRM actually proposes, but I am willing to make a big bet there is language in there that restricts those pilots who have been denied a medical certificate of any class. That is the standard for LSA/Sport Pilot flying. If you have been denied a medical you can’t fly using your driver’s license. Since that standard has been in place for 10 years now I feel certain it will be part of the NPRM that changes third class medical policy.

It’s vital to understand that failing an FAA medical exam is not the issue. The problem is if you can’t get a special issuance medical certificate after initially having your application for a certificate deferred.

Pilots who have gone through the process of applying for and receiving a special issuance medical certificate can fly to the Sport Pilot rule with a valid driver’s license even after the special issuance medical expires. Because that pilot persevered and completed the special issuance process they have not been denied a medical and are eligible to fly with the driver’s license.

If an AME defers your application for a medical certificate and you don’t apply for special issuance the FAA views you as being medically unfit to fly. Because both the FAA and you “know” you are unfit the driver’s license can’t apply.

So, if you have a medical certificate now, or have had one in the past that has expired, I expect you will be good to go with a driver’s license under the NPRM. If you have had a special issuance medical, even one expired, I expect you will be OK under the NPRM.

But if you have a condition that could lead to a denial of a medical you should be prepared to go through the special issuance process, or stay away from the AME. If you apply for a medical and are denied during the period while we wait for whatever new rule actually becomes law I really don’t think you will qualify to fly with a driver’s license.

I don’t want to screw up anybody’s airplane buying or selling plans but you may want to wait on closing a deal until the NPRM is published. Nobody outside the government knows for sure what airplane restrictions will be placed on pilots flying with a driver’s license or other new medical standard the NPRM may contain.

The new rule will almost certainly apply only to airplanes under a maximum weight. My hope is that weight limit is 6,000 pounds, which seems logical because that is where certification standards change for airplanes in the “small” category. But the weight limit could be lower.

The FAA also may apply the new medical standards only to airplanes under a certain maximum horsepower, or not allow retractable landing gear, or set some maximum altitude or airspeed. We just don’t know. You would hate to buy an airplane now that just nudges over some limit that is in the NPRM.

I fully expect the NPRM to restrict the number of passengers a pilot flying under the new standard can carry. I don’t know what that passenger limit will be, but I would be shocked if it allows more than three passengers for a total of four onboard, and wouldn’t be surprised if the NPRM allows only one passenger no matter how many seats are in the airplane.

There is no way to predict how long it will take DOT and OMB to clear the NPRM for publication, but until that happens, I’d wait on airplane purchase and make sure if you visit an AME you can pass the exam, or are prepared to go through the special issuance medical certification process.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 34 Comments

Going Out With A Bang

It has been a terrific Oshkosh. I know. The copy editors will want to change it to Oshkosh AirVenture. Many of us would add “convention” to the name. But Oshkosh covers all of the bases in my pilot brain.

We won’t know attendance figures for a few days when counting of wrist band sales, parking and a bunch of other stats can be totaled.

But I do know that the airport was closed to arrivals more than once because aircraft parking had become saturated. I don’ t think that has happened since 2007 the last year before the global economic slump began.

There was the flood year of 2010 when a foot of rain or more fell  just before convention turning airplane parking and camping areas into swamps. But that was a once in a lifetime event–we all hope.

The weather has been fantastic, even with a few afternoon showers. Temperatures remained comfortable, conditions were almost entirely VFR, and for whatever reason even the bugs were less of a hassle than they typically are.

People who come here to display and sell their airplanes, engines, propellers and everything else it takes to fly, try to measure the effectiveness of their sales efforts. Every exhibitor I spoke with had more qualified people visit their display, and the people who make direct sales were all up compared to past years.

I can’t say every exhibitor was happy, but I can say that everyone I spoke with had a good Oshkosh. That means flying is at least starting to return to economic health and vitality. Positive signs are everywhere.

And there is something that is impossible to measure–the mood of people here at Oshkosh. For whatever reason–probably a whole lot of reasons–everyone I spoke with is feeling better about the event.

Certainly good weather makes us all less cranky, but it’s more than that. It’s really a feeling  that we see some positive trends in personal flying.

Yes, fuel is still expensive, and so are airplanes. And there are lots of regulations to deal with no matter what you fly, build or maintain.

But there is every reason to hope we will see welcome changes in Third Class medical policy. We know a proposed rule has been written by the FAA and is now being reviewed by other departments within the government as required before publication.

Not even FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who spent a couple days here in Oshkosh, can leak the contents of the proposed new medical rules. But the administrator did tell everyone repeatedly that we will not be “surprised” by what is in the proposed rule change.

One could interpret the administrator’s choice of  the word “surprise” as the way to describe the impact of the new rule could be either positive or negative. I choose to believe it will be a good surprise, that the new rule will grant the most important relief we have been asking for.

But I have to say the most inspired, even outrageous idea I’ve heard here at Oshkosh this year came from a group of chapter members I won’t name.

They left me a note saying that a long time and much loved chapter member had passed on within the past year. A final request was for the chapter to dispose of the ashes “anywhere” that seemed right to celebrate a life in aviation.

These chapter members thought of the obvious such as spreading the ashes from an airplane in flight, or perhaps burying them somewhere on the Oshkosh grounds.

But after watching the Wednesday night air show and the climactic fireworks they hit upon a spectacular idea. Why not attach their friend’s ashes to one of the huge colorful shells that explode in a blaze of sparkling light over Wittman Field? What a way to celebrate a lifelong love of flying.

I have no idea if such a thing could ever be possible given all of the restrictions we live with, but what an idea.

I am not quite ready to sign up for the big bang yet, but I have to say, it would be one heck of way to impress your friends and leave one final story to be told for years to come.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 1 Comment

Why Is Boeing Here at Oshkosh?

More than a few people have been surprised to see Boeing become a major sponsor and presence at Oshkosh.

The main aircraft display ramp is now named Boeing Plaza.

What’s going on, they have asked me. Isn’t Oshkosh about personal and recreational aviation?

The answer is yes, Oshkosh is about personal and private flying. But it’s really about everything that flies.

What Boeing, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, Embraer, Pratt & Whitney, GE and dozens of other major aerospace companies have done is puncture the myth that any segment of aviation can operate in isolation.

There is even a real rocket company, ATK, here talking about a mission to Mars.

Of course the homebuilt airplanes, antiques, ultralights, warbirds and standard category GA airplanes are all still here. The aerospace guys haven’t taken over. But they have joined in.

A major reason for Boeing and the other industry giants to pay attention to Oshkosh and the hundreds of thousands of people who come here is to find the next generation of pilots, technicians, engineers and all of the skilled people the industry needs going forward.

Boeing announced results of a study showing the world’s airlines will need 533,000 new airline pilots and 584,000 new maintenance technicians over the next 20 years.

Nearly half of those jobs will be in the rapidly expanding Asia/Pacific region. But in North America jobs will open up for 88,000 new airline pilots.

Boeing and its Jeppesen charting and training division have formed a new program to screen and train future airline pilots from scratch. Boeing and Jeppesen have a global reach, but even they can’t train enough pilots for future demand. It’s an industry challenge that everyone needs to pull together to solve.

The presence of the industry giants in Oshkosh is a long term investment in today’s young people who are the future of aerospace. Interesting kids in the sciences and math aerospace needs is essential, and showing them what a career in aviation can be is the best way to accomplish that goal.

Another reason for the big companies to be at Oshkosh is that the grassroots have long been the source of people to fly, build and maintain airplanes of all sizes and types. The military once was a reliable source for well trained pilots and technicians but those days are gone. People interested in airplanes must now be the source for future skilled workers in aviation.

There is also what marketers call the “influencer” story at work. An influencer is somebody who won’t necessarily buy a Boeing, or select Rockwell Collins avionics, or sign off on a new military contract, but who is in a position to influence that decision.

The challenge is that nobody can be sure who the influencers are. And we certainly can’t know which of the young people here at Oshkosh will succeed in their careers to become very important influencers.

At Oshkosh you can’t be sure who that person walking along in casual clothes looking like the rest of the crowd really is. But we can be sure that within the hundreds of thousands who visit there are people who can make decisions of great importance in aerospace. And we can also be sure that many people here will be able to influence the decisions that are made.

On top of all of that Boeing reaches from the basic personal airplane all the way to the Dreamliner. For just $49 a year Jeppesen, a Boeing company, will sell you an annual subscription for your iPad or other tablet computer that contains every chart and all information for VFR flight in the U.S.

The price of a 787 Dreamliner? Well, that’s a little more. But Oshkosh and the people who come here have an interest, and impact, on that decision, too.

We who fly, build, repair and love airplanes really are part of one big family and Oshkosh is the family reunion.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 11 Comments

From Wacos to Glass Cockpits

It was one of those “where did all the years go” moments when Garmin reminded us here at Oshkosh that the company is now 25 years old.

How did that happen? Garmin serves as a yardstick for the real revolution in aviation, the electronic advances that really have changed flying forever.

Garmin was founded by people from the old King Radio who correctly predicted the impact of GPS on aviation, and just about all other areas of our lives. And the GPS revolution is only 25 years old.

Back then GPS–called Navstar–was a military weapons guidance system. The FAA decreed that civilian pilots could never use it for navigation, and the Air Force said it would shut down access to the system anytime it thought there was a threat, and do it without warning.

The FAA and military continued to resist allowing civilians to use GPS, particularly the accurate channel called SA for selective availability. But Garmin and many other companies pressed on developing GPS navigators of increasing capability.

Probably the most significant turning point came when the Korean airliner was shot in 1983 after straying into Russian airspace. GPS signals were available, could have guided the pilots with precision and avoided the tragedy, but the crew had been denied access to GPS.

That was enough to cause President Reagan to direct the military to make GPS available for common civilian use. Later President Clinton ordered the military to turn off SA so everyone had access to the best GPS accuracy.

In aviation terms that happened recently. But unless I try hard to remember, flying without the precision of GPS is a really distant memory.

Development of glass cockpit displays followed a similar timeline. But when it come to TV pictures in the panel, cost was the big factor. The first civilian airplane to have TV tubes as primary instruments was the Boeing 767/757. In a couple years larger business jets had them, too. The size, but mostly the cost, made the displays impossible for personal airplanes.

But then flat glass technology came along with its lightweight screens that use little power and cost a fraction of what came before. Suddenly a glass cockpit in a personal airplane could be had for a lower cost than the complex mechanical gyros and flight directors that it replaced.

And who in aviation saw the iPad coming along about five years ago? It has taken the cockpit by storm displaying every imaginable kind of data from moving maps, to real time weather to your exact weight and balance.

How is this electronic revolution playing out in aviation? Oshkosh is the place to see.

Look inside a newly built airplane, either standard category or homebuilt, and you’ll almost certainly see two or three electronic screens that have replaced essentially all flight and engine instruments.

Look in older airplanes and you see endless combinations of flat screens, advanced navigators and legacy instruments.

And in a big majority of airplanes, both old and new, you will see portable devices to navigate, receive satellite or ADS-B weather, and show you a display of primary instruments including attitude and heading.

To make some sense of this consider that the “new” Waco has been building the beautiful YMF biplane for 30 years, several years longer than we have had GPS in the cockpit. The Waco airframe is little changed from the 1930s when it was first in production, though modern methods and materials make the “new” Waco a much more durable and lower maintenance airplane.

Look inside most new Wacos and what do you see? A glass cockpit, that’s what.

We love our aviation heritage, we admire airplanes from the golden age, but we also want the electronic capability that has been around for only a few years. As it turns out we can have both a rich history and the newest capabilities.

What a great time to be a pilot.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 9 Comments

Does Shell Have The Lead-Free Answer. It Looks Hopeful to Me

Shell caught many of us by surprise last winter when it quietly revealed that it had been working on a lead-free avgas formula for the past 10 years.

Shell? Really? Why was a global oil giant investing in the tiny fuel market of piston aviation gasoline?

Now that Shell has officially joined the FAA program to test potential replacement fuel formulas the company is talking more openly and in more detail. And its avgas experts are here in Oshkosh this week. I like what I heard from them.

First, I have a positive bias that I think most of us share when I learned that Rob Midgley who has led the development work is an active pilot. He owns a Pitts S2A and flies in competition. That may not make him a better chemist, but it sure proves he is one of us and shares our concern about the future of avgas and piston engine flying.

The other comforting news for me is how far along Shell is in the development process. Since 2004 the company, working at a facility in England, has created and tested more than 3,000 possible avgas formulas and now has one that is very, very close to duplicating the performance and other characteristics of 100LL.

Shell chemists were not starting from scratch because the company has been a leading supplier of very high octane motor racing fuels. Shell has fueled Formula 1 cars for years.

Shell also has a long history in aviation fuel development being the first to produce 100 octane back in the 1930s.

The lead-free formula Shell is submitting to the FAA to begin the qualification process rates comfortably above 100 octane and meets the existing ASTM D910 specification for avgas in every way except for two small details.

One of those differences is the new formula is a few degrees off in production boiling point. The other is that the energy density by volume is just under 3 percent lower. However, the energy density by mass is the same as 100LL. That means a gallon of the new stuff has about 3 percent less energy potential, but 6 pounds of the new fuel has the same energy as 6 pounds of 100LL. That is certainly a difference I can live with.

Rob and the others from Shell are not saying exactly what is in the new fuel formula other than that the components come from the same sources as other gasoline blends. There is no magic ingredient or silver bullet that does the job of lead. If such a miracle ingredient existed they wouldn’t have needed more than 3,000 different formulas to test.

Because the components of the new formula are not an exotic new chemical there is every expectation that final retail price will be similar to 100LL. At some airports you can pay more than $8 a gallon now, and at others perhaps less than $4. Shell thinks those same delivery and other cost factors will drive the final price of its new formula.

Rod rejects the term “drop-in replacement” for the new fuel because it is a different chemistry than 100LL. He prefers “transparent” meaning though the fuel makeup is different what the engine and fuel system experience with the new fuel will not change.

The new fuel is test flying in a Piper Saratoga with good results so far. But Shell plans to follow the FAA’s piston aviation fuel initiative process that should lead to a fleet wide approval of a fuel spec. The first phase now getting started tests fuels in the laboratory. Actual engine and flight testing begins early next year, and the goal is to have an approved formula by 2018.

If approved the Shell formula will become a public ASTM specification but certain production processes will be patented. A greater variety of facilities will be able to make the new fuel because the lead is gone. Shell expects to license the process to any facility that can produce the fuel in addition to its own global network of refineries.

So why is giant Shell investing so much into the little avgas market? The answer is that Shell is a global aviation fuel leader and it intends to remain so. And that means bringing along us little guys. “Over the years we have profited from avgas and now it’s time to invest in the future. That’s how business works,” Rob said. I like to hear that.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 5 Comments

Check Out the ADS-B Options at Oshkosh

Every avionics company you have heard of, and some you may have not, is showing new ADS-B equipment here at Oshkosh.

ADS-B is the technology that broadcasts your identify, position, altitude and velocity automatically to all other airplanes and a network of FAA ground stations. ADS-B will replace air traffic control radar for aircraft surveillance under the coming NextGen airspace system. This is called the “out” component of ADS-B.

ADS-B has a second element called “in” because very useful information is automatically transmitted subscription free to equipped airplanes.

The issue for airplane owners is that we will all be required to install certified ADS-B “out” equipment by the end of 2020 to be authorized to fly in the airspace that now requires a Mode C transponder.

To complicate matters further, ADS-B “out” signals can be sent on either of two different frequencies. One “out” signal is on the 1090 MHz transponder frequency. All airplanes flying above 18,000 feet must use this channel. The other signal is called UAT for universal access transceiver.

Nearby traffic, weather radar, text weather, locations of TFRs, and all sorts of other very important real time information will come “in” only over UAT. So you want UAT “in.” But you can have UAT “in” but 1090 MHZ “out.” Got that?

And you will still need to have your Mode C transponder installed, turned on and recertified every other year after 2020 just as we do now. Got that, too?

So, to comply with the new rules you need something to transmit the “out” signal on one of the two channels, plus an approved position source to know where you are. The approved source is a WAAS enabled GPS navigator.

If you have a WAAS GPS already, you probably have an approved position source. If you have a transponder with ES (extended squitter) it can send the ADS-B “out” signal on 1090 MHz. But you need wires and software to connect the two boxes. Got that? And all brands may not play with the other.

I can’t calculate all of the possible combinations of ways to comply with the ADS-B rules, but it must be in the dozens, if not the hundreds. ADS-B “in” is not a requirement, but it’s the only useful part so you sure don’t want to leave it out. So you want some sort of UAT receiver, but do you want a UAT “out” transmitter? Maybe.

There is also the question of how to display all of that really nice and useful data coming up for free on the UAT “in” channel. If you have some sort of multifunction display in your panel already, that may work. But maybe not. It depends on the age of your display, who made it, and how much memory or operating capacity it has.

A better way to see the data coming “in” may be on a tablet such as an iPad. The tablet can connect wirelessly to the UAT “in” receiver if you buy the right equipment.

Then there are the portable UAT “in” receivers that cost from around $500 to $800 that can show you the weather and other information on a tablet without installing anything. But they don’t meet the “out” requirement of 2020. Got that?

ADS-B may be one of the most confusing FAA equipment requirements ever because there are so many options, and so many hardware solutions.

If there is any good news about ADS-B it is that the avionics companies are now paying close attention and developing a whole range of solutions. And most importantly a range of prices. Every ADS-B maker that I know of is here at Oshkosh and you can stop by and chat with them.

This is your chance to learn what you will need to meet the rule if you fly in regulated airspace, and learn about the almost endless options you have. Even if you put off the buying decision for another year or two, take advantage of the ADS-B equipment makers here to learn as much as you can. There is no simple solution because we are offered so many choices.

I remember hearing that having endless options is really a curse. For many airplane owners that curse is spelled ADS-B.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 12 Comments

Is The Aviation Recession Finally Over? I Think So

There is no better place to measure the health of the personal aviation industry than here at Oshkosh this week. And I am convinced the vital signs are improving markedly.

We can try to measure how aviation is doing by counting airplane sales or kit completions, flight hours, volume of fuel sales, new pilot licenses issued and other similar data.

But those are lagging indicators. By the time a person buys an airplane or completes his flight training and can be counted the crucial decision to act is months, or more likely years, in the past.

I believe the most reliable forward looking sign of aviation health is the spending level of companies in the business. Somebody, maybe with their job or company on the line, has to have the confidence and guts to invest money in selling their aviation product in order for the industry to progress. And that confidence is being expressed here at Oshkosh this week in a really big way.

Just look around the grounds. Everywhere are new exhibits that are more attractive and even luxurious than ever before.

The number one example of confidence to invest is the new BendixKing exhibit. It’s the first permanent building constructed by any company exhibiting at Oshkosh that I can think of. And it’s an outstanding facility with multiple levels, a large patio, shaded area and plenty of room to display aircraft as well as avionics.

I can’t guess what BendixKing invested in their building and grounds but it is substantial. Quality details are everywhere in the building and landscaping. This tells me the company leadership has confidence in its product development and in the future of personal and business flying. And it sure shouts to all of us that BendixKing is here to stay.

And BendixKing is certainly not alone in ramping up its presence at Oshkosh. Everywhere I look what were once tents, have been transformed into large and comfortable buildings. They are temporary buildings, but many are air conditioned, and all have luxury we wouldn’t have imagined at Oshkosh not that many years ago.

Some companies are employing what I would call modular construction for their exhibits. Hartzell is one of those. It’s exhibit is a double-decker made from purpose built units attached together.

Pilatus and Piper are not far apart on the grounds and each has a very impressive building. Not permanent, but still too sturdy and plush to call a “tent.”

Cessna and Beech now together under the Textron umbrella fill a huge corner of the exhibit space near the main entry. Honda continues to have an amazing amount of square feet under cover. And AOPA has a major new multi-use exhibit area near the flightline.

Garmin’s tent building now has a higher ceiling than many churches. Redbird simulators are on display under a peaked roof and great landscaping is everywhere with TBM and Embraer having among the most impressive yard work around their airplanes.

And that is to mention but a very few exhibitors. Everywhere you look there is expansion and ever more substantial displays for every imaginable aviation product and service.

Is the aviation slump finally over? I hope so. More importantly the people who are out front, those who make the big bets on what to build and how to sell it, have new confidence.

Oshkosh is a barometer for all things aviation and when I walk around the grounds and see the investments being made I can’t help but believe we are in for a well deserved break and a stint of fair weather.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 19 Comments