Aviation Fuel Club takes off, as AOPA chief’s number don’t add up

The GAfuels Blog is written by two private pilots concerned about the future availability of fuels for piston-engine aircraft: Dean Billing, Sisters, Ore., an expert on autogas and ethanol, and Kent Misegades, Cary, N.C., an aerospace engineer and aviation journalist.

The 2011 Sport Aviation EXPO in Sebring is now history, and if you have read the reports in all the various aviation media, you’d think the only exhibitors there were airplane makers – few reported on things on display indoors. After attending this fine little event in 2009 and 2010 as a correspondent for the EAA, this year I was an exhibitor, representing the aviation fuel station maker U-Fuel. The “big tent” where U-Fuel, which introduced the Aviation Fuel Club at the show, and several dozen other exhibitors were showing off their wares was fairly crowded on all but the final day of the show, attesting to the many new things that debuted in Sebring this year.

Among my favorites were the curvaceous composite propellers made in Sensenich’s Plant City, Florida, facility, the enthusiastic young pilots in Gleim Publication’s booth, Dynon’s array of panel goodies and their unique aviation artwork, and Lockwood’s knowledgeable staff who deftly answered all my Rotax-related questions. Even better were my two neighbors, Julie Fetcko aka “The Albatross Lady”, an expert in Florida airpark real estate who flies an Albatross off her grass strip, and the mother-daughter team of Frances and Emily Brown from the famed Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida. It was a real pleasure getting to know these aviatrixes.

Since this blog is all about aviation fuels, a few things from Sebring stand out in my mind. First, the Sebring Regional Airport (SEF) opened its new fuel island to visitors this year, but when I checked on Mogas sales, a hand-written sign on the pump said “No Gas.” This was rather odd given that virtually all of the aircraft at this, the largest show of its kind for the LSA industry, are operated best on 91+ octane ethanol-free unleaded Mogas. The FBO told me they do have Mogas on a daily basis but did not anticipate the demand for the Expo – ‘nuf said.

Second, Jan Eggenfellner displayed his Viking engine, based on the Honda Fit powerplant, as a low-cost option for the RV-12 and other leading kits. Given that engines represent around a third of the cost of LSA craft, this is one engine to keep our eyes on in 2011.

Third, AOPA President Craig Fuller addressed the exhibitors at the traditional LAMA-sponsored BBQ on Thursday evening. While his words were upbeat as usual, some of his comments on fuels show a disconnect with reality faced by sport aviators, something I’ve described in detail in the final paragraphs of this posting.

We used the occasion of the 2011 Expo to announce the Aviation Fuel Club. The brainchild of your bloggers and sponsored by U-Fuel, the “AFC” is a kind of co-op intended to help sport aviators obtain reliable, affordable sources of aviation fuel of all kinds. Since Mogas is the fuel of choice for virtually all LSA aircraft, our efforts are focused mostly on locating suppliers of 91+ ethanol-free gasoline and aiding pilots and airports who need additional fuel tanks/stations as needed. U-Fuel, for its part, is generously paying for the maintenance of the AFC website and has launched a new line of smaller, more affordable systems that are called the Aviation Fuel Club Stations. These are pre-fabricated, designed to meet all current safety, fire and environmental rules, start at a small capacity of 1,500 gallons, include the latest card reading technology and start at under $50,000.  They can even be operated “off the grid” using solar panels for power and cell-based links to credit card and monitoring software that come with the systems.

Response to the AFC has been very encouraging. Pilots from across the U.S., and even a few from Europe, have joined the free club. We’ve already marked our first successes, helping a major GA airport on the west coast obtain a supplier of ethanol-free Mogas, which has virtually disappeared in that part of the country in recent years.  We’ll provide more details on this grass-root, AFC-inspired effort when the Mogas starts powering planes at this airfield in the near future.

Equally encouraging was the response to our appeal in Sebring to “Save Mogas – Sign the Petition”, resulting in many visitors adding their names and comments to our petition calling on a ban of blending of ethanol in 91+ octane Premium gasoline. When we reach our goal of 10,000 signatures, we’ll be asking leaders of the Congressional GA Caucus to urge the EPA and FAA to support the ban and assure the supply of Mogas, the other approved and more affordable aviation fuel for piston-engine airplanes.

As mentioned above, AOPA President Craig Fuller attended the start of the Expo and gave an encouraging talk to exhibitors at the LAMA-sponsored BBQ dinner on Thursday evening. You can listen to his comments online here. At around the 17:20 minute mark of this video, a few things that Mr. Fuller stated don’t really coincide with the reality of the LSA world, nor with the sport aviation in general. Commenting on the need for a single, 100 octane fuel replacement to avgas, he said “For some, lower octane automobile fuel may be a solution, but to really serve the whole aviation community, we have to have something that works for FBOs and the couple hundred thousand aircraft burning avgas.”

While not wanting to sound pedantic, there are a few glaring problems with this statement. Let’s give Mr. Fuller the benefit of the doubt — after all, he admits that most of his flight time is spent in the cockpit of his personal Bonanza or a Cessna Citation, both wonderful aircraft but far from the focus of the venue where he was an invited speaker. First, Mogas is not a possible solution for “some” pilots, but has been a legal, safe, proven and highly affordable FAA-approved aviation fuel since the 1980s. Most of the engines that power modern LSA aircraft on display in Sebring were designed to operate best on 91+ octane ethanol-free Mogas, not an 100 octane fuel and definitely not one containing lead.

Second, according GAMA’s 2009 Statistical Databook (pg. 32), there were 193,188 active piston GA aircraft operating in the U.S. in 2008, including experimentals and LSAs. It is known that at least 70% of all legacy aircraft and essentially 100% of all LSAs can operate just fine on Mogas; that’s over 135,000 of the total number. In addition, over 65,000 Mogas STCs have been issued by Petersen Aviation and the EAA since the late 1980s. Clearly, for most pilots in the U.S., Mogas is a solution, not just for “some” pilots as Mr. Fuller suggests. His concern for FBOs is also curious, as the AOPA is an association for Aircraft Owners and Pilots, not FBOs, whose interests are represented by trade association NATA, the National Air Transportation Association. While Mr. Fuller is correct in stating that a couple hundred thousand aircraft currently burn avgas (GAMA puts it at around 190,000), a majority of these would probably operate on Mogas if it were available at airports. It goes without saying that these Mogas-burning planes would produce exactly ZERO lead emissions and their pilots would enjoy significantly lower operating and maintenance costs compared to operation with leaded AVGAS.

Given the obvious benefits to the LSA industry, and GA in general, to the expanded use of Mogas, it begs the question why AOPA, GAMA, and NATA remain determined to oppose anything other than a one-size-fits-all, drop-in, 100 octane replacement for avgas at our airports? Mr. Fuller hinted at one possible explanation when he mentioned the need to protect the interests of FBOs. Clearly, every gallon of Mogas that is consumed is one less gallon of avgas, making it harder to keep the eight or so U.S. producers of 100LL in business and even harder to convince someone to produce its replacement, if one is ever certified. This is a legitimate concern, but 100LL consumption has been dropping by about 7% the past eight years anyway, and Mogas was not to blame for this. Why should airports and FBOs care though? Flowage fees are based on gallons sold, not what is sold, and airports don’t earn a penny when pilots find their own sources of Mogas and self-fuel, a practice that is more common than many know. The AOPA, GAMA, NATA, and FBOs opposing Mogas ought to better to ask why hangar vacancies are more common these days than ever and why flight schools and maintenance shops are closing. All surveys point to the cost of aircraft operation, and for most sport aviators, the price of fuel is their number one concern. Blocking efforts to use a fuel that saves a dollar or two per gallon is not only illogical; it is irresponsible and ruinous for all of general aviation.

If the reaction to the Aviation Fuel Club and the petition to ban ethanol in premium gasoline is any indication, grassroots aviation “gets it” and is pressing forward on a common-sense, two fuel solution for GA that includes Mogas. Let’s hope that the AOPA, GAMA, NATA and others will follow LAMA’s lead in their support of Mogas and we’ll have more successes to report a year from now.

Comments

  1. Mike Winthrop says

    I have a Cherokee 140 that would run very nicely on 91 octane MOGAS (w/o ethanol). My plane is a hangar queen because I cannot afford the go anywhere in it. When 100LL gas was less expensive I flew from Manassas Virginia to Cleveland Ohio for about 1/2 the price of an airline ticket.Now that price is at or above the same airline ticket. I do not fly anymore, I drive. The FBO sells zero gas to me.

    If AOPA (I am a member) is worried about FBO sales, then I believe the solution is MOGAS for the masses. FBOs MAKE MONEY ON VOLUME. I wrote a letter to the FAA asking consideration of the idea that TEL should be added to MOGAS at the aircraft for those that need it and the rest of us could live quite nicely without it. I suggested a metering device be added to the existing FBO fuel trucks that mixed the TEL during delivery. This is stone age technology.

    I was not answered.

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