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Seaman: Aviation and the environment

Like it or not, we have got to start paying attention to the tree-huggers!

June 6, 2008  By Rob Seaman

We keep hearing how the environment and aircraft are becoming more connected as an issue of social concern. The “not in my backyard and therefore none of my business” attitude is not going to cut it any longer. We simply must start paying attention to the impact of aviation – be it as a hobby or vocation – sooner and not later. One thing for certain – the environmentalists already have.

I hate to admit it but I well remember a day not so long ago when a fuel spill on the ramp was considered a non-issue. It will evaporate later in the day, we were told. Or you could wash it down the drain. And speaking of that, how many recall when changing the oil in the aircraft was completed by simply pouring the old stuff down the drain? Out of sight and out of mind. And of course we can recall seeing DC8s and 707s lifting into the sky streaming a trail of dirty exhaust behind them.

By the nineties we had finally figured out that old oil needed to be disposed of properly and if fuel was spilled, there were containment and cleanup kits on the fuel trucks and around the pumps. We also had cleaned up the fuel we burned and the engines we used so that the tell-tale black streamers were all but gone. But we still had not started to think about the footprint or impact that an aircraft engine could have on the environment. Two years ago, a major airport commissioned an environmental air quality assessment to measure its impact on the local area. It concluded that the adjacent highway was contributing more to area air pollution than the aircraft were. So everyone was happy – at least in aircraft circles.

We have heard a lot recentlyabout carbon credits – the concept of buying your way into less quilt is how I see it. Paying for what you create does not necessarily clean up the mess. That said, the money does have to come from somewhere to invest in the research and technology needed to reverse what is obviously a true and global issue. Some are taking the carbon credit issue very seriously. In fact, the 2008 edition of the Canadian International Air Show (Labour Day weekend at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition) will be one of the first  – if not the first – carbon-neutral events in North America.
Show president Patricia (Trish) Roberts is actively promoting this to all her sponsors.


On the aircraft front, we are also seeing some gains. Sir Richard Branson has shown some new thinking on jet fuel. Using a biofuel mix – a product usually derived from soybeans or algae – Branson has proven that it can be used for commercial flight. In early 2008 he and his Virgin Group flew a B747 with biofuel. Branson is publicly committed to sticking with his green ways and is pushing for further development and acceptance of non-fossil fuels as a means to keeping his fleet flying while doing its part for the environment.

And on February 1, the A380 test aircraft MSN004, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines, flew using an alternative ‘gas to liquid’ fuel for the first time in the history of commercial aviation. Shell International Petroleum provided the Shell GTL jet fuel used in the test. During the flight, engine number one was fed with a blend of GTL and jet fuel while the remaining three were fed with standard jet fuel. GTL has attractive characteristics for local air quality, as well as some benefits in terms of aircraft fuel burn relative to existing jet fuel. For instance, it is virtually free of sulphur. Synthetic fuel can be made from a range of hydrocarbon sources including natural gas or organic plant matter made by a process called Fischer-Tropsch. Airbus is also looking to biofuel options to see how they may also find a place in commercial use.

It is not just the commercial folks looking at fuel alternatives. Green Flight International, founded by Douglas Rodante, has already flown its version of biofuel – used canola cooking oil being the main ingredient – in an L-29 fighter/trainer aircraft. For its next trick, it plans to fly a Lear 25 around the world at normal altitude, using the same biofuel product.

So it would seem that despite all the negative rhetoric targeted at aviation by the environmental movement, we actually are making progress and not ignoring the issue. Hopefully in the not so distant future the options at the pump will be 100LL, Jet A or Bio-Fuel. And that is lot more impressive and effective than simply buying credits.


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