The Future of GPS?

In January a software upgrade designed to support a new generation of GPS satellites called Block IIF was installed resulting in the failure of over 10,000 US military GPS recievers.  While civilian receivers were not affected in January, the next steps in this process may have profound implications for civilian GPS users including pilots who increasingly rely on GPS for navigation.Launching the New GPS Satellite

Late last week the US Air Force launched the first of 12 new satellites designed to provide ultra-precise navigation and timing services.  These satellites will be used by both military and civilian receivers and are intended to be less vulnerable to jamming as well as longer lived.  They will use advanced atomic clocks for improved accuracy and will benefit aviation safety and search and rescue efforts.  This new system built by Boeing, has been dubbed GPS 2F-1 and is expected to last 12 years under solar power.  It is said to be twice as accurate as the current system.

Currently nearly a billion people worldwide use GPS for everything from recreation and farming to aviation, banking and disaster relief, in addition to it’s military uses.  Many are asking what the effect will be for the everyday user of GPS.  Will the new satellites be compatible with existing civilian receivers, or will we all have to purchase new ones?  Will the old system be phased out and what is the expected date when all 12 new satellites will be in operation?  Will my little handheld TomTom stop insisting that I turn right in 300 feet, even though that would put me over the side of a cliff?  We can only wait and hope.

FAA Takes Another Bite out of General Aviation

The satellite based air traffic control system, called NextGen is moving ahead and the FAA has published their final rule on what equipment aircraft owners will be required to have by 2020.  In addition to transponders already in use, aircraft will be required to have automatic dependent serveillance-broadcast out or (ADS-B Out).  Experts agree this move will force individual pilots to spend thousands on equipment which adds no benefit beyond duplicating what they already have with today’s radio transponder.

Apparantly general aviation will once again foot the bill for something which primarily benefits the FAA and the commercial airlines.  In addition to the new equipment, pilots will be required to maintain the existinge transponders.  The total cost to upgrade aircraft with the new equipment carries estimated cost to general aviation of from $1.2 to $4.5 billion and appears in the FAA’s own document in a section titled “General Aviation: High Equipage Costs with Little Benefit.”

The overall benefits of the new system are seen to outweigh still another financial hit to general aviation and include estimates of fuel savings and operational cost savings.

A variety of options to minimize costs to general aviation are being considered by the FAA and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is committed to working with the FAA to explore all the options.

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.

Why Buy a Coupe?….part one

By Ed Burkhead                                                        Return to

(copyrighted, used by permission)  Part one 

This article was originally prepared in response to letters from prospective Coupe buyers who wanted to know the safety history, problems to look for, model information and everything else in which a prospective buyer would be interested.  It does not try to be a complete source, though.

See Stanley Thomas’ excellent book The Ercoupe. See the Recommendations/Books tags at the left of the page for availability information.  You can also search for the Ercoupe on the used market from several sources.  In addition, the Univair book Specification, A.D. notes, S.T.C.s, (Univair product number ESS, $17.00) is a critical reference book that every Coupe owner or would-be owner should have.

Strong Recommendation

Over the years, I’ve seen several new Coupers buy planes with major problems.  A pre-purchase inspection would have prevented financial catastrophe for most of these people.  Several years ago, with good advisors, I made a pre-purchase inspection checklist to make a try at preventing these problems.  I’d personally urge buyers to take this list to your own mechanic and talk over what you want to do during your own pre-purchase inspection.  Personally, I wouldn’t buy any plane without it.  I’m donating this to the public section to assist all potential Coupers.  It was written as a service to the club, however, and I urge you to join and stay a member of the EOC – the EOC is our mutual assistance society and we need you.

Quick history

This plane is a member of the family of planes known as the Ercoupe or Aircoupe.  The Ercoupe was designed between 1936 and 1940, with the first flight of the prototype in 1937.  Before WW2, 112 were built and approximately 5,000 were made immediately after the war.   About 400 more were built between 1958 and 1969.  The original name was derived from the name of the company, ERCO, which stood for Engineering and Research Corporation.  When later companies manufactured the plane, it was called the Aircoupe.

Designed by Fred Weick and a small team, the Ercoupe was the first plane to incorporate much of the original research that Weick performed as the assistant chief of the NACA aerodynamics division.  These new features include the inability to be held in a spin, the tricycle landing gear to improve landing and take-off safety, the fully cowled engine, and a control system in which the rudders are linked to the ailerons to simplify controlling the airplane.  All these features were invented by Fred Weick and his team.

Basic flying characteristics are the same as modern aircraft with one exception.  In the Ercoupes with linked rudders/ailerons, in a cross-wind, the airplane is landed in a wing-level crab.  Though the main landing gear is sturdy, it is not abnormally strong and certainly doesn’t “swivel.” Yet, due to the natural geometry of a tricycle with a swiveling nose wheel, the airplane immediately lines up with the direction of travel after touchdown.  Two-control Ercoupes fly with a demonstrated cross-wind component of 25 mph.  Some Coupers regularly fly with even stronger cross-winds.

Engine comparison

The planes with 75 hp engines have pretty good performance.  They will generally fly between 98 and 106 miles an hour, depending on the pitch of the propeller.  This is a good benefit of the airplane’s designer being the time-period’s leading authority on propellers.

When comparing the following figures with your own plane (or the one you are about to buy) consider these factors:  The propeller pitch will greatly affect the cruise speed and climb performance.  For every inch of steeper pitch, there will be about two miles per hour gain in speed until you reach the point (very quickly) when the engine doesn’t have the horsepower to spin the prop up to speed.  As speed increases, horsepower required increases almost linearly until a certain speed is reached where much more power is required to effect each new increment in speed.  The speed at which this occurs depends on the shape of the object being pushed through the fluid, in this case, the airframe through the air.

At some point a steeper pitched prop will result in less thrust than would be obtained with a flatter pitched propeller.  Probably before this point is reached, the climb performance will be non-existent – climbing is done at slower speeds where the steeper pitched prop is even more inefficient!

Ercoupes with the 85 hp engines get better take-off and climb performance, and will cruise a bit faster, and will use a little bit more fuel than 75 hp planes.  But there’s not a lot of difference.  Cruising speeds with the 85 hp engine range from 104-112 mph.

Most of the 85 hp engines in service in C and D models have been converted from 75 hp engines.  This was done (as allowed in type certificate A-787 note4) per Continental Service Bulletin M47-16 dated June 7, 1948.  Mostly, this requires changing the carburetor fuel jet to allow more fuel flow, remarking the oil dip-stick to show 4.5 quarts as full, adding a couple of engine baffles to take care of increased heat production, and changing the propeller so it conforms to the requirements of the new engine.  The details are in the Ercoupe’s Aircraft Specification A-787 and the other documents mentioned.

There is some performance gain – about 2-3 mph according to Paul Prentice’s book Fly-About-Adventures and the Ercoupe.

The Forney Aircoupes have the C-90 engine with a well matched propeller.  They always out climb my C-85 which has a climb propeller and they have to throttle back quite a bit for me to stay with them in cruise.  Cruising speeds probably run from about 106-114 mph (again according to Paul).  The Alon Aircoupes, with their sleek bubble windshield and 90 hp engine often claim cruising speeds up to 124 mph.

With the 0-200 engine, climb improves again, but cruising speeds drop down because of the propeller that was STCed with the engine conversion.  In the absence of definitive data, estimate cruising speeds to be about 108 mph.  Someone who’d like to research alternate propeller lengths and pitches (and fight with the FAA for approval) may be able to trade some of that climb for somewhat better cruising performance.

Remember that, for each airframe, there is a natural “maximum” speed determined by the shape and drag.  To get to that speed, it doesn’t take much increase in power.  To go faster than that speed, it takes a lot more power.  So, putting a much bigger engine on a plane will make it climb much better and yet it may not fly much faster.

Thanks to Ed Burkhead for this informative article.    You can read more from Ed at

Watch for part two of Why Buy a Coupe?… coming soon.

Airport User Fees….They’re Baaaaaack!

The Obama budget appears to be resurrecting the ghost of President Bush’s aviation user fees.  This spectre which appeared dead in ’08 lives again in a footnote buried in the new 2010 budget calling for about $7 billion of taxes to be replaced by “direct user charges”.

This proposal may put at odds the business aviation and airline groups who have been working together to bring about a modernization of air traffic control and airport development.

This sort of user pays system has been proposed many times over the years without success.  But, in the current political climate user fees may be easier to increase than taxes.

On February 26, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) issued the following statement. “Although we commend the Obama Administration for its commitment to modernizing the nation’s aviation system and expanding capacity, we are very troubled by the budget outline issued by the White House today, because it appears to leave the door open to consideration of user fees for funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  We continue to believe that operational user fees have no place in a funding plan for the FAA, and we will remain unified with the rest of the general aviation community in opposing them in favor of building on the proven, efficient fuel tax for general aviation to help support modernization.  We remain committed to modernization, as demonstrated by the industry’s commitment last year, and we look forward to working with the Administration and Congress on effective proposals to expedite modernization.

Will President Obama prove to be a friend to general avaition?  Only time will tell.  As AOPA President Craig Fuller said, “It is often said the devil is in the details, but even with only a few details, there is much about which we are concerned.”

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.