California Chooses Air Safety Over Birds..At Last

It’s finally happened.  The pin heads in Sacramento have done the right thing.  They’ve chosen the safety of the flying public over the safety of birds.  On January 1, 2010, a new law gives California airports the right and responsibility to eliminate bird hazards, even if it means killing the birds.   Senate Bill 481 does not allow killing protected or endangered birds and requires airport officials to exhaust other mitigation methods before taking the most extreme action.   Even so, critics are complaining the law may lead to more birds being killed in the areas around airports.

Bird strikes are nothing new.  A jet on takeoff sucks a bird into the engine, loses power and has to go around and land.  I remember one early Monday morning flight from San Jose to Los Angeles.  As the nose of the plane lifted from the runway, there was a loud THUMP!   That’s all, just a thump.  I’d nearly managed to convince myself it was nothing when the pilot announced we’d hit a bird and would have to circle back to the airport and land.   We put down our Wall Street Journals and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one on that airplane who said a silent prayer or two.  Within 15 minutes we were back on the ground.  But, it was a long 15 minutes for me. 

The most recent and highly publicized bird strike occurred January 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River after hitting a Canadian Goose (or two).   The sight of a hundred and fifty passengers clinging to the wings of a sinking aircraft in the middle of the Hudson brought the danger home to the public in a powerful way.   And the FAA was pressured to release their database of aircraft and “wildlife” collisions. 

Airports and airlines have been voluntarily reporting bird strikes to the FAA for twenty years. The FAA  has withheld specific information about airports and airlines, making it impossible for the public to learn, for instance, which airports have a severe bird problem and which don’t. Until now, FAA officials have said it’s necessary to keep specific information from the public because it might discourage voluntary reporting. The information could also be embarrassing to some airports with higher numbers of bird strikes.

The over 100,000 bird strike reports contained in the database account for only about 20% of bird and wildlife strikes according to the FAA’s own estimates.

Bird and wildlife strikes cause more than a half-million hours of aircraft down time and cost U.S. civil aviation more than $500 million annually, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the threat to air safety is on the rise with increasing populations of many wildlife species that are hazardous to aircraft.  

Fatal Crash Addison, TX

Cessna 172 downed by bird strike in 2003 near Addison, Texas

Plane collisions involving birds and other wildlife have doubled around 13 large U.S. airports since 2000, according to data the FAA recently released.

John Ostrom, who chairs the Bird Strike Committee USA which advises the aviation industry, says bird and wildlife strikes are sometimes deadly.  Over 200 people have lost their lives since 1988 because of  airborne collisions with birds, according to Ostrom’s committee.

The populations of some migratory birds is increasing in the U.S. thanks to environmental safeguards.  A top US bird-strike researcher says populations of some of the biggest birds in North America – eight pounds each or more – are exploding thanks to aggressive environmental and conservation efforts.   And birds have grown accustomed to being around humans and large, noisy machinery, including aircraft. Air traffic worldwide has grown nearly 5%, on average, each year for the past two decades.

In California, Sacramento is the leader with over 1470 bird strikes  recorded at Sacramento International Airport from 1990 to 2008. For years, Sacramento Airport officials have followed federal law which requires them to protect travelers from “bird strikes.”  Under a federal depredation permit,  airport workers try to divert wildlife from an airplane’s flight path through harassment, trapping or relocation.  Only as a last resort, airport officials are given authority and responsibility to remove birds to protect human lives.

Senate Bill 481 gives all public use airports in California with federal depredation permits assurances that they have a legal right to remove birds they believe may endanger planes.  SB 481 further states that the taking of birds at public airports to protect public safety does not violate state law and amends the Fish and Game Code to codify existing practice based on compliance with federal law.

According to sponsors of the new law, Sacramento International Airport has  the highest number of bird strikes occurring in the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region and the sixth highest number in the nation.  This is not surprising as the airport sits in a major bird migration pathway, surrounded by agricultural land.   Sacramento County notes that California needed the new law because state law did not explicitly allow for public airports to take wildlife as a last resort, or to carry out other methods to protect public safety during airplane departures and arrivals. 

Of course, airports have tried for decades to control bird populations and minimize risk to aviation by employing so-called “humane” method such as lasers, noise cannons and habitat control to deter nesting and roosting in the open areas surrounding airports.  These techniques are often effective. And the new law  stipulates that killing birds should only be part of a wildlife management plan that emphasizes non-lethal wildlife management.

At last the Legislature has made it clear  airports can take more direct measures to keep the skies around their runways clear of wildlife, including eliminating birds if other measures don’t work.

For now, California’s flying public can take comfort in two things.  The skies surrounding our airports may get safer, and our state government is capable of making a rational decision in favor of airports and safety over irrational protection of wildlife at all cost.  Two good things to note.

Save Money on Hangars – Buy an Airplane Cover

                                                                                       Return to

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.

The Greening of Aviation?

                                                                                              Return to

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.

Palo Alto Airport Connection with Mission Aviation Fellowship

A special mission of mercy originated from Palo Alto Airport in August this year.  A modified Cessna Grand Caravan took off on a 40 hour 5,500 mile flight to Sentani, Papua in Indonesia.  This single-engine aircraft will be handed off to Mission Aviation Fellowship, an organization which flies missionaries, medevacs and material to some of the hardest to reach places on earth.  

Redwood City resident Bill Leahy has been modifying and transporting planes for Mission Aviation Fellowship for nearly 10 years.  To prepare the Grand Caravan for the trip, Leahy designed and installed a pair of 250 gallon fuel cells, which combined with the plane’s twin 160 gallon tanks will keep it in the air for 18 hours.  Palo Alto Airport serves as a primary staging point for supplying the organization new aircraft. 

The Grand Caravan is capable of carrying 3,000 pounds of cargo plus a pair of pilots and 11 passengers.  This is an improvement on capacity over the Cessna 206s the organization has relied on for years.  In addition, the new fleet runs on “Jet A” fuel, a type of kerosene that is more affordable and available than “avgas” required by the smaller planes.  A gallon of avgas in Indonesia was selling for about $15 in August, nearly four times the price of Jet A fuel.  This is up from $2 per gallon just five years ago.

Mission Aviation Fellowship is headquartered in Nampa, Idaho.  The new plane will ultimately operate out of Tarakan, Kalimantan, transporting locals and cargo in the Krayan and Apokayan areas.  The air fleet is a critical lifeline for locals in an area where roads are scarce and few rivers are navigable.  Several medevac flights will take place every week, providing many their only way to medical treatment if they get sick.  For some it will be the difference between life and death.

This is one more example of the general aviation community, contributing to make the world a better place.  Those who want to close down our regional airports need to know there is more is going on here than just weekend jaunts for $100 hamburgers.

Mission Aviation Fellowship is a Christian organization and is always looking for aviation professionals who want to help.  You can find out more at

Palo Alto Airport Links Trio of Recent Fatal Crashes

According to the Federal Aviation Administration there was no common denominator between three recent fatal airplane crashes.  A 41 year old neurosurgeon and new pilot flew a rented Cessna 172 at night and crashed in the hazardous Lake Tahoe region.  An experienced 38 year old pilot with his own airline transport business flew his Piper Navajo Chieftain into the garage of a two story home in Las Vegas.  A retired programmer, 60 years old, crashed his 1977 Socata Rallye into the California Highway Patrol building on Highway 101 in Gilroy.

There is no common denominator in age of pilot, level of experience, type of plane or location of the accident.  There is an unusual connection, however.  All three were among those piloting the aproximately 500 small aircraft that take off and land at the Palo Alto Airport each day.  One pilot was headed to Palo Alto, one took off from there and one lived nearby.

This loose connection to the airport in Palo Alto serves to highlight what most pilots take for granted.  Accidents do happen;  pilots make mistakes and machines break down.  Although three fatalities in one month with a connection to a single airport is unusual, it happens.  For most pilots flying is still far safer than driving.  You wouldn’t give up driving because thousands die every year on America’s highways.  No one is likely to park their plane because of a run of fatal crashes.  The price of fuel?  Now that’s another story.

Vanishing California Airports

                                                                                             Return to

This list is from the California Pilot’s Association website, dated Jan. 14, 2008.  It shows an alarming trend of airport closures throughout California.  Since 1990, we have lost 25 airports.  This represents an irreparable loss to the state’s aviation infrastructure.  If there was any doubt about the threat to general aviation in our State, this list put’s that doubt to rest.

Airport                                              County                            Year Closed

Alta Airport                                       Tulare                                   1994

Antioch Airport                                 Contra Costa                        1990

Atwater Airport                                 Merced                                 1994

Bear Creek Airport                             Riverside                              1998

Borges-Clarksburg                            Yolo                                     1998

Calistoga  Airpark                              Napa                                    1990

Carmel Valley Vintage Airport           Monterey                              2002

Eagleville                                           Modoc                                  2002

Enterprise Skypark                             Shasta                                  1994

Gallaher Airport                                 Tulare                                   1994

Green Acres Airport                           Tulare                                   1992

Holtville Airport                                 Imperial                                 2002

Meadowlark Airport                            Orange                                  1990

Natomas Airport                                 Sacramento                           2002

Pearce Field Airport                            Lake                                      1994

Pixley                                                 Tulare                                    1998

Rancho California                               Riverside                               1990

Redding Sky Ranch Airport                 Shasta                                   1994

Rio Bravo Airport                                Kern                                       2002

San Ardo Airport                                 Monterey                               1994

Santa Rosa Air Center                         Sonoma                                 1992

Shannon Airport                                 Trinity                                    1990

Shingletown                                        Shasta                                    2002

Sun Hill Ranch Airport                       San Bernardino                      2002

Vacaville Gliderport                            Solano                                    1990        

This information is attributed to Caltrans, the department of aeronautics. 

I wonder…. if it was 25 highways closed since 1990, would we be so complacent?  Would there be more than the local pilot’s outcry against the pending closure of Rialto  by 2010?  Our airports are vanishing and bit-by-bit the ability of the average person to fly is being eroded away.


return to

Call for Support and Donations to Help Watsonville Airport

The Coalition for Responsible Airport Management and Policy (CRAMP) is calling for donations to a legal fund in support of the Watsonville Pilot’s Association to fight the City of Watsonville’s appeal.  This comes in the wake of the Santa Clara County’s rejection of Reid-Hillview Airport closure.

Contributions should be sent to the Watsonville Pilots Association at PO Box 2074, Freedom, CA 95019-2074.  Checks should be made payable to “WPA” and mark the memo section “legal fund”.