Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No Such Thing as Luck

"His luck ran out."

We hear about the mishap. Usually it involves a fellow aviator connected to us only by our shared commitment to life in the sky. But sometimes we know the name.

And someone says, "His luck ran out." Of course, there is no such thing as luck.

Our universe is irremediably stochastic. We are buffeted by the randomness of events in our world and we navigate through the resulting turbulence as best we can. Most days, we survive and even thrive. Some days, we feel relieved to get through it all undamaged. And on a few very rare, very scary days, our lives are in the balance and our skills are tested. Not everyone passes the test.

"His luck ran out," they say and we know the name. We know he was a skilled aviator, a good stick. Maybe we only "know" him from reading his comments on an internet forum. But when we saw his name we'd come to expect cogent, thoughtful, useful input. And our feeling was, we'd fly with him anywhere. But..."His luck ran out."

You fly for many hours and everything is just routine. "How was your flight," your colleagues ask. "Uneventful." Then, every so often, Fate gives a pop quiz. Just to see if you've been paying attention. Perhaps there is weather you didn't expect. Perhaps the controller clears you to a fix neither you nor the GPS anticipated. Maybe some useful part of the airplane decides to stop working. Nothing too hard - you get to think on your feet and solve the problem. That's what we aviators do.

And sometimes, Fate gives a Final Exam. The grading is Pass/Fail. If you pass, you get to keep on living. If you fail...

When the universe deals you a Final Exam-type situation your response has to be perfectly accurate and perfectly precise. A very good pilot with excellent skills and training, with no dangerous attitudes, with a wonderful airplane meticulously maintained and superbly equipped, can...even so...fall just a little bit short. And the next day, we will see his name. Someone will say, "His luck ran out."

Of course, there's no such thing as luck. But Fate is still the hunter.

Last Wednesday night Paul Valois was killed when his Cessna 210 crashed while attempting to land at a small airfield in Texas. He was well known to those who frequent the Cessna Pilot's Association web forum. Our thoughts are with his family. We'll miss him.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Five Years and Counting

As of today it's been five years since N631S joined our family. On 27 September 2004, Bob Parks and I left Keokuk, IA at about 1100 local time for the trip back to Connecticut. After more than 27 years in the midwest, N631S was about to become an East Coast airplane.

With a fuel stop in Youngstown, OH, we finished the 6.6 hour trip right around 1900 EDT.

In the five years since that day I've flown N631S for 566.4 hours. We've been to Colorado and to North Carolina. We've flown 16 night hours and 36.3 actual IMC hours. We've shot 73 instrument approaches, 23 in actual conditions and the rest "under the hood".

N631S has had its interior completely refurbished and its avionics suite thoroughly upgraded. (One of these days, the airplane will get the paint job I've promised it.)

Having N631S available makes my rather strange schedule - weekdays in CT, weekends in VA - possible. Couldn't do it without the airplane.

Five years into it, I'm sure we acquired the perfect airplane for our needs and I'm looking forward to many more years with it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Landing Light Switches

Back on May 11th, Cessna issued a Service Bulletin, numbered SEB09-6 on the subject of landing light, taxi light and beacon switches in the legacy 100-series aircraft (including, of course, the 182's like N631S).

There have been reports of these switches failing in the field, causing overheating and smoke in the cockpit. Burned insulation has been found on the wiring terminals to the switch and on at least one occasion, there was a small fire in the cockpit. The problems are being attributed to contact erosion leading to irregular arcing and eventual failure of the switch. Apparently, some laboratory testing was done and it showed the contact erosion occurring after approximately 4,000 cycles of operation.

Service Bulletin SEB09-6 specifies the following:

  • Inspect to determine time-in-service for the switches.
  • Write the month and year of the initial installation on switches that have been in service for less than four years.
  • Replace of switches that have been in service for four or more years, with the month and year of the installation written on the new replacement switch.

SEB09-6 is classified as "Mandatory". Of course, for we who fly under Part 91 rules, Mandatory doesn't mean Mandatory. The FAA has looked at the situation and issues a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB), number CE-09-42 dated 24 July 2009, stating that this is not worthy of issuing an Airworthiness Directive (AD), but that maybe we ought to do what SEB-09-6 suggests within the next year or so (or 400 hours if that comes first).

With all of that going on, I've been having some issues of late with the landing light and taxi light switches on N631S. I would move one or the other to the "ON" position and the corresponding light or lights wouldn't respond - until I cycled the switch a time or two. Now, of course, you don't really need a landing light, but with night-flying season approaching I decided it would be good for the lights to work reliably. So I asked my friends at Three Wing (at KBDR) to replace the two switches (the beacon switch has been no trouble at all so we are leaving it alone).

Here is a photo of the switches that were removed:

There do appear to be some arc tracks on the back side of the switches. The thing between the two switches is a diode bridge that lets the landing light switch energize both the landing light lamp and the taxi light lamp. If you click to enlarge you'll see that, of two diodes installed in parallel, one is burned through. The circuit has been running on a single diode for an indeterminate time - not that there's anything wrong with that.

The old switches are Carling p/n S2160-1. They are marked as rated for 5A 250v, 10A 125v, 1/2 HP 125-250v. The replacement switches are Carling p/n TA201 TW-B. They are rated for 10A 250v, 15A 125v, 3/4HP 125-250v. (Of course none of the ratings discuss 14vDC service.) At least Cessna has now specified a "beefier" switch.

Now, about that "replace every four years" notion. How does that make any sense at all? The only data seems to be that the old switches get in trouble at about 4,000 cycles. Let's suppose that the new, more better switches don't improve on that. Then let's suppose N631S and I go flying three times/week (we don't). Let's also suppose that on every flight we cycle the switches twice, once for preflight and once "for real". (Obviously, not every flight is a night flight so that's conservative.) That gets me to about 300 cycles per year - it'll take about 13 years to accumulate 4,000 switch cycles. Perhaps I should plan to replace those switches in about ten years.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review: "Tail of the Storm" by Alan Cockrell

Tail of the Storm
Alan Cockrell
Univ. of Alabama Press,
1995, 232pp.
The literature of aviation, much like that of the sea, tends to divide into three broad categories: descriptive, prescriptive, and lyrical. For example, The Cannibal Queen by Stephen Coonts is a good example of the descriptive (i.e., the "there-I-was" category) with occasional gusts of lyricism. Wolfgang Langewiesche's Stick and Rudder pretty much defines the prescriptive (i.e., the "here's-how-to-do-it") segment. And Stranger to the Ground by Richard Bach is one of the finest exemplars of lyrical (i.e., "joy-and-beauty-of-flight") aviation prose.

Sometimes a work will begin in one mode and fool you by shifting quietly into another. Ernie Gann's Fate is the Hunter begins in the descriptive manner and soon transmutes into a nearly spiritual experience of lyrical writing.

To be sure, it's unfair to force on a contemporary author a comparison with one of the masters. But Alan Cockrell's Tail of the Storm stirred for me the same sorts of feelings as Fate is the Hunter. Capt. Cockrell begins with a straightforward description of some life-events that led up to his role as a C-141 Aircraft Commmander in the time of the first Gulf War. (The title is a reference to the "logistical tail" that followed the Army into Operation Desert Storm.) These descriptive parts of the tale are well structured and fascinating for those of us that have lost our hearts to the sky...and would not be off-putting for the groundling reader.

But then, gently and skillfully, he shifts his focus from training regimens and turbines and JP-4 to passions and friendship and courage and faith. He writes warmly of fellow aviators whose paths through sky and life have crossed and affected his; and also of the machines that have brought him here, from the Cessna 150 in which he soloed to the C-141 "Starlizard" that is central to this book.

Tail of the Storm gives an excellent picture of "life on the line" for the aircrews that delivered the goods for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This story in turn provides a platform for an account of one aviator's career. And that tale provides context for glimpses into the heart and soul of an airman. At each level, it's a tale well told.

Capt. Cockrell maintains an excellent blog, Decision Height*, through which you can access excerpts from this excellent memoir. As usual, it's available through Amazon. I very much enjoyed it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Giants Among Us

In this recent post I described the visit to KBDR of three vintage warbirds - a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-24 Liberator and a P-51 Mustang. I also sent an e-mail on the subject to my friend Steve Cavallo. Steve and I have in common that we both have degrees from the same Aeronautical Engineering school - just separated by 28 years. He was a test pilot for NACA at Langley Field from 1942 to 1947.

Steve goes way back with these airplanes. Here's an excerpt from his reply to my e-mail:

"I was asked to attend the fly-in of the trio of World war II airplanes. Their P-51 is the model that I flew in gust load tests through storm clouds and ended up bailing out of it when the engine failed due to the large "g" forces put on it exacerbated by the fact that it is on the end of a cantilevered engine mount. We also had the A,D and H models at Langley. I got to fly the B,D,and H. I was considered an "expert" on P-51's and on December 6th, 1990 gave a General Electric series speech called "Riding the Mustang". My quotation at the time was that the P-51 was the best airplane I ever flew, that it was the best plane of WWII and it probably was the best airplane that ever was...The P-51B with the 109 canopy was the fastest of the lot. ...
I was pleased to...get a ride in the B-24 and did so sitting the jump seat of the cockpit which brought back fond memories. I also got to crawl from tail gunners post to the bombadier's seat. They have done a great job of restoring and flying this 70 year old airplane and I wonder how much longer they can keep it "up". They might still be able to get parts but vibrating them for so many hours over so many years might take its toll.
Anyway, thanks for the email."
That just hints at who this man is and what he's done. If you would like to be exposed to more of his stories, have a look at his contribution to NASA's Oral History Project.

NACA Langley test pilots with P-47 in 1945. Steve Cavallo is 2nd from right. (NASA Photo)
I'm greatly honored to have Steve as a friend. He's in his late 80's now - though that's hard to believe when you see how fit he is. He is still an active pilot (but lately sticks to good VFR weather). Knowing him, I can say with certainty that Giants of Aviation are still among us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Off Into the Schmoo

David Wartofsky, the pleasantly eccentric owner/operator of my home 'drome, Potomac Airfield (VKX), likes to use the word "schmoo" to describe generic gusty, wet, low, opaque weather. I like it.

Well there was a lot of schmoo out there today. Because I had to be in Virginia earlier that usual, N631S and I got out of KBDR early. Wheels up at 1320Z. Courtesy of the low coming into the coast off of Delaware there were nice tailwinds from the east for most of the trip. Of the 2.3 hours, about 1.8 were in solid IMC.

Thanks to FlightAware, I can show you the track:

Usually I'd go from Lancaster directly over Baltimore thence to VKX. Today, Potomac Approach was kind enough to vector me to the west, around the heavier precipitation via Westminster (EMI) then south to the Nottingham VOR (OTT). Thereafter, the RNAV 6 approach into VKX was on offer. The Minimum Descent Altitude for that approach is 680 feet MSL. I broke out of the schmoo (love it!) at around 900. It's all good.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Today at KBDR

Three classic warbirds operated by the Collings Foundation have alighted at KBDR for a couple of days.

The B-17G is finished in the paint scheme of Nine-O-Nine, an aircraft that had a notable combat record with the 8th Air Force. The actual airplane in the picture has a pretty interesting history as well. It was delivered from Douglas Aircraft's Long Beach plant too late for WW II action, but it participated in nuclear weapons effects research, and served as a fire-fighting aircraft in the west.

The P-51C is named Betty Jane. It has a "razorback" canopy in contrast to the bubble canopy characteristic of the more familiar D-model. The P-51C was the first model driven by the Packard V-1650 "Merlin" engine to be produced in large numbers. This aircraft was built as a single-seater but was configured as a two seat "trainer" when restored.
Witchcraft was a B-24H that compiled an impressive combat record for the 8th Air Force. The B-24J in the photo was delivered by Consolidated Aircraft in 1944 to the USAAF, and subsequently served the RAF and the Indian Air Force. After its restoration it wore other paint schemes but has recently been refinished to honor Witchcraft.

I have an attachment to the Liberator. My wife's cousin, who went West about 3 and 1/2 years ago, was a B-24 pilot in the Pacific theater. He was reluctant to talk about his experiences but this photo survives, of a young Lt. Tom Riti (standing, top left, with his crew), pilot of the B-24J Ruff Knights, 42nd Bomb Squadron, 11th Bomb Group (Heavy), 7th Air Force.

The three aircraft will be here until tomorrow afternoon, then they go to KOXC and on to KGON. Ground tours and rides are available - check the Collings Foundation web site for details.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Leaner and Greener?

The trip from KBDR down to VKX on Friday afternoon did not provide me with very much weather to talk about. Most of the way down it looked about like this:

With a rare easterly tailwind giving me good ground speed, I was put in mind of the old-timers advice to "fly slow in a tailwind and fast in a headwind." The idea is to get the headwind over with as soon as possible, giving it minimum time to delay your progress, and to throttle back and save fuel when a tailwind is available to do some of the work.

I must confess that I've gotten a bit lazy with respect to cruise power settings for N631S. I normally file for 7,000 or 8,000 feet MSL on my longer trips and set up with wide-open throttle (giving about 20" of manifold pressure), 2,400 RPM and a fuel flow of 11.8 to 12.0 gallons per hour (GPH). According to the Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) that yields about 70% power and a true airspeed of 137 knots. The airplane seems happy that way.

On Friday I decided to experiment a little. I began by reducing the propeller speed to 2,200 RPM. The Outside Air Temperature at 8,000 MSL was 52F. At left, you can see the manifold pressure gage and the tachometer. According to the POH, at that altitude and RPM with about 19 or 20 inches of manifold pressure, I ought to be able to lean out the fuel flow to around 10.0 GPH and get 58% power and a true airspeed of 129 knots.

The picture to the right is a bit blurred but it shows the Shadin fuel flow computer indicating a consumption of 9.8 GPH. And take a look at the temperatures shown on the JPI engine monitor! A that moment it is indicating a Cylinder Head Temperature (CHT) for the #5 cylinder of 357F. That is about 20 or 25 degrees cooler than what I normally see in cruise. Cooler CHT's are decidedly a Good Thing!

But what was this costing me in airspeed? Before I started fooling around I was getting my usual 137 knots True Airspeed (KTAS). Now, having gone from 70% power to about 60% power, I was getting 131 or 132 KTAS. (The picture at left shows 115 KIAS (that's indicated airspeed), but by aligning the altitude and OAT scales on the movable True Airspeed ring, I can read off KTAS on the outer scale. It is reading just about 131.

So, I was giving up about 6 knots of airspeed to save 2 GPH of AvGas. Looked at another way, I had gone from 11.6 nautical miles per gallon to 13.2 NMPG...an improvement in fuel economy of 11.4%. (Since 1 NM = 1.15 statute miles, I was getting 15.2 statue MPG. I know people with SUV's that don't get that!)

Of course, airspeed is nice but it's ground speed that gets you home. The picture here shows the GNS-530W telling me my speed over the ground was 129 knots. On that course, the wind was having little effect. (When I made the turn to the west at SBJ I picked up a couple of knots courtesy of the easterly breeze.)

Not counting time-to-climb, N631S and I were about 2 hours en route. If I'd burned 2 GPH more fuel, I'd have gone about 6 knots faster. That works out to an extra 5.5 minutes for the trip. In return I saved about $15.00 on the fuel bill. Perhaps just as importantly, I reduced the fuel burn by about 25 pounds, and that's a lot of CO2 not added to the atmosphere.

General aviation may not be the "greenest" of activities, but I have now seen a way that I can reduce the environmental impact of my own flying. I'll still fly fast in a stiff headwind, but in more benign condtions I believe that I will start sparing the throttle.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Brief Writings

Occasionally I've written brief items that may be of interest, but that aren't really fodder for blog posts. So I've collected some in a link list in the sidebar, under the title "Brief Writings". If you wish to comment on any of these, please feel free to use email. My address is accessible via my profile.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

(More) Further Thoughts on the Mid-Air Over the Hudson

Now comes the FAA with recommendations for reducing the risks of flying the VFR Corridor along the Hudson River in New York City. The NTSB has already issued some safety recommendations (which I discussed in this post), in reaction to the August 8th mid-air collision between a Piper Saratoga departing Teterboro and an air tour helicopter. (I originally discussed the accident in this post). The FAA states that their recommendations were derived independently from those of the NTSB but there are many similarities. The two sets of recommendations are largely compatible and, of course, the FAA is actually empowered to make things happen!

The NTSB's recommendations were, in my view, good ones. I did harbor a small concern with regard to their suggestion for altitude-based segregation of fixed wing traffic from rotary wing traffic. I observed:

I'm concerned that if the vertical extent of the VFR Corridor remains from surface to 1,100 feet there may be too little space for a safe vertical division. ... that the large number of helicopter operations, characterized by a large number of altitude excursions, would be compressed into an inadequate amount of space with the unintended consequence of an increased number of conflicts. ...

If the FAA was willing to give up a little of the Class B Airspace, so that the helicopters could operate from the surface to 1,000 feet and the fixed-wing traffic had available the airspace from 1,001 to 1,500 feet, then I believe the Board's recommendation would be fully supportable.

Whether that concern was justifiable, or not, the FAA's proposals appear to render it moot. Here from the press release is the core of the FAA's plan for the Hudson River Corridor:

"...[the] new exclusionary zone would be comprised of three components:
  • It would establish a uniform “floor” for the Class B airspace over the Hudson River at 1,300 feet, which would also serve as the “ceiling” for the exclusionary zone.
  • Between 1,300-2,000 feet, it would require aircraft to operate in the Class B airspace under visual flight rules but under positive air traffic control, and to communicate on the appropriate air traffic frequency.
  • Between 1,000-1,300 feet, it would require aircraft using VFR to use a common radio frequency for the Hudson River. Aircraft operating below 1,000 feet would use the same radio frequency.

New pilot operating practices would require pilots to use specific radio frequencies for the Hudson River and the East River, would set speeds at 140 knots or less, and would require pilots to turn on anti-collision devices, position or navigation equipment and landing lights. They would also require pilots to announce when they enter the area and to report their aircraft description, location, direction and altitude.

Existing common practices that take pilots along the west shore of the river when they are southbound and along the east shore when they are northbound would become mandatory. In addition, pilots would be required to have charts available and to be familiar with the airspace rules."

The FAA also plans some pilot education initiatives to complement the changes to the airspace configuration:

..."[T]he FAA intends to develop training programs specifically tailored for pilots, air traffic controllers and fixed-base operators to increase awareness of the options available in the Hudson River airspace, and better develop plans that enhance safety for the intended flight."

It appears that the training to be developed will be made available on a voluntary basis, while the NTSB recommended mandatory training similar to that required for VFR operation near the Washington DC SFRA. Personally, I'd have preferred seeing the training mandated, but in the great scheme that may be a small item.

The FAA's release also discusses some localized procedural changes to reduce risk to Teterboro departures that need to transition into the Class B airspace or into the VFR Corridor.

While there are some differences at the margins between the NTSB recommendations and the FAA's plan,it appears that each organization has proffered a well-designed, proportionate set of responses to this tragic accident. They both deserve our appreciation and compliments.

It's especially impressive to see the FAA, never the most agile of organizations, respond to this situation with such alacrity. They are proposing to have the airspace changes finalized in time for inclusion in the next issuance of the New York Sectional and Terminal Area Charts, which occurs on November 19th. This would seem to be evidence of a refreshing let's-get-it-done approach that has to be coming down from the new Administrator, Randy Babbitt. About time, and good for him!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Is a 100LL Replacement Really Coming?

The latest issue of AOPAPilot Magazine arrived with an article titled Grass for Gas (members can access the online version at the link). The author tells of fueling his experimental-category RV-3, for a flight from Purdue University in Indiana to Frederick, MD, with SwiftFuel 100SF instead of our beloved blue 100LL AvGas. It apparently all worked out just fine.

There have been periodic stories coming out of Hoosier-land for a couple of years now detailing the progress of the alternative fuel from Swift Enterprises toward viability as a non-petroleum drop-in replacement for 100LL. Despite the adage about seeming "too good to be true", this story appears to get more credible with every news release and press item. This leaves me with a number of questions:

  • Who are these people?
  • What is this stuff?
  • Could this be for real?

Who are these people?

The wizard-in-chief at Swift Enterprises seems to be Dr. John J. Rusek, a Ph.D. chemical engineer with an impressive resume that includes lots of in-depth work in advanced propulsion systems, fuel technologies and catalysis.

Swift Enterprises operates under the aegis of the Purdue Research Foundation and has a small team of skilled people at work on the development of their alternate fuel technology. I'd say that they get full marks for credibility.

What is this stuff?

Swift Enterprises offered a very nice summary of the current status of their alternative to 100LL in a presentation at Oshkosh 2009. The slides are available in pdf format on their web site. That's a good place to get an overview.

Another very interesting source of information is the patent application filed on behalf of Swift Enterprises for their "Renewable Engine Fuel". The Abstract reads:

"The present invention provides fully renewable engine fuels derived completely from biomass sources. In one embodiment the fully renewable engine fuel is comprised of one or more low carbon number esters, one or more pentosan-derivable furans, one or more aromatic hydrocarbon, one or more C4-C10 straight chain alkanes derivable from polysaccharides, and one or more bio-oils. In addition, the fuel may contain triethanolamine. Such a lower octane renewable fuel may be utilized, for example, in automobile fuel, 100 LL aviation fuel applications, and turbine engine applications. These ethanol-based, fully renewable fuels may be formulated to have a wide range of octane values and energy, and may effectively be used to replace 100 LL aviation fuel (known as AvGas), as well as high octane, rocket, diesel, and turbine engine fuels. In another embodiment, there is provided a synthetic high octane aviation fuel comprising isopentane and mesitylene, and process of producing same from a biomass."

One table provides formulary information on a number of possible embodiments of the technology and includes an "AvGas 100LL Replacement". It consists of 13.1% ethyl acetate, 13.1% 2-methylfuran, 45.0% mesitylene (also known as 1,3,5 trimethylbenzene), 25.0% n-heptane, and 3.8% corn oil.

From the body of the patent, it seems that the first ingredient primarily increases the fuel's vapor pressure for good cold weather operation, the second and third ingredients contribute high energy content and octane-number enhancement, the fourth (a linear alkane) is actually a high-energy octane-number limiter, and the corn oil adds lubricity (we do have to pump this stuff).

This formulation is revealed by the patent application to offer a Motor Octane Number of 107 (compared to a minimum of 99.5 for 100LL, and about a 6.3% increase in heat of combustion per unit volume over 100LL. It is, however, 15.4% more dense than 100LL (i.e., about 6.9 lbs/gallon vs. about 6 lbs/gallon for 100LL). So if I filled N631S's 75 gallon tanks with this fuel I'd have on board as much fuel energy as I'd get from about 80 gallons of 100LL but I'd give up 70 pounds of payload.

(Let's note that this discussion is focused, for the moment, on the notional fuel formula from the patent app, and not the 100SF product being evaluated in engines today. The recent AOPA article mentions a fuel density for the recent product of about 6.5 lbs per gallon, so some evolution has been occurring.)

But based on the numbers from the patent, one pretty much has to conclude that, yes, Swift has got themselves a fuel that seems to meet the spec's for AvGas. The questions that remain are, will it work flawlessly as a drop-in replacement for AvGas? Only the torturous certification process will answer that. And, will it make economic sense?

Too good to be true?

The folks at Swift Enterprises seem, based on their descriptions of their production process, to be fond of sorghum as a feedstock. They say that it would take about 255,000 acres of sorghum to produce the fuel needed to replace all 100LL consumption in the US. To calibrate that for you, the Department of Agriculture says about six million acres will be planted in sorghum in the US in 2009 (down quite a lot from 10 or 15 years ago). This pales in comparison with the 80 million acres planted in corn. So, feedstock availability wouldn't seem to be a problem.

An acre of sorghum (again, according to USDA) yields about 64 bushels - presumably 128 bushels if it is double cropped. So, according to Swift's Oshkosh presentation (linked above) it will take about 33 million bushels of sorghum to cook up 300 million gallons of AvGas replacement. If sorghum goes for $3.00/bushel on the open market (not a bad number, historically) then the feedstock for a gallon of fuel would cost about $0.33. Even if the costs of manufacturing triple the costs of the inputs, the "refinery" price would be around $1 per gallon. Add in transportation and taxes and the $2.50 per gallon that Swift talks about would seem not unreasonable.

But, some folks suggest other problems may emerge. Back in March, AvWeb's Paul Bertorelli took a look at SwiftFuel and observed in part:

"Then there's the raw, commodity-driven blackhole of petroleum economics. The whole thing is tied to the price of oil which, at $40, isn't providing much encouragement for alternative fuel development. In the unlikely event that Swift Fuel proved cheaper on an equivalent octane basis than oil-based hydrocarbons, the refinery trade will buy up every drop of it for blendstock or otherwise bid up the price. One solution to this, says Swift's John Rusek, is to isolate the new fuel from the petroleum trade by marketing and distributing it through agricultural channels, as an aviation-only product. Well, maybe. Just because that hasn't been tried doesn't mean it couldn't work."

Well, oil is about $70/barrel these days and unlikely to spend much time below $50 in the future. So just maybe...

SwiftFuel has a lot going for it. A really smart technologist leading a solid team. A product that, so far at least, appears to perform and meet a need. No economic show-stoppers emergent to date. Positive test results in real engines in real airplanes. And a whole lot of pilots cheering them on. The next few years are going to be fun to watch and I, for one, am more hopeful than not.

See this June 2010 post for updated thoughts on the 100LL Replacement situation.