Blame Continental Sale on GARA

The sale of Continental Motors to a Chinese aircraft component maker that is controlled by the government has caused enormous concern, and no shortage of blaming greedy corporations for selling off American iconic companies to make a quick buck. I’m sure those are heartfelt sentiments, but they miss the biggest issue facing Continental – the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA).

In 1994 the GARA set an 18-year limit on lawsuits claiming defective design caused the crash of a general aviation aircraft. Overall, GARA has helped reduce the number of lawsuits against general aviation manufacturers and did help revitalize the industry.

But the two companies almost totally left out from under the GARA safety umbrella are Continental and Lycoming. The reason is that under GARA installation of new parts in an aircraft or component starts the 18-year clock over again. It would be almost impossible to operate a piston engine for 18 years without replacing at least some parts, or more likely performing an overhaul. In any case, I’m not sure that I would want to be flying a piston engine that had not had at least some parts replaced in 18 years unless that engine had been pickled in storage.

So Continental and Lycoming have tens of thousands of engines out there in the fleet that are all potential lawsuits if there is an accident, and there is no way to sever that liability tail. Even if the Continental parent, Teledyne, stopped building engines, it would still face liability for those already manufactured. The same would be true for Lycoming’s parent company, Textron.

The only way to get out from under the legal liability of the engines, short of total corporate bankruptcy, is for Teledyne to sell Continental to a new owner with the resources to pay winning plaintiffs, and the Chinese government certainly seems to have those. It would be great if GARA were able to protect engine makers of proven designs, but it really can’t.

I’m sure the Chinese have no desire to defend a continuing stream of lawsuits, but that is the price of entry into the aircraft piston engine business. What I predict will happen is that Continental’s Mobile, Alabama, operations will continue, and even expand and create new engines with Chinese investments. And I also think a parallel operation will be developed in China to build engines for the Chinese domestic market, and perhaps for other developing countries.

What I don’t expect is for Continental’s factory to be moved to China. It is almost impossible to build an FAA-certified product in another country when there are no bilateral certification standards, and none exist now between the U.S. and China.

It is sad that a great old American manufacturer such as Continental Motors is more valuable to a foreign company than to a U.S.-based firm, but those are the realities of the global market, and our legal system makes things even worse. But I’m old enough to remember when Continental Motors was a proud company based in Muskegon, Michigan, building all types of engines, including many thousands for U.S. Army tanks. But eventually it couldn’t survive on its own and ended up being owned by the technology conglomerate Teledyne.

I just saw a talking head on a TV business show forecasting that in 35 years China will catch up with the U.S. to become the world’s biggest overall economy. I don’t expect to be around to see if that prediction comes true, but the Continental sale is another step in that direction, and our legal system gave it the biggest kick.

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43 Responses to Blame Continental Sale on GARA

  1. R Lunde says:

    “It is almost impossible to build an FAA-certified product in another country when there are no bilateral certification standards, and none exist now between the U.S. and China.”

    How does Cessna get around this with the Skycatcher?

    • William Moon says:

      LSA are not FAA certified. That is the whole point, they are certified and built to industry standards, not Part 23 FAA regs.

  2. S Alexander says:

    Skycatcher final assembly in USA.

  3. Kevin Lancaster says:

    Unfortunately, the Chinese are part of a very very small group willing to invest in American industry anymore. They seem to do it as a shortcut to leapfrog years of independent development. I see lots of hand ringing about losing American manufacturing but banks will not finance manufacturing and the government is willing to let excessive regulation and lawyers ride manufacturers into the ground so we have little chance of rebuilding our manufacturing base. I have spent the past three years looking for American investors for a well known and loved product – those stepping up come from Asia. If Americans don’t start putting their money where their mouths are, their mouths are going to be empty soon.

  4. John Bender says:

    Continental’s liability tail is due to Teledyne’s remarkable lack of innovation to increase engine reliability and safety. With the exception of FADEC, they remain the same engines with the same safety issues they had 50 years ago. FAA certification regulations that increase the cost of bringing new engine innovations to market are part of the problem. Newer aircraft engines such as Rotax, and Viking/Honda will prove to be safer, more reliable and efficient power plants. Another factor reducing innovation is the low volume of private aircraft engines manufactured and sold, limiting the funds available for R&D and the engines to spread those costs over, as compared with automobile manufacturers. Blaming GARA for not reducing Teledyne’s liability exposure for their engine failures misplaces accountability. Perhaps you also believe that the Feds and not BP/Deep Horizon/Halliburton are to blame for 5 million barrels of spilled crude. China is innovating with electric aircraft power plants, which may prove to be the most reliable ‘engines’ for private aircraft of the future. I welcome China’s resuscitation of this moribund and financially strapped company. Their deep pockets may well pay for some real engine innovations. And I suspect they will find a way to get their new aircraft power plants certified in the USA, even if manufactured in China. Only a lack of competition in the US market has kept Continental around this long.

  5. B. North says:

    I believe that Mac has a point, but liability is only a small part of the problem. Product R&D under incredilibly arcane rules and regulations from the last century, a shrinking customer base, a very limited number of manufacturers that use your products, scarce capital opportunities, a darth of highly qualified knowledgeable engineering talent, and a plainly hostile aviation environment from the public and governemnt are bigger issues than worring about your liability tail. I admit that I wasn’t happy ot see this either as I work in the industry myself, but I need to point out that we need to see this from a different perspective in that this may be good for us in ways we may not know yet. Mainly, where is the modern engine that I was promised to replace my O-200? Where is my diesel? Where is the no-lead engine that everyone is yelling about? I was told that the American market would surely provide these 20 years ago and it simply fell flat on its face. . So, show me the data to support the idea that everything went per plan with Continental and Lycombing after all of these years, and show the list of thier competitors in an healthy industry before I listen to the idea that having the Chinese buy Connie is a disaster of biblical proportions. If it weren’t for the engines out of the experimental industry there would be nothing at all. Having owners with deep pockets, reasons to spend it, and a global perspective isn’t a bad thing when you need products. Ask anyone with an IPad which not one American hand touched if it is any good or not and why everyone I know is flying with them after they throw away thier handheld Garmins, (sigh). I don’t blame Connie at all for this, its just the way economics work.

    • Donald Miller says:

      As a fabric and upholstery vinyl distributor I have been forced to use China and SE Asia as a source. Of the dozens of vinyl upholstery manufacturers that were in this country only 2 are left. It’s not the labor factor, EPA, OSHA, insurance, product liability, governmental controls and taxes have forced them offshore. As a pilot and multiaircraft owner, I have seen the cost of flying double in the last 10 years and no end to regulation in sight. If anyone wants to see what we are facing, fly a Baron from London to Berlin and add up the cost of the flight. Presently the WORLD comes to the USA to learn to fly and enjoy GA, that sadly will be changing also.

  6. Joe says:

    I hear about the dearth of engineer talent frequently. I think this leads back to the other problem. The guys who hold the gold. The insurance guys love to create their own set of rules for everything; and, they usually only know finance and little about the activity that they want to regulate. They come from the same college programs that “educate” the managers who determine which engineers are of value to companies such as Continental and others which truly require engineering organizations. I have heard far too many times from HR guys who say that experienced engineers are too expensive. My assertion is that some of these guys should go back to Harvard Business Review about 1997, I think, where there was an article which investigated the difference between labor rate and labor cost. Most of the managers younger than I am(I’ll never tell (-: ) have no idea how to judge the value of the labor cost provided by a truly experienced engineer. Maybe the Chinese can do better at this. BTW the Skycatcher is assembled in Shenyang and then disassembled for shipping to the USA after production flight check.

  7. TK says:

    The problem is the Legal System. Someone whose Relative willing chooses to get in an aircraft can lodge a lawsuit should the Relative die in an accident, even if the Relative tries to execute a Hold Harmless. Any accident that is considered the least bit unusual is opportunity for the deceased relatives to execute a get rich scheme of suing the aviation industry base. It is product liability run amok. It is a perverse situation where aviation now finds refuge in Communism because the lawyers that thrive off the fat of Capitalism have chased it to that refuge. Lawyers aren’t bad, too many lawyers (like too much of anything) are bad. This is Supply creating a Demand to ensure survival.

    I have taken my stand by a fairly simple means. I have encouraged my children to become aviators, I have further incentivized them to do that by including a provision in my Will that they receive no proceeds until they have a pilots license. And to cull the legal herd back to numbers that are sufficient to help those in need without so many that they feed on the system, I have informed my children, that should they become lawyers, I will disinherited them.

    This is a societal moral and ethical issue. Until we as a society eschew lawyers as the first resort, we will be continually gnawed on by the hungry lawyers.

    What should we do? Shun those who would raise new lawyers.

    More importantly, we should change the cultural mores to place Lawyers in the same category as Priests. Necessary, good in small numbers, and a reward system that encourages “good behavior” and reasonable compensation.

  8. Pete Anderson says:

    I haven’t always agreed with Mac but I can always tell he believes in what he says, the sig of a good writer. Not only that, he will discuss the issues that push our buttons. Thank you for leaving Flying magazine to the NBAA types and slumming down with those of us that just enjoy a good flying article.

    • Mac says:

      Hi Pete,

      Happy to be part of EAA, one of the very few parts of general aviation that is still growing.

      Mac Mc

  9. Martin Weiss says:

    Simple reason new industrial plants are coming in and being profitable is that
    legacy costs of the industrial giants of yesteryear are absent: 1) no pension
    legacy costs as they don’t have 3 retirees for each employee and for many
    companies, no quarterly driven bottom lines to worry about.
    2) completely new plants using latest technology, or a complete revision in
    the plant technology by the new owner 3) with economic changes of the
    last 10 yrs hourly pay is down to the $12-20 range from $25-35 in the past
    and overhead is lower as there is no defined benefit pension plan and for those
    of you concerned about such, the management pay levels are lower as well.
    This is one reason why Japanese, Korean and German auto factories have
    done well. Of course it helps that their products sell well. When an American
    company disintegrates its legacy costs evaporate to some degree or are assumed
    by the rest of us. If the company is bought complete, then the buyer assumes
    the legacy costs. If the company shuts down and the assets are sold off the
    legacy costs go away as well for whoever buys the plant. It doesn’t help that
    some of these plants are hazmat sites no one will ever want as the legacy costs
    associated with hazmat can be as large as a legacy pension plan assumption.

    The “legal system” has nothing to do with this issue.

    • Administrator4304 says:

      Comments in the above post removed by administrator. Personal attacks against the columnist or commenters to this forum will not be tolerated.

      • Martin Weiss, Past President - Lawyer Pilots Bar Association says:

        So you allow comments about attorneys being “smoking hole ambulance chasing tort weenies” but redact my comments about Mr. McClellan’s disingenuous as it pertains to the truthfulness of his statements regarding tort liability and his claimed reasons Continental was bought by China? Did his contract with EAA have a “reality protection” clause?

        • B Robinett says:

          “If the shoe fits”. Sounds like somebody touched a button.

        • Geoff Robison says:

          Mac’s remarks on product liability are spot on!
          It’s not the totality of the problem with these iconic
          manufacturers being sold offshore, but let’s call a spade a spade. Product liability will always be a factor in this issue.

  10. Dana D. says:

    Way to go… Since there were scribbles on cave walls, writers have had a passion for information and emotion. Anytime a topic is broached a ripple effect takes hold and its effects are unmatched. It always has been the readers responsibility for their actions, and always will be.

  11. Mac, I think that you are way off-base blaming GARA for the Chinese purchase of Continental away from Teledyne. First of all, the whole purpose of GARA was to put a limit on product liability for aerospace manufacturers, limiting said liability to 18 years from the date of original manufacture. While we can argue long and hard that the 18-year ‘Statute of Repose’ is way too long; it is a start and it did cause Beech, Cessna and Piper to re-enter the piston single-engine manufacturing arena. While you are technically correct in your assertion that new parts or remanufacture of an assembly ‘breathes new life’ into the 18-year Statute of Limitation; I am unaware of any litigation in which the installation of new parts or remanufacture of an assembly has caused liability to extend beyond the 18-year period from original manufacture.

    I became an attorney specifically because I saw some pretty stupid results of product liability litigation against aviation manufacturers. My thinking was: if somebody who actually knew something about aviation were the attorney defending those manufacturers, perhaps juries would not be so easily lead to such absurd findings by the merry band of tort lawyers (I am an ATP, CFIAISME & Glider, A & P, Flight Engineer). After all, it only takes a smoking hole, ambulance-chasing tort weenie to file a lawsuit and con 12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty that the big, bad, deep-pocketed, corporate aerospace monoliths are truly evil and ‘deserve to be punished’ (a jury comment from Teledyne-Continental lawsuit).

    GARA is a good step in the right direction and should be applauded rather than blamed. But it is only a first step and we need further litigation protections, in line with what the automotive industry enjoys, for example. We also need to hold the operators of the machinery (Pilots) to the standard of care implied by their ratings, rather than than to that of the general public buying household items at WalMart.

    James D. Lyne, Esq.

    • John Eakin says:

      And where’s the administrator when someone make a personal attack against the feared and hated plaintiff attorney?

      • Administrator4800 says:

        A portion of this comment was removed by the Administrator. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.

    • Administrator4800 says:

      Comments in the above post removed by administrator. Personal attacks against the columnist or commenters to this forum will not be tolerated.

    • TK says:

      Perhaps Counselors Lyne and Weiss are on to something. If one were required to be a pilot in order to join the Bar, then maybe we would not find aviation to be such a lawsuit magnet.

      Btw, is this Engine company deju vu? What happened to Franklin engines? The Poles tried to make them for a few years and they seemed to go under.

  12. Thomas A. Hempstead says:

    America can shoot itself in the foot every time…….our aim is perfect when it comes to selling ourselves out.

  13. Oliver Washburn says:

    Mac, I enjoyed your columns very much in Flying magazine which is directed more to a different segment of the flying public than Sport Aviation is or at least used to be. All the articles I have read in Sport Aviation lately seem to be taking it more and more away from its original premise of homebulding and going more and more towards commercial aviation.

  14. Lance Neibauer says:

    While there is no current bilateral with China; that’s no stumbling block. We didn’t have one with Malaysia, and with our hands nearly tied behind our backs, we still got them certified to manufacture Lancair certified part by our FAA in about two years. With an aggressive approach, China could sure get it done in 12 – 18 months.

    • Mac says:

      Hi Lance,

      As you point out, it is possible to get FAA approval for having parts for a certified airplane manufactured outside of the U.S. However, an engine is a complete FAA-approved device with its own type certificate. Gaining approval to manufacture a complete type certified item such as an airplane, or an engine, in a country without an agreement with the FAA may be possible, but it will be very difficult, and expensive.

      Mac Mc

      • Kevin R. C. O'Brien says:


        Getting type or production certification is no walk in the park here in the USA, either. What happened to the certified-aircraft innovators of the nineties and the oughts? In most cases, certification took far longer, cost far more, and was much more arbitrary than even the most pessimistic managers had anticipated. And the companies went Tango Uniform.

        Whether your favorite entry in the aviation deadpool was a longshot like ATG’s Javelin or a more practical plane like Adam’s A500/700, Swearingen’s SJ-300, and many others, certification costs were probably a larger percentage of the project’s coffin-nails than the US’s worst-in-the-developed-world legal climate.

        The regulatory burden also strangled a number of would-be rebirths of classic airframes in their cribs: Helio, Navion and the Luscombe 11. (Taylorcraft had other problems). As the Luscombe builders found out, even having an approved TC means nothing: you can’t actually build the plane without someone setting new goals for your engineers. FAA certification folks, who work to no deadlines and have no concerns about money, sometimes seem to issue arbitrary requirements willy-nilly. Many of these come from groundlings who have no education in flying or aeronautical engineering. Some of the most egregious come from FAA’s own attorneys. But they’re not bad folks; they’re just profoundly unaware of the consequences of what they do, and their whim is law. Literally.

        This is an extremely serious problem. One of the few things that the US still leads the world in is aerospace products and services. But our lead is taking a beating. Everyone knows about Airbus (which has nearly as bad a regulatory environment, but a better tort world), but look at what Embraer is doing. And — when China opens its airspace to GA — they could easily underprice our flight training, burdened as it is with the brain-dead hand of the TSA.

        If we want to keep the Chinese behind, all we need to do is get them to copy our tort system –and– our Precautionary Principle -based regulatory system. I have no admiration for Mr Weiss’s lobby, but I think regulation is a more grievous wound in our industry than litigation lotto.

        And the killer is, it was all put in place by good and honorable men with the very best of intentions!

  15. Paul Gunderson says:

    Maybe it’s about time. Does anyone care about the sale of rights to build Chevy’s six cylinder in the sixties to Japan so they could put it in the Toyota Land Cruiser? This 1920′s technology should be refined somewhat anyway. We need some innovative new engine designs to take us to a more fuel efficient future. These horizontally opposed gas hogs need to go. Think of all the innovation in automotive engine design to get better mileage and power. Where are the innovative aero engines? Not at Continental or Lycoming !

    • Mac says:

      I hate to bring this up, but does anyone remember the disaster of Thielert engines? Anyone who bought a Diamond TwinStar with those engines sure does. What a nightmare for a new technology aircraft engine. And then there was the Porsche PFM. How could a company with the astonishing capability of Porsche fail so miserably in the aircraft engine business. And there was Thunder engines that was revived several times by different companies and never made it.
      Continental and Lycoming are building engines of proven design with almost continuous improvement. If you don’t believe me, look back and you will see that TBOs for their engines have increased dramatically over the years.
      Electronic controls can improve performance and efficiency, and probably extend life. But for the duty cycle of powering an airplane with a direct drive propeller nobody has done better than Continental and Lycoming yet, and I expect both to continue to improve their engines and create new designs.

      Mac Mc

      • Kevin R. C. O'Brien says:

        Continental and Lycoming are building engines of proven design with almost continuous improvement.

        Right on. True, they are still adding predictable improvements that were used in hi-po aero engines in WWII (roller cam followers/valve lifters is one example) and that have been used in the automotive world for a long time. But the biggest reason their general arrangements have been stable for decades is this: it’s a mature product, and one that works.

        Down here in XA, many people tinker with auto engine conversions. Most of them make forced landings sooner or later. Whether it’s sooner or later is almost directly proportional to the novelty in the conversion, in my experience. Some conversions are more mature than that, but none can match the reliability or durability of an O-235. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for these conversions! After all, it would be a sad state of affairs if the guys in “Experimental Aviation” weren’t experimenting.

        Exercise for the reader: A) find out what is the most successful line of homebuilt aircraft. B) find out what the designer recommends for engines. C) contemplate whether A follows from B, and to what extent?

  16. Hi just thought i would tell you something.. That is twice now i?ve landed on your blog in the last 3 weeks in search of completely unrelated issues. Wonderful Information! Maintain up the great function.

  17. Bill Levy says:

    The sale of Continental means only that the new owner gets profits and can use technology that is developed. The Chinese have no general aviation by citizens but why shouldn’t they devlop same as they become more free in the future. People worried when the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center but the Japanese couldn’t take it with them and the Chinese can only add technology and understanding to Continental after they develop same for themselves.

  18. George Mc Nab says:

    I think we all have to acknowledge that obscene settlements of court cases has caused the high cost of aviation. Everything from AN hardware to Xeon bulbs, if for aviation is many times more expensive than if produced for the automotive industry. And dare I say, Lawyers are very much to blame along with greedy individuals who will not accept responsibility for their own actions when they crash their plane because ,they didn’t do a proper walk around, or, they didn’t keep up their maintainance, or, they flew outside their capabilities, or, I think you get where I’m going! As long as there is this global market products are going to be shipped off shore to cheaper facilities and no doubt, the products coming back will be inferior. We have seen this over the last few years. Meanwhile, cost to purchase doesn’t seem to go down with the quality. Until North America as a whole insists on buying our home grown products our factories will continue to close and jobs lost. The aviation world needs EAA mentality, the can do spirit, and the industry needs financial support, maybe something like the help the automotive industry got, to bring about the innovation that is possible, just look at the avioncs break throughs that have happened in recent years. It is certainly sad to see Continental go off shore, but perhaps it would be refreshing to see a new shining star replace them.

  19. Vince R. says:

    The Chinese purchase of this business may give the Chinese a great strategic lever that they can pull during involvement in other GA business dealings. As a crude example… say that they are negotiating an unrelated licensing issue with an aircraft manufacturer that uses one of their engines (China Continental) as sole source. The specter of losing the supply of that particular engine could cause the manufacturer to tread very lightly during negotiations. It would be unfeasible to swap in another engine type given the certification hoops here. Compounding this is the fact that Continental will be closely tied if not outright owned and controlled by the Chinese government. Once the engines are used domestically in China, the Chinese government could essentially “ground” that engine for any of a myriad reasons. What is to stop the Chinese from exiting the business entirely? Please assure me that perhaps I am a bit cynical and paranoid! It doesn’t strike me as if the production of piston GA engines would be a huge part of China’s GNP.

    • Eugene P. Letter says:

      Look back you all,
      Did the Wright Brothers shop around for an engine manufacturer? No they built their own engines. There are a lot of new guys on the block that could care less about what great grandpa built, things change like the space shuttle to be replaced by a more modern method of space travel. We Americans do not like change and believe me am proud of our system and the proven engines that all can depend upon. But, like my Dad , he built a homebuilt in 1926 using an OX5 engine while in the US Navy as an Aviation Machinist
      mate, before he passed in 1996 he said he wished he had the knowledge to create an engine that was dependable as Continental proved to be back then.

      No comment on our legal system , lawyers are like doctors , we use them when we need them , at a price sometimes and at times at the expense of others.

      For me, I love my Lycoming in the PA28140 that I am blessed with.
      My personal opinion is that the Continental engine now owned by the Chinese People is in good hands .

  20. Daniel Findling says:

    Come on, do you really have to play the: “Blame the lawyers card” on this one? Where is the data to support the spurious notion that the sale of Continental Motors was caused by product liability concerns?

  21. I’ve been following Mac since I was a kid. Almost 48 now (Sorry Mac!) Flying’s loss – big time. So glad he’s landed here. You are family to me, in an aviation sense of course.

  22. Michael Sheridan says:

    Missing the point. Teledyne sold the company because it doesn’t fit in with the direction the company wants to take, and simply saw the GA market as a declining one, which it is.

  23. bob parno says:

    I can just see it now, we will be selling toy trinket airplanes to the chinese while they will be manufacturing the real ones, does no one have eyes to see that our nation has been sold lock stock and barrel. It began with free trade agreements which quickly moved as far and as fast as a container ship could. All this taking place while the merchants are filling up the candy dishes of our congress. but hey, keep playing golf boys until the very course you are playing on is owned by the chinese.

  24. Ed Burns says:

    Some time ago, I was Senior Engineer Engineer at Allison Transmission/Engine; I later started my own business, still working with Engines and Transmissions. Having lived the life and profession of 40 years of mechanical drive train experience, I can only say that Continental Motors has done a lousy job of Quality, Workmanship and Customer Satisfaction since I’ve know the company (1987).

    Cam shafts, lifters, Metallurgy———-Engine Engineering Growth Development

    Just to name a few.

    The innovations that have come to complement the Continental Engines over the years have come from the Repair Shops, Suppliers and even their Customers.
    Like Ni Ceramic lined cylinders, Cam/Lifter Geometry and Metallurgy, Oil Recovery Systems Starters & Alternators—————just to name a few.
    Continental Motors was sold because the easy money that they made from the Crap they sold has dried up. The Company was Mined—–Not Developed since Teledyne became the Owner. CM can only benefit from the sale to the Chinese———–I would have preferred the Japanese, but so be it.
    These engines can be improved, and can now evolve into much better products if this is the path that the Chinese take.
    The Chinese are intimately familiar with SPC in both Engineering and Production ——and if they use it to better the product, GA will be the beneficiary.

    Ed B

  25. jr says:

    At every IA renewal with the FAA I am told by the FAA lawyers that we are fools for singing off any airplane. With today’s litigation we stand to loose everything by some sue happy relative. I believe this is just the beginning of the lose of our great general aviation. You wonder why Cont does not improve their designs, try cost and litigation. Starting at half a million in paperwork just so they can be held accountable in court. How many cases does it take before it gets changed, remember parker vacum pumps. Sued and lost because their working pump were on a crashed airplane, notice I said working pumps, they were still working in the court room but 12 folks found them liable. As an IA I have limited my annuals to my own aircraft, a shame but I can’t afford the insurance or gamble with my families future.

  26. Robert Kurz says:

    Howdy would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using? I’m going to start my
    own blog in the near future but I’m having a difficult time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m
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    S Apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

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