Flying green-soaring oil prices and the new normal in aviation

Informal survey finds pilots flying more efficiently in current volatile oil market.

By Douglas Wilson
Private/Helo. Dir Line Ops, Galvin Flying Services

Castle & Cooke VNY (Van Nuys CA) refuels a visiting Learjet 55. Known for its fuel economy in the midsize category-a mere 1200-1300 pph-the Learjet 55 actually took shape during another time of soaring oil prices-the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s.

It wasn't too long ago that the discussion among pilots on fuel pricing was often predictable, colorful chatter about contract programs and FBOs. It was a time when the supply-and-demand theories learned in economics class and the relative merits of tankering still seemed to make sense. In short, it was straightforward.

Recently, though, the unprecedented rise in the price of crude oil has made such discussions especially painful-the type of jaw-rubbing, wallet-draining pain typically reserved for dental work. Only a year ago, oil prices were around $65 a barrel.

On Jun 6, 2008, the price of a barrel of oil reached an all-time high of $138.54 on the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex) through a 1-day gain of $10.75-itself a record for the largest single day increase. In the past 365 days the price of oil has doubled.

While only time will tell if the recent increases in the price of crude oil will have any lasting effect on the business and general aviation industry, they lead to a relatively straightforward question-"Are you flying more this year than last year?" Though such black-and-white questions often prompt debate of the gray in between-especially when posed to pilots in the context of an informal survey-the answers to this question had a different hue altogether-green.

It's not so much how this year's hours differ from last year's, but how those hours are actually flown. Individually, as one might expect, the answers were anecdotal. As an aggregate, though, the answers are an instructive list of "best practices" for flying efficiently-a primer on how to fly green.

Are you flying more or less?

Barry Woods, chief pilot for Sierra Aviation Group, a Bombardier Challenger 601-3A operator, reflects on the past for a comparison, but comes up empty. "We thought the oil crisis in 1978 was bad," says Woods, "but that was nothing compared to today. Yet we haven't changed the amount of flying we're doing-it hasn't been affected at all.

As one pilot notes, slower-but arguably more fuel efficient-turboprop aircraft, such as the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 200 pictured here at HHR (Hawthorne CA), may see higher utilization rates than light jets in short-segment flights.

That said, we have changed how we're flying." Echoing Woods' comment is Eric Hansen, a Challenger 300 pilot based at MSP (Intl, Minneapolis-St Paul MN). He says, "Our flying hasn't really slowed down, though I would say we're flying smarter than we were." He adds, "We used to do a fair amount of 'deadheading,' but we don't do that as much any more. We're actually spending the night in places."

Gabe Miller, a line pilot for a California-based Part 135 Beechjet 400 operator, quickly took note of the elephant in the room that prompted the "Are you flying more or less?" question. Says Miller, "I don't think the high cost of fuel has kept people from flying, but we've flown differently."

Without exception, the story was similar across the board-flying smarter, flying differently. Most reported they were flying the same amount of hours year over year, and no one reported any discernible decrease in hours.

According to an FAA fact sheet on general aviation using actual hours from 2005, "the hours flown by the turboprop/turbojet fleet is forecast to increase from 5 million hours in 2005 to 11.9 million in 2017-an average annual growth rate of 7.5%."

While the FAA forecast points to an annual growth rate, most respondents to this informal survey reported no real change-ie, increase-in annual hours. By definition, growth requires an increase. Is anyone flying more this year than last year? Michael Durrett is chief pilot for Unum, a Hawker 800XP operator.

"We've actually increased 250 hours this year," he says, "but that's really due to increased business presence and utilization. If we had 10 airplanes we'd fly them all 800 hours per year." Jeff Stillwell, a chief pilot on a Seattle WA-based Hawker 700, is also reassuring. He reports, "Speaking with my contemporaries, I don't see that anybody is flying any less."

Flying green-tricks of the trade

During initial flight training, most students are taught by instructors the techniques for "leaning" the engine of a piston aircraft. The typical wisdom associated with leaning is that it prevents lead fouling of spark plugs from Avgas, compensates for changes in altitude, and of course, conserves fuel and extends range.

Sierra Aviation Group Chief Pilot Barry Woods calls the oil crisis of 1978 "nothing compared to today." He reports using lower cruise speeds in the Challenger 601-3A as a technique to decrease fuel burn.

Yet, if such initial training is the equivalent of a freshman study, flying green in a business jet is a graduate-level degree that is heavy on mathematics. Notwithstanding an occasional climb penalty that certain aircraft types encounter with full fuel, most pilots surveyed reported operating at lower cruise speeds as one of the more frequently used techniques they incorporate to save fuel.

Sierra Aviation Group's Woods says, "When we don't have to get there at a specific time, and we can fly at a slower speed, it becomes a simple decision. Flying at Mach 0.77 versus 0.80 in the Challenger on a 5 1/2-hour trip can save about 800 lbs of fuel at a given altitude." Although the reduced speed can add 10-15 minutes coast to coast, "10 minutes isn't so bad when you're thinking about 800 lbs" says Woods.

Chief Pilot Michael Durrett, pictured in one of Unum's 3 Hawker 800XPs, reports an increase in flying hours in 2008 versus 2007, despite rising oil prices.

Durrett notes a similar technique in the Hawker 800XP. "One thing we're doing," he says, "and we've done this for a long time, is that we operate at intermediate cruise-Mach 0.74-0.75. For the extra fuel burn to get to 0.76 or 0.77, it's just not worth it. It's been a really good breakeven number for us."

Miller is slowing down even more in the Beechjet 400A. "Some flights we fly at Mach 0.73 instead of 0.78, especially on short legs," he notes. Often tasked with filling in for shorter segments more suited to the use of the Beechcraft King Air, Miller says, "Even though we're in the air a little bit longer, we're going to fly it [the Beechjet] slow like a King Air and save a ton of gas."

One of the more arithmetical techniques used in cruise is described by Harold Waxman, aviation manager for DSU Aviation, which operates a Dassault Falcon 900EX. "Something else that we're analyzing now is adding ballast weight to the aft baggage compartment," he says."What we find is that in our aircraft we'll see anything from a half a degree to one degree of nose-up trim, so stabilizer down-that's drag.


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