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Sun n Fun

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For the first time in my aviation life I attended Sun n Fun, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Here are some notes…

The big story is the continuing rise of the tablet. With a $900 AHRS/WAAS GPS (example) stuck to the glareshield, a $150/year app on your iPad or Android tablet will give you everything that a $50,000 glass panel plus $2000/year in data subscriptions gets you. Traffic, weather (free via ADS-B from the Federales), synthetic vision (Microsoft Flight Simulator view of the world), georeferenced charts, etc. The app on your tablet will be improved every couple of months without you doing anything. The $50,000 certified glass panel will languish with ancient processor speeds and painful monthly manual data updates.

[The big war in the tablet world seems to be between Foreflight and Garmin. Garmin right now has an edge in that they support synthetic vision.]

At the opposite end of the avionics spectrum is Bendix-King, a division of Honeywell. These guys are calmly standing by while their products are being ripped out of America’s general aviation fleet and replaced with Garmin. Consider the Pilatus PC-12. This product came with four King EFIS tubes plus a King KLN 90B, a King multi-function display, and King radios. Want to upgrade the GPS with something more modern? King doesn’t make a plug-compatible replacement for the once-popular 90B. So as long as you are cutting a hole in the panel you might as well go with the more popular Garmin systems. EFIS CRT tube fails? King doesn’t have anything new that fits so you should get the Garmin G600 STC from Pilatus and chuck everything that King put into the airplane. It could hardly be better for Garmin if Honeywell’s executives were on the Garmin payroll.

Fans of utility planes will appreciate the Discovery 201, a nearly certified twin with a Russian heritage. Ridiculously slow but you could load a stack of dog crates in through the back doors. Two of the same engines as the Cirrus SR20, which means that if one engine quits you’re trying to climb with roughly the same horsepower and an airplane that weighs 4850 lbs. instead of 3000. No single-engine performance numbers are published. Technam showed its very cute certified P2006T Rotax-powered twin. At almost $600,000 it costs about three times as much as a good used six-seat Beechcraft Baron. If you fly it 5000 hours you may come out ahead due to the lower fuel burn/cost. As with the Discovery 201, single-engine performance seems like a theoretical concept. Each engine produces 100 horsepower and the airplane has a gross weight of 2700 lbs.

Startup flight schools are overtaking 50-year-old schools, e.g., with 3-year-old schools keeping 10 airplanes busy at rates that are 50% higher than their competition. How? Veterans Administration 100 percent funding (with no regard to pricing) for students at flight schools that are affiliated with four-year colleges. This is truly the golden era for schools that can work the federal regulatory hurdles.

The family-owned Daher-Socata was there with the TBM 900, a $3.7 million six-seater sporting a new five-blade Hartzell composite prop that cuts interior noise by about 2 dB. Epic Aircraft is stuffed full of Russian money and bringing their formerly experimental (home-built) six-seat turboprop to market as a certified airplane in 2015 (that’s the goal; it doesn’t seem quite as insane as some due to the fact that they are making virtually no changes to the airframe and the engine is the already-certified PT-6). The certified composite Epic will cost about $2.75 million and beats the 25-year-old aluminum TBM at everything. No bathroom so it is a good thing that the plane goes fast!

Patty Wagstaff gave an inspiring talk about how she became a competition aerobatic pilot. Her father was an airline pilot and her husband was an attorney willing to work hard enough to keep buying her higher performance airplanes. “My husband, now ex-husband actually, gave me the best advice that I ever got,” Wagstaff noted. “He said just try one competition and if you don’t like it we can always sell the Decathlon. Take it one step at a time and don’t worry about getting beyond the next event.” Wagstaff was advocating that all pilots learn aerobatics during their primary training, rather than having to be retrained with “upset training” when they start flying jets. Pilots are generally Fox News libertarians, but Wagstaff could hardly finish speaking due to the demands that the federal government (FAA) get on this problem and mandate that everyone seeking a Private or Commercial certificate do aerobatics. (If you do want to learn aerobatics, Wagstaff now has her own flight school in St. Augustine, Florida. For $325/hour (Decathlon) or $495/hour (Extra) you can take lessons from Wagstaff herself. That’s kind of like taking intro tennis lessons from Venus Williams.)

A good talk with great pictures was given by Bob Jones, a retired medical doctor. He tows a two-seat folding wing Kitfox in a trailer behind a Roadtrek motorhome. Total cost of RV, trailer, and airplane? About $60,000 (all but the trailer were purchased used). Now he drives around to beautiful parts of the nation, pulls into an airport, takes the Kitfox out of the trailer, and flies low and slow to sightsee. He can get the airplane out of the trailer and ready to fly in about 10 minutes (down from 45 minutes at first).

The core demographic of the show was best summed up by the first evening’s “entertainment series” event: “Building Interest in the Future of Aviation”. I.e., why is it mostly old white guys who care about this? The panelists for the discussion? Four old white guys (pictured wearing dark suits and gray hair). Flying, especially when one is flying two-seat aircraft, need not be expensive. So why is it that young adults mostly don’t do it? “Time,” one woman said. “With a full-time job and kids there was just no way to carve out time for lessons. After I got divorced, though, I had every other weekend free and the child support was enough to pay for a factory-new airplane.”

The one company that has a proven ability to convert non-aviators into customers, Icon Aircraft, did not have a booth at the show for their Icon A5 Seaplane. It is already at least three years late. Maybe the people who bought them will in fact be old by the time they actually receive delivery of this amphibious two-seater. In the meantime they can enjoy ever-better and cheaper non-motion simulators from a variety of vendors. Should an Icon customer want a well-proven ready-to-fly-since-1948 aircraft instead, United Helicopters is rebuilding and selling the Hiller UH-12. For $110,000 you get a truly beautiful machine with all components overhauled. (If you’re in Sarasota you can take a lesson in one of these! The hourly rate is $330, about the same as what East Coast Aero Club charges for an almost-new four seat Robinson R44. This calls into question the claim that the Hiller is economical to operate.)

[If you're stuck on the amphibious composite seaplane idea, check out the Brazilian Super Petrel biplane, one of which actually had flown into Sun n Fun.]

My favorite vendor: Signature Flight Support. They were there for us with shade, comfortable sofas, and free bottles of water on ice. Your $9.58/gallon at Teterboro is going to a good cause!

We celebrated the end of our visit with a trip to Bern’s Steak House, which my friends proclaimed to be one of the best restaurants they’d ever enjoyed. Riding home on JetBlue I overheard two JetBlue employees chatting. The airline had decided to load up an Airbus full of New York-area high school kids interested in aviation and take them directly to Lakeland. What could be more fun than a private trip on JetBlue in an air-conditioned Airbus? Unfortunately the airplane is heavy enough that even a private flight requires TSA screening. So JetBlue had to get a TSA crew to come to Lakeland. It was apparently a small team because it took them 1.5 hours to screen the teenagers, during which time they were all baking in the direct Florida sun.

Photos: on Google+

Fun gift idea: take some pictures of a friend’s airplane and send them to factorydirectmodels.com to have a beautiful model, including realistic panel and interior, fabricated in the Philippines.

Why can’t the IRS tell me how much income I got?

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Folks:

I’m working on my 2013 taxes. My accountant says that I can have a PIN to electronically communicate with the IRS regarding estimated taxes, electronic signatures, and bank transfers. Meanwhile I am gathering up a lot of paper forms and downloadable PDFs from various financial institutions that reported simultaneously to me and the IRS how much they paid me in dividends and interest. I’m wondering why I have to do this. Isn’t the IRS’s own computer system the best source of data regarding how much an American was paid by an American bank? If taxpayers have a secure way of dealing with the IRS, which we apparently do, shouldn’t we be able to go to irs.gov at tax time and just check a box saying “that’s all of the interest and dividends that I got”?

(And yes I recognize that healthcare.gov was not exactly a shining moment for Federal government IT, but I do think the IRS could build a Web site that queries a database by SSN and uses a SUM function.)

Get together Tuesday or Wednesday at Sun n Fun?

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Aviation nerds: I’m heading down to Sun n Fun in Lakeland, Florida. Would any readers like to get together Tuesday or Wednesday down there?

Architecture AND aviation nerds: Remember that Frank Lloyd Wright’s largest work is located in Lakeland.

Selling off Detroit’s art collection

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Today’s New York Times carries an argument by an economist that Detroit’s art collection should be sold. Is this evidence to support the old saying that “an economist is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”?

It is kind of shocking to see how the author, Robert H. Frank, a professor at Cornell, calculates that it costs $1200/hour to have people looking at a $200 million Bruegel. But he does this by positing a world in which “interest rates return to normal levels — say, 6 percent”. In other words, a world in which Detroit might not have become insolvent because its pension assets would have been earning a return sufficient to pay off all of the commitments that Detroit’s politicians have made. The economics professor posits that the museum is open 2000 hours per year and that 5 people per hour would view the painting. that’s 100,000 people. http://www.dia.org/about/facts.aspx says that the museum received 600,000 visitors in the 2013 fiscal year. So that’s 1/6th of the visitors viewing this particular highlight of the collection. If we were to posit 2 percent interest rate and that half of the visitors view the painting, the foregone interest would instead be $4 million and the cost per viewer $13 (less than a ticket to see the next Avengers movie).

The art in this museum was donated to the city. If it is liquidated to pay for pension and other commitments this will presumably discourage future donors of property, since every state and local government in the U.S. is at risk of insolvency (promising to pay out unknown and unknowable amounts of future cash but without having a printing press for dollars).

Would anything change for the city via a $200 million cash infusion? We could look at Detroit’s past performance. Was the government capable of squandering comparable amounts historically with no benefit to citizens? We could look at Mark Zuckerberg’s donation of $100 million to the Newark schools. Did that result in better-educated students? Politicians can always give out cash to people who help get them elected/reelected. But it is tough for a politician to justify giving a painting from the city’s art museum to a beloved crony.

What do readers think? Should Detroit sell off the next generation’s chance to look at these famous paintings so that $18 billion in liabilities is reduced to $17 billion? Certainly it would spice up the museum if they had to go out and buy contemporary art and exhibit the old masters only by special loan.

Obamacare in Massachusetts

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I had thought that Obamacare had left Massachusetts relatively untouched, due to the fact that we already had near-universal health insurance coverage. However, a self-employed friend told me that his old $21,600 per year policy was canceled and now he must pay $30,000 per year in after-tax dollars to insure himself, his wife, and two teenage children.

Related: another friend’s Massachusetts Obamacare experience.

Federal workers toiling underground; England as a tax haven

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A couple of funny newspaper articles have crossed my inbox this weekend.

The first, “Sinkhole of bureaucracy”, is from the Washington Post decrying the fact that federal employee pensions are processed by hands on paper in an underground facility, rather than being computerized. This is ironic because it comes from a newspaper that has recently covered the cost overruns and quality problems with Obamacare web sites such as healthcare.gov. The underground facility costs only $56 million per year to operate, an amount that could be squandered on healthcare.gov-style IT very quickly. (Related: this History Channel story on the Ayalon Institute, an underground bullet factory in Israel.)

The second is a New York Times story about how French entrepreneurs are emigrating to avoid taxes and regulations handed down from their central government. It is funny because one of the tax havens is England, traditionally an example of a sclerotic permanently stagnant economy (see Mancur Olson). It is ironic because the same newspaper has spent the past six years cheerleading for more taxes and regulations to be handed down from our own central government, arguing that these new taxes and regulations will have no effect on Americans’ behavior or interest in work.

How do people like Comcast Extreme 105?

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How do folks like Comcast Extreme 105 Internet service? I have to appeal to readers because interacting with Comcast yields conflicting information. My current Comcast connection is 25 down/4 up, which is annoyingly slow when I am trying to clutter youtube with unlisted 1080p videos of my kids. It also means that VoIP phone service suffers a bit when a heavy upload is proceeding.

It is hard to tell exactly what Comcast promises in terms of upload speed with “Extreme 105″ but it seems to be 20 Mbps, i.e., slower than the mid-tier Verizon FiOS connection (50/25). Comcast has a “usage cap” of 250 GB per month, which works out to 5 hours of usage at 105 Mbps. Comcast says that they have to send out an installer to “install” Extreme 105 even though I already have Comcast Internet and a Motorola cable modem that is supposedly fully capable of handling Extreme 105. The customer service representative said that this was so that Comcast could set up a fiber optic line into my cable modem (this would be an interesting achievement since the Motorola modem has only a coax connector).

I don’t hammer the connection that much day-to-day, but the standard Comcast service seems to be subject to annoying hiccups. Do folks who upgraded to Extreme 105 find that the service is more reliable? And what does the installer do when he/she comes out? Finally, what does Comcast do about this usage cap?

Why are there any long-term unemployed people? Or any unemployed people at all?

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Folks:

Today’s New York Times has an article about how long-term unemployed Americans may never work again. And they say that this may be due in part to employers discriminating against people whose resumes say “unemployed” or “big gap”. This raises the question of why there are any such resumes.

I know a lot of people who are not working productively. They call themselves “entrepreneurs” and say that they are pulling together a startup. For about $500 they can even create an LLC so that their resume says “2013-present Big New Idea LLC: Founder and CTO” or whatever. That after a year or two their startup has not succeeded will not be held against them by a potential employer. After all, most startups fail or fizzle.

A friend’s daughter was trying to get her first job. Employers didn’t want to hire her because she had no work experience or references. So I edited her resume to say “Jane Smith Landscaping” [not her real name!], hired her to do some yard work, and put my name and phone number down as a reference. Having planted some daffodil bulbs, she went to her next interview as a self-employed person looking for an indoor job for the winter. She was hired.

Given that almost anyone can find work doing landscaping and call themselves a landscaping contractor, taking care of children and call themselves the founder of a child care center, etc., why are there resumes that say “I am unemployed.” If it is known that employers don’t like to hire the unemployed, why is anyone wearing a label that is essentially self-applied?

Boston Lyric Opera: Rigoletto

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Four of us went to the Boston Lyric Opera’s Rigoletto. Run out and see it before March 23!

As with the Barber of Seville back in 2012, hearing the opera in a hall whose size the composer would have recognized is a much better experience than being in the cavernous Met.

All of the performers were great (including the orchestra) but we particularly enjoyed Nadine Sierra as Gilda. She was a wonderful actress as well as singer.

[If you haven't seen Rigoletto before and you are a parent, especially of a daughter, be warned that it is pretty upsetting. Pretty soon I will be limiting myself to G-rated entertainment!]

Why does GM make cars with physical ignition keys?

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One of our government-selected automobile manufacturers (General Motors) is in the news due to hundreds of GM owners and family members who are now dead due to a faulty ignition switch design (LA Times). The big question for me is why GM continued (and continues) to make cars with physical ignition keys. A long time ago they apparently figured out that they were not good at making reliable physical ignition key systems. Why didn’t they just make a corporate decision to switch to making only cars where this deficiency wouldn’t be an issue? If they’d done it as a company and made every car with keyless ignition it shouldn’t have cost that much extra. According to Wikipedia, GM has had the technology to do this since 1993 when they introduced a Corvette with such a system.

Why would the company try to fix the problem instead of just engineering the cars so that the problem could not recur?

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