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.

Comments