The Fight Over Avgas
Can private pilots fly unleaded?
- By David Freed
- Air & Space magazine, August 2013
Photo-illustration by Théo. Nozzles by Chad Slattery. Airfield © 2012 Marc Espolet / iStockphoto.
(Page 3 of 6)
Walter Desrosier, GAMA’s vice president for engineering and maintenance, says his organization, which represents most of the world’s leading manufacturers of general aviation aircraft, is concerned about the economic havoc any abrupt switch in fuels might spawn. An estimated 1.25 million Americans depend on general aviation for their livelihoods.
“This has got to be done in such a way that any transition is planned methodically,” says Desrosier, “so that we don’t have any unforeseen economic consequences.”
Robert Hackman, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, whose 385,000 members constitute the nation’s largest aviation advocacy group, points out that the plight over fuel has already disrupted general aviation. Though hard data is difficult to come by, says Hackman, anecdotal evidence suggests that some prospective customers are balking at buying aircraft with avgas-reliant engines that may be banned or require potentially costly redesign.
“It’s further depressing an already depressed market,” he says.
There’s little denying, statistically anyway, that general aviation on the whole is depressed. In 1978, FAA records show, about 58,000 student pilots, including me, earned their private pilot certificates. By 2011, the number had dropped to less than 15,000. The number of U.S.-made, piston-powered airplanes has also taken a nose dive, GAMA records reflect. In 1978, 17,811 aircraft rolled off assembly lines in the U.S. In 2011, it was 668.
As to why fewer folks are becoming pilots, nearly everyone agrees that the number one reason is the expense of learning to fly and maintaining an aircraft, and one of the biggest expenses is the cost of fuel.
In California, where I live, avgas can run $6 or more a gallon. My airplane burns about 10 gallons an hour. Factor in repairs, maintenance costs, insurance, tie-down fees, and other expenses, and the proverbial $100 hamburger that pilots like to joke about when they fly somewhere for lunch starts costing more like $200.
The gas we put in our cars and the low-lead avgas that powers my airplane are as different as, well, cars and airplanes. Car gas is what results when petroleum—crude oil—is heated and distilled. Avgas isn’t really gas at all. It’s a synthetic blend of chemicals, including toluene, benzene, and tetraethyl lead. There’s a reason the two fuels are so dissimilar.