The Fight Over Avgas

Can private pilots fly unleaded?

Environmentalists have called for a ban on leaded fuel. Private pilots worry that the ban could kill general aviation. The author is somewhere in the middle. (Photo-illustration by Théo. Nozzles by Chad Slattery. Airfield © 2012 Marc Espolet / iStockphoto.)
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EAA vice president Macnair assures me that while the answers to many fuel-related questions are in flux, I should be able to keep flying. My very elementary airplane could reliably burn ethanol-free autogas with little problem—if I can find it. Very few companies still manufacture ethanol-free autogas, and it’s not commonly available at most airports, so pilots intent on using it have to bring it to their aircraft by way of five-gallon cans. “It’s inconvenient as hell,” says Macnair. “Who wants to be trundling around 20 gallons of gas in their truck?” For the pilots who don’t mind the bother, most of them will find that their aircraft run fine on ethanol-free autogas, which is compatible with avgas should they land and need to refuel at an airport that doesn’t offer autogas.

Many major players in general aviation aren’t waiting for the day when leaded avgas goes the way of the leather flying helmet. Cessna, for example, has begun equipping some of its Model 182 Skylanes with 230-horsepower diesel engines that can run on Jet A fuel, which has no lead. Continental Motors is working with Cirrus Aircraft Corporation to develop high-compression engines that can safely operate on unleaded fuel with an octane rating of less than 100.

Macnair and other insiders are buoyed by the hope that nothing is going to happen right away, and that a positive resolution eventually will be found. Both the EPA and the FAA have gone on record as saying they recognize the harm that would result if general aviation’s lifeblood were to be abruptly cut off before a viable alternative fuel materializes.

“We have everyone pulling on the oars together, trying to find a way out of this,” says Macnair. “Progress is being made, but it’s slow. So will [a new fuel] come from a small innovator or a large integrated petroleum company or a university or anywhere in between? I don’t predetermine that. I welcome all comers with good ideas.”

David Treinis is vice chairman of a foundation that is helping with the oar-pulling—the nonprofit Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, whose mission is to seek balance between technology and the environment. In 2011, the foundation created the Aviation Green Alliance, a forum to foster ideas on how best to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint. It has also awarded more than 300 small grants, hoping to spur the development of environmentally friendly aeronautical innovations. While no grants that might help resolve the leaded fuel predicament have yet been funded, the foundation has provided seed money to help explore improvements in aircraft emission controls, along with “smart coatings” to lessen drag on airplanes and procedures such as continuous-descent approaches that could lessen aircraft fuel consumption.

Says Treinis: “What the Lindberghs would’ve said was ‘Look, we’ve faced challenges like this in all different aspects of technological advancement.’ This one’s not unique. We’re going to find some cost-effective solution because at the end of the day, we all know that aviation is important, and so is the environment.”

Is general aviation flying on borrowed time? No one knows. As an aviation addict, I plan to keep flying. But it won’t be without ambivalence and a heightened regard for the health of the earth below my wings.

Frequent contributor David Freed is the author of the Cordell Logan aviation mystery series. The second installment, Fangs Out, was published in April.

About David Freed

Contributing editor David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

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