Earth Day and Aviation

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On this day, since 1970, the world has celebrated what is ultimately our most precious resource – the Earth itself – as Earth Day.  Today I’d invite all of us to consider the wonders of the planet that we see everyday because of the gift of aviation.  So many of us use our planes to journey to difficult to reach places so we can enjoy the beauty and splendor of the planet. We may be hiking, fishing, hunting, cycling, bird watching, or simply relaxing but it’s all made more practical because of aviation.

The irony is that the fuel that makes this possible for most of us, AvGas, is toxic to the planet (especially to humans, in fact) because of its lead content.  AvGas is one of the last fuels that is still allowed to contain lead; leaded fuel for most automative uses has been banned since 1996.  Lead, even in the minuscule amounts used in fuels, was found to be a significant health problem for humans, especially young children with developing brains.  Of course the amount of lead added to the environment due to GA is vastly smaller than the amount that automative emissions used to add but it’s clear that the days of leaded aviation fuel are numbered.

The good news is that American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are focussed on both alternate non-leaded fuels and electric power planes and are making very real progress.  The difficulties are numerous, however, generally coming down to technical limitations (batteries are heavy) or economic realities (aviation is a tiny market, retrofitting the GA fleet is very expensive, etc.).  Substantial progress has been made with both bio-fuels and electric planes and I’d encourage all of us to spend a little time learning about them.  While none of them may come to pass in the near-term, the future is clearly along those lines.  We should encourage the rapid progress that will help the planet, our children and grandchildren, and ultimately help ensure that the reason we fly — to see the wonders of the world — will continue to exist.

I should also note that Seattle Avionics is a proud sponsor of the Coast to Coast Biofuel Airplane Project.  It’s an exciting and difficult adventure undertaken by Ross McCurdy to fly a C182 from Rhode Island to California using a 50/50 mix of biofuel and JetA.  It’s truly inspiring reading and watching.

Steve

3 thoughts on “Earth Day and Aviation

  1. The problem with children getting lead into their systems was not from burning it though. It came about from the lead being put into paint and children getting it into their systems that way. I have no issue on getting the lead out of the fuel, because frankly, it has a tendency to build up on things in the engine, but it is hardly going to cause the destruction of the world.

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    • Hi Ray,
      I wish that were true but the raw data very much conflicts with that — see the quote below from the EPA in 1996.

      Paint was obviously a huge issue but leaded automotive fuel contributed to cognitive problems for literally MILLIONS of children. Of course most of that was from automotive fuel but aviation is part of the problem, too. No one would bother trying to eliminate it otherwise.

      From the EPA (full info available from one of the links in the blog post).

      “The elimination of lead from gas is one of the great environmental achievements of all time,” Browner said. “Thousands of tons of lead have been removed from the air, and blood levels of lead in our children are down 70 percent. This means that millions of children will be spared the painful consequences of lead poisoning, such as permanent nerve damage, anemia or mental retardation.” The actions taken today, although procedural, mark the end of a quarter-of-a-century of work to keep Americans safe from exposure to lead from gas.”

      Steve

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