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 | 4 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 | 2 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 | 20 Comments

Precision Flying Is Fun Flying

Every pilot I have ever spoken to is happy when they land at Oshkosh. But I think the most excited group are those that fly in together in a mass arrival.

I was out at the North 40 airplane parking and camping area over the weekend when the Cherokees and Bonanzas to Oshkosh taxied in and parked in perfect rows. It was the most euphoric group of pilots and passengers that you could imagine.

I don’t know how long owners of the same type of airplane have been getting together to arrive en masse at Oshkosh, but it has been many, many years. It’s impossible to know for sure who was first, but I  believe it was Bonanza owners.

The early group arrivals were, well, not exactly formal. Pilots would fly into an airport within easy range of Oshkosh, discuss their plans, and head for Wittman Field.

I don’t know of any serious mishaps during a mass arrival but it became obvious there were risks to consider and mitigate. Flying with friends in similar airplanes is fun, but group leaders recognized that it would be more fun, more of a challenge, and more rewarding if they did it right.

Doing it right means instruction and practice in the basics of formation flying. Pilots with formation experience, mostly from flying in the military, took the lead in teaching others.

Pilots planning to join the group for the mass flight to Oshkosh were required to receive instruction and demonstrate basic formation competence. Safety was the emphasis much more than holding perfect position.

The larger type groups now meet at their staging field often days ahead of the actual departure for Oshkosh to practice and train and plan. They brief before each flight, and then debrief after to discuss what went right and what needs more work.

For example, the Bonanzas to Oshkosh employ three-ship formations. The plan is to land on Runway 18/36 at Oshkosh. The lead airplane in the formation and the Bonanza on the left land on the main runway when using 36 and the right side airplane touches down on the parallel taxiway which is Runway 36R during the show. It would be the reverse if landing south.

They also plan and practice to stagger the three-ship formation if winds, weather or some other factor requires use of Runway 9/27. Oshkosh tower simply clears the formation as a whole to land and it’s up to each three-ship to maintain spacing and rollout to the end as planned.

This type of flying is exactly the opposite of tooling around the sky enjoying the scenery, the type of flying usually described as “fun flying.”

But the formality and rigid procedures required for a safe formation arrival doesn’t eliminate the fun. It creates fun because these pilots have a very exacting measure of how well they performed, and how they can continue to improve.

That’s what is great about Oshkosh. Every flying interest is represented and none is more valuable or worthy than another. We all fly for our own reasons.

But if you want to see the biggest smiles on pilots climbing out of their airplane after taxiing in at Oshkosh–more than 100 smiles in the Bonanza formation–greet any of the mass arrivals. Doing your best, most precise flying is one heck of a way to start your stay at the world’s greatest aviation event.

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Year of the Headset at Oshkosh

People often ask me “what’s new at Oshkosh.” The answer is hundreds, maybe even thousands of new aviation products and services.

But this year a category that stands out is headsets. There are a bunch of new models making their Oshkosh debut, and the number of what I would call the super premium headsets is growing.

Oshkosh is the perfect place for headset shopping because they are all here for you to try.

There is nothing in aviation more personal, and the likes and dislikes more subjective, than headsets. That’s why there are so many models. A headset one pilot can wear for hours in perfect comfort drives another crazy after a few minutes.

Even the audio performance of headsets is an individual perception. No matter what scientific acoustic testing measures each of us will experience different sound quality and noise level. That is particularly true when it comes to the advanced active noise reduction (ANR) headsets.

The good news is that every significant headset maker is exhibiting here at Oshkosh. You can stop by and try on dozens of models to see how they fit, feel and sound. Most headset makers have equipment in their display to simulate aviation audio inputs, and some have ways to simulate cockpit noise environment.

The major aviation supply retailers such as Aircraft Spruce, Sportys and others have the major headset types all lined up next to each other. You can try different headsets in a few minutes and make comparisons while the experience with each is fresh.

What I find interesting is the technology race in the super premium headset. There are now three headsets I know of priced at about $1,100. How long can it be before the $1,500 headset appears?

Bose has been in the super premium category since it introduced an ANR headset many years ago. And Bose continues to be a top seller. It’s A20 headset sets a high standard for active noise reduction and audio quality, but like any other headset, there is disagreement about comfort.

Lightspeed has been on a technology march toward ever more comfortable and quiet headsets and the new Zulu PFX making its first Oshkosh appearance is remarkably good. The new Zulu matches the Bose in price, and many of us who have tried it believe nothing is quieter or more comfortable than the Zulu PFX. But that’s a personal opinion.

The newcomer in the super premium headset ranks is the AKG AV100. AKG is a leader in microphone and headsets for the entertainment and recording industry. It also makes very popular headphones for personal entertainment listening. AKG is part of the huge Harmon International Industries that makes high end audio equipment for luxury autos and many other uses.

The AV100 employs AKG’s decades of experience in headset design to create a very comfortable fit, at least for me. It’s advanced ANR noise reduction is pleasing to some, not as effective for others who have tried it. Put one on this week and see what you think.

Bluetooth connectivity is a key feature in many expensive headsets so you can wirelessly listen to your personal devices or phone. Nearly all have the capability to lower the incoming entertainment volume when voices come over the intercom or airplane radios. This feature isn’t necessarily that popular with pilots, particularly if you fly IFR, because there is a lot of ATC communications to listen for. But passengers love the wireless Bluetooth link because all their electronic devices work perfectly in the airplane without a tangle of cords and connectors.

So when shopping for headsets be sure to include your primary passengers. Especially the one beside you who probably has some veto power over your flying and airplane spending.

Stancie is the toughest headset critic I know and I always make sure she flies a leg with a new headset before I write about it. If Stancie likes, I know many others will.

Is a headset worth $1,100? Only you and your passengers can say for sure, and this week at Oshkosh is the place to try them all and make that important, and increasingly large investment decision.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 4 Comments

Oshkosh Arrival Quiz

Here are a few key questions about arrival procedures at Oshkosh for our annual fly-in and convention. You should know this stuff cold if you are flying in for the big show.

What time does Oshkosh Wittman Field close each day from Friday, July 25 until Monday, August 4?

The airport is closed to arrivals from 8 p.m. local time (CDT) and all airplanes must be shutdown and parked by that time. The Notam says that engine operation or taxiing is prohibited from 8 p.m. until 6 the next morning when the airport opens again. The airport also closes each afternoon during the convention for the air show and no engine operation or taxiing are permitted during those periods. I’ve just heard from the people who write the law on these things and you can depart after 6 a.m., but can’t land until 7 a.m. So everyone planning a really, really early arrival, sleep in, but if you want to get out really early the hour between 6 and 7 a.m. is all yours for departure.

What is the first point on the Fisk VFR arrival procedure?

The entry point for the Fisk arrival is the town of Ripon 10 miles to the southwest of Fisk.

How do I find Fisk in my GPS navigation database?

Most aviation GPS navigators have the location of Fisk stored in memory, but you need to add an “e” and look for FISKE. Under the navigation fix naming convention points that are not airports or VORs or NDBs have five letters. Ripon doesn’t have this issue because it, obviously, has exactly five letters in its name and is in most databases.

What are the two indicated airspeeds to maintain on the Fisk arrival?

Airplanes that can safely maintain 90 knots (104 mph) should fly that airspeed at 1,800 feet msl from Ripon inbound. Airplanes that cannot safely maintain 90 knots should fly an indicated airspeed of 135 knots at 2,300 feet.

When should you begin to monitor Fisk approach controllers?

At least 15 miles before reaching the Ripon fix. Fisk controllers–actually controllers on the ground at Fisk looking up, not using radar–are on frequency 120.7.

If holding is in progress before Ripon which lake should you circle and in what direction?

If traffic congestion or delays requires holding before reaching Ripon you must circle Green Lake which is southwest of Ripon. All turns should be to the left. If traffic plugs up for airplanes already past Ripon the controllers at Fisk may put you into a left hand circle around the smaller Rush Lake that is southwest of Fisk. Holding procedures will be announced by Fisk controllers on 120.7.

When will you know your landing runway assignment?

As you listen up to Fisk controllers on 120.7 expect to be called by airplane type and color, not N-number. Don’t call controllers. Wait for them to call you. In the vicinity of Pickett, a tiny spot on the map about 4 miles southwest of Fisk, controllers will begin calling airplanes and assigning a landing runway. You won’t get a runway assignment until past Pickett. When the controllers call your type and color rock your wings vigorously to acknowledge.

When do you change from Fisk control frequency to tower?

Don’t change frequencies until the Fisk controllers tell you to. There are different tower frequencies for the east-west and north-south runways so listen up. Don’t call the tower after you change frequencies. They will call you using type and color instead of N-number.

Can you S-turn to maintain the required one-half mile in trail separation?

No. If you can’t maintain at least one-half mile in trail you must break out of the line and return to Ripon to start again.

Which two possible routes can you expect when passing Fisk?

At Fisk controllers can clear you to continue to follow the railroad northeast toward the airport, or can direct you to fly almost straight east following Highway 44, or as it says on other pages of the Notam, Fisk avenue. Following the railroad is the most common route and that leads you into a right downwind for Runway 27. The railroad route can also be used to land south on Runway 18L/R. If you are flying the railroad route to Runway 18 do not descend below 1,500 feet until flying over Runway 9/27. Remember, pilots landing on different runways are listening on different tower frequencies.

My charts don’t show a Runway 18L/36R at Oshkosh?

During the fly-in the Runway 18/36 parallel taxiway to the east is temporarily marked and used as a runway during the convention.

Which wind direction creates the biggest hassle?

An east wind blows no good at Oshkosh. When Runway 9 must be used the Fisk arrival flow following the railroad tracks is nearly a straight in approach so there is no downwind or base leg available to space out landing traffic.

When should I call ground control?

The answer for VFR pilots is you don’t need to call ground control at Oshkosh. As soon as speed permits after landing turn off the runway and follow EAA flagmen directions to parking. When preparing for VFR departure follow flagmen directions to the active runway where you then monitor the assigned frequency for VFR departures.

Do I need a sign for my windshield after landing?

Yes. There are 10 possible parking areas on the field and you need to make a sign clearly indicating which area you wish to taxi to after landing. You can go to www.airventure.org/signs and print out the sign you want, or make your own based on the codes listed in the Notam.

What will controllers tell you even if you make a crummy landing?

Welcome to Oshkosh.

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

Fueling Up for Oshkosh

There is, of course, weather to check, notams, and routing to plan for the flight to Oshkosh. But many pilots will spend about as much time researching fuel prices at airports along the way.

There are dozens of web outlets that post airport fuel prices, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Some sources are more accurate than others mostly because they are updated frequently. Aviation fuel prices jump around like crazy so information more than a couple days old may be wildly inaccurate.

Prices for 100LL avgas can vary two, three and even more dollars per gallon at airports not that far apart. Since avgas is a national commodity made at only a relative handful of refineries what’s the explanation for the vast variance in retail prices?

The fundamental answer is the big difference in the fuel retailers’ operating costs. The actual profit margin in fuel sales doesn’t change nearly as much as the cost of delivering the fuel into your airplane.

Consider at one extreme the airport that offers only self service fuel. The airport, if it is staffed at all, almost certainly has only one person there and only for at most eight hours a day. The operating costs that must be added to set the retail fuel price at an airport like that are small.

At the other end is a full service FBO that is fully staffed by several people for probably 16 or more hours a day. That FBO has a comfortable waiting room, pilot briefing services, food vending or more options, regularly cleaned restrooms, quickly available ground transportation and on and on. Since the only significant income left for FBOs is from fuel sales it’s easy to see how the cost of all of the staff and services must be added into the final retail price of fuel.

Neither type of fuel/FBO operation is intrinsically good or bad. It drives me crazy when I hear pilots blasting the fuel price at a big full service FBO without for a moment considering who pays the cost of the many services included in the fuel price. If you don’t want to pay for the FBO services, land at one of the thousands of airports that don’t offer those services.

But when you make your plans for Oshkosh consider what you may want to pay for along the way. For example, that airport that has rock bottom fuel prices may or may not offer any other service. If weather pins you down there in the evening you could be stuck sleeping in your airplane because there are no taxies, no nearby hotels, and no way to get to a restaurant. That may be perfectly fine with you, and is an eventuality that you have planned for. But it’s a possibility that must be considered.

The availability of basic maintenance is another factor in selecting a fuel stop. With the big drop in flying activity since the recession began six years ago many airports can’t support a maintenance shop, or even individual mechanic, on the field. Something as simple as a flat tire, dead battery or failed starter could leave you stranded for hours or more.

Another factor that can alter fuel prices dramatically from one small airport to another is the sales volume. Minimum fuel deliveries are typically 3,000 to 5,000 gallons. Fuel providers grant very short payment periods so the load of fuel in the small FBO tank must be paid for long before it is eventually all sold. Since wholesale fuel prices can change daily the cost to the FBO can be very different depending upon when the fuel was delivered. It could take months for some small FBOs to sell a load of fuel so they are stuck with a price that is out of date, which can be either good or bad depending upon the fuel cost at delivery.

FBOs also employ different pricing strategies. One FBO may set the retail price based on the wholesale cost he paid upon delivery. Another FBO may try to estimate what the price of the next delivery will be and set retail price on the cost of the “replacement” fuel. When fuel prices are moving dramatically, as is all too common, which price strategy an FBO uses can make a big difference.

But wherever you buy fuel on the way to Oshkosh be sure to arrive with lots of reserve. How much is enough? At least double the 30 minute required VFR reserve is essential, and I would feel comfortable with more like a couple of hours. Despite the well honed arrival procedures at Oshkosh the situation can change in an instant. For example, a minor mishap on the runway can cause landing delays to ripple out for a long time. A strong wind making only one runway available dramatically cuts capacity. And at some periods airplane parking has filled up in the past which causes delays and diversions.

Fuel prices will be a big concern for every pilot headed to Oshkosh, but remember the many other factors that can make your trip a pleasant or a trying one.

Click on this link to see information from FBOs that have told EAA about special Oshkosh discounts they are offering: http://www.eaa.org/en/airventure/eaa-fly-in-flying-to-oshkosh/fuel-service-and-discounts/fbo-discounts-special-offers

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What to Practice Before Flying to Oshkosh

Controllers on the orange dot. Photo courtesy of Fred Stadler

Flying into Oshkosh is different from flying we do the rest of the year. The unique procedures of the Fisk arrival have been refined over decades and work very well to get something like 10,000 airplanes into Oshkosh during the convention and the days leading up to it.

Pilots who have never made the pilgrimage wonder what they need to know and practice to be ready for the show. The most important preparation is to read the official Oshkosh Notam very closely. No, not closely, study the Notam. In fact you need to memorize the details because you won’t have much time to be reading once you are about to begin the arrival.

There are also helpful videos on the EAA website at eaa.org that show the view from the cockpit of airplanes arriving at Oshkosh. Seeing the landmarks on the video is a very important addition to simply reading about them, and looking at chart symbols in the Notam.

As for the actual flying techniques required at Oshkosh there are the basics you need to master, and then one type of landing you may have never tried before.

The basics are airspeed, heading and altitude control. If you arrive during a busy period you will be following pilots flying at an airspeed that is likely different from your typical pattern and approach. The traffic ahead may be moving faster than you normally would, or more likely slower. You need to be able to maintain spacing in trail without slowing too much to give up stall margin for your airplane, and you must be able to split your scan of the airspeed and the airplane ahead.

An often overlooked prohibition in the Notam is that S-turns are not allowed. If you can’t keep spacing on the airplane ahead you must depart the stream of traffic and re-enter the procedure. I think you can understand why. If pilots start S-turning the airplane in trail won’t know for sure where the airplane ahead is going, and at what effective airspeed.

You should also practice both wide and close traffic pattern work. If traffic is heavy the right base leg for landing Runway 27 can stretch out pretty far to the east. But if you end up being cleared to land south on Runway 18R that will always be a close in left base to final turn. You won’t know for sure which runway you will be assigned because it all depends on wind and traffic density at the moment.

But the one really unusual procedure controllers may ask you to fly is to land long, very long. At Oshkosh we use the famous colored “dots” as touchdown targets so more than one landing airplane can be on the runway at once with sufficient spacing. And the second dot on either runway is almost certainly much farther down the pavement than you have landed in normal flying.

Let’s say you are landing on Runway 27 which typically handles the most arriving traffic. First, there is a displaced threshold 531 feet down from the actual end of the pavement. Another 1,000 feet down is the big orange dot. Then 1,500 feet farther down Runway 27 is the green dot. So, if the controller tells you–often on short notice–to “put it on the green dot” you will need to fly over about 3,129 feet of runway to get to the dot. That is more runway than the total runway length many pilots use. Even at the green dot there is 3,050 feet of runway left to get stopped putting the green dot just about smack in the center of the runway.

It’s an odd visual sensation to continue flying over so much pavement the first few times you do it. We reflexively aim for the touchdown zone even on long runways like the ones at Oshkosh, so to keep it flying past that spot feels really weird.

Of the arrival incidents I’ve seen at Oshkosh over many years pilots keeping it flying to the last assigned dot stick out in my memory. Sometimes they get too slow and drop it in. I remember a Bonanza that fell so hard as the pilot tried to keep it in the air that it blew a main gear tire and collapsed the gear. Taildragger pilots can have their hands full if they don’t maintain a proper airspeed and hit harder than they expect. It’s just something we don’t normally do.

So, in addition to the essential Notam study and polished skills on airspeed control I would go to a long runway and practice landing halfway down. If it’s a controlled airport be sure to let the tower know what you plan to do because without notice they expect you to land in the normal spot.

Personally I find it easier to drag the airplane down the runway about 20 to 40 feet in the air rather than trying to estimate a more or less steady glidepath to the long spot. It takes quite a bit of power to drag the airplane along and when you pull the throttle back, you’re going to drop quickly. But each airplane can respond differently, and you need to find out what works best for you and your airplane. It’s just important to know what it looks and feels like to land really long.

Of course, after your practice the Oshkosh controllers may tell you to put it on the numbers, but that’s something you have practiced your entire flying career. But if you draw the green dot on Runway 27, or the pink dot on Runway 18R, you’ll be ready to fly over a lot of pavement before touching down.

Welcome to Oshkosh.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 14 Comments

Kit Company Default

A reader has contacted me several times worrying about the possibility that an airplane kit company may default on an order he places. He thinks I should warn people that it could happen, and should do something about the possibility.

Well, consider yourself warned. There have been a number of airplane kit makers that took deposits, or even full payment, and then folded financially before delivering complete kits.

The most notorious default was probably the BD-5 fiasco in the 1970s. The company accepted fully paid orders for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of kits to build the tiny single-seat pusher. To my knowledge nobody received a complete kit for the BD-5. The most fundamental missing component was an engine and drive system.

Other kit makers also failed financially and left builders stranded with incomplete kits, or perhaps no hardware at all. Some of those companies even reorganized and continue in a restructured form, though a bankruptcy almost always leaves order holders from the original company in the lurch.

I hope none of this is news to somebody considering ordering an airplane kit. Even the largest kit maker is still a small company, and small companies have smaller capital cushions than large ones so risk of default is always at least a little greater.

But what really bothers this fellow is the policy of requiring a significant deposit, or even complete payment, with a kit order. He believes those policies should be somehow stopped, and that EAA should take the lead in abolishing the prepayment practices.

First of all, airplane kit manufacturers are small. They don’t have the resources to buy the materials, pay staff to fabricate a kit, and then put that kit in inventory and carry the cost until an order arrives. Unsold finished goods have brought down very large companies–particularly aviation companies–and would be the death knell for a kit maker.

Secondly, an airplane kit is actually a custom made product. Even the most popular kits offer options and having choices are a huge reason somebody builds their own airplane. As with any custom made product, you pay upfront. Go order a new sofa and the maker is going to want all or most of the money before he starts to build and upholster the couch to your personal and exact specifications. Paying upon order is the only way creators of truly custom products can survive financially.

But there are steps any prospective kit builder can take to minimize the chances that his kit investment will be lost.

As they say in the financial business, past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but it is the best guidance available most of the time. If a kit company is established and has delivered a large number of kits that’s a good indication you will get your order filled as promised. Given the instant response time of the web any default or failure to deliver as promised by a kit company will be news on the day it happens. There is no place to hide for a company that is stiffing its customers.

Another layer of protection is to pay by credit card if the kit maker offers that option. Major credits cards will usually protect the cardholder if a merchant fails to deliver as promised.

Of course you may be able to take the good old FOB delivery. Go to the kit maker’s loading dock, hand over cash or an equivalent, and drive away with your kit. The larger, more established kit makers are most likely to offer the FOB option.

If you are a pioneer and want to be one of the first in line for a new design from a newly formed company your risks are highest in every respect. The company’s financial status is unproven and there is no track record of satisfied customers to confirm its performance. You could try to construct an escrow payment but that can be legally complex, will involve lawyers in order to have confidence, and will generate costs that somebody has to cover.

Default by an airplane kit maker is not a trivial issue. But it is not one that has a concrete solution. The largest kit makers will always be small businesses, and a startup company, no matter what the business, will always have considerable risk.

As with any investment the best you can do is research the kit company as thoroughly as possible and decide for yourself the level of risk. After all, when and if you finish a kit airplane a placard will say in large letters for all to see that this airplane is an experiment. The experiment is not only the flying of the finished airplane. The kit maker is a big part of the experiment, along with your building techniques and maintenance after the airplane is flying. Experimental aircraft cannot offer a guarantee of any sort and still exist, so there are no guarantees available for that very first step of making an order.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 25 Comments