23 June 2010

YOW Volunteer Airport Watcher Fired

For seven years Stephanie Nicholds was a volunteer with the CYOW Airport Watch, but not anymore.

That group was originally made up of "plane spotters", the people who hang around airport fences watching airliners and noting registrations. After 911 the airport authority had an inclination to kick them all off the airport as a "security risk", but cooler heads prevailed and the local airport police convinced the airport authority that this group of people, who like hanging around fences with binoculars, could be a great resource for keeping an eye on things and improving security. So they got organized and the plane spotters got some identifying car door stickers, some hats and a phone number to call if they saw anything suspicious. Everybody won, except perhaps potential terrorists looking to sneak onto the airport. So far so good.

The fly in the ointment has been that Airport Watch chair Nelson Plamondon has had problems with Airport Watchers in the past saying uninformed things to the press. You see the problem is that when something goes wrong on the airport there is often an Airport Watcher on hand to see it. They become the only source for eyewitness information for the press. Plamondon's policy is that Airport Watchers should not make statements to the press. That is what got Stephanie Nicholds fired as a volunteer Airport Watcher this week.

Stephanie Nicholds just happened to be on hand on Wednesday 16 June 2010 when a United Airlines Express Embraer 145 went 500 feet (150 metres) off the end of the runway on landing and ended up in a ditch. The runway was wet and so when the press cornered her Nicholds said that the plane "was hydroplaning down the runway, and all of a sudden the airplane just ditched into the grass."

The Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority accused Nicholds of a "serious breach" of the rules. It was the airport authority who passed the problem onto Plamondon for "corrective action."

Plamondon indicated that ever since a similar incident two years ago volunteers have been warned not to speak to the media, something he has been "constantly reminding" them of ever since.

For her part Nicholds thinks everyone has overreacted and stated to CBC: "I think they made a big mistake taking me off the watch. I just hope they can reconsider."

For many aviation and legal people this is probably an "open and shut" situation. Uninformed witnesses shouldn't be telling the press what happened in an aircraft accident, that is the Transportation Safety Board's job. Many posters on CBC.ca see this as a human rights issue, however, that the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, especially when this person was not even an employee, but just a volunteer.

Some of the most-agreed comments:

"what's to prevent her, as a citizen of a free country with supposedly free speech, from standing outside the airport perimeter and continuing to report what she sees, to the media, the aviation authorities, or whoever else she wants to speak to?"

"I can't find any clue, where the authority finds "serious breach" ? Stephanie expressed to the media what she witnessed, there is nothing hidden. This is ridiculous !"

"Yes you should never talk to the media until the powers that be get a chance to put a spin of all sorts on whatever happens. That way the powers can really confuse the issue and make lots of money trying to unravel the mess they created."

Perhaps the point here is really that if the plane was hydroplaning then the airport might be liable for not designing or maintaining the runway better to prevent the standing water hydroplaning requires. Nicholds may have helped make a court case against the airport authority that she volunteers for. That is except for one detail - she didn't see the aircraft hydroplaning, that happens between the tire and the runway. She did see the aircraft go off the end of the runway, but hydroplaning is a conclusion that will have to be determined or refuted by the tire and skid mark evidence and probably the Flight Data Recorder as well. Hydroplaning isn't an observation that can be made by an untrained witness outside the fence hundreds of yards away.

What do you think - should airport volunteers be allowed to exercise freedom of speech to speak to the press, even on subjects they are uninformed about or should they have to agree to keep quiet to volunteer there?

CBC article: Airport volunteer fired for talking to press

Aviation Going To The Dogs?

I just received an e-mail today from Bob McDonald of COPA Flight 124 Cobden. Bob distributed it far and wide:

"I'm sorry but this is a funny page.... I love my dog but the indignity of
this stuff would make her bite airplanes ;>)
I honestly never knew they made this stuff..I assumed owners custom made it for their pets."

The page he is referring to is Aircraft Spruce's canine aviation products page which as you can see includes doggy hearing protectors, bark bags (don't ask), bandanas, and even a bumper sticker that says "Dog is my Co-pilot".

There is a doggy oxygen mask for which the description says "Previously, pet owners who want to fly at altitude with their canine family members have had few choices. This has all changed thanks to AEROX who have developed an aviation based supplemental oxygen system for pets. An estimated 60 million households have pets and many of those households fly and own aircraft."

Bob thinks it is funny because his dog wouldn't put up with it. I think it just shows that many people treat their dogs better than they treat other people.

Is this controversial, silly or something else?

18 June 2010

Avgas In Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Recent news from the world of avgas has not been good and I believe that the parties involved have collectively painted themselves into a corner here. Let me explain:

This all started because the US Environmental Protection Agency is under pressure to get the tetra-ethyl lead out of aviation fuel. There is no doubt this has to happen as there is ample evidence that lead is a neurotoxin and its presence in avgas is causing measurable brain damage in children. It has to go away and soon and the EPA is going to make it go away soon, too. The debate is over what to replace it with.

Teledyne Continental Motors was concerned that no one was stepping up to the plate to act as a leader in this problem, so they have made a decision to go with 94UL fuel. 94UL is essentially 100LL with the lead removed. It can be produced today very easily and for probably about the same price as 100LL. The only problem is that while about 80% of the existing engines out there can run on it, that leaves about 20% that can't. 94UL would be great for the engines that were designed for the old 80-87 avgas as the lead in 100LL is hard on them and they don't need the octane. Continental's response to the 20% of owners of aircraft that can't use 94UL is that there will be kits to lower compression ratios to continue to use existing engines, but probably with lower gross weights to compensate. Owners will also be able to upgrade to larger engines, for instance trading in an old Continental O-470 for a Continental O-520 to maintain horsepower.

Textron Lycoming has responded by rejecting 94UL and betting on 100 unleaded instead. One form of 100 unleaded is G100UL which is being developed by General Aviation Modifications and is intended to be a new fuel developed from existing refinery products that will replace the lead with other more exotic, but safer, compounds. Some aircraft type clubs, representing high-powered engine aircraft owners, including the American Bonanza Society, the Malibu Mirage Owners and Pilots Association and the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association have formed the Green 100 Octane Coalition to advocate for a 100 octane solution over 94UL as they believe that anything less will ground their aircraft. The downside of G100UL is that right now it looks like it will cost quite a bit more at the pumps than 94UL would or than 100LL currently does, perhaps double. This fuel would be usable by all present piston aircraft.

There are also some advocates who say "why not make both 94UL and 100UL?"

Unfortunately I think all of these approaches are dead ends.

Lycoming has a good point in its arguments against 94UL, indicating that the loss of power with 94 octane fuel will severely limit the solutions for more powerful aircraft. Lycoming's General Manager Michael Kraft stated in June 2010 that 94UL would be a mistake that could cost the aviation industry billions. The aircraft type clubs note that while the aircraft that need 100 octane are only 20% of the fleet, they buy 80% of the avgas and that if they are sacrificed that the remaining fuel sales will not be enough to keep the airports open and that the result will be a collapse of general aviation as not economically sustainable.

The main problem with G100UL is the cost. 100LL avgas is currently about $1.30 per litre in the Ottawa area. Look for G100UL to start out at about double that and go up from there as the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the global flat production of oil in the face of increasing demand bring on more high gas prices. In 2008 the US price of avgas hit about $7 per gallon and it seriously curtailed flying at that price. I think that an initial price of about $10 per US gallon is a non-starter for G100UL, but it is likely to cost about that at first and only go up from there. Those kind of prices will seriously hurt general aviation as quickly as the 94UL solution will. That makes neither a good answer to the lead dilemma.

The solution of "why not make both?" is also a non-starter. Airports are today equipped with just one avgas tank. Stocking two grades of avgas would require a huge investment in fuel tanks and pumps and that is just not going to happen. The other side of the coin is that avgas is essentially a very niche market item, the refiners are not going to want to make and distribute more than one kind.

This entire leaded fuel issue has been completely ignored by the aviation industry for more than twenty years, as they were all hoping it would just go away. It hasn't gone away and now the regulators are forcing change in a hurry when long-term planning should have been done by the aviation industry decades ago. Rather than letting the engine manufacturers fight over this issue, we need a single forum where the pilot groups, type clubs, engine and airframe makers can all get together with the regulators, including TC, the FAA and ASTM who control the fuel specs, and work out a solution that won't exclude lots of aircraft and drive people out of flying and also won't greatly increase costs and also drive people out of flying.

09 June 2010

Why Am I hearing so much weak radio work?


“ABC Downwind 27 full stop.” (Ident changed to protect the pilot)

That’s the whole call! It was made by a pilot in the circuit at Rockcliffe Airport a week and half ago. In fact, this pilot made several calls on Rockcliffe’s ATF and never once mentioned that he was at Rockcliffe Airport. There aren’t many airports in the area using 123.5 MHz.

While this guy was circuiting Rockcliffe another pilot was arriving. The guy arriving was calling “Smith Falls Traffic...” Ironically the first guy corrected the second pilot, telling him he was at Rockcliffe not Smith Falls.

Another time there was a student and instructor doing circuits in a Cessna 150. As they were on their take-off role off runway 09 another pilot 3 miles east called saying he intended to join straight in to the downwind for zero nine. As the 150 climbed out he called he arriving pilot and informed him that he believed there would be a conflict if he continued straight in to downwind. As it happened there was no conflict as the arriving pilot was well ahead of the 150 in the circuit.

It sounded to me like the 150 pilot was telling the arriving pilot that he was not allowed to join the circuit straight in on the downwind leg. The CARs don’t support this view, but they do require arrivals to avoid traffic already in the circuit. Still I believe the student and instructor could just as easily extended their climb off zero nine to accommodate the arrival which they stated they saw. In fact, that is what I likely would have done. Unless I am significantly faster, my preference is to have traffic ahead of me where I can see and avoid it.

Finally the C150 pilot, I’m guessing the student, spoke so quickly that he mumbled all the words together so they became incomprehensible. In three or four circuits he always did a full stop, a 180 and back tracked to the button, but I never understood their intention to do that once. I would not have wanted to follow them in the circuit.