Saturday, November 12, 2011

Directorate General of Civil Aviation mulling penalty on airlines neglecting safety

Concerned over the possibility of loss-making Indian carriers cutting corners on safety, aviation regulator DGCA is considering penalising them if they compromise on the issue due to cash crunch. However, the penalty may not be financial but aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) could consider measures like disallowing defaulting airlines from expanding their fleet or operations till they started spending the right amount on ensuring aircraft safety, official sources said in New Delhi on Sunday.

In extreme cases, the licenses of airlines, facing serious financial crisis that severely affects its capabilityto operate its full flight schedule, may not be renewed until they become capable enough to do so, they said.

With the situation facing beleaguered Kingfisher Airlines making headlines, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation has begun evaluation and monitoring of financial data of all Indian carriers to assess whether they were spending the required amount to meet all safety parameters including regular engineering checks of their fleet.

"The evaluation process would include collection of information through formal or informal channels and monitoring of indicators of change, which could impact the safety of aircraft operations," a senior official said, adding that financial surveillance would be carried out by three DGCA teams set up for the purpose.

The sources said unfavourable trends in an airline's financial condition could be found from various aspects of an airline's operations.

These include their financial stability, fleet reduction, aircraft utilisation, significant lay-off of personnel, delays in salary payment, declining training standards, demands for 'cash on delivery' by suppliers like oil firms, airport operators or other vendors and curtailment of flights.

The DGCA would also conduct a close scrutiny of the performance of pilots and engineers, the standards of maintenance and training programmes being carried out by the airlines and accident or incident rates.

With the rapid expansion of air services and most airlines facing a grave financial situation, it has become necessary to take appropriate action to ensure a high level of safety in aviation operations, the sources said.

Air India promises to pay employees soon

New Delhi: Cash-strapped Air India today released an installment of pending allowances to its employees and said it would pay the last month’s salary on Monday.

“We have today released Productivity-Linked Incentive (PLI) for all eligible employees and will be paying the October salary on Monday to all our staff,” a top airline official told PTI.

With these payments, no salary would be pending and the number of unpaid PLI installments would be reduced to about three, he said.

The official expressed hope that the pending PLI installments would be paid in the months to come as soon as the government approved the turnaround plan for the airline. There has been some disgruntle among the AI employees, ranging from pilots and engineers to cabin crew and ground handlers, over delayed salaries and PLI payments.

Meanwhile, Air India’s passenger load factor improved during the past week with the cancellation of flights of Kingfisher Airlines.

The load factors, which generally hover around 70-72 percent, has gone up to 75 percent, the official said.

Not just Kingfisher, turbulence for other private airlines too

Kingfisher Airlines may not be the lone case to suffer flight cancellations arising out of high debt.

In fact, if the estimate of an industry body is anything to go by, a series of private airlines may follow suit leading to a slew of flight cancellations, inconveniencing passengers.

High fuel costs and fierce price wars have already pushed airline companies to huge losses with aviation turbine fuel accounting for over one-third of operating costs as it is heavily taxed, said the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

“Airlines could suffer losses of about Rs 15,000 crore in the current financial year with Air India alone likely to account for more than half of it,” said Assocham secretary general D.S. Rawat.

As the key infrastructure sector expands to keep up with booming passenger and cargo traffic, investments of Rs 1.5 lakh crore will be required in the next 15 years. In fact, there has been a 19 per cent growth in passenger traffic this year. However, rising crude oil prices, depreciating rupee and cut-throat competition have eroded airlines’ ability to raise fares.

This has pushed major private and government-owned airlines like Air India, Jet Airways, Kingfisher Airlines and SpiceJet into debt turbulence.

Lowering of taxes on jet fuel, liberal foreign investment norms and a new civil aviation policy in tune with current global and domestic realities could be a rescue measure from the government, says the industry body.

The government allows foreign investment of up to 49 per cent in Indian carriers. However, foreign airlines are not allowed to invest directly or indirectly in domestic carriers, a rule the government should scrap for healthy growth of the civil aviation sector, said Mr Rawat.

Airlines need fresh funds and there will be a question mark on their survival if they are unable to raise them, he added.

Calling for streamlining of ground handling operations and lowering of airport charges, the industry body said while there is no import duty for foreign maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) companies from overseas suppliers but domestic players have to pay import duty of 30 to 40 per cent.

With passenger throughput expected to touch 54 crore by 2025 and cargo traffic expected to touch 90 lakh tonnes, the government must rationalise the tax structure so that the airline industry can grow, Mr Rawat said.

New Delhi: Finance objects, new choppers to be delayed

The Army and Air Force’s wait to get desperately needed replacements for the ageing Cheetah helicopters is set to get longer after objections were raised by the Finance department on the trial process. The procurement is already several months behind schedule given that field trials were completed in December last year.

Sources said the Finance department has raised objections to the trial process as one of the requirements mentioned in the request for proposals (RFP) was not verified during the trials. One particular trial required the two competing helicopters — Kamov 226 and Eurocopter AS 550 Fennec — to land at a helipad located at over 5,000 metres, stay overnight and take off the next day without external power.

However, it has now emerged that the trial was carried out by the Army at a lower elevation of around 4,000 metres. After the objection was raised, the Army explained that it did not have a helipad located at over 5,000 metres that could accommodate both choppers as well as their crew overnight.

Pakistan International Airlines Managing Director rejects 2 Airbuses on lease

LAHORE - PIA Managing Director Nadeem Yousufzai has rejected the summary of taking two Airbuses A320 on wet lease.

A statement from PALPA head office on Saturday said that professional unions of PIA employees met Nadeem at PIA Head Office and suggested him not to take Airbuses A320 on wet lease (along with crew). The management should strive to bring the grounded aircraft of the airline into operations after necessary overhauling, the association suggested.

In another development however regarding formation of counter corruption committee, the representatives from Pakistan Airline Pilots’ Association (PALPA), Society of Aircraft Engineers PIA (SAEP), Flight Engineers Association (FENA) and Aircraft Technicians Association of PIA (ATAP) have withdrawn their names from the same after the management of national flag carrier announced few nominations that were not part of original proposal. The professional unions had advised that if more aircraft are inevitable, option should be explored for Boeing 737 which is already in service at PIA and the airline has full support from both HR and engineering perspective. PALPA President Captain Suhail Baloch, said that the airline is already criticized for having more than needed employees. He questioned that how the management could justify bringing additional flight, cabin and engineering crew with more leased aircraft. Therefore, he added, the associations have conveyed to the management that any such agreement of leasing aircraft will not be acceptable to the employees of the airline.

He said that it is strange that the national carrier has already five aircraft of latest 300 series of Boeing 747 out of which two are grounded. The management entered into millions of dollars dubious deal to acquire two Boeing 747 of old 200 series, he added.

Captain Suhail Baloch said that the administration should get its 6 to 7 grounded aircraft ready for operations after necessary repairs, but leasing of the aircraft with crew will further increase its problems. Commenting on the formulation of PIA Advisory Committee by the PIA, PALPA Spokesman said that the committee is comprised of non-serious representatives which will bear no gain in terms of preventing corruption in the airline’s functioning, therefore, PALPA, SAEP, FENA and ATP together reject to become the part of the committee.

Prime Minister to consult Pranab over Kingfisher crisis

New Delhi: The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has given Kingfisher airlines some reason to hope. He said that his government would find ways to help the ailing aviation industry.

Sources have told CNN-IBN that Pranab Mukherjee will be consulted on a package for Kingfisher airlines. This after the cash-strapped airline cancelled as many as 40 flights on Saturday, passengers bore the brunt of the crisis.

Prime Minister on Saturday said that he would seek out Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi on the Kingfisher crisis.

The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that his government would find ways to help the ailing aviation industry.

"I have not applied my mind to Kingfisher's difficulties. I will talk to Vayalar Ravi and explore ways and means in which Kingfisher can be helped," the PM said.

The Prime Minister said he would explore options in which Kingfisher could be helped.

However, even as the government mulls its options on Kingfisher, the airline has hit turbulence.

As many as 40 flights were cancelled on Saturday and the passengers bore the brunt of the crisis.

Miffed passengers complained about cancelled and rescheduled flights.

"Flight is rescheduled and now I have to way two to three hours," said Siddharth Gaur, a passenger.

Passengers are being intimated of changed schedules a day or two prior to their flights, but over 40 Kingfisher flights across the country are being withdrawn, an average of nine flights per day cancelled at major hubs like Mumbai.

Kingfisher said the disruptions would continue only till November 19, and sent email apologies to frequent fliers.

Kingfisher has denied that it has asked for a bailout, saying its problems are common to airlines in the industry, such as rising fuel costs and rupee devaluation.

Meanwhile, competitor Jet Airways posted net losses of over Rs 700 crore in the last quarter ending September.

Kingfisher needs over Rs 1000 crore in working capital loans to tide over the current crisis.

But with the Civil Aviation Minister's assurance of support in asking banks to extend credit limits, many are asking why the government should walk the extra mile in bailing out a private airline.

With the airline's vendors, such as ground handling service agents and oil companies stepping up the pressure on delayed payments, this is one ride that's turning out to be too turbulent for the king of good times.

India remains a key market for Airbus

From selling its first passenger aircraft to India way back in 1974, leading European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has come a long way with nearly 200 of its aircraft being in service today in India which has also emerged as the seventh biggest operator of Airbus planes worldwide. Leading the pack is the best seller single-aisle aircraft from Airbus — the A320 for which the erstwhile state-owned Indian Airlines was the launch customer in 1989 and now low-cost private operators — IndiGo and GoAir — have become the largest fleet operators of A320 airliners.

Confident of its future potential, Airbus is also launching a fuel-efficient, advanced version of A-320, called the NEO (New Engine Option) equipped with bigger wingtips ‘sharklets'. Airbus has already received nearly 1100 firm orders from 22 customers worldwide for the newer A320 version. Among the Indian operators, IndiGo and GoAir, have placed orders for A320 (NEO) which will result in 15 per cent fuel burn reduction translating into fuel savings of nearly $2 million a year for airlines.

The A320 has turned out to be the flagship aircraft from the European consortium and is the world's best-selling aircraft with 7,926 firm orders, 4,700 deliveries and a backlog of 2,900 aircraft, Joost Van Der Heijden who heads airline marketing in India and Southeast Asia, told a group of visiting Indian journalists at Airbus headquarters here.

IndiGo, India's largest low-cost carrier which has recently launched its international flights, will be the launch customer for A-320 NEO which would be delivered to it from 2016. The new version will also result in reduction of emissions and lower engine noise. While IndiGo has ordered 150 NEOs, GoAir has placed an order for 72 of such aircraft.

“We are confident of delivering A320 NEOs on time. We are also increasing the production to meet the surge in demand,'' Joaquin Toro-Prieo, marketing director, A320 family of aircraft, said. The production of A320 is being increased from the current 34 aircraft a month to 42 a month from 2012 onwards.

Sounding upbeat about the Indian market, Kiran Rao, Airbus Vice-President (Sales and Marketing), said the consortium valued its long-term cooperation with India where the civil aviation sector poised to grow at 8 eight per cent annually over the next decade or so.

By 2028, Airbus estimates that Indian carries would need some 1,000 new aircraft, including 60 of the size of A380s, to meet the passenger and freight demand.

Mr. Rao, who also heads Airbus India, said that while A320 had been a favourite of Indian carriers in the single-aisle 180-seat segment, A-330-300 has emerged as a preferred choice in the double-aisle segment which can carry 300 passengers. However, the A380 has not figured in discussions with any other airline from India. Though A-380 has been operating on top 15 airports across the world, Delhi and Mumbai have remained untouched by the operations of the superjumbo, the world's largest passenger aircraft.

On the contentious issue of the proposed Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility which was part of a deal with Air India, he said that it was very much on the cards. “We made a lot of promises when we did the deal. The MRO was one of them. We promised training centre and engineering centres, both of which are up and running. We continue to work with Air India towards developing a joint business plan for an MRO in India. The MRO will definitely come up,'' Mr. Rao added.

Echoing similar sentiments, Srinivasan Dwarkanath, Vice-President, International Cooperation, said that Airbus was increasing its footprint outside Europe and had set up subsidiaries in Tunisia, Romania and China. In India, the training centre and the engineering centre in Bangalore were also being expanded. “Airbus is sourcing different products from India which together account for nearly euro 150 million a year.,'' he added.

Qatar Airways plans huge order

Dubai: Gulf airlines and lessors could splash out more than $20bn on Airbus and Boeing jets at next week’s Dubai air show, underscoring the region’s role as the industry’s chief paymaster amid Europe’s worsening sovereign debt crisis.

Emirates is in talks for a hefty order of at least 30 and possibly as many as 50 Boeing 777 long-range aircraft worth $8.5bn to $14.5bn and Qatar Airways is expected to place a $6.5bn order for 50 fuel-saving A320neo jets and five A380s from Airbus, industry sources said.

The last air show two years ago was muted by Dubai’s own crisis, but the city state is recovering after a bailout from neighbouring Abu Dhabi. Burned by its reliance on property and the financial sector, Dubai is now focusing on becoming a transport and logistics hub.

“We absolutely expect the Gulf airlines to continue on the expansion trail — they are very into having a young fleet and are determined to be superconnectors who try and hoover up traffic flows on a global basis,” said Stephen Furlong, transport analyst at Davy Research in Dublin. “While in other parts of the world you have things like the EU emission scheme and night-time flying bans, in the Gulf, the governments and the airlines are joined at the hip — the governments are totally in line with the growth plans.”

Orders are likely to include dozens of new sales for Airbus’s revamped A320neo short-haul jet, which has enabled the European plane maker to pass Boeing in the order race this year. But the EADS subsidiary will also be under pressure to explain delays in the A350 passenger jet directly to Gulf customers whose support is crucial for Europe’s answer to Boeing’s carbon-composite 787 Dreamliner to succeed.

Emirates and Qatar Airways have some 370 planes on order to be delivered over the next few years. Financing is increasingly an issue as the industry’s traditional backers — European lenders and particularly French banks — have become more risk averse and are shying away from new deals. Emirates CEO Tim Clark said recently that the airline was looking at the Islamic finance market to fund aircraft deliveries.

That said, the shake-out in Europe may bring advantages of cost for Gulf carriers. Daniel Broby, chief investment officer at Silk Invest, said Gulf airlines could snap up bargain deals as the world waits for Europe to resolve its debt crisis and ease doubts over growth. “The advantage of buying at the air show at this stage in the cycle is that they are bound to secure good prices, because there will be little demand from Europe or the United States.” Airlines placed around $14bn in orders at the last biennial show in 2009, sharply down from $155bn in 2007.

Although US fighter jets are traditionally an important part of the show and its aerial displays, the business end of the show is likely to feature a publicity battle between the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale as they face off in a $11bn contest for 127 aircraft in India. The show is the first industry gathering since the Libyan conflict ended and both manufacturers will be keen to play up the performance of their combat jets in the Nato operation. Analysts will be also be listening for any news about talks between the UAE and France over the purchase of 60 Rafale jets, estimated at $10bn.

Others to watch are UAE early warning system orders — with Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Swedish aerospace group Saab likely to be in competition — and purchases by Qatar, which is modernising its Air Force.


Dubai Airshow: Fresh orders expected

The world's aircraft manufacturers, with giants Airbus and Boeing at the helm, are at the Dubai Airshow this week.

With more than 1,000 exhibitors from 50 countries, it would be natural to assume that the biennial show is becoming increasingly international.

Indeed, in many ways this is so. These days, about one in five of its visitors have flown in from outside the Middle East region.

But in terms of the exhibitors' countries of origin, the airshow is increasingly becoming a local affair.

This year, more than a third (35%) of the exhibitors come from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 1989 they made up just 5%.

As such, the show "really reflects the UAE's development in aerospace over the last 40 years", reasons Alison Weller, managing director of show organiser F&E Aerospace.

There are now a slew of airlines in the UAE - which was formed in December 1971- as well as in neighbouring countries and states.

Dubai's neighbour - and in many respects, rival - Abu Dhabi has started manufacturing complex plane parts made from composite materials, the latest in the UAE's efforts to establish itself as a technology and manufacturing base.

And the airshow is held at the 140sq km (54sq miles) Dubai World Central "aerotropolis" that includes massive passenger and cargo airports, including a new one currently being constructed.

'Real growth story'

Aerospace companies, regardless of where they are based, serve global markets.

And it seems the industry's long-term outlook remains bright - in spite of the economic turbulence that has buffeted both the world economy and its airlines in recent months.

"Despite the current uncertainty, production rates are increasing further in the next three years for the most popular [aircraft] types," observes Eddy Pieniazek from the aviation consultancy Ascend.

Gulf carriers are doing their bit to fuel demand, with Emirates, Qatar and others from the region expected to place orders worth billions of dollars during the show.

This is partly because demand for flights is anticipated to continue to soar in the years ahead, as the number of people flying rises in line with economic growth in some of the world's most populous regions.

"This is a real growth story," says Airbus sales chief John Leahy, referring to the aircraft manufacturer's latest forecast, which predicted that air traffic will double over the next 20 years, with airlines buying $3.5 trillion (£2.2 trillion) worth of planes to cope.

Tight profit margins

Demand for new planes is also driven by the airlines' urge to reduce their fuel bills, so this has become a major driver behind an anticipated slew of fresh orders from airlines at the Dubai show, predicts Mr Pieniazek.

"Fleet renewal is driven by the need for more fuel-efficient aircraft," he explains.

At current levels, jet fuel accounts for about a third of most carriers' costs, so fuel bills are putting a painful squeeze on their profit margins.

This year, the airline industry expects to make profits of just $4bn, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts, marking a drop of some 78% from the $18bn it clocked up in 2010.

"On anticipated revenues of $598bn, this gives a net industry [profit] margin of only 0.7%," Les Weal, Ascend's valuations director, calculates.

IATA's estimate puts the margin slightly wider at 1.2%, but that is still "paltry", according to Tony Tyler, the industry body's director general and chief executive.

"Airlines are competing in a very tough environment and 2012 will be even more difficult," he says.

"The industry is brittle. Any shock has the potential to put us in the red."

Aviation finance

The overall picture is thus mixed.

On the one hand, airlines are facing up to the here and now, struggling to make money in the short term because of high costs, combined with downward pressure on prices from consumers preoccupied with the ongoing economic crisis.

"Some airlines are bracing for a slowdown in business traffic, even in Asia," acknowledges Mr Leahy.

But "all we are talking about is a softening in the growth rate", he continues, pointing to how airlines with vision are simultaneously engaged in detailed discussions with financiers to raise more funds to buy more planes.

"There is a need for up to $18tn to finance new deliveries in the next 10 years," according to Ascend's Mr Pieniazek.

That could help bolster the recovery for the airshow's host Dubai, which suffered an economic slump a couple of years ago that was so severe it had to ask for economic assistance from Abu Dhabi.

Dubai's ambition to become a globally important financial centre remains intact, and a deeper engagement in aviation finance could help speed up progress both for the sector as well as for Dubai as a whole.

UAE aerospace companies exhibiting at the show will also play a part, eager to both bolster and benefit from the anticipated aviation boom.

"The main objective of the [show] is to provide a platform for exhibitors to network with the aerospace industry and market here in the Middle East," says F&E Aerospace's Ms Weller.

The Dubai Airshow runs from 13 to 17 November 2011.

Cessna 180, N3606C: Accident occurred November 11, 2011 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

NTSB Identification: CEN12LA060 
 14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, November 11, 2011 in Eau Claire, WI
Probable Cause Approval Date: 05/21/2012
Aircraft: CESSNA 180, registration: N3606C
Injuries: 1 Uninjured.

NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

During a personal sightseeing flight, the pilot landed the airplane at a controlled airport without contacting the control tower. According to the manager of a fixed base operation at the controlled airport, the pilot asked what airport he had landed at and seemed unsure of the direction toward his intended destination. Although the manager reminded him to do so, the pilot did not contact the control tower during his departure. While en route, it became dark, and the airplane experienced a loss of electrical power, rendering the cockpit "virtually black." Although the sky was clear and the visibility was 10 miles, the pilot was unable to locate a diversion airport after an hour of searching. He elected to land on a road, and the airplane collided with a pole. The pilot reported that he lost directional control during the landing roll. A postaccident examination revealed that the airplane’s battery had a low power state. The pilot reported no mechanical malfunctions other than the loss of electrical power.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:

The pilot’s disorientation during a night flight, which resulted in an off-airport landing, and his inadequate directional control during the landing roll. Contributing to the accident was the loss of the airplane’s electrical system power.

On November 11, 2011, about 1900 central standard time, a Cessna 180, N3606C, impacted a pole during a precautionary landing on a highway near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The pilot, the sole occupant, was not injured. The airplane sustained substantial damage. The airplane was registered to and operated by the private pilot under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a personal flight. Night visual flight rules conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, which operated without a flight plan. The flight departed the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (EAU), near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, about 1640, and was destined for the Crystal Airport (MIC), near Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The pilot reported that he departed MIC about 1430 to 1500 for a sightseeing flight along the St. Croix River to La Crosse, Wisconsin. He stated that he did not intend to land at La Crosse. The pilot added he stopped to refuel at Rice lake, Wisconsin, before he started his return to MIC when dusk conditions began.

While en route during the return flight, the airplane had a loss of electrical power rendering the cockpit “virtually black.” The pilot used a flashlight to illuminate the cockpit as he looked for a diversion airport for over an hour. After not finding a nearby airport, he elected to perform a precautionary landing on roadway. The pilot reported that the “tailwheel castored”, it hit an obstacle, “and did a fair amount of damage to the airplane”. The pilot listed no other mechanical malfunctions in his report other than the loss of electrical power. The pilot was asked if he flown anywhere else and he reported that he did not land at any other airport other than Rice Lake.

However, the manager of the fixed base operator (FBO) at EAU reported that the accident airplane had landed there around 1620. The pilot asked an FBO employee which airport this was. The pilot was told he was at EAU. According to the manager, the pilot said that he had originated from the La Crosse area and that he was trying to get to Stillwater, Minnesota. The FBO staff pointed out the general direction toward Stillwater. According to the FBO manager, the pilot seemed shocked when he discovered that there was a control tower at the airport and realized that he had landed without any radio communication.

According to the manager, the pilot said that his airplane’s engine was flooded. He could not get his engine started and accepted the manager’s assistance to get the airplane started. The pilot asked which direction was north and the manager pointed west and replied that west was the direction to Stillwater. The manager stated that he reminded the pilot to contact the control tower and depart to the west. The pilot taxied the airplane out about 1640 without contacting the control tower and the next time the manager heard about the pilot was after the pilot landed the airplane on the highway.

A Federal Aviation Administration inspector examined the wreckage on-scene and confirmed the substantial damage to the left wing. A subsequent examination revealed that the airplane’s battery had a low power state.

At 1956, the recorded weather at EAU was: wind 190 degrees at 4 knots; visibility 10 statute miles; sky condition clear; temperature 3 degrees C; dew point -3 degrees C; altimeter 29.62 inches of mercury.

A single-engine airplane made an emergency landing Friday evening on the North Crossing near the McKinley Road intersection. No injuries were reported, but a traffic light was knocked over and traffic was halted in the eastbound lane of Highway 312.

It happened around 7:30 p.m. The aircraft landed near the McKinley Road intersection. No one was hurt. The pilot was the only one on board and he's OK. No cars were hit, but the plane took out a stoplight on the way down. Crews blocked off the eastbound lanes of the North Crossing as they investigated. They were able to remove the aircraft by 11 p.m.

The plane is registered to a 68-year-old man from Shorewood, Minnesota. Police say the pilot was having mechanical difficulties and decided to land on the road. They could not confirm where the plane took off or where it was headed. The Chippewa Valley Regional Airport is not far from where the aircraft landed.
An airplane made an emergency landing last night in Eau Claire, right in the middle of Highway 312.

The Eau Claire Fire Department was dispatched around 7:30 p.m. Friday night. When crews arrived to the scene they found the plane in the median of the street with the pilot outside of it.

Authorities say the pilot reported his gauges went black and he was forced to land immediately. Authorities say the pilot narrowly missed power lines and light poles on the way down, but did strike one traffic light, damaging the left wing.

The plane is registered to a 68-year-old man from Shorewood, Minnesota.

No injuries were reported.

Cessna 401A, N531MH: Accident occurred November 12, 2011 in Gladewater, Texas

NTSB Identification: CEN12LA061  
1 14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Saturday, November 12, 2011 in Gladewater, TX
Probable Cause Approval Date: 11/07/2012
Aircraft: CESSNA 401A, registration: N531MH
Injuries: 1 Serious,4 Minor.

NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

While preparing to enter the traffic pattern, the pilot checked the wind on his weather-equipped global positioning system and also heard a wind update on the radio for the nearest weather facility. On the basis of the information obtained, the pilot understood that the current wind was from 170 degrees at 20 to 25 knots. He entered the traffic pattern in a left downwind for runway 14 and began to slow the airplane for landing. The pilot stated that when the airplane was on short final at an airspeed of about 120 knots, a gusting crosswind pushed it right of the runway centerline. The airplane began to descend rapidly, and the pilot added full power in an attempt to go around. However, the airplane rolled to the right, and the airplane crashed on the right side of the runway. No preaccident mechanical malfunctions or failures were found that would have precluded normal operation.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during the landing and attempted go-around in a gusty crosswind.

On November 12, 2011, about 1635 central standard time, a Cessna 401A, N531MH, was substantially damaged while landing at the Gladewater Municipal Airport (07F), Gladewater, Texas. The private pilot and three passengers received minor injuries, and the forth passenger was seriously injured. The airplane was registered to and operated by the pilot. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan was filed for the 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 personal flight. The cross-country flight originated from the Natchitoches Regional Airport (IER), Natchitoches, Louisiana, around 1550.

While preparing to enter the traffic pattern at 1,800 feet above ground level, the pilot checked the wind on his Garmin 696 with NEXRAD and also heard a wind update on the radio for the nearest weather facility. The current wind was understood to be from 170 degrees between 20 and 25 knots. The pilot entered the pattern in a left downwind for runway 14 and began to slow the airplane down. The pilot stated he was on short final and at an airspeed of about 120 knots when a gusting crosswind pushed the airplane 30 feet right of the runway centerline and began to descend very quickly. The pilot decided to perform a go-around maneuver and added full engine power. As engine power was added, the twin-engine airplane began to roll to the right. The pilot then elected to reduce engine power and land. The airplane impacted and exited the runway before coming to rest in an upright position.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, Cessna Aircraft Co., and Continental Motors, Inc. performed a post accident examination of the airplane and the engines. Examination of the airplane revealed substantial damage to the fuselage, empennage, wings, and landing gear. No preaccident mechanical malfunctions or failures were found that would have precluded normal operation.

At 1553, the aviation routine weather report at East Texas Regional Airport in Longview, Texas, about 16 nautical miles southeast of the accident location was: wind 170 degrees and 16 knots gusting to 23 knots; visibility 10sm; few clouds at 4,900 feet above ground level; temperature 23 degrees Celsius and dew point 13 degrees Celsius; altimeter 29.92 inches of mercury. At 1530, the weather station reported a peak wind gust of 27 knots from 190 degrees.

NTSB Identification: CEN12LA061 
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Saturday, November 12, 2011 in Gladewater, TX
Aircraft: CESSNA 401A, registration: N531MH
Injuries: 1 Serious,4 Minor.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On November 12, 2011, about 1635 central standard time, a Cessna 401A, N531MH, was substantially damaged during a loss of control while landing at the Gladewater Municipal Airport (07F), Gladewater, Texas. The private pilot and three passengers received minor injuries, and the forth passenger was seriously injured. The airplane was registered to and operated by the pilot. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan was filed for the 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 personal flight. The cross-country flight originated from the Natchitoches Regional Airport (IER), Natchitoches, Louisiana, around 1550 with 07F as the intended destination.

According to the pilot, on short final approach for landing, it felt like a cross-wind hit the airplane from left to right pushing it approximately 30 feet off the runway’s extended centerline. The pilot decided to perform a go-around maneuver and added full engine power. As engine power was added, the twin-engine airplane began to roll to the right. The pilot then elected to reduce engine power and land. The airplane impacted and exited the runway before coming to rest in an upright position. During the impact, both wings and the fuselage sustained substantial damage.

Pakistan International Airline engulfed by financial woes, unions’ wrath

LAHORE - The cash-strapped national flag carrier is facing serious hardship in running smooth routine and Haj operations.

On one hand, foreign aviation organisations are fast losing their trust in Pakistan International Airline (PIA)’s financial health; while on the other, various employee associations are giving tough time to the management on virtually every issue.

Aviation industry sources have disclosed that a Saudi Arabian vendor had asked the national flag carrier to release payment of $4 million outstanding fuel bills. PIA was warned that if it did not clear the outstanding bill in 72 hours, it would stop fuel supply to PIA’s aircraft at Jeddah airport, which could jeopardise the smooth post-Haj operation.

Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO-IRI) has already closed its airspace for PIA aircraft over a delayed outstanding payment of $0.6 million, which resulted in that the national flag carrier is incurring the higher fuel cost for Lahore- and Islamabad-bound return Haj flights as aircrafts have to take a slightly longer route over Oman’s airspace, sources maintained.

Apart from financial irregularities and mismanagement, the national flag carrier is facing hard resistance from several staff unions and associations. In a recent episode, PIA Managing Director Captain Nadeem Yousufzai had to surrender before the employee associations by scrapping the proposal of wet lease of two aircraft.

The sources said the national flag carrier had planned to acquire two Airbus A320 on wet lease, which meant PIA had to pay hourly rent for aircraft, complete crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI). However, upon protest by Pakistan Airline Pilots’ Association (PALPA) and a number of other staff associations, the management scrapped the proposal.

As PIA is passing through its most difficult times, PALPA and other PIA unions are of the view that instead of acquiring aircraft on lease, the airline should strive to restore six grounded aircraft. In a recent meeting with the PIA MD, union office-bearers asked the management that if aircraft acquisition on lease was unavoidable, the airline should opt for some Boeing variant for which PIA had expertise and overhauling or maintenance facilities. In another move, PIA’s senior management decided to constitute a Counter Corruption Committee to rein in leakages. But, interestingly, PALPA, Society of Aircraft Engineers PIA (SAEP), Flight Engineers Association (FENA) and Aircraft Technicians Association of PIA (ATAP) again opposed the development by withdrawing their names from the committee. Office-bearers of employee associations are of the view that the committee is comprised of non-serious representatives who could not bring any change by preventing corruption.
Talking to Pakistan Today, a senior PALPA member said all professional bodies, including PALPA, wanted to ensure transparency in the airline’s affairs, but PIA management had to be serious about it.

He said earlier the national flag carrier acquired two air crafts from a Greek company on wet lease in which millions of dollars were wasted, as none of the two aircraft joined Haj operation. Despite several attempts, PIA’s spokesman could not be reached for a comment.

Couple sues airline over cockroaches on plane.

A Charlotte couple is suing Air Tran Airways, claiming they saw cockroaches coming out of air vents and storage areas on a recent flight and that attendants ignored their concerns.

The lawsuit stems from a flight that attorney Harry Marsh and his fiancée, Kaitlin Rush, took from Charlotte to Houston with a stop-over in Atlanta on Sept. 15.

Marsh and Rush allege cockroaches came out of air vents and carry-on compartments shortly after takeoff. They took pictures of the cockroaches and included them as exhibits in the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, Marsh and Rush allege that several other passengers became aware of the cockroaches, and that it caused distress to a number of passengers.

The suit also alleges that flight attendants were too busy to investigate the problem or believe the problem existed. Marsh said that when he brought the issue to a flight attendant’s attention, the woman put her finger to her mouth. He believes the flight attendant was implying to be quiet, Marsh said.

The suit also claims the cockroaches made them sick. Marsh said Rush become nauseous and now doesn't want to fly.

Marsh also said they had to throw away some of their belongings and wash others because of concern that cockroaches got on their clothes and into their luggage.

They're alleging that Air Tran's negligence and failure to provide a clean, pest-free flight caused them mental and emotional distress.

They're suing for more than $100,000, plus the price of their tickets.

Air Tran said it can't comment on the pending litigation, although it denies several of the allegations in the suit.

Air Tran also said the cleanliness of its equipment is very important, and the planes are regularly and professionally treated for bugs.

Piper Aztec: Aircraft makes belly landing at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

MANILA, Philippines—A small cargo aircraft whose wheels collapsed, forcing it to land on its belly, blocked the main runway of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) for almost an hour on Saturday, causing several flights to be delayed.

According to Joseph Agustin, chief of the Manila International Airport Authority’s ground operations and safety division, the landing gear of the Piper Aztec collapsed, causing it to slide along the runway on its underside or belly.

Neither of the two people on the plane, pilots Jun Sanchez and Joramel Bautista, was injured.

Agustin said the plane, which was carrying cargo from Palawan, stalled in the middle of the runway when its landing gear collapsed as it was making its landing.

Fire and rescue workers were immediately on the scene.

But during the clearing operation, Emer Tablante, a paramedic, suffered a minor injury and was rushed to the San Juan de Dios Hospital.

It took airport personnel some 40 minutes to clear the disabled aircraft from the runway.

An international flight had to be diverted to the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Clark, Pampanga.

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines has dispatched investigators to the site to determine the cause of the incident.

Cessna 180H, N180LV: Aircraft on landing crashed through fence at Harvey Field Airport (S43) Snohomish, Washington.

SNOHOMISH, Washington — Two people were onboard but no one was injured when a small plane crashed through a fence at Harvey Field in Snohomish on Friday afternoon, a representative with the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The Cessna 180 was landing downwind on Runway 15 when it crashed through the fence at the end of the runway, the FAA official said. The plane sustained "substantial" damage.

Air Nigeria Looking For Pilots

Air Nigeria, (formerly Virgin Nigeria) was established in 2004 when the Federal Government of Nigeria and Virgin Atlantic Airways signed a Memorandum of Mutual Understanding (MMU) that gave birth to the airline. Air Nigeria, then trading as Virgin Nigeria Airways started operating on 28th June, 2005 with flights to London Heathrow, Johannesburg as well as regional and domestic flights using Airbus A340-300 and A320-200 aircrafts. The airline quickly endeared itself in the minds of consumers as a result of its excellent customer service delivery and safety standards (being the first West African carrier listed on IOSA directory).

Job Description
Do you have 1500 hours or more total flight time? Are you excited about safety and efficiency? Then take your special place as a first rate pilot with Air Nigeria.

Air Nigeria, currently flies to Abuja, Owerri, Kano, Port Harcourt, and Sokoto (on the domestic route) regionally we fly to Abidjan, Accra, Banjul, Brazzaville, Cotonou, Dakar, Douala, Liberia Libreville and Monrovia. We have plans to open more routes with a promise to offer our customers excellent service and operate to the highest standard.

Essential to our growth and success is the employment of high quality pilot in Lagos for our expanding fleet. We are offering exciting career opportunities for dynamic pilots to join us.

• Good understanding of commercial air transport operations
• Positive and proactive attitude towards flight safety
• Good communication skills
• IT literacy
• ATPL/CPL with B737 classic, B737NG or E190 type rating
• Last flight on any of the required types must be within the last 24 months
• First Class Medical
• English proficiency
• Valid passport
• No criminal history
• No history of incident or accidents

Responsible to the Chief Pilot and the Company for safe and efficient operation of the aircraft; to join us as Captain, you will need
• ATPL/Medical/Current (Sim) on type B737NG, B737 classic or E190
• A total of 5,000 hours of which 1000 hours must be on type with at least 3000 Hours in command
• Excellent CRM Skills
• Strong leadership and flight deck management skills
• Type rated pilots only may apply

Responsible to the Captain, you will be expected to aspire to achieve the same excellent standards as the Captain. We are recruiting future Captains and you must be able to demonstrate good command and leadership qualities with your flying skills. To join us as Co-Pilot, you will need:
• ATPL /CPL/Medical/Current (Sim) on type B737NG, B737 classic or E190
• A total of 1500 hours flying experience of which 500 hours must be on type
• Demonstrate sound technical skills, potential leadership qualities and command
• Excellent CRM skills
• Exhibit leadership and flight deck management skills
• Type rated pilots only may apply

In return we will offer you a great place to work, and industry leading reward package consisting of a commuting contract (12 weeks on, 2 weeks off), competitive salary, excellent training and development, medical cover, pension, staff travel benefits and an opportunity to see the world.

To be considered, you will need to do the following:
• Download the application form please Click Here, click on the ‘SAVE’ button and save the file to an appropriate location (you will want to carefully note the location you save to, so that you will be able to find the file once download is complete)
• Carefully complete the application form.
• Once you have downloaded and completed this form, e-mail it to

Please do not complete this form unless you are a pilot.

Note that this application form is only for Pilots applying for Flight Deck positions.

Only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

This offer closes Saturday, December 31, 2011

Twin Otter landing gear units missing: Nepal Airlines Corporation

KATHMANDU, Nov 13: Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC), the ailing national flag carrier which has been reporting a series of thefts of aircraft spare parts, has now announced that two of its Twin Otter landing gear units have gone missing since a month ago.

The equipment, which is a must accessory for aircraft landing and take-off, was taken to London-based AEM Limited for a complete overhaul in September. Documents show that the overhauled gear was received in mid-October.

"However, we could not find the repaired landing gear when we went to collect it at the cargo complex a month ago," NAC officials said. NAC paid US $ 140,000 for the overhaul.

NAC said the equipment was delivered to Nepal via Thai Airways cargo. "The cargo was cleared through customs and hence should have been in the cargo complex. But when we went to collect it, it was not there," said the NAC source.

The cargo complex at Tribhuvan International Airport is managed by Nepal Transit Warehouse Company (NTWC). Ranjan Krishna Aryal, joint-secretary at the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoTCA), said they would cross-check documents for possible release of the landing gear from the cargo complex before confirming that the equipment was really missing.

NAC officials said they are preparing to hold a meeting with NTWC officials to clarify the disappearance of the landing gear.

Meanwhile, Yogendra Mahato, executive director of NTWC, said that their security was too intense for the consignment to go missing from the complex. "There is no chance of landing gear getting lost if they were received at the cargo complex," he told Republica.

However, this is not the first time NAC has reported disappearance of aircraft parts.

Just on Tuesday, NAC reported the disappearance of two spare tires of one of its Boeings. The cost of the tires was put at US$ 7,000.

Similarly, some eight months ago, it had disclosed the theft of the ´fly-away kit´ of the other Boeing. The kit costing around Rs 45 million is still missing.

A sub-committee formed then to probe the theft had concluded that the kit was ´lost´ because of carelessness by the engineering department at NAC. Based on its findings, NAC had suspended three engineers, charging them with possible involvement.

Air India flight from Jeddah to Mumbai sets off with 4 fliers left behind

An Air India flight from Jeddah to Mumbai almost took off on Friday with four checked-in passengers — one of them in a wheelchair — still waiting to board. The flight, which began to taxi on the runway at 3 am, returned to the boarding gate after a passenger on board realized that  his wife was missing and alerted the crew.

The goof-up pushed the flight, which was carrying about 400 passengers, to the back of the departure queue and, compounded by the Haj season rush at the terminal, resulted in a total delay of eight-and-a-half hours.

“The flight was already behind schedule owing to Haj season congestion at Jeddah. The mistake further delayed it,” said an airline source.

The mix-up also resulted in ugly arguments between the cabin crew and airline personnel at the Jeddah airport.

According to standard operating procedure, the ground crew is supposed to log the total number of passengers, fuel and other supplies on board before giving a flight clearance for take-off.

“After goofing up, the ground staff asked the cabin crew to count the passengers on board,” said an airline operations official.

Air India spokespersons did not respond to repeated calls or a query sent via email.

Emirates expected to order more planes; Airline remains focused on long-term strategy

Shaikh Ahmad attends the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference on Saturday. Emirates is expected to announce firm orders for more aircraft.

Dubai: Emirates is expected to announce during the Dubai Airshow firm orders for more aircraft to top up its order book and expand its dominance of the skies.

Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation and Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates airline and Group, talked earlier about the deal.

One order will be with Boeing, which has already supplied 95 B777s to the airline, a fleet that makes Emirates the world's biggest 777 operator.

The size of the orders is yet to be known.

Emirates has placed orders during almost every major airshow in the last decade.

"Emirates remains focused on its long-term strategy despite global instability, ever climbing fuel prices and fluctuating exchange rates," Shaikh Ahmad said in a recent statement.

"The global challenges of the past six months have again put Emirates to the test, and once again we have risen to the challenge and continue to maintain our high standards of product and services."

Emirates has a fleet of 161 aircraft and more than 170 are on firm order pending deliveries for the next six to eight years. The order book includes 41 Boeing aircraft.

Jim Albaugh, Chief Executive Officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said: "The Middle Eastern economies are very resilient. We have already 1,000 planes in service in the region and we see greater demand for our aircraft."

Asked about possible orders at the Dubai Airshow, he said he is optimistic. "We'll let our customers make the announcements."

Boeing has 280 aircraft on firm order in the Middle East. The region is the second highest aviation growth market in the world. This includes 112 from three UAE carriers — Emirates, Etihad Airways and flydubai. Boeing is expecting a series of orders at the Dubai Airshow that kicks off today.

"All I could say is that we have a number of signings (orders) at the Airshow," Randy Tinseth, Boeing's Vice-President of Marketing.

Pilots of Crashed Nigeria Air Force Plane Hale and Hearty

Two pilots of a Nigeria Air Force training plane, reportedly, survived an air mishap at the Akwa Ibom International Airport last Friday. It was the first air crash recorded at the airport, which was commissioned about two years ago.

THISDAY gathered that the crash occurred about 7.00 pm when the plane tried to make an emergency landing at the airport after taking off from Calabar.

The crashed plane was said to be one of the seven aircrafts involved in the week-long Staff Continuity Training Exercise and Sports Week of the Nigeria Air Force, which opened Saturday in Calabar, the Cross River State capital.

When THISDAY visited the scene of the incident at the Akwa Ibom International Airport Saturday, security was tight but the wreckage of the plane was sighted where it was removed after the crash.

Sources said most of the pilots involved in the training programme were young men in their early 20s. None of the workers at the Akwa Ibom International Airport volunteered any information on the accident, which occurred after six of the aircraft had successfully landed.

However, a statement issued by the management of the airport Saturday exonerated itself from any negligence that could have caused the aircraft to crash land.

The statement, which was tagged "communiqué on NAF incident at AKIA," said the plane did not damage any installed facilities at the airport.

Managing Director of AKIA, Captain Jari Williams, said that the NAF airplane crashed 1,100 metres from Runway 21 at 7.09 pm.

"Meanwhile, no damage to AKIA facilities has been recorded. The two pilots are hale and hearty, and currently under observation as a matter of procedure," he said.

According to him, the AKIA and Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar, were jointly selected as operation zones for this year's Staff Continuity Training Exercise and Sports Week of the Nigeria Air Force.

He disclosed that on Friday, seven NAF airplanes had departed Margaret Ekpo International Airport enroute AKIA and six of them landed successfully. Williams said AKIA aerodrome rescue and fire fighting safety team responded promptly when the seventh airplane crash landed. The management of AKIA, he said, had since informed the Director General of Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) about the accident, which "was offsite the airport facilities with no recorded damage to airport facilities."

The managing director assured the flying public that AKIA is safe for flight operations in line with its current certification.

Heli-skiing: the height of adventure

Heli-skiing is intense -- at least you can rest on a ski lift. And with rates starting at $3,800 for three days, you don't dare waste a moment. 

by Julian Smith

When I first heard I'd be joining a trip with Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in Blue River, B.C., I was speechless with joy.

To many serious skiers and snowboarders, heli-skiing is the ultimate: limitless, untracked powder snow; top-notch guides, lodgings and food; and best of all no lifts, let alone lift lines.

In business since 1970, Wiegele is the granddaddy of Canadian heli-ski operators. They're known as much for their five-star facilities as the terrain they have access to: 1.2 million acres in the Cariboo and Monashee Mountains, more than all North American ski resorts combined.

Then I remembered I'd been snowboarding exactly once since our daughter was born two years ago. Toddlers: can't ski with them, too expensive to ski without them. I wasn't just out of practice; I was practically off the team.

Heli-skiing is intense -- at least you can rest on a ski lift. And with rates starting at $3,800 for three days, you don't dare waste a moment.

My trip to Blue River, a three-hour drive north of Kamloops, B.C., was a mix of anticipation and anxiety. Could I keep up? Would I blow out a knee on the first run and spend three days watching "Oprah" reruns?

Wiegele's Heli Village resort has an Old World alpine luxury, with massive buildings made of reused old-growth logs and smooth river stones. My first task after checking in -- next to a sign listing two dozen things that can kill you in the backcountry -- was to sign a two-page waiver I'm surprised didn't include the word "firstborn."

It was reassuring to hear that safety is Wiegele's No. 1 priority. Every guide has extensive safety and rescue training, and often decades of experience. The company even started its own certification program, the Canadian Ski Guide Association. Each guide escorts no more than five guests at a time.

That evening I had to watch a 20-minute safety video that boiled down to 1) ski in control, and 2) listen carefully to your guide's instructions. In the morning, head guide Bob Sayer, who runs the CSGA, took our group through a quick lesson on using the avalanche transceivers everyone has to carry.

The palm-sized devices give off a constant signal that other transceivers can detect up to 300 feet away, or under deep snow.

"Minus 12 is my favorite temperature," Sayer said, looking at the thermometer. "At minus 20 the snow is too slow, and at zero you start to sweat." A 24-year Wiegele veteran, Sayer has guided some clients for over 15 years. (Eighty percent of Wiegele's clients are repeat guests.)

Our freshly tuned skis and snowboards were waiting at the helipad, 30 feet from the door of our chalets. The helicopter roared in and 12 of us -- two guides and 10 clients -- scrambled in. We took off feeling like alpine commandos amid the noise and helmets and layers of gear.

Wiegele has access to 10 choppers, so they can fine-tune groups according to experience. Guests regularly notch up 30,000 vertical feet or more in a day, the equivalent of 11 runs from top to bottom at Mt. Hood Meadows. Children and less adventurous spouses can go snowcat skiing on nearby Saddle Mountain.

This part of the northern Rockies averages more than 30 feet of snow a year. The guides track the weather carefully using three remote weather stations and are acutely aware of the ever-changing risk of avalanche. With access to so much territory, they can almost always find somewhere with good snow.

After a five-minute flight, the helicopter set us down in a huge snow-filled bowl. After the hurricane of its departure, the shining silence was absolute.

Guide Erich Schadinger dug a pit in the snow to check for buried layers that could slide and cause an avalanche. Everything looked fine, so he and guide Scott Streadwick led us down into a skiers' playground of rolling hills, gullies and hummocks, all buried in soft, knee-deep powder.

I was the only one in the group on a snowboard -- everyone else was on fat powder skis -- and I was just fine with that. Snowboarding in deep powder is almost effortless. The board practically steers itself; all you have to do is lean back and carve turn after turn after turn.

When we gathered at the landing spot at the bottom of the bowl, the flushed faces showed that everyone else was as ecstatic as I was.

We did 13 runs in all the first day. As hard as I tried, I couldn't think of any way the experience could be any better. The helicopter rides broke up the runs perfectly, and added an extra frisson of excitement of their own. There was never more than 10 minutes between finishing one run and starting the next.

The pilot always set down within a foot of the marker posts the guides stuck in the snow. He made one impressive landing on top of a hill barely big enough for the helicopter's skids.

After three hours we stopped at a midmountain hut for a lunch of butternut squash soup, sandwiches and hot cider. Then it was back to the slopes.

My energy started flagging after lunch, especially when I had to unclip my snowboard again and again to flounder across flat spots that everyone else could skis across. Schadinger's announcement that this was our last run came as a guilty relief. I felt like we'd done two resort days in six hours.

My full-body ache faded somewhat when word came that it was free beer night in the Silver Buckle Bar. The name comes from a prize given to guests who rack up a million vertical feet. And tonight was sushi night. Tomorrow our guides hoped to take us skiing in the trees.

Two more days? I think I'll make it.

-- Julian Smith

Feds use more unmanned aircraft to secure border

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — Two Border Patrol agents walked by a patch of brush on a remote ranch and saw nothing. But 19,000 feet overhead in the night sky, a Predator unmanned aircraft kept its heat-sensing eye on the spot.

In an operations center about 80 miles away, all eyes were on a suspicious dark cluster on a video screen. Moments later, the drone operators triggered the craft's infrared beam and pointed the agents directly to the undergrowth where two silent figures were hiding.

Last week's mission was just another night out for a Predator program that is playing a larger role in the nation's border security as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection adds to its force of unmanned aircraft. The agency received its second Predator B aircraft in Texas last month and will add its sixth overall on the Southwest border when another is based in Arizona by the end of the year.

The aircraft are credited with apprehending more than 7,500 people since they were deployed six years ago. They bring the latest in military technology to one of the oldest cat-and-mouse pursuits in the country. But on the border, even sophisticated devices struggle with the weather and conditions — just as humans do.

"I'm trying to mark. I'm looking for a hole in the clouds," said an exasperated operator as he lost his video image of a "hotspot" in a stand of trees. Cloud cover, along with crosswinds and rain, are the drones' enemies.

The aircraft can remain airborne for 30 hours though missions typically run eight or nine hours with the ground crews rotating in the control trailers. Smugglers of humans, drugs and guns are the chief prey.

The Predators, which were being used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were introduced on the border in 2005, the year before Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country's drug gangs and violence along the border exploded. Since then, the aircraft have logged more than 10,000 flight hours and aided in intercepting 46,600 pounds of illegal drugs.

"It's like any other law enforcement platform," said Lothar Eckardt, director of the Office of Air and Marine's Predator operation housed at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. "No different than a helicopter."

A Predator system — the plane, sensors, control consoles and antennas — costs $18.5 million. The craft's 66-foot wingspan stretches out from a relatively small body supported by spindly landing gear, making them appear almost insect-like. A single propeller powers them from behind, allowing for relatively quiet flights.

Inside the ground control trailer, a pilot and sensor operator sit side by side at consoles that include four screens each, a joystick, keyboard, several levers and rudder pedals. The pilot does the flying. The sensor operator works the infrared equipment and other technology under the aircraft's nose.

Some question whether the remotely-piloted aircrafts' impact justifies the price.

"The big knock on the UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) program ... is that it's so expensive," said T.J. Bonner, former president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union. He said the money would be better spent on more boots on the ground and manned aircraft.

The Predator's touchiest missions are those that take it across the border into Mexico. A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable posted by Wikileaks described a meeting between then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and several members of Mexico's national security cabinet in which Mexican officials appeared to enthusiastically endorse the idea of surveillance flights. But publicly Mexican officials have been loath to speak about anything that could be perceived as impinging on the nation's sovereignty. In March, Mexican officials defended allowing U.S. surveillance flights and said a Mexican official was always present in the control room.

The Predator program now has one continuous patrolling zone from the Texas-Louisiana line, down the Gulf coast and up the border to El Centro, Calif.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who pushed to add the second unmanned aircraft in Texas and eventually hopes to have six based here, called them an "extremely important" part of the border enforcement mix of agents and technology.

"At that height out there, they can cover so much territory," he said.

Arizona will add its fourth Predator in Sierra Vista to help patrol from California to New Mexico and into West Texas. Eventually, one of the Texas aircraft will receive specialized maritime radar and concentrate on searching for smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean.

For now, the Predator's greatest focus is along the US-Mexico border, where the drug war has increased concerns about spillover violence. They are especially valuable in night operations.

On that mission in the predawn hours Tuesday, the Predator guided agents tracking a group of six to eight illegal immigrants through thick clusters of oak trees and high grass an hour north of the Rio Grande. Seen through the agents' night-vision goggles the Predator cast a pillar of green light that illuminated two men lying in the undergrowth.

"It's awesome," Border Patrol agent Daniel Hernandez said. "It's a great asset to have here; something that made my job a little more efficient."