Tag: Going Direct

10 Reasons To Be Excited About Flying Again

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With Oshkosh 2021 looming large, I’m spending this time focusing not on the inconceivably treacherous road we traveled these past 16 months to get here but instead reflecting on the good because my eyes have been opened to a number of truths about flying. Granted, some of these are things I long suspected but wasn’t entirely sure about. Others, however, are realizations that have shaken my core understandings about the nature of aviation. And, before you get worried, this is a politics-free zone. This is all about flying. Here goes! 

1. It’s a great time to become an airline pilot. 

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The Aviation Automation Creep Has Begun. Is It A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?

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It wasn’t long ago that I made my way to Olathe, Kansas, to go flying with Garmin on an airplane, a Piper M600, that could land itself in an emergency with no input from the pilot. None. The technology performed flawlessly. I watched.

One of my favorite games is to try to figure out what Garmin is up to. And lest you think they give me their roadmap years in advance, which I do know exists, by the way, I am not privy to their future plans. If Garmin has a blockbuster product coming out, I often learn about it a month or two in advance and, even then, under a strict embargo.

Garmin has pioneered automation in light GA, most notably with the introduction of extensive envelope-protection capabilities built into its autopilots. These include overspeed and underspeed protection, along with overbank control and others, all working in the background at all times and in a way that makes it transparent to the pilot unless it’s needed.

But when it rolled out Autoland in the M600, and soon thereafter in the Daher TBM 940 and the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet, in each case for emergency use only, it became clear to me that Garmin could, that moment, field an airplane that could land itself at any time, and do a first-rate job of it, from aeronautical decision making to the stick-and-rudder stuff. And forget about landing. The company could put together an airplane that would start itself, get required clearances, taxi, takeoff and complete the mission with the only input from the pilot being things like the desired destination and the number of passengers and bags. Would that person still really be a pilot? Good question. And would that person have to be trained as a pilot? Which is an even better question.

Garmin’s development of automation—Avidyne and Dynon are busy at work on it too, as are other avionics manufacturers—is about a long-term vision of aviation, and it is likely that the global aviation and consumer electronics giant is taking the long view, which is an interesting approach seeing that it already has the capability to build and field the electronics that would support fully automated flight.

Is a perceived reluctance by pilots to embrace automation that gives Garmin pause? I surely don’t know the answer, and I doubt Garmin would share such intel, but the question intrigues me. In terms of long-term strategic goals, a company like Garmin simply can’t ignore the possibility of a coming world of self-flying aircraft, whatever form they might take.  And the more you look out 20 or 30 years, the more likely it seems that automation will play an increasingly important role in light aviation, though to what degree remains to be seen.

And while pilots are rightly proud of their craftwork and the hundreds or thousands of hours it took to develop such skills, even pilots who avoid automation, or those who adopt it advisedly, will be sharing the skies with other “pilots” who might understand far less than we do about what the title means.

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Breaking News: Garmin Wins Robert J. Collier Trophy For Autoland

Video: Will Automation Replace Pilots? Expert Says Not Now, Not Ever

Has AirVenture Been Successful? Why Oshkosh 2021 Is A Mixed Bag Beyond Accounting

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It was last Sunday, and I had just gotten to the show grounds at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the big event, Oshkosh AirVenture 2021, the biggest air show on the planet. I shouldn’t have been exhausted, after a grueling trip from my home in Central Texas—a journey that was replete with mechanical issues that delayed me for a full day on two separate occasions—but I wasn’t. I was exhilarated. There I was at #OSH21, chatting with old friends at a product release party (though, to be honest, mostly just a party), not a mask in sight. It was heaven, with the appropriate backdrop of airplane noise. Happiness. 

And that was the general theme of the entire show, well, at least the first five days of it. The final two days are weird. Saturday feels more like, well, just an airshow than a fly-in, and Sunday is such a getaway day. Everybody is either in the process of packing up or thinking about it to distraction. My point being just…you can get a pretty good read on the show by Friday. 

And it’s been a GREAT show. The flying was spectacular, the show planes that EAA somehow wrangled for the event were spectacular… the Boeing 747-8, a behemoth! And military hardware to die for, which is the point with some of it! The classics area was mind blowing. How is it that every year it seems as though there are more and more beautiful 80-year-old airplanes hanging out under the elms in the most beautiful corner of an amazing site. Keep ’em coming, is all I can say. 

You could tell, too, just how delighted exhibitors were to be at AirVenture. Marketing and advertising and social media are all well and good, but there’s nothing that remotely rivals the power of face-to-face communication with your customers, who are often old friends, as well. It’s a family, this aviation thing that we do, and family reunions are not only good medicine; they are essential to keeping the heart ticking away. This year’s AirVenture got us all breathing again. 

But the weatherman dealt us all a blow on Wednesday night, when a humongous storm blew through the region. It was a storm that was packing hurricane-force winds and torrential rains, not to mention thunder and lightning. There was even a tornado warning for the Oshkosh area shortly after 10 p.m. on Wednesday, the first I ever remember in my 25-plus years coming to the show. 

So in advance of the monster convective storm, thousands of airplanes hightailed it out of Wittman Field to prevent what could have been an absolutely devastating direct hit. 

It didn’t happen, at least not at KOSH. Towns on either side of Oshkosh got walloped, but the planes and campers at Wittman were largely spared. It was nothing short of miraculous. What could have been a half billion-dollar disaster—I kid you not; just do the math—wound up being a mopping up exercise. Bullet dodged. 

The pilots who chose to get themselves and their planes out of Dodge did the right thing. It was a conservative call. As it turns out, they would have been fine, and so would their airplanes have been, but what they did was great aeronautical decision making. They took the conservative path. That’s the way safety calls work. They often keep you out of trouble that never materialized. It doesn’t mean that proactive steps were wrong. If anything, it proves the opposite. 

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At the same time, the mass exodus took its toll on the show. Walking the grounds this a.m., camera and mental notepad at the ready, I saw just how empty many of the parking areas were, when a few days ago they’d been jam packed, so much so that planes were tied down in a section of south parking that the folks there started referring to as “Fond du Lac,” which is a town bout 20 miles south of Oshkosh. It really did feel that way. By Friday a.m., all those folks could have moved north toward the airshow version of civilization if they’d wanted to. 

The loss of thousands of planes, and many thousands of people, pilots and their passengers, almost always family or close friends, had an impact. You could feel it. The show was still plenty busy, but not bursting at the seams. And everybody, me included, was hoping for a week of overflowing fun.

The other damper was a story that is even bigger than the really big stuff happening at AirVenture, and that is the virus, something that nobody here is talking about, and haven’t been either. The rise of the Delta variant of the coronavirus has in just the past week or so set us back tremendously in our national drive to get through this nightmare and make living our lives safe again. Because Delta is far more transmissible than the original variety of the virus, it gets around much more easily, and even people who are vaccinated can get COVID-19 and can get sick from it. Those who haven’t been vaccinated will get sick and will likely be hit harder by this variant. At AirVenture 2021, we all largely ignored this fact. 

And while EAA invested heavily in sanitization efforts, even going so far as to include the branding of the sanitation company they partnered with in working to keep the grounds safe, the virus, as we all know, is largely spread by airborne droplets, and with lots of people here and almost no one, me included for the most part, wearing a mask, people are going to get sick when they get home. I wish that weren’t so, but it’s hard to figure how it wouldn’t happen. 

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Like you, I’m tired of this whole coronavirus debacle. But being tired of it won’t make it go away. It is what it is, and that is a terrible scourge that we have not yet beaten. And while AirVenture 2021 was so good for the soul of aviation, and for my aviation soul in particular, things are not, as much as we might hope otherwise, back to normal. 

So, when I head back home in a couple of days, I will go with the states of hope and realism doing battle within my flying heart, and with the impossibly desperate hope that next year we really, truly hope-to-God will be beyond this thing and back to worrying about the FAA’s latest boneheaded move instead of some stupid virus that just refuses to go away.

Alaska Passenger Small Plane Suicide Attempt Sounded Worse Than It Was

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Last week an 18-year-old man was arrested after allegedly trying to crash the Cessna Caravan he was a passenger aboard. Local authorities took him into custody after the plane was landed safely at its destination, the airport in the small Alaska town of Aniak. No one was injured and there was no damage to the single-engine turboprop-powered plane.

The most common take on the story veered toward the sensationalistic. The idea was the usual trope, that the passenger was crazed and hellbent on crashing the plane and would have had he not been wrestled away from the controls by the pilot and passengers.

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FAA Adopts Pilot Record-Keeping Rule. Here’s Why It Happened And Why It’s Problematic.

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Over objections from pilots and the groups that represent them, the FAA has adopted a sweeping new rule creating a pilot record database. The 232-page rule will go into effect in 60 days after its publication, so around the end of July 2021. Within one year, companies affected by the new rule will need to start using the records database, and within two years, the FAA will require “complete historical record reporting,” though in this case, “complete” mercifully means “for the last seven years, or, since 2015,” by which point operators will need to have a complete historic record for every pilot they’ve employed since that time.

This database, to be maintained by the FAA, is called the Pilot Records Database (PRD), and it makes it both possible and required for operators to share records of the pilots they employ.

The rule would presumably wipe out labor agreements between pilots’ unions and their airlines that put limits on the kinds of data that operators keep (and share with other operators). 

What outfits are subject to the new rule? You might think it’s mainly the airlines, but you’d be wrong. It does include most air carriers but also encompasses business aircraft flight departments, air tour providers, shared ownership operators…along with any “entities conducting public aircraft operations” or “holding out to the public.” So far as we can figure, that means just about any kind of commercial fight operation, with a few noteworthy carve-outs. Flight schools would be exempted, as would the military, helicopter logging and similar operations, and agricultural spray plane operators. So, that’s a relief.

Still it’s a wide net, one that will catch up in its regulatory requirements many thousands of small fish who today have little or no legal requirement to maintain such databases. The FAA is said to be readying an advisory circular clarifying the rule and attempting to give answers to the thousands of questions that will soon arise from pilots and operators. We’re girding ourselves for the release of that document, which will presumably attempt to make sense of one of the most ill-advised rules in the FAA’s history.

But why did this rule even happen? What was the impetus to create such a sweeping new web of regulations? The answer is, it’s all about Colgan Air 3407, the Q400 on its way from Newark to Buffalo in 2009 that crashed after the crew failed to recover from an aerodynamic stall that they inadvertently entered. All 49 aboard the plane were killed, as was one person on the ground, when it crashed into a house in Clarence Center, New York, on the plane’s approach path to Buffalo. Thirteen years later, it is the most recent U.S. carrier crash with mass fatalities.

The NTSB’s statement of probable cause in its final report on the crash mostly called out issues related to the specific flight control issues, that is, the crew’s flying of the airplane leading to the stall and after it, all of which were shockingly poor and never should have happened.

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But there were also concerns raised over the crew’s presumed fatigued state, though the final report is noncommittal on that issue, as well as the captain’s poor performance on previous training sessions.

In its commentary on the new record-keeping rule, the FAA wrote,

“Additional safety issues the NTSB identified included deficiencies in the air carrier’s record-keeping system and its analysis of the flight crew’s qualifications and previous performance. Specifically, Colgan Air’s check airman stated that the captain had failed his initial proficiency check on the Saab 340 on October 15, 2007, received additional training, and passed his upgrade proficiency check on the next day; however, the company’s electronic records indicated that the second check was conducted 12 days after the failure. The NTSB deemed these discrepancies in the captain’s training records as noteworthy because the captain had demonstrated previous training difficulties during his tenure at Colgan Air.”

So, today, we have a rule that mandates that such poor performance be documented and recorded so that such events wouldn’t be lost as a pilot moves from one airline to the next.

It happens. Such was the case with Atlas Air 3591, a Boeing 767-300 that crashed while on approach to Houston (IAH) in 2019, killing all three aboard—the captain, first officer and a jump seat passenger who picked the wrong flight to deadhead on. In its final report, the NTSB found that a major factor in the crash, in addition to the first officer’s catastrophically bad flying, “…were systemic deficiencies in the aviation industry’s selection and performance measurement practices, which failed to address the first officer’s aptitude-related deficiencies and maladaptive stress response,” which were detailed in the report and is parroting what the NTSB said in its report on Colgan Air 3407, a crash from 10 years prior. The report makes clear that Atlas Air didn’t know and couldn’t have known about the poor performance of the pilot on previous training events, though how its own training could have missed such glaring deficiencies calls into question not only that company’s hiring practices but those of every operator who welcomes aboard a pilot who failed a checkride or got fired for something related to safe flying practices.

The rule is inherently anti-pilot, and that’s not to say that inept pilots shouldn’t be held accountable for their poor performance, but that many good pilots will surely be caught up in this new reporting system. We are familiar with a pilot who was busted on a commercial checkride early in his career for landing “six inches short” of the imaginary threshold in a low-wing airplane (which is of course impossible to determine by the naked eye) by an FAA examiner who had expressed that he was unhappy to have been asked by the flight training provider to do the checkride on a Sunday. Abuse of authority is a very real thing, and this rule will give such abusers the additional power to ensure that negative events, however specious, will follow a pilot around forever.

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Well, not literally forever. The rule will let operators skip over pilots who are known to be dead, as well as those who might still be alive but would be older than 99 years old, which will keep future generations safe from centenarian airline pilots who did poorly on a line check 70 years earlier.

The new reporting rule takes a system already heavily weighted against pilots and tilts that even further toward employers and regulators, not only giving the ability to share pilot data but requiring them to do so. And while the FAA went to some pains to try to limit what data can be shared, it admits in the rule that operators will have certain discretion. For instance, can and should a pilot who is fired for harassment of coworkers be cited on the record for those actions? The FAA says it’s up the employer, as such behavior can and often does have a negative effect on the safe conduct of a flight crew. The agency also made clear that it would not detail what infractions should get reported, instead leaving it to the operator because there are circumstances that would doubtless arise that would be report-worthy but not mentioned in a specific list.

And it has a point. If it were to say that pilots can be reported for A or B behavior, when C happens, it will be argued that C is exempt because it wasn’t mentioned. The flip side is that the regulation opens itself to the legal argument, and you can bet it’s coming, that it’s overly broad, allowing employers to cite pilots for any behavior they can reasonably argue can lead to poor crew performance. So, in effect, employers can report pilots for a vast number of potential infractions so long as it then argues that such actions were counter to safe ops.

But would an operator ever use that power in order to retaliate against a pilot who, for instance, called into question its safety management practices? It’s a rhetorical question. Of course, some would. In fact, it happens today, and the extent of this management behavior is unknown though probably greater than most suspect. And that kind of suppression of safety reporting and retribution against the reporter is by definition an anti-safety move. The new rule might not give such retaliatory moves carte blanche but it almost certainly allow them far wider latitude. 

We can expect lawsuits and arbitration actions by the many hundreds to follow the implementation of this rule, because reporting events that are in dispute, even if it’s mandated by the FAA (which it seems to be), will open reporters up to legal action, some, though surely not all of which, will be justified. And all of this new law and new requirements is based on one crash more than a decade ago in which 50 people were killed. And let’s maintain some perspective. One death is too many, but let’s put that loss of life up against a backdrop of 40,000 Americans killed every year in road accidents.

Let’s just hope that the FAA’s in its zeal to create a reporting system to catch bad pilots doesn’t adversely affect the very safety picture it says that the rule is trying to improve.

Going Direct: Should The Pandemic Change How We Look At Aviation’s Safety Record?

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A while ago, around 125,000 deaths ago, in fact, I wrote about whether the pandemic should make us reconsider aviation safety in light of the great death toll that Covid has wreaked upon the world, and the United States, in particular. After an entire year under the specter of a global pandemic, the answer, I believe, is clearer than ever.

Much of what we do in aviation is driven by safety concerns, to the point where we’re dealing with relatively small numbers—a few hundred fatalities a year. That’s not nothing, but it’s been hard for me lately to think of that as a huge number, a number that on its face is an unacceptably high price for us to pay for doing what pilots of small planes love to do. Are driven to do.

It’s been easy for us in aviation to wall off the truth that other causes of death in the United States also eclipse that we see in flying. Don’t get me wrong. On a per-mile basis, flying a small plane carries with it far greater risk than driving to the store in the family sedan.

A more apt comparison would be the fatality rate for so-called crotch rocket motorcycles, small, light, super high-performance bikes that according to the data represent around 10% of registered motorcycles. Despite this, they are involved in a quarter of all motorcycle fatalities. There’s no doubt that it’s a lot of fun. But there’s a price for that high-revving thrill. Every year these bikes account for around four times as many fatalities as light GA does. Are many of the fatalities associated with careless or reckless riding? Of course they are. If you want to improve your chances, you ride more cautiously, perhaps on bikes that have a better safety record. There is no difference between that calculous and that which we use in deciding that flying is worth the risk, while working to cut down on that risk in ways that still allow us to fly in the way we love.

Deaths from light aircraft crashes represent a small fraction compared with major causes. Highway accidents account for around 40,000 deaths on any given year. You’d think that 2020 would have been an improvement over previous years, because so many fewer people were traveling, but you’d be wrong. There were nearly 4,000 more deaths on our highways and byways in 2020. I’ll let you figure out why that was the case.

It goes beyond vehicles, too. There were nearly 50,000 deaths by suicide in 2019, and there were more than 38,000 gun-related deaths too. There are, of course, overlapping cases for all of these causes.

But all of these statistics pale in comparison to deaths from cancer and heart disease. Between those two, around 1.3 million Americans died in 2019. While some would have you believe that COVID deaths are a far smaller number than the figures quoted by the Centers for Disease Control, such is not the case. The number that demographers use is called excess mortality, and excess mortality in the United States during the pandemic was greater even than the number of COVID deaths being reported. How many are a byproduct of this scourge? No doubt, many of them.

The impact of the disease itself has been devastating. At the peak of infections and deaths this past winter in the United States, we were seeing 4,000 fatalities per day from complications from COVID-19. They are not quick deaths either. It can be a weeks-long, agonizing struggle for survival, and lots of people don’t make it. Over the course of a year in the United States, from early March of 2020 to early March of 2021, at least 525,000 people died of COVID-19 complications. Those are excess deaths, too, deaths that are over the numbers of people who would normally have been expected to die over a one-year period.

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So, the question is this: Do we need to think differently about the risks we undertake when we go flying? I think the answer is a resounding “no.”

Part of the joy of what we do is intimately connected not to the risk inherent in flying but in the physics involved in it. We fly at great speeds and come to sudden stops in usually unsurvivable ways. Can we mitigate these risks? Of course. The airlines have. Airline flying is safer than just about any activity there is. But it is done at great expense, with dozens of expensive, redundant systems, professionally trained crews of pilots and a high degree of scrutiny of both the medical fitness and pilot proficiency of those flight crewmembers.

Do we want that for light GA? Heavens, no. Not only would it price us all out of the game, but it would take a lot of the joy out of it, too.

We can, however, continue to make flying safer, though, as we have been for some time. And we can continue to insist on being the best pilots we can be, which means taking great care of our airplanes and of our readiness to fly them. The novel coronavirus pandemic has done a great deal of damage to the world and to our country. But it shouldn’t make us throw caution to the wind as we go about our flying lives. It should instead remind us to double down to protect those things in life that bring us joy, because without those things, what’s the point?

Going Direct: CDC Guidance For The Vaccinated Could Be Bad News For Aviation

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With airshow season coming up, it’s welcome news that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has published the eagerly awaited list of what it refers to as “recommendations” for how fully vaccinated people can go about their daily lives.

It’s mostly good news, and most of it, frankly, is just common-sense safety. Among other things, the CDC says, fully vaccinated people can, “…visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing” and “visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.”

The reason for this level of caution for people who are supposedly fully protected from Covid-19 is that experts don’t know how readily those who have been vaccinated might still be able to spread the virus to those who haven’t yet gotten their shot(s) in the arm. So, utilizing rule one for safety, they’re not assuming an unknown to be conveniently true just because it gets them to a better, more popular answer.

With this in mind, the CDC also advises people to, “…take precautions in public like wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing,” to avoiding, “…medium- and large-sized in-person gatherings. Like airshows, for example.

In general, the CDC advises that when interacting with non-vaccinated people, the vaccinated should continue to practice regular safety measures, such as wearing masks, keeping a safe physical distance from others, especially when visiting with unvaccinated people in genera,l but especially those who are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 or “who have an unvaccinated household member who is at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease.” Which underscores the advice against hanging out in crowds of people, since you have no way of knowing who’s at risk or lives with at-risk people.

Travel? Well, the CDC is suggesting we avoid non-essential travel, including airline travel, which is for the most part moot if you’re talking international travel, as restrictions persist. For domestic travel, its reasons aren’t as clear. One suspects it might be concerned that travel in general is bad during pandemics, but that ignores the obvious fact that travel is now, if not as safe as it used to be, at least much safer than it was even a couple of months ago.

So, it’s bad news in the short term for aviation if people follow the guidelines, which we don’t expect them to start doing any time soon either in aviation or elsewhere. The problem is, if they don’t follow previous and current guidelines, the news could be even worse.

And remember, this isn’t about how non-vaccinated people should conduct themselves. It’s only for fully vaccinated folks. Every existing safety measure before the new CDC guidance for vaccinated people is still in force.)

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But in terms of the vaccinated, how big a number are we talking about? It’s getting up there. As of the latest figures we can get, around 25% of United States residents have gotten at least partially vaccinated, and around 12% have gotten fully vaccinated—as you probably know, most of those people who were initially vaccinated with the first of two-dose vaccines need to wait a few weeks to get their second shot. In the case of the Moderna vaccine, the wait is four weeks between shots. So, expect those figures to balloon over the next couple of weeks as second shots are put into waiting arms around the country.

Getting vaccinated is a good thing for public life getting back to something resembling normal. Ultimately, if we’re successful in eradicating the virus, it will mean a near-total resumption of business and pleasure as usual. Again, that’s if we get rid of it entirely. 

How likely is that? At this point, it’s hard to be too optimistic. There remains a vocal and possibly entrenched minority of people who are saying “no” to the coronavirus vaccine for one of a number of different reasons. Unfortunately, it’s a big enough minority that experts fear without cutting that number substantially, it will be hard to get to a level of herd immunity, to the point that anything beyond isolated outbreaks are unlikely.

In aviation, how do our chances look? It’s hard to say. No statistics exist for how many pilots of any certification level have been vaccinated, fully or not, and it’s nearly impossible to hazard a good guess. Aviators are older than the wider population, so one would assume that pilots would be vaccinated earlier, as age is one of the primary risk factors with getting a severe case of COVID-19.

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On the other hand, pilots skew to the conservative side of the political coin, and conservatives, experts say, are far less likely to get the vaccinations than others, though they’re certainly not unique in this regard.

My second shot of the Dolly Parton (Moderna) vaccine is at the end of the month. I thought about traveling to Sun ’n Fun for the show, though I wouldn’t be able to be there at the start, as you need to wait two full weeks after that second shot to get the benefits. But after the passing of longtime AOPA journalist (and personal friend) Mike Collins the other week, along with the serious COVID illness of another good friend, who was hospitalized for weeks and came close to dying, as well, it seems too soon, and I won’t be going after all.

That will change before long, however, that is, unless we get some really bad news on the virus front in the next few months, as could happen if, for instance, a new variant goes rogue. But if things go as expected, Oshkosh in late July should be a whole different story.

And I know it’s a little early, but I’m already packing. And so pleased at the thought of seeing so many good friends there. That happiness, however, is tempered by the thought that there are a few friends I won’t be seeing there this year, or any year afterward. That’s the legacy of this terrible disease, a legacy that those of us who are lucky enough to survive it should never and will never forget.

Going Direct: Supersonic Noise of The Public Relations Kind

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The announcement earlier this week that bizjet lift supplier NetJets had bought 20 of Aerion’s Supersonic AS2 SSBBJ (supersonic business jet) seems to have changed the shape of business aviation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve seen countless big deals over the years for fleet purchases by companies like NetJets for large numbers of new aircraft. Those deals are often given a dollar value, let’s say, $2.1 billion dollars. The press conferences and releases are always careful to say it like this, that the deal is “valued at” a certain amount of money. What does this mean? Typically, it means that if you took a deal for 50 aircraft that retail for $35 million apiece, that deal might be valued at $1.75 billion, or more, depending on what kinds of extras, like service or warranties are training are included. That final number, however, is sheer fantasy. First off, big companies making fleet deals don’t pay retail, for obvious reasons. With occasional exceptions for highly sought-after planes, the customer in a fleet deal has the majority of the power. I’d argue that this is how it should be.

What, then, is the real number? I have no idea. Almost no one does, because those numbers are never shared… I went back and forth on saying “almost never,” but I stuck with simply never. If other, single-aircraft customers were to know how much of a discount the fleet buyers got, well, that would give them a huge negotiating edge, though the savviest of them likely have some idea.

So that’s all context for the big announcement of the 20 supersonic business jet deal. Here’s some more context.

Nobody has any idea when or even if the Aerion SSBJ will start being delivered to customers, a phase that is of critical importance to life providers like NetJets. We don’t know when that will happen for a couple of very good reasons. First, the airplane has never flown, and that’s for another very good reason. It doesn’t yet exist. It’s coming along, we’re told, but in time for the targe first-delivery date of 2025? I am literally LOL here at the thought.

There not only isn’t a supersonic bizjet to begin flight trials, there’s not even much in the way of regulatory know how on the subject, at least on this side of the Atlantic. The FAA has pushed through some relaxed rules on making booms while test flying, but I’d have argued that there was no hurry to do so. I would love to be proven wrong here, but four years is beyond light speed by aircraft certification standards. And there’s not even a completed, yet alone a flying supersonic anything yet. Again, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong if I wind up being wrong, which I’m not worried about because I won’t be.

So, why then did NetJets spend oodles of dough on a big order of supersonic bizjets? Because they didn’t. There wasn’t even the pretense of the “deal valued at” language. It was just an agreement in theory, most likely a memorandum of understanding. So the amount of money involved in such a deal? I’ve known of cases where the amount was $1. Not one-million dollars… one dollar.

So what’s the point? Advertising, is my best guess. Getting ink splashed about your business is usually a pretty expensive undertaking. In this case, it might have cost as little as a dollar. Indeed, if the expenditures were more than that, they might have over budgeted.

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Do I think that supersonic business jets are a possibility? I do. There are huge obstacles to their adoption, however, but perhaps that’s a discussion for a later time, when there is even one such aircraft ready to fly.

Going Direct: 777 Engine Failure Was Not Boeing’s Bad. And Other Lies.

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Screen Shot 2021 02 23 at 2.38.22 PM 640x429 - Going Direct: 777 Engine Failure Was Not Boeing’s Bad. And Other Lies.
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It’s been a bad stretch of years for Boeing, what with the pandemic slowdown in air travel, the entire 737 MAX debacle, the resultant black eye the company got over its terribly flawed actions in certificating and marketing the MAX, and I’m probably forgetting a few other things. So when a United Airlines 777’s right engine ate itself up, a failure known as an “uncontained engine failure,” Boeing fan boys, even ones who should know better, made a valiant effort to shield the company from any blame for the incident. And the argument some are making is disturbing, irresponsible and flat-out incorrect—which, of course, was the case with some of their same arguments in the wake of the two 737 MAX catastrophes.

What they’re saying about United Airlines Flight 328 is that it’s not Boeing’s fault. Not in any way. The argument is that since the engine was manufactured by a contractor, Pratt & Whitney, the blame should fall on them and not Boeing. They were blameless!

And there is some truth to it, but not much. And even given that grain of truth, the remainder of the story is a veritable beach full of reasons that support the common sense notion that Boeing bears responsibility.

Their argument is temptingly reductivist. Boeing simply took the part, in this case a giant engine, out of the big box it came from and bolted it onto the wing and that was that. If the engine fails, not Boeing’s fault. They were the victim of a contractor’s shoddy work.

This is a juvenile and insulting argument in two major respects. First, Boeing, as the manufacturer of record of the airplane known as the 777-200, has a moral and legal responsibility for the performance of the plane. If Ford had subcontracted out the gas tank in its Pinto subcompact model back in the 1970s, would the nameplate maker have borne no responsibility for the explosions that resulted in hundreds of cases when the cars were struck from behind? It’s a silly question. Just about every complex vehicle sold in the world today is outfitted with parts from dozens or hundreds of various subcontractors. It’s the aircraft “maker” that studies, specs and procures the parts they assemble into a final product.

In the case of aircraft, they also have to show compliance of the parts with both type and production certification standards, proving that the part is designed properly and that it’s manufactured accurately and reliably. Not only that, but once it’s done all that, the manufacturer has to mate the part with other components on the aircraft. In the case of an aircraft engine, that means integrating the giant powerplant with fuel, hydraulic, structural, fire suppression and sensor suite systems. Those are all critical jobs not of the part supplier but of the manufacturer.

It’s a fatuous argument in another respect, as well. An aircraft manufacturer is also primarily responsible for determining the continuous airworthiness of the plane, under the applicable regulations, of course. So even after it slaps the engine onto the wing (as if), it has to figure out how to keep that engine healthy and spot incipient issues, like fatigue cracking that can destroy a fan blade and take the rest of the engine with it, even if the subcontractor works hand in hand with the manufacturer. That is precisely what the NTSB and FAA are looking into right now. Were Boeing and Pratt & Whitney’s maintenance procedures, including diagnostics, implemented properly, and if they were, were they sufficient?

One thing is certain. In the case of UAL 328, nobody spotted a fan blade that was ready to give up the ghost. That is not entirely Boeing’s fault, true, but as the manufacturer of record, it has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that its products are safe and stay that way, regardless of who made the part or system in question.

The buck stops with Boeing. That doesn’t mean there might not be blame to spread around to others. There very well might be. But naming subcontractors in no way insulates Boeing from its responsibilities. That is not only the way it is; that is the way it should be and must be.

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Going Direct: Terrafugia’s “Flying Car” Versus Reality. Reality Wins.

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Screen Shot 2021 02 18 at 1.18.33 PM - Going Direct: Terrafugia’s “Flying Car” Versus Reality. Reality Wins.
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I’ll get this out of the way: The whole idea of a flying car is really dumb. I don’t say that because I’m some kind of luddite. The opposite is true. I’m a longtime champion of new ideas and innovative aviation technologies. Here’s why I believe the very concept of a flying car is, at its very core, fatally flawed—and why there hasn’t been one for 70 years. It’s not a quirk of the marketplace. It’s because the very concept is unworkable, and the end product would be, if not a nightmare, then at least a near useless conveyance.

I get it. The appeal is obvious. Jetsons and space-themed visions of a future world with cars spreading their wings and beating the freeway crowds on the owner’s way to happiness. That pathway is pure fantasy.

The fact is, the two jobs—car and plane—do not go well together. It’s not impossible to build a plane that can also be used in theory as a car. Any old Cessna 182 can do that., though its wingspan would make grabbing burgers at the drive-up window problematic, and its pedestrian chopping nose would make it less than a crowd favorite.

Planes that can be both things are, at their core, huge compromises on both sides of the design sheet, so much so that it is practically impossible to come up with a satisfying solution, and I only say “practically” impossible because I like to leave a window of hope cracked just a little at all times.

And think about this. When pilots indulge in one of their favorite pastimes, perusing used airplane ads, smart ones at first quickly look at two things—total time on the airframe and engine. With the Terrafugia, those total times would have to include driving, and roadways are far less forgiving than the silky-smooth airways and paved runways that airplanes are generally treated to. What pilot in their right mind would want to do that to their investment?

So things have gone predictably for Terrafugia, and its plane—a two-seater called the Transition—is in the final throes. I will admit that the company lasted about a dozen years longer than I thought it would. Along the way they’ve taken more than a hundred deposits (from people who I seriously doubt will ever get a plane) and had investment from industry and defense along the way in the many millions of dollars. In recent years, the ownership changed hands, and shortly thereafter leadership did a shuffle, as well, with founder Carl Dietrich stepping aside.

Despite all this, the Transition recently got the FAA’s okay—again, it’s not certification—for the plane to be a plane under the Special LSA segment of the LSA regulations, which allows the company to deliver ready-to-fly aircraft. Not ready-to-fly-and-drive flying cars, but ready-to-fly aircraft that the company had developed as a flying car. So, in theory at least, it was halfway there, and it only took a decade and a half.  

But it was not to be, at least in this incarnation. After 15 years and untold millions of dollars of investment, the company last week laid off most of its workforce in preparation for a next step that one can only speculate will not be a crowning moment.

Terrafugia started up 15 years ago, and their leadership across the board came to the project with impressive credentials—the place was chock-a-block with MIT grads. Which puzzled me to no end. I didn’t think I was missing something. I really didn’t. I knew that they were. The thing wasn’t going to work. There was just no way.

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It didn’t take long for them to figure that out. The thing—it is one of the ugliest vehicles I’ve ever seen—first flew in 2012, and if you can find video of that flight, please pay attention to how well it doesn’t fly. I was never offered the chance to fly it—to my knowledge, no journalist was—but if I had been, I’d have declined before I’d read through the first sentence of the invite. I’ll leave the aerodynamics arguments up to others, but all you need to do is look the tail of the aircraft to see how much design compromised its execution. So, no thank you then, and no thank you now.

Here’s why flying cars are stupid. First, it’s not easy to design a great aircraft when all it’s supposed to be is an aircraft. Weight versus power versus weight again is the aircraft designer’s constant, lifetime companion. And when you need to make an airplane that is also a car? Good luck. Terrafugia figured out pretty early on that Part 23 certification, which is a high bar even for just airplanes, was not going to work, so it decided to go the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). As you might know, LSA are not really FAA certificated. The certification standards are determined using industry consensus standards, though manufacturers do need to stick to the FAA’s performance and weight requirements.

In this case, Terrafugia got around 450 pounds of extra weight, an exemption from the FAA, granted for some reason that I have yet to understand, and still, it couldn’t get it done.

I hate to see any company fail. And I especially hate to see customers lose deposit money. But the Transition was never going to work, and if what remains of the company is working toward Act II, then they do so in stark defiance of the laws of physics, economics and common sense.

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