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Last Monday, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) released their budget request documents for the fiscal year 2019.

According to the documents, the USAF are seeking to address aircrew shortage by adding around 4,700 airmen in this year, which would bring their overall number to around 506,200 – nearly back to its 2013 strength when it had a total force (including active duty, Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve) of 507,315.

The Air Force wants to be able to continue to offer enticements such as incentive pay and bonuses to their airmen, along with giving a 2.6% pay rise, increased housing and subsistence allowances and family support programs.

At the same time the budget request addresses the funding of more flying hours and looks to improve and expand the facility to train more pilots and other aircrew. This will hopefully correct the worrying shortfall of pilots, engineers and skilled personnel that has been accruing over the last few years and therefore improve military readiness. A statement on the Official United States Air Force website, Financial Management and Comptroller, states they are looking to:

“.....further reduce critical gaps in our force and provides funding to recruit, train and develop resilient and competent Airmen.”

Along with staff funding, this budget also helps close shortfalls in “key areas” such as nuclear deterrence, modernization, space superiority, multi-domain command and control, air superiority, light attack and science and technology.

More information on the budget request can be found here.

The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) is investigating an incident where a drone apparently flew over a Frontier Airlines Airbus which was landing at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

A video of the incident quickly went viral last week, which prompted the FAA to look into its authenticity.  Ian Gregor, a spokesperson from the Federal Aviation Administration stated:

“We became aware of this incident this afternoon and we are investigating.”

Footage from the drone’s video shows it taking off and flying over Whitney Ranch Recreational Center in Henderson, which is about seven miles east of McCarran International Airport, then loops above the airplane which is approaching the end of Runway 26R.

Although the video has not yet been proven as genuine, many drone users and organizations have condemned the operator as reckless, as well as pointing out the illegality of their actions.

According to FAA regulations (FAR Part 107) the operating of a drone in such a way to interfere with traffic patterns of any airports, heliports or seaplane bases is prohibited. Violation of the rules can incur fines of up to $250,000, federal criminal charges and even imprisonment for up to three years.

On 22nd January 2018, Boeing announced that The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had issued its 787-10 Dreamliner an amended type certificate (ATC) which clears the aeroplane for commercial service in the US.

Flight testing of the 787-10 began in March 2017 and although it was envisaged that four flight test planes would be needed, it proved to have so much in common with the smaller 787-9 that only three flight-test airplanes were used, over a total of around 900 test hours.

Although the 787-10 is around 5.5 meters longer than the 787-9, adding about 40 more passengers (up to 330 passengers in total), the 787-10 uses 95% common part numbers to the 787-9. Boeing 787 Chief Project Engineer Bob Whittington stated:

“....the customers told us they really wanted the -10 to be as common as we could with the -9...”

Indeed the group of airlines that makes up the program’s advisory panel, apparently insisted that unity was more important even than range.

Because of its size, the 787-10 has been built entirely in Charleston, South Carolina, rather than being transported to Everett, Washington. However, according to Whittington, it has “flowed seamlessly through the production system...... The manufacturing system doesn’t really know the difference between a -9 and a -10.”

The amended certification issued by the FAA will now hopefully lead the way for approval by other regulatory agencies around the world so that customers such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates can launch the aircraft into service later this year

In 2015 the US army announced that they would be ordering a further 16 UH-72A helicopters from Airbus, to add to the 423 already either delivered or on order.

However, Leonardo, who produce the A109 (a light twin helicopter that is able to satisfy a wide range of military requirements) challenged the purchase by filing a suit in the Court of Federal Claims, maintaining that the army had not solicited bids from other competitors and thus beginning the start of a saga that has dragged on for years.

Initially, the Court upheld the claims and backed Leonardo’s challenge, stating that the army had acted “capriciously” by awarding the contract on a sole-source basis. The Court gave the army six months to either issue a new Justification and Acquisition (J&A) document, re-compete the contract, or not proceed at all. Judge Susan Braden stated:

“If there is a genuine need for the 16 Light Utility Helicopters at issue, or perhaps a larger number, the most efficient way for the Army to proceed is to commence a competitive procurement.”

At the time the ruling was heralded as a victory for Leonardo, who lost out to Airbus (then known as EADS) on the original contract back in 2006 and which was initially valued at around $43 million.

Finally, on 23rd January 2018, a decision was reached by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. They overturned the lower court’s decision, stating that they were satisfied the Army had justified their reasons for not seeking competitively sourced bids from other manufacturers.

This is great timing for Airbus, who is due to deliver the last of the original order UH-72’s on 28th February. A spokesperson for Airbus said:

“This ruling also removes the threat that Leonardo has held over the heads of our American workers in Mississippi – more than 40% of whom are U.S. military veterans – as it has tied up Army procurement long enough to nearly shut down our American production line.”

The ruling also comes only weeks after the army published a new ‘sources sought’ document outlining plans to purchase up to 35 Airbus Helicopters EC-145’s.

The NTSB’s Final Report concerning the Bell 525 crash that occurred during its flight test has been issued.

On 6th July 2016 a Bell 525 Relentless Prototype (N525TA) broke up in flight and impacted terrain - both test pilots on board were killed. At the time, the aircraft was flying in the Arlington Initial Experimental Test Area in Texas on a developmental test flight and was performing the last of a planned sequence of one-engine-inoperative (OEI) tests at increasing airspeeds with a heavy, forward center-of-gravity configuration.

The NTSB report advises that the accident was probably caused by unanticipated severe vibrations as the aircraft attempted to recover rotor rotation speed following one of the OEI tests, this one at 185 knots.

Specifically, the report states:

“The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was a severe vibration of the helicopter that led to the crew’s inability to maintain sufficient rotor rotation speed (Nr), leading to excessive main rotor blade flapping, subsequent main rotor blade contact with the tail boom, and the resultant in-flight breakup. Contributing to the severity and sustainment of the vibration, which was not predicted during development, were (1) the collective biomechanical feedback and (2) the attitude and heading reference system response, both of which occurred due to the lack of protections in the flight control laws against the sustainment and growth of adverse feedback loops when the 6-hertz (Hz) airframe vibration initiated. Contributing to the crew’s inability to maintain sufficient Nr in the severe vibration environment were (1) the lack of an automated safeguard in the modified one-engine-inoperative (OEI) software used during flight testing to exit at a critical Nr threshold and (2) the lack of distinct and unambiguous cues for low Nr.”

As the helicopter was an experimental research and development aircraft, it was not required to be equipped with either a flight data recorder (FDR) or cockpit voice recorder (CVR) under the provisions of 14 CFR 91.609.3. Although there was a combination CVR and FDR (CVFDR) installed, it was not operational at that time. The NTSB report highlighted the difficulty this presented them, stating that “a properly functioning CVFDR would have recorded any discussions between the accident pilots that could have offered more information” and that “cockpit image recording capability would have recorded any pilot actions and interactions with the aircraft systems including avionics button presses, warning acknowledgements, and any other physical response to the aircraft”.

In response, Bell Helicopter independently addressed this deficiency before the 525 testing program recommenced on 7th July 2017. Cockpit audio and communications to and from the ground monitoring station by means of an onboard CVFDR were added, cockpit video is now also being recorded and a company-wide business directive was issued to ensure that cockpit audio is recorded during all telemetered flight test activities across Bell’s flight test sites.

As a result of the investigation, the NTSB issued one safety recommendation to the FTSC and one safety recommendation to Bell Helicopter Textron. The NTSB accident report can be found here.

In the third landing-related incident in around six months at San Francisco International airport (SFO), on 9th January 2018, pilots of Aeromexico flight 668 lined up to land on the wrong runway.

Air traffic controllers (ATC) had cleared the Aeromexico flight - which had taken off from Mexico City - to land on San Francisco International's Runway 28 Right, an instruction that the pilot acknowledged. However, when the Boeing 737-800 was less than a mile away, controllers noticed it was lined up for the parallel Runway 28 Left, which was already occupied by a Virgin America Airbus A320 awaiting takeoff.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who are investigating the matter, ATC immediately instructed the crew to execute a “go around”. Despite this, the Aeromexico flight was apparently as little as 600 ft off the ground at one point.   A second approach saw the plane land safely on the correct runway.

This is the third close call at SFO – the first was on 7th July 2017 when an Air Canada flight from Toronto came close to crashing into planes lined up to take off. Although cleared to land on Runway 28 Right, the aircraft lined up for Taxiway C, which runs parallel to the runway. On investigating the incident, Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB) estimated that the A320-200 overflew the first two aircraft by 100 ft., the third aircraft by 200 ft. and the fourth by 300 ft. The closest lateral distance to one of the aircraft was around 29 ft.

The second incident also involved an Air Canada flight, this time on 22nd October 2017. Flight AC781, an Airbus 320 was arriving at SFO from Montreal, Canada. Again, ATC had cleared the flight to land on Runway 28 Right and the crew had acknowledged the instructions. However, during its final approach, the tower ordered the flight to abort the landing, as they were concerned that the preceding arriving jet might still be on the runway. Even though controllers tried to reach the aeroplane several times and even used a light gun to wave off the aircraft, the crew continued the approach, later maintaining that their radio had malfunctioned.

The FAA implemented several new policies at SFO after the first incident and are now investigating the most recent.

Airbus had previously hinted that they may have to stop making the A380 superjumbo if Emirates, the plane’s main customer, did not place any more orders. However Emirates wanted a guarantee from Airbus that they would keep making the plane, even if no other airlines placed orders.

Therefore, apparently in an effort to keep the A380 in production until the market picks up, Airbus have announced they could eventually reduce output of the type to as few as 6 a year (compared to 15 that were delivered in 2017). This slowing of production will start with 12 being delivered this year and 8 in 2019 and comes after Airbus admitted the market was “challenging” for both them and Boeing.

The superjumbo idea was first mooted by Airbus in the early 1990’s as a competitor to Boeing’s jumbo jet – the 747. It was eventually launched in October 2007, making it’s first commercial flight with Singapore Airlines, flying from Singapore to Sydney. Since then there have been 317 orders for the A380 placed from Air France, Lufthansa and Qantas but Emirates remains their biggest customer.

In stark contrast, Airbus are also celebrating Indigo's huge order for it’s smallest plane, the A320 NEO and at $49.5bn is its biggest ever single deal.

The A320 was launched in 1984 as a rival to the Boeing 737 and has grabbed a huge share of the short haul market. This has helped Airbus beat Boeing for the fifth year in a row when it comes to overall orders, with Airbus taking 1,109 aircraft orders and making 718 deliveries last year, compared to Boeing’s 912 orders and 763 deliveries.

Reported occurrences of suspected hypoxia increased in the Navy and Air Force in 2017 - grounding flights at several points over the year - with the latest incidents happening during the last week in November.

Twenty eight of the 85 A-10s assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base were grounded after three pilots reported physiological incidents, two while flying and a third on the ground. Apparently the pilots experienced hypoxia-like symptoms, which is where an oxygen deficiency can cause impairment and ultimately, loss of consciousness.

In both incidences where the A-10’s were in flight, the back-up oxygen system worked and the pilots landed safely. However, the two aircraft involved were using different oxygen systems: one was equipped with Onboard Oxygen Generation System (OBOGS), the other with an older type called Liquid Oxygen System (LOX) and to date, it is only the issue with older system that has been successfully resolved, hence why only 28 of the A-10’s were grounded.

Capt. Josh Benedetti, spokesperson for Davis-Monthan said:

“We quickly determined the issue with the LOX-equipped aircraft was related to a malfunction with the cabin pressure and oxygen regulator,” ....“Those issues were fixed immediately.”

The third occurrence happened before take-off, when the pilot noticed and reported an error with the OBOGS system. Although Capt. Benedetti admitted “we have not determined a root cause” he stated that because of the further inspections, they have at least ascertained a better way of maintaining the system.

These groundings were the third time Air Force aircraft flights were suspended in a year, because of pilots reporting physiological episodes. Flight operations in the F-35A at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona were cancelled for eleven days in June after five reported incidents of hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation and in November, four instructor pilots and one student pilot in four different flights experienced hypoxia-like symptoms. This lead to the grounding of the T-6A Texas training flights of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

Capt. Benedetti stated:

“The Air Force takes these physiological incidents seriously, and our focus is on the safety and well-being of our pilots.”

It is a well known fact that the US Air Force is facing huge staff shortages across all grades and skills. Various incentives have been offered to help stem the mass exodus of pilots to the commercial sector, however the latest initiatives involve retaining field-grade officers (who mainly command troops) as just under 1 in 10 of these jobs are vacant (1 in 4 for nonrated field-grade officers).

To keep airmen in service and to deal with the shortages, the US Air Force recently announced several measures – last month any Captain who was recommended for promotion and had an unblemished conduct record was advanced to the rank of Major.

In an additional measure, it has now been announced that some Colonels will be eligible to remain on active duty for three years past their retirement date.

Normally, Colonels not selected for promotion to one star must retire after 30 years of service. However in the attempt to retain personnel, an Air Force Board will look at the records of 50 line officer Colonels who will be required to retire between Feb. 1, 2018, and Feb. 1, 2019. Those eligible will then have the choice whether to remain for an additional three years.  

Col. Jeff O’Donnell, Air Force Colonels Group Director, said:

“It can take 21 years to develop a line officer to become a Colonel who may then serve up to 30 years.” He continued: “And as the Air Force is growing end strength, we need experienced leaders to serve and lead across the Department of Defense.”

A spokesperson for the Air Force said any eligible officers should have been notified by Dec. 31

According to the Dutch consulting firm To70 and the Aviation Safety Network (ASN, a group that tracks crashes), 2017 was the safest year on record for commercial airlines.

Despite more flights being made than ever, with around 36.8 million passenger flights taking off last year, there were no passenger jet crashes anywhere in the world. This takes the fatal accident rate for large commercial passenger flights to around 0.06 per million flights, or one fatal accident for every 16 million flights, according to To70. The Aviation Safety Network stated:

“2017 was the safest year ever, both by the number of fatal accidents as well as in terms of fatalities”. With ASN president Harro Ranter saying: "Since 1997 the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, for a great deal thanks to the continuing safety-driven efforts by international aviation organisations such as ICAO, IATA, Flight Safety Foundation and the aviation industry."

Adrian Young of To70 added:

"2017 was the safest year for aviation ever."

Despite this, Adrian Young cautioned that civil aviation still carried "very large risks", citing several risk factors (such as lithium-ion batteries catching fire) that still apply - and even though the number of deaths due to aviation have fallen during the last twenty years (for example there were more than 1,000 deaths on commercial passenger flights in 2005) To70 highlighted there had been "several quite serious non-fatal accidents" and warned that the figures could be seen as "good fortune".

Although there were no deaths attributable to commercial passenger flights in 2017 - the figures are based on incidents involving civil aircraft certified to carry at least 14 people - there were 10 fatal airliner accidents (which include cargo planes and commercial passenger turbo prop aircraft) which resulted in 79 deaths - 44 fatalities onboard and 35 persons on the ground. This compares with 16 accidents and 303 deaths in 2016.

Additionally, neither military nor helicopter accidents were considered, so the deaths of 122 people on a Burmese Y-8 military transporter plane did not appear in the reports

People who shine laser pens at vehicles could be jailed for up to five years under new laws.

The Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill was introduced by Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg, with the first reading taking place on 20th December 2017. This stage is a formality that signals the start of the Bill's journey through the Lords.

The Bill expands the list of vehicles beyond just planes (which it is currently an offence to target with lasers), to incorporate vehicles and vessels as well, and is intended to make it easier to prosecute those who threaten their safety. Baroness Sugg stated that she was "determined to protect pilots, captains, drivers and their passengers".

The Bill will make it an offence to deliberately shine or direct a laser towards a vehicle to dazzle or distract the operator, if done deliberately or if reasonable precautions to avoid doing so have not been taken. The legislation will therefore remove the need to prove intent to danger, which historically has been a difficult burden and has slowed the prosecution of offenders.

Under this new law laser operators could be jailed for up to 5 years and/or fined, with the cap on the amount offenders can be fined (currently limited to £2,500) being removed.

As events involving laser pens have become a growing concern within the transport industry, with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) receiving reports of 1,258 laser incidents last year, news of the Bill has been well received. General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), Brian Strutton said the measures were "very welcome".

Commander Simon Bray, who is the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) lead for lasers, stated "Laser attacks can lead to catastrophic incidents. These new and robust measures send a clear message to perpetrators: laser attacks are a crime and serious consequences will follow from committing this offence."

The second reading - the general debate on all aspects of the Bill – will take place on 9th January 2018.