The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is to begin testing four unleaded fuels as part of an initiative to help the general aviation industry transition to unleaded aviation gasoline.
Congress has approved $6 million to support the government-industry program, which is known as the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative and began in 2013 with a request for the replacement fuel proposals. Environmental and medical groups, including Friends of the Earth, want federal regulators to categorize lead emissions from aviation gasoline as a danger to public health.
“We’re committed to getting harmful lead out of general aviation fuel,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a September 2014 statement. “This work will benefit the environment and provide a safe and available fuel for our general aviation community.”
Five producers submitted nine replacement fuel proposals and the FAA selected four fuels from three of the producers: Shell; Swift Fuels; and TOTAL. The agency said it analyzed the candidate fuels for their effect on the existing general aviation fleet, as well as on the aviation fuel production and distribution infrastructure. The FAA also reviewed the fuels’ impact on the environment, their toxicology and the cost to aircraft operations.
Laboratory testing at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., is scheduled to begin in September. Two or three of the fuels then will be selected for engine and aircraft testing, which could take about two years. Producers will be asked to supply 10,000 gallons of fuel for phase two of testing, according to the Federal Aviation Administration website.
The goal is to have a new unleaded fuel ready by 2018.
The FAA reports there are almost 170,000 general aviation (GA) aircraft in the United States that use 100 low-lead aviation gasoline, or avgas, the only transportation fuel that still uses lead additives to create high octane levels.
Although most commercial aircraft use unleaded jet fuel, smaller piston-engine planes rely on avgas to prevent engine knock, which can cause power failure.
Lead is toxic and has been linked to health and developmental problems. In a 2010 report, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 16 million people lived less than a mile from one of the nearly 20,000 airport facilities nationwide that used avgas.
Aviation industry groups participating in the replacement fuel initiative include the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the National Air Transportation Association and the National Business Aviation Association.
“Any replacement fuel must have a minimal impact on the existing fleet—in other words, it should work in your airplane with as few changes as possible,” Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, wrote in an August 2014 article on the association’s website. “We’ve also stressed that safety and performance cannot be compromised by the move to a new fuel.”