Piper flies Archer on unleaded fuel

Unleaded availability may soon increase

September 11, 2013

Piper Archer. AOPA file photo

Piper Aircraft flew an Archer from Vero Beach, Fla., to Oshkosh, Wis., and back on unleaded fuel, announcing Sept. 5 the completion of a 2,100-nautical-mile round trip on unleaded (and ethanol-free) 93 octane gasoline.

Special deliveries were required to position fuel along the route, but that may soon change, at least for some, according to Mark Ellery, director of business development for Airworthy AutoGas based in Phoenix, Ariz., which supplied the fuel for Piper’s trip to EAA AirVenture and back, and plans to open a new facility in Arizona in October to distribute a specially formulated alternative to avgas in the American Southwest, eventually ramping up to 500,000 gallons a month distributed across the region.

Ellery expects the patent-pending formulation, which differs significantly from unleaded automotive fuel of the same octane, should eventually be distributed on a national scale, sooner than some might think.

That would mark a significant uptick in availability for unleaded fuel suitable for aircraft: according to FAA data compiled by AirNav, only 3 percent of U.S. FBOs stock unleaded fuel, a figure that has changed little in recent years despite a significant potential market. Supplemental type certificates have been available for decades that allow a broad range of general aviation engines and airframes to run unleaded fuel. Petersen Aviation markets unleaded fuel STCs for scores of airframe and powerplant combinations, and Ellery said his company plans a marketing effort to make that more widely known. Prices for the STCs, Ellery said, can range from “a couple hundred bucks” to “as much as $4,000.”

One thing that makes Piper’s recent unleaded adventure significant, Ellery said, is the fact the Archer flew on his company’s formula without being modified to accept the fuel.

The patent-pending formulation would be sold at prices lower than avgas but higher than 93-octane gasoline sold for cars, at retail prices somewhere in the middle, Ellery said. Airworthy AutoGas produces a blend that is more chemically consistent than automotive gasoline, and meets aviation standards, specifically ASTM D4814 and Lycoming Engine's Service Instruction 1070 "S."

Ellery said it will not be the same automotive gas currently found in scattered airports, but “the first unleaded available for aviation in large quantities. We’re talking about millions of gallons.”

It will not be a solution for the many GA aircraft that require 100 octane fuel, however. Those aircraft represent roughly one fifth of the GA fleet, but consume the majority of the avgas sold today. 

The FAA announced in June that the agency is accepting for testing sample high-octane unleaded fuels that could be used in all piston aircraft, a move welcomed by AOPA and other members of the General Aviation Avgas Coalition.

Lycoming officials at EAA AirVenture said the company welcomes the coming availability of aviation-friendly unleaded, and is prepared.

“The snowball is rolling,” said Lycoming CEO Michael Kraft. “This is going to happen, and it’s going to be good for the industry and good for the consumer.”

Ellery, who flies a Citabria, said the goal is to make aviation more affordable by cutting fuel costs significantly.

“If we can drive the price down, that’s the name of the game for me,” Ellery said. “I have international plans. I’m a big dreamer.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.