Coping With High Fuel Costs

by HPA · December 11, 2011

Frantic Fueling Part I

By Hank Gibson, CFI, CFII, MEI

We hear it every day from those who are cursed to tread the pavement their entire lives. “Gas is going up again! I don’t want to pay $4 a gallon for fuel!” I got news for you, my unairworthy friends: according to 100LL.com, the average price of Avgas in the south central United States is $5.64 a gallon. Before your tongue falls out of your mouth, be glad you don’t live in the northeast. There, it’s $5.91 a gallon. God bless the south.

So, you cursed (that’s curs-ed) car people, quit your griping and complaining. Those of us blessed enough to touch the sky with our wing tips have it a lot worse than all of you. I’ve seen plenty of commercials for all these new, fuel efficient cars that will give you 40 miles per gallon on the highway (that would be about 25 miles per gallon city; see the fine print) while cutting down on emissions, preventing those awful holes in the ozone layer. It seems everyone on the ground is concerned about keeping things green.

Well, welcome to the pilot’s lounge, sweetie. Here, we care about going fast, going far, and burning as much fuel as we can to accomplish that. More speed? Um, yes. Ozone layer holes? That’s for Al Gore to worry about. The fact that my life savings will be spent on fuel is an after thought. That’s what the ol’ credit card is for, right?

That mindset may work for those jet jocks out there, flying those big wig Chief Executive Officers around (who, I may add, are CEO’s of oil corporations, which begs the question, are they investing in their retirement fund?), but for the majority of us flyboys, we have to pinch a pretty penny to go flying on the weekends. Most of our planes can only make it across the state of Texas on one tank of fuel (still faster than you can in that little VW Beetle!). Problem is, that trip to El Paso once a week gets kind of pricey. Is there a solution out there for us?

In addition to the price of fuel, there are those pesky maintenance costs as well. For those pilots who only rent airplanes, this isn’t an immediate, billable cost. But, what they don’t see behind those aircraft rental prices (which seem to be steadily rising as well) are the maintenance costs of the airplanes. This involves routine maintenance like oil changes and inspections, maintenance when things break, and scheduled engine overhauls, which includes a complete tear down, cleaning, inspection, and reassembly of the engine. That’s a good amount of man hours. Not to mention the additional cost if something needs replacing.

Aircraft owners, on the other hand, don’t usually fly their airplanes enough to have to worry too much about an overhaul very often. Still, when it does come up, it can get pricey. Believe it or not, the goal of the aviation industry isn’t to suck everyone’s pocket book dry. It only seems that way. Is there help?

I’m glad you asked. The nice thing about living in this day and age is technology is constantly advancing. Hanging out in the time of Noah wouldn’t have netted us the Gulfstream G650. I digress.

There is hope for a cheaper flying environment! I’ll start with fuel options. The easiest way to drive down fuel costs would be switch to a cheaper fuel, right? Going back to our fuel figures from 100LL.com, remember how those northeasterners are paying $5.91 a gallon for Avgas? Well, the price of jet fuel is only $5.59. Yes, you did see that right. $0.32 cheaper. For us southerners, Jet A rings in at $5.25 a gallon, $0.39 cheaper than 100LL.

Well hot dog, Tommy. Let’s go throw some Jet Fuel in the ol’ Piper!

Not so fast there, bub. Throwing some jet fuel in the Piper over there will not only not get you anywhere, you’ll end up paying more for the overhaul after your engine seizes up. Plus, Murphy may decide to drop in right after take off in that slow, nose high climb. Can you say stall and spin? That spells a little more than a hundred dollar hamburger.

There are a growing number of piston engines out there that run on Jet A, providing cheaper fuel and better fuel economy. According to Brad Irwin from his article in PilotMag from December 2008, SMA Engines out of France produced a 230hp engine (something to think about with that gas guzzling 182 sitting in the hangar) that only burns 8 gallons per hour at 65% power. On this side of the pond, Deltahawk, based in Wisconsin has produced three different horsepower engines (all are currently non-FAA certified). From Deltahawk’s website, their Jet A/diesel 200 horsepower engine, the total savings over 2000 hours is $43,610. That’s quite a chunk of change.

Engine-Glamour-0800shot02

©DeltaHawk Engines, Inc.

Now, all you naysayers out there are probably already formulating your arguments. I can see the first one coming already. The engines aren’t FAA certified yet. Yes, this is true, but it can’t be long now. The FAA just takes a while with this sort of thing. I can hear you grumbling there in the back about the cost of a conversion for your 182RG. Is it worth the cost? If you can spare the change for the conversion, it will serve you well in the long run. Another option would be just to buy a new airplane with the Jet A piston already on there. Again, that’ll take some time while everyone waits on the FAA. The clock is ticking.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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Flying

The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).

Learning

At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/

 

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