GA and the Environment: To protect and preserve

Airports, pilots, and Earth-friendly tactics

July 1, 2009

Hangar 25 at Bob Hope International Airport in Burbank, California, has been called “the most sustainable hangar in the world.” It earned this monicker in December 2008 after the world got its first look at the $17 million structure, which features solar power, drought-resistant plants, recycled materials, and a concrete floor that uses no chemical polymers.

A similar project is planned for Van Nuys Airport.

Greater Rochester International in New York is looking at proposals to install wind turbines (situated so as not to interfere with traffic patterns) and solar panels at the airport to generate renewable energy.

A company called Greenjets says it will hook up prospective travelers with empty seats on private jets to save money and reduce a flight’s environmental impact.

What’s going on here?

At the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In at Lakeland, Florida, this year, attendees were urged to “Celebrate Earth Day!” on April 22 by visiting the Green Space—an environment-themed exhibit that featured an electric airplane and a hybrid automobile. On hand were representatives from The Lindbergh Foundation, the nonprofit organization Foundation whose mission is to support innovations that foster the environment for a planet in balance. The foundation is named for Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh to honor their contributions in aviation, exploration, conservation, sciences, and the humanities.

If the green movement and aviation seem like strange bedfellows to you, you’re not alone. Piston airplanes burn leaded fuel, and aircraft create noise, which is a form of pollution (see “Keep It Down,” page 65). Never mind that GA aircraft aren’t a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions; the perception is still there.

The Lindbergh Foundation is working to prove that science and technology are not at odds with the environment, according to John King of King Schools Inc. King is chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation board; Martha King also serves on the board. The foundation’s research efforts and educational programs fall into the category of what King calls “comfortable environmentalism.”

“We don’t have to give up our flying,” he says. “What we want to do is fly more wisely. We don’t have to give up driving our cars and heating our homes. What we want to do is do what we do more efficiently.”

Technology and innovation are not the enemies of the environment, says King. They are the solution to environmental problems. “We as humankind ought to be smart enough to preserve our quality of life and protect the environment at the same time.”

The Lindbergh Foundation awards grants to individuals who study ways to balance science and innovation with the environment. One of its grantees is working on a project in which avgas engines can be converted to burn jet fuel.

Lake Tahoe, green and proud of it

After years of wrangling with environmental groups, Lake Tahoe Airport in South Lake Tahoe, California, has undergone an environmentally friendly overhaul that has given the airport new life.

Noise and access restrictions enacted in 1992 drove scheduled air carrier service from the airport and cut its operations to the extent that its future looked bleak (see “ America’s Airports: Tale of a Gem,” March 2008 AOPA Pilot). A new vision statement strives to reconcile business and environmental interests. The result: sweeping improvements that stress public safety as well as reducing the airport’s environmental footprint. These include narrowing the runway and replacing part of its edges with porous asphalt to help prevent runoff; and rerouting a portion of the Upper Truckee River, which runs through the property, to reduce the amount of sediment that goes into Lake Tahoe.

Airport Manager Rick Jenkins says he hopes other airports will follow Lake Tahoe’s lead and take steps to improve from an environmental standpoint. While your airport may not be able to reroute an entire river or narrow a runway, consider planting vegetation or putting down wood chips to prevent erosion, Jenkins suggests. Check your airport’s storm water system to make sure it is working properly; keep the areas around drop inlets clean and free of trash and leaves. “It’s a series of little things that, when you add it all up, makes a tremendous difference,” Jenkins says.

Turning to solar in Wisconsin

Solar technology isn’t just for the West Coast. Stevens Point Municipal Airport (STE) has found that solar energy works just fine to heat a brand-new hangar, even during cold Wisconsin winters.

The new hangar, opened in April, is equipped with solar panels and a geothermal heat pump to generate warmth inside the 10,000-square-foot building. It utilizes transpired solar walls, in which outside air passes through a south-facing, perforated solar collector and is preheated on sunny days before entering a building’s ventilation system. Airport Manager Joe Wheeler calls the construction “very efficient and insulated,” and says heating costs dropped from $3,600 in February— during a construction phase when heaters were running to dry out the inside of the building—to $1,500 in April, and most recently to $600. He says part of that is attributable to warmer temperatures, but when winter returns, he’s been told to expect an 80-percent decrease from what it would cost to warm the building with a gas-powered heater.

The community-use hangar cost $800,000, and was partially funded with a city educational grant. If you keep your airplane there, “we will provide the service so that all you have to do is pick up the phone and we’ll have the aircraft pulled out, and all you have to do is go up to your airplane,” says Wheeler. Rent will range from $155 to $182 per month. The airport has lined up approximately three tenants so far, Wheeler says.

Wheeler sees the new hangar not only as an environmental advantage but also an economic draw for the airport, which has about 50 based aircraft. “With the economy the way it is, you’re not going to have a lot of new corporations starting up. That’s the only way I know how to compensate for this, is service—make people want to come to Stevens Point for service.” In the meantime, he’s researching more energy-efficient lighting for the runways and taxiways.

Reasonably green

Many pilots adhere to a policy of conserving energy and reducing waste where possible.

Ron and Margy Natalie of Herndon, Virginia, recently completed construction on a house and hangar at an airpark in Long Island, North Carolina. “We tried to be as reasonably green as we could,” says Ron Natalie of the 5,000- square-foot space. “The hangar is in its own zone of the geothermal heat pump. The house and hangar are spray foamed. I’m in the middle of installing the home automation that will allow me to automate the entire heating/cooling system for when the house is occupied or not via the Internet.”

Another interesting feature, says Natalie, is that the lead-in area for the hangar ramp is “grasscrete”—essentially a concrete matrix that has grass growing in the middle of it.

Dan MacDonald’s hangar at South St. Paul Municipal Airport in Minnesota, where he keeps his 1960 Beech Debonair, has 10 inches of insulation in the walls and even more in the ceiling. In the winter, he keeps the heat at 40 degrees when he is not there. He takes used oil to a quick-lube facility for recycling, and puts sumped fuel into his lawn mower and snow blower.

MacDonald’s Debonair has high fuel consumption, but he leans the mixture as aggressively as possible (see “ Frugal Flier”) and uses unleaded car gas. “I believe we should all do what we can to reduce our consumption of resources and our creation of waste,” MacDonald says.

It’s not always easy to do the right thing. Mike Switzer is a maintenance officer for the Decatur Aero Club in Decatur, Illinois. Whenever he changes the oil in one of the club’s airplanes, the used oil goes into a five-gallon bucket that he takes back to his home shop. “I have a 55-gallon drum right now that I am trying to get rid of,” he says.

Some airports try to make it easy for pilots to properly dispose of sumped fuel samples and used oil so that these materials don’t get into the groundwater. Clermont County Airport (I69) in Batavia, Ohio, home of Sporty’s Pilot Shop, has placed receptacles for sumped fuel in strategic places near the tiedowns and flight school. Pilots at several airports in Ventura County, California, can get free used oil drain containers and a map that displays the locations of certified oil reclamation centers in their communities.

Other pilots said they wash and reuse rags and try to collect runoff when cleaning aircraft. Some have made the switch to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which last longer and use less power than incandescent bulbs, but CFLs aren’t for everyone. The Decatur Aero Club hasn’t tried to use CFLs in its hangars because they don’t work well in cold temperatures, Switzer says. “I do use them in my shop but they really don’t work well in the unheated areas of the shop. I end up leaving them on all the time in the winter. They work fine in the heated areas, but there is nowhere I know of to recycle them. As they go bad, I am putting industrial-grade incandescent bulbs in the unheated areas.”

E-mail the author at jill.tallman@aopa.org.

The Lindbergh Foundation’s take on carbon offsets

No discussion of “green” aviation would be complete without a mention of carbon offsets—a financial instrument aimed at the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Setting aside carbon offsets purchased by companies and governments to comply with caps on the total amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit, we’re left with the voluntary market—in which individuals, companies, or governments purchase carbon offsets to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from such things as transportation and electricity use (see “ Carbon Offsets and Calculators”).

While the Lindbergh Foundation supports ways to keep the Earth in balance, it doesn’t support carbon offset programs, John King says. “Carbon offsets normally go into planting trees, and most all trees will eventually release their carbon back into the atmosphere when they decay or burn,” he says. Carbon offsets are a break-even proposition at best, he says, “because all you have done is remove the carbon you have used.” Instead, King encourages pilots to donate 8 cents per gallon of avgas to the foundation’s Aviation Green Investment program. Donations support the foundation’s scientific grants program to fund research into aviation-related environmental issues and other conservation and environmental projects. See the Web site for more information. —JWT

Keep it down: Minimizing your airplane’s noise footprint

For some, it’s the blast of a motorcycle through an otherwise quiet neighborhood. For others, it’s the squealing brakes on a trash truck making a 4 a.m. pickup. And for many people, it’s the drone of an engine passing above their homes.

Noise—even that which brings a smile to the face of a pilot—is still noise, and general aviation pilots could be branded as polluters if they don’t do what they can to fly quietly. Short of junking the Continental in favor of a kite, there are ways to stay under the public’s noise radar. Flying quietly makes you a better neighbor, even if your airport was here first.

Research and obey noise abatement procedures at home and away from home. These can be found in the “remarks” section of an airport’s listing in the Airport/Facility Directory, or contact the local FBO, flight school, or the airport manager’s office. Whether they stipulate a special place to perform runups, specify an altitude before you can turn and depart the pattern, or expressly direct you not to overfly a neighborhood, follow the rules.

Low level means louder. It’s probably not a good idea to perform 15 circles at 500 feet over your house—unless you live in an airpark. Avoid low, dragged-in approaches. When departing, strive to put altitude between yourself and the neighbors. Use best angle of climb (V X) when you can do so safely. In a twin, use best-single-engine-rate-of-climb (V YSE) for the best combination of climb rate and safety.

Adjust your constant-speed thinking. The propeller is the source of most of the noise from a typical GA airplane. If you fly behind a constant-speed propeller, keep rpm to a minimum so as to reduce the amount of noise your airplane generates. Reduce rpm as soon as practical after takeoff, and when you’re preparing to land, don’t advance the propeller control to high rpm until the propeller falls out of the governing range.

Consider changing your blades. Shopping for a prop? Here are some things to keep in mind. More blades produce less noise inside and out (they also weigh more and cost more). A Q-tip propeller—one whose tips are curved back 90 degrees—produces less noise, primarily because of the smaller diameter of the blades and the fact that the tips block the formation of prop-tip vortices. Scimitar blades also are said to generate less noise. —JWT

AOPA and the EPA

Aviation is not exempt from environmental regulation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently published notice of proposed rulemakings on lead and greenhouse gas emissions that could affect general aviation in the future. AOPA is actively involved in educating the EPA on general aviation’s true impact on the environmental and the benefits of GA.

In October 2008, the EPA announced that it had strengthened the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for lead for the first time since 1978. Following up on a notice of proposed rulemaking issued earlier in the year, the EPA lowered the NAAQS for lead by a factor of 10. This change sets into motion a multiyear effort requiring state and local governments to ensure they meet new standards by 2017.

In a separate action the EPA opened a rulemaking petition for comment titled Petition Requesting Rulemaking to Limit Lead Emissions from General Aviation Aircraft. It was issued in response to a petition submitted to the EPA by the environmental organization Friends of the Earth. To date the EPA has not issued a final rule.

AOPA testified to the importance of leaded aviation fuel at a public hearing hosted by the EPA. AOPA testified that changes to the NAAQS for lead could impact the amount or type of fuel used in general aviation aircraft. AOPA also testified on the safety implications of changing the aviation fuel standard, stating that any change in the aviation fuel standard would have a direct impact on the safety of flight and the future of light aircraft in this country. Last year AOPA also filed official comments to the EPA petition seeking to limit lead emissions from GA aircraft.

In 2008 the EPA issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) titled Regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions under the Clean Air Act. The notice sought ways to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from many sources, including aircraft, under the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s ANPR followed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that compels the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. The ANPR describes current sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, including aviation.

AOPA filed official comments in November 2008, pointing out that aviation is estimated to contribute less than 3 percent of all GHG emissions (less than 1 percent of that from general aviation aircraft). Piston-powered general aviation aircraft contribute an even smaller amount—slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent (0.13 percent) of total GHG emissions. Recent technological advancements such as full authority digital engine control (FADEC) and the use of composite materials in airframe construction are decreasing emissions even further.

So far in 2009 the EPA has issued two more proposals that deal directly with greenhouse gas emissions. AOPA will be commenting on these proposals and continuing to educate the EPA on the benefits of GA. —AOPA Government Affairs

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.