The Top Aviation Stories of 2018

From the fight against privatization to a record shattering glider, these are the stories that defined aviation in 2018.

atc privatization
An eleventh-hour proposal by Rep. Bill Shuster to remove air traffic control from the FAA and place it under the jurisdiction of the Transportation Department was dropped after an outcry by GA pilots.NATCA

GA Wins Major Victory in ATC Privatization Fight

The general aviation community made its voice heard loud and clear in the offices of Congress with thousands of e-mails from members of alphabet groups like NBAA, AOPA, EAA, GAMA, NATA and others, telling elected members that slicing the ATC system away from its FAA parent was a very bad idea.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the power behind the separation idea, said only if the ATC system was split from the agency, could there be any hope of improving system efficiency with new technologies like ADS-B. Privatization, as the effort came to be known, would roll ATC into a quasi-private organization managed by a 13-member board chosen by the Secretary of Transportation. The fur began flying early in the debate when it became clear the majority of the governing board, that would wield considerable control over the nation’s ATC system, would consist of people with closer ties to the airline industry than to general aviation. A Congressional Budget Office audit also claimed separating ATC from the FAA could add as much as $100 billion to the federal budget deficit.

Despite considerable efforts on the part of the airlines to drive the legislation through the Congress, by late April, Shuster dropped the effort, legislation the Trump Administration had also supported. While no one would speak on the record, one reason for privatization’s defeat may well have been the loss of its champion when Shuster announcement in early January that he planned to retire from Congress the following fall.

atp and envoy air
The Envoy Cadet Program organizes a new pilot’s career up through joining American Airlines.ATP

Global Airline Pilot Shortage Continues

Despite a never-ending stream of rhetoric from the Air Line Pilots Association claiming the U.S. aviation industry was not experiencing a shortage of pilots, much of the rest of industry reported a dearth of qualified applicants. Hard hit at the bottom of the pilot pyramid was the flight training industry, where the majority of new pilots experience their first flights. Once instructors reached the magic 1,500-hour point, they quickly departed for one of the regional airlines.

Regionals had no easy time holding on to pilots either, where their pilots, once seasoned by a few thousand hours of Part 121 experience, were jumping ship for Delta, American, United, FedEx or Southwest. That Part 121 experience also made many regional pilots head for JetBlue, Alaska, Frontier or Spirit to continue building time until one of the big carriers called back.

Part 135 charter and Part 91 corporate flight departments were also squeezed as experienced pilots, many who once saw themselves as career biz av pilots, answered the siren call of the airlines. Even the military services were short of pilots. Some say the lure was strictly compensation, while others claim airline schedules offered pilots more control over their lives.

Louis Smith, president of Future and Active Pilots Advisors (FAPA) reported the “eleven largest U.S. airlines will hire greater than 4,400 pilots this year, with poaching the civilian sector the primary source of pilots. Those same airlines will retire nearly 35,000 pilots in the next ten years, so we can expect a changing dynamic with minimum qualifications and financial assistance from the industry for future pilots.”

Pilots have benefited from the shortage this year however, seeing significant compensation increases up and down the food chain. Regional airline pilots, “first-year pay has jumped from an average of $19,000 per year to an upper range of $50,000 to $70,000, while upgrading to captain is also happening quicker with all the attrition,” according to Smith.

As 2018 draws to a close, he says the chaotic pace of hiring has begun to ease somewhat although "flying skills are becoming an issue in the regional sector, with training washout rates from 15 to 20%. The majors plan to hire thousands of additional pilots in 2019, so in that segment at least, there's no shortage at the moment. Business aviation and charter operators are still struggling for solutions however. The U.S. Air Force believes it's making a slight dent in the shortage it's experienced although the USAF is hardly out of the woods just yet.

redbird td
The Redbird TD is one of several home based simulators that can help you stay IFR current.Redbird Flight Simulations

FAA Revises IFR Currency Rules

The FAA earlier this year adopted new regulations related to instrument currency. The biggest change is that pilots are now permitted to maintain instrument currency using an approved flight simulator at home without needing to have a flight instructor present, and can maintain currency for six months instead of the previous two months. The extended currency interval allows instrument-rated pilots to use any combination of aircraft and aviation training device to accomplish the flight experience required for currency. The change could open up a market for approved home-based simulators sold by FlyThisSim, Redbird and others as pilots take advantage of the new rules.

Gulfstream G500
Certification followed more than 5,000 hours of testing.Gulfstream

Gulfstream G500 Enters Service

One of the most technologically sophisticated jets ever created entered service in September when Gulfstream Aerospace delivered the first Gulfstream G500, officially marking the start of a new generation of Gulfstream airplanes. The G500 received FAA type and production certificates on July 20, 2018. Already the G500 has established more than 20 new city-pair speed records during a high-speed world tour this year. The tour, which covered 44 cities and 18 countries on six continents, demonstrated the G500's reliability and maturity and showcased the cabin and flight deck to customers. The fly-by-wire jet features the Honeywell Symmetry flight deck with 10 touchscreens arrayed across the cockpit. The cabin is equally as impressive, offering the ability for passengers in the up-to-19 seat interior to easily hold conversations in the whisper-quiet environment, which offers a 4,850-foot cabin altitude at FL 510 and can dash 4,800 nm at Mach 0.90.

pilatus pc-24
Pilatus delivered the first PC-24 to fractional operator PlaneSense in New Hampshire in February.Pilatus

Pilatus PC-24 Enters Service

When Stans, Switzerland-based Pilatus Aircraft announced that it would develop a business jet with similar capabilities as its versatile PC-12 turboprop, there were many who had serious doubts about the success of the project. And rightfully so since it would be Pilatus' very first bizjet and no company had ever developed one for unpaved surfaces. But Pilatus is known for over delivering on its promises and the PC-24, also known as the Super Versatile Jet, is no exception. It was certified on budget and on time, an accomplishment not many aircraft manufacturers can boast about. Not only that, but within a year of certification, the company had delivered about 20 of the stunning twinjets. And the performance is spectacular, with a takeoff distance below 3,000 feet, a 440-knot max cruise speed and a 2,000 nm max range. While the certification for unpaved runways has not quite been signed off as the year closes, the testing is complete and Pilatus expects to achieve it very soon.

lion air
A 737 Max 8 operated as Lion Air flight 610 slammed into the waters of the Java Sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 people aboard.Lion Air

Safety of Boeing 737 MAX Called into Question after Lion Air Crash

When Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea on October 29 just 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing all 189 people on board, investigators were initially perplexed as to what could have caused the accident. The airplane was a nearly brand-new Boeing 737 MAX, the crown jewel of Boeing 737 family. It was the deadliest 737 crash ever, which only added to the urgency to figure out what went wrong. Boeing and the FAA, on the basis of preliminary information gathered in the investigation, published warnings about erroneous angle of attack indications on cockpit instrument displays, a move that shocked many 737 MAX pilots and airlines. The FAA quickly issued an AD requiring amended operating limitations and procedures relating to erroneous data from an AOA sensor. Accident investigators are still months away from issuing their report as Lion Air threatens to cancel billions of dollars' worth of orders with Boeing.

embraer praetor 600
Embraer's Praetor 600 offers a 3,900 nm range.Embraer

Embraer Launches a Pair of Business Jets

Brazilian airplane maker Embraer made a big splash ahead of the annual NBAA Business Aviation Convention and Expo show in Orlando this year as it introduced two flying prototypes: The Praetor 500 and the Praetor 600. Derivatives of the Legacy 450 and 500, the fly-by-wire twinjets are well on their way to certification, expected around the middle of next year. Embraer says the Praetor 500 will be the fastest in the midsize class of business jets, with a max operating speed of Mach 0.83. Meanwhile, the Praetor 600 will lead the super midsize category in range, stretching out to 3,900 nm. The flight deck of both airplanes will be dominated by Rockwell Collins' Pro Line Fusion avionics suite. Pricing for the Praetor 500 and 600 will be $17 million and $21 million respectively.

Capitol Hill
Legislation passed the Senate by a 93-6 margin.Wikimedia Commons

Long-term FAA Reauthorization Bill Passes

Many Congressional critics never thought the FAA would be operating under a long-term reauthorization legislation, but in mid-April, the House passed its version of the agency's funding bill. Aimed at keeping the agency afloat for the next five years, the bill ended a three-year run of short-term legislation patches that had plagued the FAA for years. It took until early October for the Senate's version of reauthorization legislation to be approved. The measure passed overwhelmingly with a 93-6 vote.

In addition to keeping programs such as the $36 billion NextGen program afloat and paying the FAA’s 14,000 air traffic controllers, the bill tweaks airline regulations, sets additional guidelines for drone aircraft and provides funding for the Transportation Security Administration. The bill sent to the White House also instructs the FAA to prepare for a return to supersonic air travel and to create an Office of Spaceports. The office would provide oversight for state and local concerns that have been launching rockets into space, most of them privately owned. Airline passengers were mostly pleased by a few small elements in the legislation that prohibit the use of cell phone calls on a plane and also empower the FAA to set minimums for seat width and pitch aboard airliners.

lancair mako
The Mako flies beautifully, with characteristics that offer a good balance of maneuverability and stability.Glenn Watson

Lancair Unveils High-Performance Mako

Shortly after Lancair's assets were purchased by father-son team Mark and Conrad Huffstutler and relocated from Redmond, Oregon, to Uvalde, Texas, the company was kicked into high gear with a derivative of Lancair's IV airframe. Named the Mako after the speedy shark, the four-seat airplane features an innovative self-retracted and deployed nose gear to reduce drag and increase efficiency. The Mako offers a much lower cost alternative to the Cirrus SR22, though being in the experimental category it has to be built by the customer or an assigned builder. Lancair offers an assist program to help with that. The Mako is available with a normally aspirated 300 hp or turbocharged 350 hp engine that brings the Mako's max cruise speed beyond that of the Mooney Acclaim at 245 ktas.

ntsb southwest flight 1380
NTSB investigators examine the results of the catastrophic engine failure that caused Southwest Flight 1380 to make an emergency landing in April.NTSB

Southwest Airlines Pilots Make Dramatic Emergency Landing at PHL

It was a dramatic scene that unfolded aboard a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 last April 17 when a passenger died and seven others were injured after the jetliner, flying from New York to Dallas, suffered a catastrophic inflight engine failure that broke a window and sent smoke into the cabin. Flight 1380 captain Tammie Jo Shults and first officer Darren Ellisor were lauded for making a textbook forced emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. A subsequent examination of the 737's left engine revealed that the number 13 fan blade had sheared off and exhibited signs of metal fatigue. The incident led airlines to step up inspections of engines on the 737.

bombardier q400
Bombardier is selling its Q400 line to Viking Air.Bombardier

Bombardier Grapples with a Year of Transition

It has been a year of transition for Bombardier Aerospace as the storied Canadian aircraft maker was forced to hand over its C Series airliner program to Airbus, which has re-branded the airplane the A220, and take other difficult steps in the face of mounting financial losses. Bombardier is also selling its Q400 turboprop aircraft program to Viking Air. But it hasn't been all bad news for the company. Bombardier delivered its first new Global 7500 business jet last week, and this past spring introduced two new jets, the Global 5500 and 6500, which slot into the product portfolio between the Global 5000 and 7500. All indications point to the continued health of Bombardier's bizjet division in Canada, and the manufacturer is forecasting a 15 percent increase in deliveries for 2019.

Liberty Helicopters
A Liberty Helicopters New York City tour flight in January.Liberty Helicopters/Twitter

NYC Helicopter Crash Points to Dangers of 'Doors Off' Sightseeing Flights

When five FlyNYON passengers who were partaking in a so-called doors-off helicopter photo flight drowned in New York City's East River early this year after their helicopter crashed in the water, most people reacted with disbelief when they learned why the passenger died. The pilot was able to release his safety harness and swim to safety, but because the passengers were strapped into the Airbus AS350 with no quick-release mechanism, escape was all but impossible as the helicopter was dragged upside down in the water for several blocks. What perhaps is most incredible about the whole ordeal is that FlyNEON continues to offer doors-off helicopter flights over New York City. After the crash, the FAA prohibited doors-off flights using such harnesses. FlyNEON now operates the flights using quick-release harnesses. The FAA has taken no steps to address the risks associated with passengers leaning out of the open doors of helicopters in flight.

FAA headquarters
The FAA acknowledged the lack of complex aircraft availability and no longer requires such an airplane for any portion of either the single-engine commercial or CFI checkrides.Matthew G. Bisanz/Wikimedia Commons

FAA Drops Complex Airplane Requirement for Commercial Pilot Checkride

The FAA addressed a long-simmering aircraft availability issue for pilots earning some pilot certificates. Where commercial pilot and single-engine flight instructor applicants were once required to complete a portion of the checkride in a complex aircraft - one with retractable landing gear, flaps and a constant speed propeller – the agency now says aircraft such as a Cirrus SR-20 or SR-22 will suffice.

In a new FAA national policy initiative – N 8900.463 – the agency acknowledged the lack of complex aircraft availability and, effective immediately, no longer requires such an airplane for any portion of either the single-engine commercial or CFI checkrides.

Rather than alter the definition of complex, the agency said, “removing the commercial pilot ACS requirement to furnish a complex or turbine-powered airplane and removing the flight instructor PTS requirement to furnish a complex airplane will achieve the same objectives. The FAA has determined that removing these ACS/PTS requirements will significantly reduce costs for persons pursuing a commercial pilot or flight instructor certificate by allowing applicants to utilize less-expensive airplanes on the practical test that are not complex or turbine-powered.”

The change also does not, however, alter the commercial requirement for applicants to log 10 hours of flight time in a complex aircraft somewhere in the training process.

Dassault Falcon 8X
The Dassault Falcon 6X will fly with Pratt & Whitney Canada PW800 series turbofan engines.Dassault

Dassault Launches Falcon 6X

Following prolonged technical issues with the Snecma Silvercrest engines for the Falcon 5X, Dassault scrapped that model and in the spring launched the Falcon 6X instead. Powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW812D turbofan engines, the 6X will have a 20-inch longer cabin and a 300-nm range increase over the 5X, to 5,500 nm. As for commonality with the 5X, much of the systems architecture will be retained, including a fly-by-wire system that Dassault says is "one step beyond" that found in the Falcon 8X. Otherwise, it will be a substantial redesign. First deliveries are scheduled for 2022.

seattle hijacking
A Horizon Air ground service employee stole a Bombardier Q400 (like the one pictured) from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.Hawaiian717/Wikimedia Commons

Airport Employee Steals, Crashes Q400 Near Seattle

Imagine the surprise when airport workers at the Seattle Tacoma International Airport watched a Bombardier Q400 taxi out without a pilot at the controls, but rather one of their coworkers. Not only did the non-pilot employee steal the airplane. He took off, flew around for about an hour while doing some aerobatic maneuvers with the large twin turboprop before crashing near on Kentron Island in the Puget sound. Communications with Air Traffic Control confirmed that the man at the controls, Horizon Air ground operator Richard Russell, was suicidal. Russell was the only person aboard the Q400 and he died in the crash.

Vashon Ranger
To keep the weight low and provide a unique look, Vashon Aircraft chose vinyl wrap rather than paint to protect its recently introduced Ranger R7 light-sport aircraft.Jon Whittle

Vashon Introduces Ranger LSA

Dynon Avionics founder John Torode started his company in an effort to reduce the cost of avionics with advanced technologies. His company became a big success. An offshoot of Dynon aims to similarly bring the cost of new airplanes down to a level that is affordable for a greater percentage of the general public. With its first offering, the Ranger R7, Vashon Aircraft has achieved what the LSA category was intended. A solid airplane with stable flight characteristics for right around $100,000, and that’s with a full glass panel that includes ADS-B Out capabilities, full mapping and navigation, AOA indicator and an autopilot. Rugged landing gear with full size tires make the Ranger ideal for the flight training environment, too.

swift fuels faa
Swift Fuels is working directly with the FAA on a high-octane replacement for piston aircraft.Wikimedia Commons/Nevit Dilmen

FAA Halts Unleaded Fuel Testing Program

In early September, the FAA said some final testing of a 100LL AvGas replacement for the nation's GA aircraft would be postponed until the middle of 2020 from its original December 2018 date. Officially known as the piston aviation fuels initiative, the agency said, "Phase 1 and 2 testing of fuels from Shell and Swift (the two finalists in the program) revealed unique issues with each fuel that needed to be addressed. In response, the PAFI Steering Group (PSG) notified each of the fuel producers and provided a list of issues that needed to be better understood and mitigated in order for their fuel to move forward in the program.

Around the same time as the agency's announcement, Swift said it was suspending its PAFI work to pursue another fuel alternative outside of the program. The company already has an ASTM-approved unleaded alternative in the U.S. that can serve about 110,000 piston aircraft capable of flying on lower octane fuel – UL94. The FAA later said, "Shell continued to actively work to optimize its fuel formulation within their specification to mitigate identified issues. Early results from these efforts appear promising." In response to Shell's efforts PAFI members voted to resume phase 2 testing of the Shell fuel. Testing includes clearing material compatibility, durability, detonation, and performance issues before additional flight testing is conducted.

skybeacon
skyBeacon combines five technologies into one tiny, easy-to-install product.uAvionix

uAvionix Gains STC for Low-cost SkyBeacon ADS-B Receiver

Montana-based uAvionix became widely known as one of the companies transforming the avionics marketplace for GA pilots. Earlier this year, the company introduced two new easy-to-install ADS-B solutions, the skyBeacon and the tailBeacon derived from the company's years of research into micro-technology for the drone industry. The skyBeacon is a direct-replacement for the left nav light installed on most GA aircraft, while the tailBeacon replaces the white tail recognition light. Each unit includes a fully operational ADS-B Out transponder able to meet the FAA's 2020 ADS-B mandate. Both units are simple to install using just a screwdriver and a pair of wire crimpers. Once installed, the units are paired to the FAA ADS-B system through a simple smart-phone app.

The fully TSOed skyBeacon, along with its supplementary type certificate retails for $1849. Thanks to the FAA reinstating its $500 rebate, pilots can own an operational ADS-B Out unit for as little as $1349.

perlan 2 in space
The Perlan 2 glider pilots were able to see the curvature of the earth and the darkness of space on the record flight.Airbus Perlan Mission II

Perlan 2 Glider Soars to Record Heights

A glider at the edge of space? Perlan Mission's Einar Enevoldson hypothesized that it was possible to catch stratospheric mountain waves to soar as high as 100,000 feet. When Enevoldson made his announcement in the early 1990s, it seems like an impossible feat. But today it appears attainable. This image was taken from a camera mounted on the tail of the Perlan 2 glider as it soared beyond 76,000 feet in September in El Calafate, Argentina. Perlan Mission II's chief pilot Jim Payne and copilot Tim Gardner flew the historic mission. The team aims to reach 90,000 feet with the Perlan 2 and beyond 100,000 feet with the third version of the stratospheric glider.