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Mon, Jan 31, 2011

ANN's Heroes 'n Heartbreakers of 2010: The Fuel Dilemma

...And Here, Darn it, Are The Heartbreakers

By ANN News Editor, Tom Patton

Aero-Note: SORRY to keep dragging this process out... but for reasons that will become evident shortly, these are BUSY days at ANN. Still; I wanted to finish these before the end of January and I'm not quite there yet... though I hope to finish the final two in each category this week... we shall see. In the meantime, wait til you see what we've been up to... -- Jim Campbell-ANN E-I-C

It is both the most "fun," and most difficult task, facing the ANN staff at the end of every year -- determining who, or what, did the most to promote the cause of aviation in the past 365 days... while also chastising those people or entities that did all they could to undermine the many successes the aerospace community has managed to accomplish.
 
Alas, 2010 saw more than its fair share of downers, aviation-wise. Sure, "stuff" happens... but a few folks, issues, or entities seemed to go out of their way to create problems for the world of aviation.

So... it is ANN's annual obligation to recognize a number of our Aero-Heroes/Heartbreakers for 2010... in something of an informal order -- Saving the 'best' for last.

Let us know what you think of our selections... whom YOU would have liked be included, or omitted, from such a list. In the meantime, we hope those who had something to do with this year's selections think a little more positively about the welfare of this industry, so that future lists become harder and harder to catalog.

Be it ignorance, arrogance or just plain incompetence, these were the folks or topics that made our lot a whole lot more difficult and immeasurably injured the aviation world in the past year.

Shame on those issues, folks, or groups that made our lot so much tougher in 2010...

Heartbreaker: The Dilemma Over Fuel

Without avgas, GA is going nowhere. And the EPA seems to be trying hard to make that nightmare a reality. One of the ongoing debates this year, and one that's likely to continue into the next several years, is what will be burning to make our airplanes go. Unfortunately, there is no consensus, and a plan to reach one is likely to take years ... maybe longer than we have..

The issue is that any replacement for 100LL needs to be a "drop in" fuel ... that is, one that will not require the re-certification of every engine in every airplane to run on the new juice. And since lead has unique characteristics which make aviation engines, particularly high-performance engines, run better, smoother, longer, and more reliably, finding that "drop in" replacement is proving very elusive.

ANN reported in June that Teledyne Continental Motors released a statement interpreted by many as endorsing 94UL (basically 100LL without the tetraethyl lead additive resulting in 94-octane avgas) as a likely candidate for an unleaded fuel. Following TCM’s announcement, a large number of owner/pilots began to realize that such a solution would not work for operators of higher performance/output engines. While these operators represent about 30% of the general aviation piston fleet, they consume about 70% of the fuel. Curt Sanford of COPA, noted that selection of the wrong fuel (sub 100 octane) would kill about 70% of the GA economy as well – fuel sales, FBO services, maintenance, aircraft values, etc. The resulting devastation of the GA support infrastructure would in turn adversely impact even those aircraft owners whose engines could operate on a lower octane fuel. Also prior to this meeting, AOPA President Craig Fuller had released a statement on the 100LL replacement issue, that the owner groups found encouraging: “The new fuel must operate safely in high-compression and turbocharged engines, and it has to be manufactured, distributed, and sold at a realistic price.” However, the same statement included some ambiguity because in one sentence it included 94UL as one of “several promising unleaded alternatives…”

ASTM’s Coordinating Research Council Unleaded Avgas Group(CRC) has tested more than 200 fuel blends over the past 20 years, looking for a high-octane unleaded alternative. Those that demonstrated adequate detonation resistance were tested further to analyze other fuel properties as defined by the ASTM’s D910 specification for 100LL avgas. Of course, the assumption is that the required innovation can be found within the constraints of the D910 spec, and after looking for it within or near the D910 spec for 20 years, it seems far more likely that the solution will probably be found elsewhere and that an earnest effort outside of the constraints of the D910 spec has not yet been conducted.

States are required by the EPA to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for Lead of 150 ng/m3 by 2017. This takes into account all forms of lead pollution, but it could mean that piston engine aircraft operations could be restricted in densely populated areas, and would require a significant effort on the part of the GA community to sway public/political support to maintain GA airports.

The concerns go beyond engine performance. Safety must be considered as well. EAA's Doug McNair said during an online media briefing mid-year that the FAA certifies engines with a specific fuel, and that high performance engines/aircraft require 100 octane fuel for detonation (“knock”) protection. But the 100LL ASTM D-910 standard includes many performance requirements necessary for safety, including octane, vapor pressure, distillation curve (cold/hot and high altitude operations as well as starting ability), freeze point, water separation, and long-term stability.

A coalition made up of the GA advocacy groups EAA, NBAA, and AOPA, along with GAMA and NATA, and avgas production representative organizations API (American Petroleum Institute) and NPRA (National Petrochemical & Refiners Association). After testing more than 200 unleaded fuel blends, and full-scale engine tests on 45 high-octane unleaded blends, the Coordinating Research Council (CRC) unleaded avgas group, a collaborative research and testing effort among fuel producers, GA manufacturers, FAA, AOPA and EAA, concluded that there is no direct drop-in replacement for 100LL fuel. While the performance drops will be most significant in high-performance and turbocharged engines which make up only about 30 percent of the fleet, those users consume about 70 percent of the avgas used in the country each year, so a direct replacement that requires no engine modifications is critical.

The coalition, and in fact the GA community at large, understands that lead is harmful to humans. So taking part in the effort to resolve this issue is certainly important to those who fly. And the coalition agrees that the day of reckoning is coming, with only one supplier of the tetra-ethyl-lead (TEL) additive and a decreasing demand for leaded auto fuel.

There is some encouraging research being done in this area, and a company called Swift Fuel says it has made great strides towards that direct 100LL replacement. Check out Aero-TV's in-depth three-part series on the topic for more. But as it stands, the clock is ticking on what we will burn to make our airplanes fly, and a day of reckoning is coming. The potential loss of something we hold dear makes fuel one of our Heartbreakers of 2010.

FMI: www.epa.gov

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