Save Money on Hangars – Buy an Airplane Cover

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In these challenging times many airplane owners are looking for ways to cut their operating costs while protecting their aircraft investment.  One option is to eliminate that big fixed cost – hangar rent.  While it’s true that hangared aircraft typically resell for more than their tie down cousins, it is possible to protect your airplane without spending the big bucks on a hangar.  Covers typically cost the equivalent of one month’s hangar rent.

Airplane covers are usually cloth covers fitted to your individual aircraft and designed to protect it from sunlight and weather damage.  The cover should be lined with microfiber wherever it comes into contact with glass to prevent scratching, and should be constructed of a “breathable” material so moisture and condensation won’t be trapped under the cover.  In addition, your cover should be a good close fit to your aircraft to prevent friction against the glass and finish when the wind kicks up.

Although the cover should be water repellent enough to prevent rain from leaking into your plane, you really don’t want something “waterproof” like a plastic tarp.  These can flap in the wind and damage your paint and glass and will trap moisture next to the finish possibly leading to mildew and corrosion.

Covers are constructed of many materials.  Two popular choices are acrylic-woven Sunbrella and a nylon based material called Silver Laminate.  The Silver Laminate, as you might expect, comes in a light silver color and is effective in both water repellancy and UV protection.  The Sunbrella is a little thicker, stiffer and heavier and comes in darker and brighter colors.  Some people find the darker colored fabric to be more protective, while others swear by the highly reflective Silver Laminate as keeping the aircraft cooler in the summer heat.

The cost of covers vary by type and size of aircraft,  manufacturer and fabric choice.   Prices start under $100 and go up from there.  Depending on your climate and the material, a cover should last from 3 to 5 years.  Most are hand washable with mild soap and water.

While it is possible to cover the entire aircraft, many manufacturers recommend covering only the most critical portions of the plane, starting with the cockpit, then the wing tops, the horizontal tail and the propeller blades. 

In my area, hangars are hard to come by.  Most local airports have waiting lists in excess of a year.  Besides the wait, they’re very expensive.  A T-hangar near my home (actually a two-hour drive from my home) is $250 per month and requires a very expensive liability policy which brings the total to nearly $500 per month.  Another small local airport has tie-downs readily available for less than $100 per month. 

Covering your airplane will save you thousands each year in hangar rent,  and even if you do have to paint more often than your hangared neighbor, you’ll probably come out ahead in the end.

Stimulus Package – What’s in it for Aviation?

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You’d have to be in a coma to be unaware of the disastrous effect of the economic downturn on general aviation.  Planes just aren’t selling the way they used to.  CEOs are excoriated for replacing aging aircraft with newer, more efficient jets.  Pratt & Whitney is cutting 1,000 jobs and hiring is frozen.  Boeing laid off 27% of their Wichita, KS workforce in January, with Hawker Beechcraft and Cessna following up with 500 layoffs each, also in Wichita.  Cirrus sales are down and they are cutting 100 jobs, Northstar Aerospace laid off 15% of their workforce and Eclipse has laid off 650.  In Florida, Piper has laid off 300 workers.  Let’s see….who am I leaving out? 

No doubt about it, things are looking grim.  So what about this behemouth stimulus package?  Is there anything in there for aviation?

Actually, yes.  Congress originally set aside $3 billion for airport improvement.  The idea was to direct funds into so called “shovel ready” projects; those projects which could go to contract within 120 days of receiving FAA approvals.  The final bill shapes up a little differently.  $1.1 billion for airport capital investment nationwide.  $200 million for the FAA facilities and equipment, including $50 million for modernizing en-route traffic centers, $80 million to replace air traffic control towers and tracons, and $20 million to install airport lighting, navigation and landing equipment.  NASA gets $1.3 billion, $200 million of which is for research and testing of  environmentally responsible aircraft. 

Of course, out of all that stimulus money, funds going into science research, small business support, education, tax breaks and other areas will inevitably benefit aviation in one way or another.  And if President Obama and the Congress are right about the stimulus, as the economy recovers, so will aviation.

The Greening of Aviation?

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Was it only last fall that people were chanting “drill, baby, drill!”, and declaring everyone from the government to your grandmother must “go green!”?  Remember $8.00 a gallon 100LL and paying for pillows and blankets on US commercial flights? 

Given the furor over global warming and energy prices, how is it possible that an aviation bio-fuel revolution is quietly proceeding with so little fuss and fanfare?

Here’s a taste of what has been going on, pretty much under the radar of mainstream media in the aviation bio-fuel revolution.  January, 2009 a Japan Airlines (JAL) airliner completed a 1.5 hour demo flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport powered by a combination of camelina, jatrophe and algae.

In December, 2008 Air New Zealand flew two hours on a 50/50 mix of jatropha biodiesel and standard A1 jet fuel.

In November, 2008 a plane flew from Reno, Nevada to Leesburg Florida, flying the first 1776 miles on 100% bio-diesel and the remaining 710 miles on a 50/50 mix of bio-diesel and standard jet fuel.

In October, 2008 Aviation Magazine published a story on the Department of Defense and the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) claims of a 100% renewable jet fuel capable of replacing JP-8.

In August, 2008 an F-15 Strike Eagle flew out of Robins Air Force Base in Georgia on a 50/50 mixture of JP-8 and a natural gas based synthetic fuel.

Why the apparent disinterest by the media on this tangible progress toward effective bio-fuel for aviation? 

Some say the amount of land set aside for growing bio-fuel crops may be contributing to a world wide food shortage.  Others are concerned that bio-fuel production may actually increase global warming.  It could be as simple as short term memory loss. Finding alternative fuel sources which seemed critically important with gas at the pump at $4.00 a gallon, is all but forgotten now that prices have come down.

This crisis will pass, and fuel prices will go back up.  So those of us with a stake in the future of aviation need to pay attention and press forward.  Will bio-fuel be the ultimate answer?   No one really knows yet, but many are touting camelina,  jatropha, algae and celulosic ethanol.

Camelina, for instance, may combat rising emissions while adding to food production and crop yields.  It has actually been shown to be an excellent rotational crop, boosting the yield of subsequent crops such as wheat by up to 15%.  It can be grown on marginal land, needs very little water and is viable in cold regions such as Montana and Canada and Europe.  It is estimated bio-diesel made from camelina could be sold for around $2.00 per gallon, compared to $3.00 per gallon for soy or corn based ethanol.

According to a spokesman for JAL, who used a mixture of bio-fuel and jet fuel for their groundbreaking demonstration flight in January, “the bio-fuel was a combination of three second-generation bio-fuel feedstocks which do not compete with natural food or water sources and do not contribute to deforestation practices.”

Turning to personal craft, Pipistrel, a Slovenian aircraft company, is working on a two-passenger electric aircraft.  The Taurus Electro is said to be capable of climbing to 6,000 feet, traveling 1,000 miles in a day with a lithium-polymer battery which takes about as long to recharge as a cell phone.

With graduations of aerospace engineers down 57% in the US since 1990 the US may be taking a back seat to Europe and Asia in making air travel more sustainable in the coming years.  Never the less, the future of innovation in aviation is going strong and it’s looking pretty green from here.

How Safe are Small Airplanes?

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General aviation airplanes have one of the world’s best safely records among all forms of public transportation.  In fact, since 1950, the accident rate per 100,000 flying hours is down by more than 93%.

Some of us will always feel a little nervous about flying in small airplanes.  But here are a few facts about how safe they really are.  Nearly twice as many people are killed each year in recreational boating accidents than in accidents involving private planes.

A small plane that loses power at 10,500 ft altitude can glide for more than 15 miles.  This gives the pilot ample time to select an appropriate landing spot, over 700 square miles of available landing spots, in fact.

In 2006 out of 22.8 million hours of flight operations, general aviation had only 303 fatal accidents.  On the average, 80% of small plane accidents involve no loss of life.

According to the FAA approximatley 36% of all accidents occur during descent and landing.  Another 18% take place during taxi and takeoff.  Only about 15% of accidents are found to be due to mechanical failure of the aircraft.

Experience as well as equipment are often a factor in general aviation fatalities.  Statistically, pilots with fewer than 100 hours are the most likely to be involved in a fatal  crash.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Manufacturers of light aircraft continue to innovate with safety in mind.   Single lever controls, electronic displays with audible alarms, fuel injection to prevent carburetor icing, improved lighting, seats, belts and attachments, low fuel warning lights, internally lit instruments, more redundancy in instruments…all play a part in making light planes safer to fly.  When something does go wrong, the whole aircraft parachute is often there as a last resort.  This technology is credited with saving many lives.

Last year my husband’s flight instructor lost a wing in flight and crashed into a vineyard.  He was able to deploy the BRS chute on his Challenger light sport aircraft and walked away from the accident with only minor bruises.

Critics of general aviation say the accident and fatality rates are still too high and safety improvements lag behind those of commerical aviation.  So called general aviation accounted for 91% of all aviation fatalities between 2002 and 2005.

The highest fatality rate is among single engine, fixed gear airplanes.  These accounted for 118 fatalities in 2006, down significantly from prior years.  Collision with terrain, wires or trees was the most common cause (52.5%), followed by loss of control (42.5%).

So, while flying a small plane is still riskier than watching football, general aviation is safer than traveling by car.  There are one tenth as many accidents per vehicle mile and the accident rate has steadily gone down since 1980.  Pilot training is a lot tougher than what is required for a driver’s license.   Aircraft is closely regulated, aircraft mechanics are certified and the NTSB reviews and publishes details about every reported accident.

So, while is is true that commerical airlines have a significantly better safety record than general aviation, it is also the case that flying your own small aircraft coast to coast (if you are a licensed, experienced pilot) is considerably safer than the same trip by car.

General Aviation, A Medical Lifeline

They’re called “Compassion Flights”, or “Angel Flights”. The FAA calls them “aeromedical services”.  It’s a sector of general aviation that you may not think about everyday.  But in an emergency, perhaps a car accident, it’s a sector that can save your life.

I live in a fairly remote area of coastal California where medical evacuation flights are common.   Near my home is a large soccor field where critically injured and ill patients are loaded into helicopters and taken to nearby trauma centers and hospitals by highly trained teams of pilots, paramedic and flight nurses.  Without this service many survivable automobile accidents might prove fatal because of delays in treatment.

Cancer and burn patients often need highly specialized care, available only in major urban medical centers. In many parts of  the world general aviation pilots work through charitable organizations to volunteer their time, money and aircraft to fly patients and their families between their homes and remote medical care facilities.

One well known organization “Doctors without Borders” routinely fly medical personel to small towns and communities where they provide much needed medical exams, innoculations and training to local doctors and nurses.  Currently,  Doctors without Borders is supporting health workers in northeastern Congo.  This is an area where violent attacks on the local population are frequent and travel by car is too dangerous.   So medical teams travel by plane to provide supplies and assistance to Congolese health workers.  After attacks, medical teams fly in to the area to help in evacuating and treating the wounded.

Another rapidly developing area of medical air transport is that of moving transplant organs.  Recently AirNet, a transport company known formerly mostly for shipping cancelled checks and other banking material made it’s first transplant kidney delivery from a donor in San Diego to a hospital in Miami.   

These are just a few of the ways the general aviation community continues to make the world a better and safer place for all of us.