Imagine one day a government agency tells all diesel pickup truck owners that they can't drive their trucks anymore because the Association of Horse Owners has determined that the trucks pose an endangerment to the health of the general public.
And since that organization has influence over that government agency, they hereby outlaw your truck, business and, oh yes, your whole town can't stay where it is either.
Sounds ludicrous? Sure does! Completely crazed? Quite so! Unfortunately this is exactly the kind of reality that Alaskan pilots and our rural communities are facing, because the EPA wants to outlaw the fuel that 95 percent of all Alaskan commercial planes HAVE TO USE. In Alaska 82 percent of our settlements cannot be reached by the use of the national road system, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation, so airplanes matter more to us than to folks in any other state of the union by an order of magnitude.
Sure enough, there are lots of people in Anchorage that have never visited the Bush, have never lived out there, that haven't ever even flown in a small airplane. To them the problem may not seem so important or tragic at first glance because they feel it's a problem far removed from them. But 1.2 million people work blue-collar, middle-class jobs in general aviation in the United States, and it's the last industry we have left where "Made in China" is not YET a factor. Strangely enough, the biggest problem of this industry seems to be the Federal Government, which keeps piling on more and more and more regulations. Could you imagine, driving your personal private car and having to obey and comply with 790 Federal laws and rules? Seems impossible, yet it's an everyday normal reality in aviation. People claim its necessary for safety...Lack of safety is perceived because media reports only show any crash or incident, sensationalism makes memory, and millions of safe perfect flights do not.
The latest outrage: The FCC just published a new rule that outlaws all existing Emergency Locator Transmitters by Aug. 1 of this year! The companies that make these things could not even make a quarter of the number of the 400K required replacements before the deadline! Crazy ... if the FCC has it their way in a month 80 percent or more of all our nation's planes would be grounded. Who dreams up such nightmare rules? How can something so out of touch with reality become a law?
The last big federal aviation law fiasco, the "oxygen-bottle-transportation-ban" may have actually killed people in the Bush simply because the ones who dreamed it up failed to create an Alaska exemption, since they couldn't imagine the existence of commercial planes smaller than 50 seats or the existence of villages without access to the road system.
Hard to imagine that well-paid "professionals" with the power to create laws can be uninformed and unaware to that extent.
Now we are facing a very near future where the price of transportation in the Bush will multiple by six, or where the service will not even be available. Bear with me on the complicated technicalities that make up the issue.
Airplane engines are VERY different than car engines (more on THAT LATER) and the current production engines with enough power to be commercially viable (180 HP or more) need at least the 2ppm lead in the fuel to keep running for more than a few hours (more on THAT also later). Research on lead-free fuels for these very reliable and powerful engines is going on for over 20 years. An Coordinating Research Council (CRC) Unleaded AVGAS Development Panel in charge of the testing of these proposed alternative fuels has so far tested 279 of them, and their boss said to me "not even one was even close."
There is lots of hype in the aviation media about the "proposed alternatives" to leaded aviation fuel, but I see it as mere propaganda fueled by the salesmen of the companies that are promoting their various fuel ideas. They are usually quite ignorant of the various technical problems inherent in Alaska flying. Examples include the cold-weather-starting and starting-at-altitude ability of the fuel. ..or rather, the lack thereof.
Either way, the production of these fuels in quantity is usually also a factor, like a fuel at $30 per gallon would obviously be of no help. Some propose the use of other chemicals such as MBTE to replace lead, but these are already identified as much worse than the relatively inert lead-bromide that is the result of the use of 100LL. Those of us that actually work on our existing piston engines know how the lead accumulates in the engine and how it sticks to the hottest parts of the exhaust system as a particulate.
I do not believe the EPA's claim that all the lead goes out into the atmosphere. SURE Obviously no lead in ANY fuel whatsoever would be best. But the 100LL is just a quarter of a single percent of the U.S.' liquid fuel use, when you count in all the military use with drones and the sales to overseas. It reminds me of a true and hilarious bumper sticker" "Save the environment!/Kill yourself!"
Sure, we humans are not too great for this planet, and worse, there are more and more of us who all want the same wealthy life. We all share the right for a healthy life, but I think we also have the right to choose where and how we live, where we go, and how we get there.
It's unreasonable to claim the damage of banning 100LL is justified when all it's going to get us is a somewhat more lead-free environment. Mind you, China and Russia and Poland ... they don't worry about this at ALL. How many more jobs is this society willing to sacrifice for questionable environmental reasoning?
We are not going after coal anymore. We are not going after the easy oil on the North Slope. We are not doing this and we are not doing that. Making new computer software won't feed us, and that's done in India anyway. Government spending is at an all time high and China OWNS US. Where are we headed?
Ok, off my soapbox and back to the aircraft fuel problem with a weird fact: Many privately owned planes have low-powered engines of 150 HP or less that could mix unleaded premium car fuel into the 100LL with 2:1 ratio if the fuel contains NO ALCOHOL! But alcohol is extremely dangerous in aircraft and any car fuel that has any of it in it can't be used for planes (unless they would be designed to run on pure alcohol, which would only work in the tropics). The Big Problem is: The EPA MANDATES that alcohol is put into the car fuel. If premium auto gas would be kept out of that mandate and be alcohol free, most private planes could happily supplement their lead-100LL diet with unleaded car fuel and therefore much less 100LL would be used.
This fact makes the EPA directly responsible for a large part of the 100LL consumption and directly points out one easy and fast solution to put MUCH LESS LEAD into the air: If the EPA would mandate premium fuel to be alcohol free, much less leaded fuel would be used. It is really THAT EASY. The reduction in 100LL use by private planes would be significant.
The banning of leaded aviation gas isn't addressing a real danger to the environment; it's just an empty political statement. To me it's a symbol of what's wrong with the country. Instead of focusing on real problems, a tiny minority gets singled out as guilty and the real problems don't get addressed. And an easy way out of most of it is being ignored by the EPA. We need real jobs, and general aviation provides these, while supporting the whole country's economy logistically behind the scenes. EPA needs to ban alcohol in premium gas, not lead in 100LL.
Lars Gleitsmann was born in Germany, where he studied earth science. He has been flying in Alaska for 14 years, and has flown in nine countries on five continents in 49 types of planes. He currently works as an aviation consultant for a technology company and lives in Anchorage with his wife and young daughter.