– Steve Hitchen
Electrical aviation has taken a couple of blows in the last month with Tecnam dry-docking their P-VOLT program and NASA canceling the X-57 Maxwell. With manufacturers around the world pulling out their Gold Trim Sheaffers to sign net-zero agreements, the industry really has been banking on electricity to help them stamp out carbon emissions by 2050. Whilst companies like Eviation and ZeroAvia are nose-down in electrical powertrain development, the admission from Tecnam that the economics of the current technology don't stack up is telling. It's one thing to develop something magical; it's another to make it marketable and practical. NASA worked with the P2006-based X-57 for seven years, and never got the aircraft airborne despite all the money they threw at it. It was a radical design to start with–14 electrical motors in the leading edge of the wing–but even though it's been scrubbed, the project team learnt a swag of stuff that can be passed onto the industry. What this all demonstrates is that the gulf between affordable, practical electric aviation and the state of development is probably wider than we thought it was.
The ATSB looks like it has been down a rabbit hole the size of the Grand Canyon in its efforts to find out why a DFO was built so close to a runway at Essendon. After five years of investigation and compiling a 146-page report, the ATSB has laid out all its findings, but tellingly has made no recommendations. Here's my summary as I see it. The DFO was built so close to runway 26 because CASA told them the OLS could be based on a 180-m wide runway strip, as was the width of the runway that had been published for a number of years. However, no-one can remember why the runway width was ever set at 180 m and no records can be found. Had the required 300-m width been enforced at that time, the DFO would have had to have been set back further, unless an exemption was granted. What all this tells me is that somehow, some way, the system failed to raise a red flag at a crucial time in the approval process. The runway width is still set at 180 m despite it being less than standards required because of the grandfathering provisions of Part 139. It's important to note that this grandfathering happened during the course of this investigation, and now shores up the legitimacy of the runway width. Despite sifting through the minutiae of Australian and international airport standards, the ATSB has been unable to flag any changes that could prevent such a thing happening again. And you can be assured that sometime in the future, one of the operators of the Commonwealth leased airports will want to build something closer to a runway than the standards allow. At that time, we will see if any lessons have been learned from the Essendon DFO.
Aviation advocates are fond of using the phrase "a race to the bottom" when talking about the current state of GA. Sometimes it's justified; other times it seems like a tool of emotional expression. However, when it is applied to the instructor crisis it is both appropriate and accurate. Australia is running out of flying instructors because we're running out of people to teach the new ones. Instructors beget instructors. Where the race to the bottom analogy comes into it is that GA is in the position where no potential solution is on the horizon and, even if the problem was taken seriously right now, it's unlikely to be implemented before the instructor pool dries up completely and we start importing. Critically, although there is recognition in the industry, no-one seems to know how to react to the alarm bells. What is the solution? Do we set-up an academy especially to train instructors? There's a lot of support for that, but it doesn't resolve the issue that instructing as a career is not very appealing when you consider the disconnect between pay rates and HECS debts. Clearly the solution, when it does emerge from hiding, will be something radical and imperfect, but even that is better than no solution at all.
May your gauges always be in the green,