Ben Visser is an aviation fuels and lubricants expert who spent 33 years with Shell Oil. He has been a private pilot since 1985.
The most common question I get concerning unleaded avgas is, “why all of the controversy?”
In an effort to try to answer that question, I would like to explain the players and what their main concerns are.
The player with the biggest stake in this is the engine manufacturers. They are being asked to build and guarantee the durability of engines that operate on fuels available in the future. The only problem is no one knows what the future fuels will be. This is like being asked to write a cookbook but not knowing what ingredients will be available. In addition, they are being asked to modify all existing aircraft to run on this unknown fuel. Now you throw in our liability laws and a few thousand hungry attorneys, and you can start to see they have a problem. There are several possible solutions, like diesel engines or modified spark ignition engines that run on lower octane fuels. But none of these solutions will cover everyone. We also have engine rebuilders, especially ones that work on radial or “orphan” engines who are even further up the same creek.
The other big player is the oil companies. These are the people with really deep pockets. And guess what? They intend to keep those deep pockets. Avgas is only a few tenths of 1% of the fuel business. If the oil companies feel that they cannot make a profit from a new fuel or if the new fuel represents a high liability risk, they simply will not participate. We must remember that oil companies have the expertise and facilities to produce, handle, and distribute avgas safely and guarantee it, so it is a little like the playground where the kid with the ball makes the rules.
Next we have the people who produce specialty or boutique fuels. They are running around buying special fuel components for $60 a gallon and telling everyone that they can produce this stuff for half the cost of current avgas. Now I do not doubt that they can produce a product. My concern is the cost, where will it be made, what unknown problems will be found in the field, and who will guarantee the performance.
And then we have the government agencies that are caught in the middle. The EPA is being lobbied by environmentalist groups that heard if you eat lead-based paint it can be a health hazard so therefore want it removed from avgas, even if there is no health risk, may risk the lives of a lot of people, and could ruin an industry. But who cares if it makes them feel good?
The EPA must also deal with the FAA, who must deal with the real world consequences of lead removal. And both must deal with the politicians. I was trying to find something to say about this group that was fit to print, but so far I don’t have a thing. I will get back to you on that if I come up with something.
We also have the news media and the alphabet groups. The aviation news media has been reporting on the decline of general aviation so long that we are looking for anything different to report on. Just look at me — I used to have to think about something intelligent to write about each month. Now I just read all of the junk written about unleaded fuels and get so disgusted that new columns just roll out.
Meanwhile, the alphabet groups are running around saying, “we solved the problem, just look at us, we solved the problem.” That is like the local weatherman who reported that if it does not rain it will be a dry year, and then demanded a raise because his forecast was right.
Finally, we have the flying public. On the positive side, they get to watch this soap opera unfold. On the negative side, they have to gamble on what is the best course of action for their plane. It’s kind of like learning to do a high wire act without a net.
You can contact Ben Visser at Visser@GeneralAviationNews.com.