Drones? Meh.

drones

They go by many names: UAVs, drones, remotely piloted vehicles. Whatever you call ‘em, more and more of the aviation news these days seems to focus on this segment of the industry. Blogs and podcasts exclusively dedicated to UAVs have been popping up left and right, and there’s certainly no shortage of enthusiasts and businesses waiting to put these advanced flying machines to work. Or play.

It’s easy to understand the excitement. These drones are small, relatively inexpensive, easy to fly, and — thus far, at least — free from certification hassles and other regulatory burdens. They require no conventional fuel, maintenance, or infrastructure, yet can carry high-definition cameras and other payloads while exploring areas at low-altitude that even a helicopter would be hard-pressed to get to. They can loiter with less noise and disturbance than a rotorcraft, too. In short, they represent a fresh canvas for the operator’s creativity.

New models and capabilities spawn almost continuously from the designers of these micro-aircraft. It’s something those of us in the traditional aviation sectors wish we could lay claim to. I imagine the early days of the 20th century must have felt quite similar to aviation’s pioneers. The future looked limitless. “Just Do It” could have been aviation’s slogan; if you could dream it, you could build and fly it. Today? Not so much. The regulations and paperwork weigh as much as the pilot flying the darn airplane. If they aren’t, you’re probably not “airworthy”.

Drones, on the other hand? From delivering cold beer or your Amazon order to keeping humans out of harms way while fighting fires, collecting intelligence, capturing exciting video footage, and engaging in national defense, they hold the promise of improved safety and convenience for all. It’s hard not to be impressed by displays like this:

But (you knew there had to be a “but”, didn’t you?) at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Every time I see a video, article, or link about drones, my response is “Eh. Who cares?”. I’ll probably offend some folks by saying this, but there’s something about these autonomous devices that turns my blood cold. It’s not that I hate them. I just don’t care about them.

When I think about flying, drones never enter the picture. In fact, I don’t consider operating a drone to be “flying” at all. In my mind, it’s on par with falconry, paper airplanes, kites, and sailboarding. That’s not to say it’s bad; on the contrary, some drone operators look like they’re having the time of their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hold no animosity toward those who view drones and UAVs as the most exciting thing since the integrated circuit. But while there are aviation elements present, it’s not flying in the way I know and love it.

For one thing, the operator/pilot has a much different experience and perspective on flying. There’s no skin in the game when the worst that can happen is the loss of the drone. Operators are solidly anchored to terra firma, looking up at their craft the same way men have looked skyward at the birds since the dawn of time. That awe-inspiring ability to literally transport yourself and others across time and space? Gone.

There’s no physical connection to the flight controls or the invisible fluid through which the craft sails, no seat-of-the-pants experience. And how much satisfaction can you get from a smooth landing when the craft does all the heavy lifting through gyro-stabilization and computer technology? I guess I feel about drones the way some sailboat owners feel about engine-driven boats.

Perhaps the thing I see most lacking in the proliferation of drones is the sense of pride that comes from operating within any community of highly-trained professionals. Pilots definitely fall into that category. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see random individuals who happen to purchase a remote-controlled flying device as belonging to that same cadre. Especially when a typical story reads like this:

After saying “the FAA has got to be responsive to the entire industry,” [FAA UAS office chief] Jim Williams referred to a pair of incidents in which drones caused injuries to people on the ground. One came at an event at Virginia Motor Speedway in which an “unauthorized, unmanned aircraft” crashed into the stands, and in the other a female triathlete in Australia had to get stitches after being struck by a small drone.

Then, Williams segued to a pilot’s recent report of “a near midair collision” with a drone near the airport in Tallahassee, Florida. The pilot said that it appeared to be small, camouflaged, “remotely piloted” and about 2,300 feet up in the air at the time of the incident.

“The pilot said that the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it,” Williams said.

Or this one:

UAV Causes Medical Helicopter Landing Delay

The landing of a CareFlight helicopter approaching Miami Valley hospital in Dayton, OH was delayed by a small UAV flying in the area, according to the company.

Television station WDTN reports that a CareFlight nurse aboard the helo was the first to spot the small aircraft flying in the vicinity of the hospital. The helicopter reportedly had a “significantly hurt” patient on board at the time.

The company notified both local police and hospital authorities in an effort to find the person operating the UAV before allowing the helicopter to proceed with its approach. The operator was taking aerial photos of a park in the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, which is near the hospital.

By all accounts, heavier-than-air flight had a definite Wild West quality about it in the early days, too. I’ll freely admit that it’s easy to paint with a wide brush where UAV antics are concerned, so maybe I’m simply being closed-minded about drones. Or more accurately, drone operators. But I feel the way I feel about it. I suppose that’s one thing drones and traditional aircraft pilots have in common: they both develop a reputation — deserved or not — based on the media’s incessant bleat of any sensational or negative news.

I’m curious to know if others have a similar reaction to the burgeoning unmanned aircraft industry. What’re your thoughts?

Nashville

Nashville riverfront at night

It’s getting hard to keep track, but I just returned from what was probably my first visit to the city of Nashville. With only one full day to explore, we just hit a few major highlights. Still, it was easy to see why this is one of the fastest growing areas of the southern U.S. Our ambitions were somewhat limited by the fact that our free time here happened to be a Sunday, so while more tourist-centric downtown area was in full swing, other attractions were closed for the day.

Beyond it’s reputation as the center of the Bible Belt and a haven for country music, I wasn’t terribly knowledgeable about what Nashville had to offer. For a city of it’s size, it turns out there’s plenty to do within walking distance of the pedestrian-friendly downtown. I’d love to come back to hear the symphony, catch a Titans or Predators game, visit one of the Civil War-era plantations, or check out the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I thought it particularly impressive that Nashville has a full-fledged opera company. Despite our many well-heeled arts patrons and a population five times as large, the best Orange County can boast is an occasional re-hashed concert version borrowed from Los Angeles.

As always, here are a few highlights from the trusty iPhone 5 camera — with a bit of Snapseed magic applied, of course.

You can almost feel the history in these Civil War era bricks

You can almost feel the history in these Civil War era bricks

Nashville has a population of about 600,000. While that makes it the second largest city in Tennessee, it’s pretty small by southern California standards. Not that this is a bad thing. We didn’t mind the lack of road congestion one bit. And being from the Los Angeles area, I admire any city with a safe, walkable downtown area. Nashville definitely fits that criteria. L.A. is getting better, but it has a long, long way to go.

It's a bit touristy, but Nashville's downtown is well worth seeing. Everything's withing walking distance.

It’s a bit touristy, but Nashville’s downtown is well worth seeing. Everything’s withing walking distance.

The main drag in the area seemed to the section of Broadway southwest of the Cumberland River. Even during the daytime hours, plenty of honky tonks, bars, and restaurants had live music and large crowds. I’d liken it to a small country version of Austin’s famous South by Southwest festival. Nashville had a very balanced feel, equal parts past and present.

Look closely and you'll notice the horse is urinating all over the street.  In L.A., that sort of thing is usually done by a human...

Look closely and you’ll notice the horse is urinating all over the street. In L.A., that sort of thing is usually done by a human…

I recently read an article about the decline of neon signage in the United States and how Los Angeles has some of the greatest examples of neon artwork. Apparently LED lighting is so much cheaper that the it’s rapidly relegating neon to the past. As a result of the article, I’ve been on the lookout for neon signs and noticed that the Broadway area has plenty of high-quality examples. There’s something “vintage” about neon that fits in really well down there.

The old brick facades and colorful neon signs go perfectly together.

The old brick facades and colorful neon signs go perfectly together.

We spent the first part of the day exploring Centennial Park, which is directly adjacent to Vanderbilt University. While we didn’t venture onto the campus, Vanderbilt was recently accorded the distinction of having the happiest students of any major university by The Princeton Review.

There are quite a few Confederate war memorials sprinkled around the area. This one caught my eye for some reason. I’m sure the locals walk by these every day without much of a thought, but it’s something a SoCal native would never see back home.

Civil war memorials like this one can be found throughout the city.

Civil war memorials like this one can be found throughout the city.

Built for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, one of the park’s most notable features is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Though the building is new when compared to the Greek original, at 117 years old, it’s still quite historic by west coast standards. I’ve been to the Acropolis before, and the ancient Parthenon is more rubble than structure, so it’s fascinating to see what it looked like before being destroyed in a 17th century explosion.

This Parthenon replica gave Nashville the nickname "Athens of the South".

This Parthenon replica gave Nashville the nickname “Athens of the South”.

As a foodie, I’d be remiss in not mentioning Nashville’s culinary scene. Travel & Leisure magazine recently polled it’s readership and ranked Nashville as the best city in America for barbeque. It’s kind of shocking to see Memphis in second place and Kansas City a distant third.

True story: I once flew a Los Angeles-to-New York charter trip where we had a scheduled 90 minute stop in Kansas City. Since the airplane had more that sufficient range to make the transcontinental flight, I was curious about the short layover. It turns out the passenger simply wanted some of that famous Kansas City barbeque for lunch. In fact, he insisted we visit a specific restaurant to sample the vittles for ourselves. Imagine paying for the convenience and speed of chartered flight only to put your whole day on pause to eat lunch. That’s the power of Kansas City barbeque.

Anyway, we sampled the Nashville offerings at Jacks’ BBQ and while it was good, I can’t honestly call the Texas beef brisket great. It was a bit dry and I’d have preferred a bit more smoke on it. Other members of the group seemed to have better luck with the smoked Texas sausage and Tennessee pork shoulder.

Next stop: a week on the Big Island of Hawaii. Assuming the two hurricanes barreling toward it get out of the way, that is…

Fueling the GA Economy

The Million Air fixed base operator at San Bernardino, CA

Whether you’re operating a plane, train, or automobile, your fuel price undoubtedly varies somewhat from place to place. But in aviation, the difference can be staggering. At one airport, avgas might be in the $5 range, while a stone’s throw away it’s $8.

Mac McClellan recently opined that this has more to do with the retailer’s operating costs than anything else.

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

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

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

Mac’s article interested me because on any given day I’m as likely to be flying a Cub or RV-6 as I am a Gulfstream or King Air. I regularly visit full-service FBOs and unattended rural airports in wide variety of airplanes, and to me his thesis just doesn’t ring true.

While I understand how more services result in higher prices, it doesn’t fully explain why the fuel price is three dollars per gallon higher in some airports than it is at another field just a few miles away. A company that provides more services should also have more sources of revenue. Isn’t that the whole reason they’re providing those services in the first place? McClellan’s big-city operator has higher ramp fees and service charges in order to help cover the cost of providing clean restrooms and waiting rooms.

In fact, I’d argue that the big FBO’s prices should actually be lower not higher. These retailers tend to see turbine airplanes which buy large quantities of fuel. The G-IV, for example, frequently takes on thousands of gallons in a single purchase. The cost of labor on a per-gallon basis is quite low when compared to airplanes that only take a few gallons at a time. While the Gulfstream take Jet-A rather than avgas, it’s all profit for the fixed base operator. Turbine aircraft pay for lav cleaning, potable water service, catering, deicing, dish washing, dry cleaning, and many other things. The hangar fees for both transient and based tenants are also sources of revenue — consistent ones at that.

Mac sees those as justification for higher fuel prices. I see the aircraft owner or operator paying the full cost of providing those services, and then some.

My point is that FBOs with many services also have many sources of revenue beyond fuel, and since large chain FBOs can leverage their buying power the same way any billion-dollar corporation does, you’d expect their prices to be lower, not higher. By McClellan’s logic, a WalMart Superstore should be sporting the highest prices in town since they provide far more products and services than a simple grocery store.

If the fuel price variations aren’t due to service level, then what’s behind it? Perhaps part of the problem is that airports with only one service provider have a monopoly on the market and can charge whatever they want, knowing pilots have no choice but to pay it. It’s like a remote desert town with only one gas station. The price is going to be high — and you will fork over the dough because there is simply no alternative.

The aforementioned WalMart Superstore has to compete with Target, Sam’s Club, countless grocery stores, and many other businesses. Sadly, airports don’t work that way, and as a result we all pay the price.

Even with two FBOs, some markets are saturated enough that the fixed base operator doesn’t really face competition in the normal sense. John Wayne Airport is like that. There are two places you can find fuel, service, and parking at SNA: Atlantic Aviation and Signature Flight Support. Neither one of them could possibly handle all the business traffic in and out of the airport alone, so is there really much of a sense of competition between them? Perhaps for the highest margin customer: frequent visitors with large thirsty airplanes like a Global Express or Gulfstream, or high volume operators like JetSuite or NetJets. But for the other 80% of general aviation? No.

I don’t begrudge retailers profiting from their significant investment. Running an FBO requires major capital infusions and serves a small market even in the best of times. But I still don’t see how it justifies a 60% difference in the price of fuel. Inordinately high fuel prices damage the entire aviation ecosystem by discouraging light general aviation customers, decreasing GA’s utility, and driving prices upward for those who remain.

Look around. We’re turning into Europe — and where GA is concerned, that’s not a good thing.

World Cup Trip

This heat map shows the most frequently photographed locales.

It’s interesting to observe travel patterns of the flying public. The ebb and flow in a heat map of the most popular destinations would be fascinating to observe over time. Despite a half hour of searching, I found no such data on the internet. The closest thing I came across was the featured image for this post, a heat map of the most frequently photographed locales courtesy of sitesmap.com.

A couple of years ago, the hot spot for charter travel seemed to be London. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the Paralympic Games all took place in London within the span of just a few months. As a result, I was in England almost as much as the United States. Or so it seemed.

In the charter world, you see this smaller versions of this phenomenon occur all the time. Whether it’s the World Economic Forum, the Superbowl, or the State of the Union, large numbers of private aircraft congregate at these events. It’s not uncommon to find friends and co-workers both past and present showing up at the same places over and over again. It goes a long way toward making the world feel like a smaller place.

Bem-Vindo ao Brasil!

If my sought-after heat map existed, 2014 would see a scorching red area around the eastern coast of South America. The world’s attention has been focused there because of the FIFA World Cup, and it will shortly return to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Beyond those events, the whole Latin American area has been on an economic upswing while Europe and North America still grapple with the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

Years of growth have spawned a thriving middle class. The World Bank estimates that between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of Latin Americans living in poverty fell from 44% to 30% while the number of middle class Latin Americans rose from 103 million to 152 million.

That expanding middle class has more disposable income than ever before. Robust domestic demand has been key to helping Latin America weather the global economic turbulence of recent years.

This trip was similar to the one I made to Salvador last year: the same airplane, crew, passengers, and destination. And just like last time, the overnight trip down from New York took a while to recover from. The other pilot said overnight flights are tough even when you’re on a regular schedule of night flying. “You can feel it sucking the life out of you,” he said.

After a day of rest, there was plenty of time to explore a different part of the city. Last time our hotel was in the middle of town, whereas this time the resort was further away, located inside a gated community with expensive homes and a miles-wide private beach. I didn’t mind the trade-off at all.

The jungle gave way to a beautiful expanse of private beach just across a small bridge from our hotel.

The jungle gave way to a beautiful expanse of private beach just across a small bridge from our hotel.

Papers, Please

One major difference from the last trip was the added complexity associated with flying during the World Cup. If you think the Superbowl generates a lot of air traffic, consider the month-long duration of this soccer tournament and the fact that it takes place at cities all over the country. A team might play in Brasilia one day and Salvador on another. As they move about the country, so do their legion of fans. It’s like the Olympics on steroids.

In fact, I queried Brazilian citizens throughout the trip about which of the two events they felt would be “bigger”, and every one of them thought the World Cup would easily outshine the Olympics. That probably says more about their passion for football than anything else. Brazil is always a World Cup contender, whereas they’re not a particular powerhouse in either the summer or winter Olympics.

This giant banner welcomes you to an official World Cup game in Salvador

This giant banner welcomes you to an official World Cup game in Salvador

A few days after we arrived in country, we had a quick trip to drop off a passenger in Sao Paulo and return to Salvador empty. Because of the limited slots available, we had to stick around in Sao Paulo for nearly eight hours before our departure slot time came up. The handler offered to run out and get us some food since we couldn’t get a cab to come pick us up. When the handler returned, he said there were tons of cabs all around the airport — and they were all empty! As soon as the Brazil game started, people abandoned their jobs, cars, and whatever else to watch the match. He said cars were just sitting there as though the people had vanished off the earth.

We watched the game from the FBO lounge at Congonhas Airport, and every time Brazil would make a good play, you’d hear mortars, firecrackers, and other explosions going on around the city. It was like a happy war zone. And the airport? Congonhas is one of the major commercial airports in Sao Paulo, a city of more than twelve million people. The game lasted nearly two hours, and I don’t think a single airplane came or went during that time. It was really weird.

AeroStar to the Rescue

Flying to Brazil always involves permits, but the World Cup added takeoff and landing slot reservations, parking hassles, and general administrative largesse to the mix. Taxes are levied for every leg, and flight plans are not accepted until those taxes have been paid. The company we used for those services dropped the ball on a couple of occasions, but thankfully FBO in Salvador was probably one of the best on the planet, and they managed to save the day for us every time.

That FBO is AeroStar. I can’t say enough good things about these folks. When we couldn’t get a clearance because taxes hadn’t been remitted by Universal, the FBO manager personally went to the tower to straighten things out. It wasn’t even their responsibility to pay those taxes, but they did it.

When we needed to replenish our potable water supply and didn’t want to risk using local water sources, they obtained large quantities of bottled water and manually filled the tanks with a hose and funnel through a tiny gap between the top of the tank at the enclosure surrounding it.

When our vacuum cleaner died, they assembled a ridiculously long extension cord and insisted on cleaning every inch of the airplane for us with their own shopvac. They spot-cleaned leather seats. They made sure we had the best parking space on a very crowded ramp, and were always there to help with fueling, staging, and somehow had whatever we required before we even knew we needed it. We had brought down a towbar for the Gulfstream on the advice of our flight planning company, but AeroStar had a brand new tow bar and head for the G-IV on site, so we never had to fish ours out of the hell hole and cargo compartment.

They even insisted on taking us out to dinner while we were in town. They knew us and we were always greeted by name with a smile. I wish every FBO was like this.

Bahian Dining

Speaking of food, you’re probably aware of Brazilian BBQ restaurants — there are plenty of them scattered throughout the United States — but the AeroStar staff took us to a Brazilian cross between a churrascaria and pizza parlor. Skewers of meat are replaced by pizza pans filled with two categories of pie: savory and sweet. There are even little flags built into the table to communicate which pizza style you’re interested in. When you’re ready for a break, you just take down your little flag and they stop inundating you with pizza queries for a while. I felt like John Snow retiring Castle Black’s colors ever time I did that.

It's not really my thing, but some people love this chocolate pizza.

It’s not really my thing, but some people love this chocolate pizza.

Many of the toppings were familiar, but some really threw me for a loop. Have you ever had a chocolate pizza? I wasn’t a fan, but the locals seemed to love it. Their take on Hawaiian pizza is also quite different from ours. Instead of pineapple chunks, their iteration was topped with a vaguely spicy, gelatinous pineapple substance.

No visit to Brazil would be complete without a meal at an authentic Brazilian churrascaria, and our flight attendant (who’s made something like a half-dozen trips to Salvador in the past year) insisted we try a place called Boi Preto. I’m proud to say I didn’t over-indulge, despite the fact that we were there for about three hours and got sucked into the Ivory Coast / Japan match.

What would a trip to Brazil be without at least one visit to a churrascaria?

What would a trip to Brazil be without at least one visit to a churrascaria?

The Big Game

The brass ring for any World Cup trip is, of course, going to see a game. We watched at least a dozen of them on TV at the hotel bar, but it’s not the same as being there.

You’d think tickets would be hard to come by, but they are frequently re-sold on the secondary market. You can find them on line, at hotel concierge desks, and even the FIFA web site. But trying to find three tickets that are next to each other? That’s a little harder. Our flight attendant worked overtime and managed to get three seats at decent prices for the Switzerland/France match in Salvador. Later on, we learned that nobody cares where you sit anyway. That would explain how huge blocks of fans always seemed to be sitting together.

I should say a word about the tickets because they’re pretty high-tech. Beyond the beautiful four-color imagery emblazoned across the front, these large-format documents also featured holograms, electronics, and the purchaser’s name imprinted on them. Big ticket for a big event, I guess!

There are no bad seats in the Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova.

There are no bad seats in the Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova.

This was the first soccer game I’d ever attended. For whatever reason, I just didn’t grow up with the sport. I don’t remember ever playing or watching it as a kid. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I knew less about the game than any of the 53,000 people who were in the stadium that day. I know there’s a round ball, and a net you’re supposed to put the ball into. Beyond that, I’m clueless.

Still, it was a great experience. Just getting to the stadium was an adventure. A 30 minute taxi ride got us to a shopping mall on the north end of town. From there, we had to find a FIFA kiosk to obtain wristbands which would get us onto a train to cover the last few miles to the stadium. The train was clean and modern, but the areas it traversed enroute to the arena were some of the most depressed I’d ever seen. Known as favelas, these slums seemed to surround the stadium on all sides. Most of them were missing windows, walls, ceilings, or some combination thereof. Crowded together and clearly built without any planning or adherence to building standards, they looked like images of Berlin after World War II.

I heard that some visitors were actually renting these favelas because they couldn’t find a place to stay during the World Cup. According to Wikipedia, one in three favelas has no sanitation service.

We spent some time trying to decide who to root for. Since we were pretty neutral on both teams, it made sense to cheer for the Swiss, as they’re the poster child for neutrality. Unfortunately, “our team” ended up losing 5-2.
Despite Switzerland’s crushing defeat, everyone was in good spirits both during and after the game. The streets were filled with people just happy to be there. Bands were playing, dancers were moving, and French fans waved large flags from atop walls in what looked like a barricade scene rehearsal from Les Miserables.

French fans celebrate their victory over Switzerland.  Or maybe it's a scene from Les Mis.  Who knows....

French fans celebrate their victory over Switzerland. Or maybe it’s a scene from Les Mis. Who knows….

The arena itself is very well designed. There are literally no bad seats in the entire stadium. We had category 1 tickets but sat in a category 4 seat and didn’t mind it a bit. I also noticed that there was no scoreboard or clock anywhere to be seen. I can’t think of any other sporting event without at least one of those two items.

I’ll Be Back

This trip was even more fun that the first one! I really enjoyed the Bahia Resort, and since we’d been to Salvador previously, we were more at home with everything from the airports to the language. Though I’m not much of a soccer fan, the excitement and camaraderie of World Cup attendees is infectious. With the Summer Olympics less than two years away, I’m sure this isn’t the last time a Brazil trip will land on my plate.

The Hacked Airplane

gulfstream-on-snow-gradient

For better or worse, the relentless march of technology means we’re more connected than ever, in more places than ever. For the most part that’s good. We benefit from improving communication, situational awareness, and reduced pilot workload in the cockpit. But there’s a dark side to digital connectivity, and I predict it’s only a matter of time before we start to see it in our airborne lives.

Consider the recent Heartbleed security bug, which exposed countless user’s private data to the open internet. It wasn’t the first bug and it won’t be the last. Since a good pilot is always mindful the potential exigencies of flying, it’s high time we considered how this connectivity might affect our aircraft.

Even if you’re flying an ancient VFR-only steam gauge panel, odds are good you’ve got an Android or iOS device in the cockpit. And that GPS you rely upon? Whether it’s a portable non-TSO’d unit or the latest integrated avionics suite bestowed from on high by the Gods of Glass, your database updates are undoubtedly retrieved from across the internet. Oh, the database itself can be validated through checksums and secured through encryption, but who knows what other payloads might be living on that little SD card when you insert it into the panel.

“Gee, never thought about that”, you say? You’re not alone. Even multi-billion dollar corporations felt well protected right up to the moment that they were caught flat-footed. As British journalist Misha Glenny sagely noted, there are only two types of companies: those that know they’ve been hacked, and those that don’t.

Hackers are notoriously creative, and even if your computer is secure, that doesn’t mean your refrigerator, toilet, car, or toaster is. From the New York Times:

They came in through the Chinese takeout menu.

Unable to breach the computer network at a big oil company, hackers infected with malware the online menu of a Chinese restaurant that was popular with employees. When the workers browsed the menu, they inadvertently downloaded code that gave the attackers a foothold in the business’s vast computer network.

Remember the Target hacking scandal? Hackers obtained more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers from what the company believed to be tightly secured computers. The Times article details how the attackers gained access through Target’s heating and cooling system, and notes that connectivity has transformed everything from thermostats to printers into an open door through which cyber criminals can walk with relative ease.

Popular Mechanics details more than 10 billion devices connected to the internet in an effort to make our lives easier and more efficient, but also warns us that once everything is connected, everything will be open to hacking.

During a two-week long stretch at the end of December and the beginning of January, hackers tapped into smart TVs, at least one refrigerator, and routers to send out spam. That two-week long attack is considered one of the first Internet of Things hacks, and it’s a sign of things to come.

The smart home, for instance, now includes connected thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, toasters, and even deadbolt locks. While it’s exciting to be able to unlock your front door remotely to let a friend in, it’s also dangerous: If the lock is connected to the same router your refrigerator uses, and if your refrigerator has lax security, hackers can enter through that weak point and get to everything else on the network—including the lock.

We can laugh at the folly of connecting a bidet or deadbolt to the internet, but let’s not imagine we aren’t equally vulnerable. Especially in the corporate/charter world, today’s airplanes often communicate with a variety of satellite and ground sources, providing diagnostic information, flight times, location data, and more. Gulfstream’s Elite cabin allows users to control window shades, temperature, lighting, and more via a wireless connection to iOS devices. In the cockpit, iPads are now standard for aeronautical charts, quick reference handbooks, aircraft and company manuals, and just about everything else that used to be printed on paper. Before certification, the FAA expressed concern about the Gulfstream G280’s susceptibility to digital attack.

"There's an app for that!" The Gulfstream Elite cabin can be controlled from iOS devices.

“There’s an app for that!” The Gulfstream Elite cabin can be controlled from iOS devices.

But the biggest security hole for the corporate/charter types is probably the on-board wi-fi systems used by passengers in flight. Internet access used to be limited below 10,000 feet, but the FAA’s recent change on that score means it’s only a matter of time before internet access is available at all times in the cabin. And these systems are often comprised of off-the-shelf hardware, with all the attendant flaws and limitations.

Even if it’s not connected to any of the aircraft’s other systems, corporate and charter aircraft typically carry high net-worth individuals, often businessmen who work while enroute. It’s conceivable that a malicious individual could sit in their car on the public side of the airport fence and hack their way into an aircraft’s on-board wi-fi, accessing the sensitive data passengers have on their laptops without detection.

What are the trade secrets and business plans of, say, a Fortune 100 company worth? And what kind of liability would the loss of such information create for the hapless charter company who found themselves on the receiving end of such an attack? I often think about that when I’m sitting at Van Nuys or Teterboro, surrounded by billions of dollars in jet hardware.

Internet connectivity is rapidly becoming available to even the smallest general aviation aircraft. Even if you’re not flying behind the latest technology from Gulfstream or Dassault, light GA airplanes still sport some cutting-edge stuff. From the Diamond TwinStar‘s Engine Control Units to the electronic ignition systems common in many Experimental aircraft to Aspen’s Connected Panel, a malicious hacker with an aviation background and sufficient talent could conceivably wreak serious havoc.

Wireless data transmission for the GA cockpit: Aspen's Connected Panel

Wireless data transmission for the GA cockpit: Aspen’s Connected Panel

Mitigating these risks requires the same strategies we apply to every other piece of hardware in our airplanes: forethought, awareness, and a good “Plan B”. If an engine quits, for example, every pilot know how to handle it. Procedures are committed to memory and we back it up with periodic recurrent training. If primary flight instruments are lost in IMC, a smart pilot will be prepared for that eventuality.

As computers become an ever more critical and intertwined part of our flying, we must apply that same logic to our connected devices. Otherwise we risk being caught with our pants down once the gear comes up.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.