A Ball of Blue

The United Kingdom’s air traffic control entity, NATS, recently published the third in a series of computer-generated videos depicting a typical day’s traffic in the skies controlled by the National Air Traffic Service.

The first two, Europe 24 and North Atlantic Skies, were impressive enough. But this one, which focuses on air traffic over the British Isles, is of particular interest because I’ve flow in and out of the London area on many occasions. I can imagine myself as one of those tiny dots (“which one am I”?), zipping around the skies of southern England like a 35-ton firefly or launching westward toward America in the manner of a sleek metal bullet being fired across a placid lake.

This clip, entitled “UK 24″, is also worth watching because it breaks down the traffic by type: military, commercial, helicopter, light GA, and so on. After watching the video a few times, I was struck by the paltry ratio of general aviation to airline activity — the polar opposite of what we’ve traditionally seen in the States. Perhaps that’s because the airplanes operating without ATC services are not modeled in this video. Either way, it’s a sad (and unintended, I’m sure) commentary on the state of grass roots general aviation in Europe.

I wonder if the FAA provides a similar visualization of flights over the continental U.S. It would certainly be an interesting comparison. I imagine it would make a dramatic statement about the size and scope of traffic in the national airspace system. NATS controls an average of 6,000 flights per day in U.K. airspace. According to the FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System, the U.S. sees ten times as many flights over the same period. And that doesn’t include non-participating VFR targets which, unlike our British cousins, outnumber IFR operations by several orders of magnitude.

A visualization of all American air traffic would probably be so overwhelming that portions of the map near major metropolitan areas would be nothing but a vibrant ball of blue. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

Who’s the Best?

topgun

You probably remember that tongue-in-cheek scene from Top Gun where Tom Cruise scans a briefing room full of hot-shot pilots during his first day at the famous Naval Fighter Weapons School and wonders “who the best is”. Top Gun was a fictional tale, of course… but I know the real-life answer to Maverick’s question. I’ve met the best aviation has to offer, and their names most certainly do not occupy a plaque in the ladies room.

They’re called “volunteers”, and our community is filled with them. Pilots may comprise only 0.12% of America’s 319 million citizens, but they have a big impact not only on that population, but the rest of the planet as well. This list of aviation charities should give you an idea of just how thoroughly the spirit of volunteerism is ingrained in the world of general aviation:

  • Air Care Alliance
  • Air Charity Network
  • Challenge Air for Kids & Friends
  • Children’s Flight of Hope
  • Civil Air Patrol
  • Corporate Angel Network
  • Emergency Volunteer Air Corps
  • Flying Samaritans
  • LifeLine Pilots
  • LIGA International
  • LightHawk
  • The Flying Doctors
  • Mercy Medical Airlift
  • Miracle Flights for Kids
  • Northwoods AirLifeLine
  • Orbis
  • Pilots-n-Paws
  • SouthWings
  • Volunteer Pilots Association
  • Veterans Airlift Command
  • Wings of Hope
  • Wings of Mercy
  • Young Eagles

This isn’t a complete listing by any stretch of the imagination. You’ll find tens of thousands of volunteers laboring at non-profit groups dedicated to preserving and flying old aircraft, restoring historic airplanes, promoting aviation, funding flight training, and more. Even the organizations that don’t fall under the “charity” umbrella were often founded by and run on the effort of unpaid volunteers who do their thing out of sheer love. One such example would be the International Aerobatic Club. Aerobatic contests would be impossible without the selfless donation of time and effort by volunteers to man the entire contest staff (which is sometimes as large as the competitor list itself).

I’ve noticed that the giving goes beyond aviation. Most of the folks I know from the flying world donate their time and money to charitable causes that have no connection to it. I probably do less than most people, but my wife and I donate to the Hoag Foundation. Don’t let the funny name fool you — they were incredibly helpful when she had needed emergency surgery at a time when we were both a bit low on the income scale. Our insurance didn’t cover much because of a huge deductible and Hoag simply waived the rest of the bill. Amazing.

Hoag is also the best hospital I’ve ever seen both in terms of the physical plant and the care provided by the staff. I remember the surgeon coming in on his day off just to check on her and ensure we had his personal cell number in case any questions or concerns arose, regardless of the time of day. The hospital has valet parking, and a cafeteria that feels more like an upscale restaurant.

On the flying front, I logged quite a few hours for Angel Flight when I had a four-place airplane. Nowadays I’m more into the aerobatic & experimental world, which they don’t have much use for. If I had an appropriate airplane I’d be back in a heartbeat, though. It’s so rewarding!

As much as I dump on the airlines for the difficult lifestyle so many of it’s pilots must endure, the majors are quite generous with Angel Flight. A tremendous number of in-need passengers travel on airlines, and that only happens because of the company’s kindness. I don’t know if this is still true, but at one time the majority of Angel Flight’s beneficiaries got from point A to point B on an airliner.

Young Eagles volunteers contribute their time, money, and aircraft in order to give kids a chance to see what aviation is all about.

Young Eagles volunteers contribute their time, money, and aircraft in order to give kids a chance to see what aviation is all about.

Each of us gives in our own way. I still instruct, and plan to continue doing that. It’s important. Experienced instructors are vital, and it’s getting hard to find local CFIs who meet specific needs. Instrument instruction in a tailwheel, for example. Experimental transition training. Or formation flying. I also try to mentor upcoming pilots as they work their way through the morass of certificates and ratings. It’s tough out there today with the high cost of flying and questionable career prospects for the next generation of professional pilots. They need all the help they can get.

One final way I give back is by not charging other CFIs for my time. When I got started as an instructor, I was at a flight school where they had a dozen different types of airplanes, and I had to get checked out on my own dime in each of them. Almost all the instructors comped their time, and that’s something I’ve always remembered and tried to pass on as both a professional courtesy and an acknowledgement that while instructing doesn’t pay very well, their services are critically important to a healthy GA community.

So how do you give back? That’s the topic for the Blogging in Formation group this month. And true to form, I notice that our ensemble has a high ratio of volunteers. I’m sure the team would agree that it’s one of the most rewarding parts of what’s already been a very blessed career. Doesn’t helping others leave you feeling like you get far more than you’ve given? Aviation is like that — and so is the heart of a volunteer.

Liability: The Price We Pay

courtroom

As large as the aviation industry looks to those on the outside, once you’re on the other side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a very small world. One of the big challenges facing that world has been from product liability issues.

The $100 screw. The $9.00 gallon of fuel. The $5,000 part that costs $50 at a local hardware store. We’ve all seen it. I recall the day a friend told me the seat back for my Pitts S-2B, which is literally a small flat piece of ordinary plywood, cost something like $600. I’m not averse to parts manufacturers turning a profit, but that left my mouth hanging open. My friend? He just shrugged and walked away, as though this was ordinary and normal. The saddest part is that I realized he was right. It is.

Liability concerns are a major expense and motivator for many industries. That’s why Superman costumes come with warnings that “the cape does not enable the wearer to fly”, Zippo cautions users not to ignite the lighter in your face, and irons are sold with tags advising against ironing clothes while they’re being worn. But for general aviation, this sort of thing is dragging the lot of us down as surely as a cement block tossed into the murky waters of the East River.

The classic example of this phenomenon can be seen in the high cost for new products like airplanes. Look at the sharp rise in the price of a new Skyhawk over the past thirty years. The first one was built in 1955, so the research and development costs for this model must have been recouped decades ago. A new Bonanza is a cool million. Low production volumes and high liability costs — a chicken and egg pair if there ever was one — are prime culprits for that inflation.

In fact, for about a decade, the general aviation industry essentially stopped producing new piston airplanes. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, product liability was such that nearly every major OEM exited the business. The insurance costs rose, the manufacturers had no choice but to pass that on to the consumer, who was summarily priced out of the market. Sales fell, per-unit liability costs rose further, and the cycle spiraled downward until even those companies which still had an operating production line were only turning out a handful of airplanes per year.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 helped somewhat. Aircraft manufacturers started producing planes again. The Cirrus, DiamondStar, Columbia, and other such advanced aircraft were brought to market. New avionics systems were developed. But the liability problem never went away. Frivolous lawsuits still abound, grinding away at our diminished world like a wood chipper consuming a sturdy log. Manufacturers have been sued for things as idiotic as not telling a pilot that the engine wouldn’t operate without fuel. I don’t have to tell you how this lunacy looks to people from other countries, do I?

I often wonder, what would an aircraft like the RV-6 cost if it was certified? You can buy one for as little as $45,000 today. Speaking of Amateur-Built aircraft, liability is one of the primary reasons advancements such as electronic ignition proliferate in the E-AB world when they’re almost unheard of in aircraft with a standard airworthiness certificate.

Mike Busch has penned many articles about the ways liability concerns drive decisions in the maintenance business. The result? Lower efficiency, higher cost, and at times even a decrease in the level of safety that is supposedly paramount. But it goes beyond that. Many products which would otherwise be brought to market are not because liability issues tilt the scale away from taking that risk in the first place.

Even proven, well-established products are sometimes lost to this phenomenon. Seven years ago, the largest manufacturer of aircraft carburetors, Precision Airmotive, abruptly decided to stop making, selling, and supporting them. In a letter to customers on their web site, they wrote:

Precision Airmotive LLC has discontinued sales of all float carburetors and component parts as of November 1, 2007. This unfortunate situation is a result of our inability to obtain product liability insurance for the product line. Precision Airmotive LLC and its 43 employees currently manufacture and support the float carburetors used in nearly all carbureted general aviation aircraft flying today. Precision has been the manufacturers of these carburetors since 1990. These FAA-approved carburetors were designed as early as the 1930s and continue to fly over a million flight hours a year. After decades of service, the reliability of these carburetors speaks for itself.

Nonetheless, Precision has seen its liability insurance premiums rise dramatically, to the point that the premium now exceeds the total sales dollars for this entire product line. In the past, we have absorbed that cost, with the hope that the aviation industry as a whole would be able to help address this issue faced by Precision Airmotive, as well as many other small aviation companies. Our efforts have been unsuccessful.

This year, despite the decades of reliable service and despite the design approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, Precision Airmotive has been unable to obtain product liability insurance for the carburetor product line. While we firmly believe that the product is safe, as does the FAA, and well-supported by dedicated people both at Precision and at our independent product support centers, unfortunately the litigation costs for defending the carburetor in court are unsustainable for a small business such as Precision.

Even if you don’t own an airplane, you’ve probably noticed that aircraft rental is prohibitively difficult and expensive. Companies like OpenAirplane are trying to make a dent in this formidable problem, but many aircraft types simply cannot be rented at all for solo flight anymore. Seaplanes, aerobatic aircraft, twins, turbines, and many other types might as well not exist unless you have the cash to buy them outright. And those that are still rented require extensive checkouts, form filling, and a large expenditure of time, money and energy. Why? To check every possible box off when it comes to liability. The manager of one FBO here in Southern California told me in no uncertain terms that it wouldn’t matter if Bob Hoover himself walked through the door, he wouldn’t get one iota of consideration in that regard. Does that sound right to you?

There’s an obvious answer here. If you’re thinking tort reform, you’re only half-right. Suing manufacturers for accidents that are clearly not their fault simply because the plaintiff knows they’ll settle is only ensuring the next generation won’t be able to fly. The real solution is to — in the words of a pilot I know — put on our big-boy britches and come to terms with the fact that life in general, and aviation in particular, involves risk. From the Doolittle Raiders to the folks at Cirrus Aircraft, history shows over and over again that risk is a part of every successful venture. We’d all love to live in a world where there is no risk, where following the dictates of Title 14 would ensure nothing ever goes wrong and nobody ever gets hurt. It’s a fallacy.

Crushing liability costs aren’t limited to carbs. And many parts of our airplanes are manufactured by a very small number of companies. Prop governors come to mind. Vacuum pumps. Brakes. Fasteners. If one firm is having trouble staying in business, odds are the others might be as well. It doesn’t portend a rosy future for the industry, especially when you consider that many of the advances we now enjoy came from small companies just like Precision Airmotive.

Sure, with Experimentals you have more freedom to put what you want on your aircraft. But many of the components on experimental aircraft are certified anyway. Most of them essentially have certified engines, props, skins, wiring, brakes, tires, fasteners, etc. This liability issue affects everyone regardless of what it says on the plane’s airworthiness certificate. This sort of thing isn’t limited to aviation. But GA is particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the implication that anyone involved in it must have deep pockets. The end result is a case like this one, where a jury awarded $480 million verdict against an aircraft manufacturer even though the NTSB indicated pilot error was the cause.

Liability concerns hurt everyone in aviation, not just those with reciprocating single-engines. I’ll give you one example from the corporate and charter business that I work in: time and time again, thousands of dollars of catering from one of our charter flights will go untouched by the passengers. We’ll land at our destination with a eighty pounds of beautifully packaged and prepared food. Five-star presentation of the highest-quality and healthiest food you’ll see anywhere.

At the same time, just beyond the airport fence are people who go to bed hungry. Logic dictates that we might want to put two and two together. But because the operators and customers of these aircraft are high net worth individuals who would certainly find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit at the first indication of food poisoning or other malady, load after load of this food goes into the trash every single day all across the country. Over the past three years I’d imagine the total weight of the food from flights I’ve flown that went into the trash would total a couple of tons.

While lawsuits and courtrooms have their place, I personally think it’s high time our society acknowledged the fact that safety does not equate an absence of risk. Failure to do so is putting us, our industry, our economy, and even our way of life at risk. That’s the cost of the society we’ve built. Is it worth it?


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Gulfstream’s New G500 & G600

G600 aerial view

Well, my educated guesses weren’t too far off the mark.

So what shiny new baubles did the aerodynamic elves at Gulfstream unwrap for all us airplane geeks today? In short, two smaller versions of the G650. They’re being called the “G500″ and “G600″, and they’ve got the wider cabin, higher speed, and fuel efficiency of their big brother, but at a lower price point for those who don’t need 7,500 nautical miles of range. In some ways — the cockpit avionics, for example — they even surpass the 650. Of course, if there’s a place you’d expect a new model to outshine one designed a half-decade earlier, it would be the panel.

My first impression is that Gulfstream is being very smart. For one thing, production of the legacy models will continue. If the market wants them, why not give buyers the option? (In fact, quite a few of the orders announced today were for those “old” airplanes.) Leaving them in production is also the conservative choice, something a commenter on yesterday’s post suggested GAC’s board of directors might have been quite interested in.

Everyone is referring to this as a “clean sheet design”, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. The G650 was a true clean sheet, but these airplanes appear to take significant technology and design elements from that predecessor, including the airfoil design and 36-degree sweep. AIN reported that the new aircraft are expected to have a “high degree of systems commonality with the G650″. As a pilot, I’m hoping that includes the type rating.

This must take quite a bit of wind out of the sails at Bombardier and Dassault. GAC is using the same strategy Douglas employed against Boeing at the start of the jet age: let the competitor introduce their product first, then improve upon their specifications. They’re even using Bombardier’s model nomenclature, where the aircraft’s designation provides an approximation of its range. From the Falcon they’ve taken the side stick and improved upon it.

Gulfstream calls their iteration an Active Control Sidestick, or ACS. I was glad to hear it will provide physical feedback from control inputs made from the other side of the cockpit. Seems to combine the best of what you get with a traditional control column while still providing the legroom and other benefits of a side stick. I’d be curious to know if they had tactile feedback in mind prior to the Air France 447 crash. Airbus has used side sticks for a long time, but a common complaint from detractors is the lack of feedback to the other pilot on what his cohort is doing with the flight controls.

This rendering is the new G500, but the design lineage clearly comes from the 650.

This rendering is the new G500, but the design lineage clearly comes from the 650.

Gulfstream may also to be ahead of the Falcon 5X and other competitors in terms of timeline. What appeared to be a completed G500 taxied up to the ceremony under its own power. Normally, a new aircraft is announced long before a flyable copy is built, and even longer before a painted, finished-looking example shows up with engines running. That’s one of Gulfstream’s strengths: they have a good reputation for not only supporting their products better than anyone else, but also not making promises or commitments without delivering on them. If anything, they under-promise and over-deliver — something as rare in the aerospace world as it is in the software industry.

In a move that bucks recent trends in aircraft manufacturing, GAC is taking production of many major assemblies in-house rather than sub-contracting to companies like Spirit AeroSystems. Companies like Boeing have been doing the exact opposite, creating intricate and extensive subcontractor networks. Of course, the travails they’ve had with the 787 argues against following suit. Moving in-house should also reduce production time, logistical hassles, and allow more direct control over quality. For example, you can see a certain waviness to the fuselage skin of early G-IVs. While it never presented any performance penalty or safety issues, that sort of fit & finish issue wouldn’t be acceptable in today’s more competitive market.

One of most significant changes concerns the powerplant. For half a century, everything they designed in Savannah featured a Rolls-Royce engine, but the G500/G600 will be propelled by the new Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW800 series geared turbofan. Primary features are low operating cost and the elimination of mid-life inspections. While fuel efficiency isn’t much better than the BR725 engines on the G650, lower noise signature and emissions are also important for global acceptance these days. Noise in particular will continue to be a limiting factor at many of the places Gulfstream owners want to take their airplanes.

It’s curious that they decided to re-use the G500 designation. Until today, G500 was the name given to a G550 variant. Of course, it did about as well as the G300/400, which is to say most buyers stepped up to the newer and more full-featured version of the aircraft.

From what I’ve seen so far, these two aircraft look like winners. They’ll undoubtedly steal everyone’s thunder at the upcoming NBAA convention. If you want to read more on the G500/G600, I recommend AIN’s coverage, this AviationWeek article, and of course Gulfstream’s dedicated site.

P42: The Mystery Ship

Gulfstream G450

Various sources are suggesting that Gulfstream Aerospace will reveal the much anticipated P42 aircraft project in the coming weeks.

If “P42″ doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Most people who fly Gulfstreams for a living probably haven’t heard of it either. But among those who follow the nitty-gritty details of the industry, most believe it’s going to be the successor to the G450 line, an design which (sans avionics upgrades and a few minor changes) has been in production since 1985. Thirty years is a long time for any model to remain viable in the competitive world of new aircraft sales, and it speaks volumes about the quality and capability of the product that it’s been king of the hill for so many decades.

It’s All in the Timing

Assuming P42 is indeed a G450 replacement, one wonders “Why now?”. I think the answer is that Gulfstream faced no serious competition until recently. While there have been higher flying, faster, and larger models for a long time, it’s only now that those elements are becoming available in a single design at a competitive price point and operating cost.

Falcon and Bombardier present the primary challengers, having recently announced the development of airplanes with the cabin size, speed, and range to threaten sales of a model Gulfstream has been building for decades. While GAC could have chucked the 450 design a long time ago, the smart move is to leave an airplane in production as long as it continues to sell. The proof is in the numbers: there are about 850 Gulfstream IV/450-series aircraft in service, and the order book is still quite full.

Of course, you remain successful by staying ahead of the Joneses, and that’s what P42 is all about. AIN hinted at this in their EBACE convention coverage earlier in the year:

General Dynamics chairman and CEO Phebe Novakovic said last month that 60 percent of Gulfstream’s order intake during the first quarter was for the G450 and G550. And in the fourth quarter of 2013, China’s Minsheng Financial Leasing placed a 60-aircraft order with Gulfstream estimated at about $3 billion, the bulk of which is for G450s and G550s.

But there is trouble looming on the horizon for the legacy large-cabin Gulfstreams. The $45 million Dassault Falcon 5X, announced in October at the NBAA Convention, took direct aim at the G450. The 5X, which is expected to enter service in 2017, offers a range of 5,200 nm, 700 nm more than the G450, and a 98.4-inch cabin cross section that largely matches that of the G650, Gulfstream’s widest jet. Striking another blow, Dassault launched a Falcon 7X derivative (8X) here at EBACE that similarly challenges the G550.

“But don’t think for a minute that Gulfstream is idly sitting by,” business aviation analyst Brian Foley told AIN. “Gulfstream has plans to respond to Dassault, but it’s a balancing act as to when you make an announcement. Too soon, and you hurt sales of your existing products; too late, and it appears you’re hastily reacting to the market.”

Whatever P42 turns out to be, it’s going to represent a major shift for Gulfstream. Most of the existing fleet is related to a half-century-old derivative of a turboprop. The changes and updates to that line, while significant, have also been incremental. A bigger wing here, new avionics there, engine upgrades or a longer fuselage from time to time. The big question is this: will P42 be a clean-sheet design, or a derivative of the G650?

I’m guessing it’s the latter. Once the G650’s technology has found success in the marketplace, why not leverage that investment by offering models to suite different mission requirements and price points? It not only amortizes the billion dollar development cost, but also ensures a greater likelihood of success. Gulfstream has done this before, and not just with the G-IV/SP/300/350/400/450/etc line. Their G280 has been successful in large part because they mated a scaled-down G550 airfoil to a stretched G200 airframe.

Agent 86 Would Be Proud

Whatever P42 is, one of the program’s most impressive aspects thus far is the cone of silence that surrounds it. With more than 13,000 employees situated at facilities around the world, Gulfstream Aerospace is not exactly a small enterprise. In addition, they work closely with Honeywell, Rolls-Royce, Parker Aerospace, and countless other suppliers and subcontractors. Collectively, tens of thousands of individuals probably have exposure to and knowledge of P42, yet even in our ultra-connected world, a place where everyone totes around a 24/7 internet connection and high-resolution camera in the palm of their hand, the vault door has remained firmly closed. That’s impressive.

Compare this to the sieve-like atmosphere at Apple, where the whole world seems to know about products while they’re still on the drawing board. Is it just the fact that jets are “big money”? I don’t think so. The unit cost might be high, but the volume is incredibly low when compared to the millions of products a firm like Apple will sell in a single week.

Your Father’s Oldsmobile

Speaking of older technology, I was re-living the 1969 landing of Apollo 11 via firstmenonthemoon.com, and as always where Apollo is concerned, I was fascinated by the computing power — or more accurately, the lack thereof — in that project. The outdated iPhone any schmoe can grab for nearly free these days has infinitely more muscle than the IBM/360 mainframe which guided humans to a smooth lunar landing.

(By the way, if you’d like to get an in-depth look at what all those blinking lights on the mission control consoles really did, I highly recommend this Ars Technica article.)

Apollo mission control console. The displays were just that: displays. All they did was broadcast a picture of textual data which could not be processed or changed. Note the lack of a keyboard to interact with the computer!

Apollo mission control console. The displays were just that: displays. All they did was broadcast a picture of textual data which could not be processed or changed. Note the lack of a keyboard to interact with the computer!

But what really got me was the realization that from a chronological and computational power standpoint, the Gulfstreams that I fly are more closely related to that Apollo-era hardware than they are to today’s computers. The first moon landing was in 1969, just sixteen years before the G-IV went into production. Yet that airplane has been flying for nearly thirty years.

While the airframe itself belies the aircraft’s age, the avionics don’t. When asking to extend a centerline or compute a VNAV flight path, there’s enough time to grab a sip of coffee before the system displays a solution. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. The Honeywell SPZ-8400 is capable of doing everything a more “modern” avionics suite does, from VNAV approaches and WAAS to TAWS, GPWS, TCAS, and all the other bells & whistles. But it’s like using any other computer more than a few years old: the lack of power can be clearly felt.

The presence of older technology in avionics is not limited to business jets. I recall that the space shuttle had some pretty ancient stuff in it as well. When the orbiters received their glass cockpit avionics upgrades in the early 2000s, the five General Purpose Computers which form the heart of the shuttle’s computer system were mild upgrades of the existing AP-101 units. Even the “new” boxes weighed in at sixty-four pounds a piece and drew 600 watts each.

It’s worth noting that the AP-101S shares the same system architecture as the IBM/360 mainframe from the lunar program. If the shuttle was flying today, it would undoubtedly be using those exact computers, partly because of the difficulty and expense involved in certifying space-worthy hardware. But also because if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Perhaps that will be the legacy of not only the long-lived Gulfstream II/II/IV/V/x50 airplanes, but the upcoming P42 mystery bird as well.