Ethanol-gas mix may ground some pilots

Posted Feb. 12, 2009, at 8:20 p.m.

OWLS HEAD, Maine — The mandate to mix ethanol with gasoline has left pilots of small aircraft high in the clouds with worry.

As is the case with other small engines, the requirement to blend gas with 10 percent ethanol affects performance and causes corrosion. In airplanes, however, it also could lead to catastrophe.

“You are in for an in-flight failure if you keep using it,” Dick McGee, the Knox County Flying Club’s aircraft maintenance officer, said Thursday. “It’s too dangerous.”

Club President Charles Johnson said the threat posed by ethanol is water. He said that with regular automobile gasoline, the presence of water becomes obvious with a simple sump test that every pilot performs as part of a preflight checklist.

Ethanol, on the other hand, absorbs moisture and its presence cannot be detected with a simple test. He said the ethanol fuel actually attracts moisture to itself, especially when a plane increases its altitude. When the alcohol separates from the gasoline, the water will cause engines to fail, he said.

Aircraft are prevented from using automobile gasoline containing alcohol because it is corrosive and not compatible with the rubber seals and other materials used in aircraft, which could result in fuel system deterioration and malfunction.

McGee and Johnson said most states have allowed for exemptions from the ruling that gasoline must contain 10 percent ethanol when it comes to aircraft and marine purposes. They said pilots from across the state were in the process of forming a coalition to press state government to relax the rules in the case of gasoline used in small aircraft.

McGee said the Cessna Pilots Association, which has more than 100,000 members across the country, is lobbying actively for the changes nationwide. The state of Washington is considering legislation that would require conventional unleaded gasoline to be made available for aircraft.

Melissa Morrill, an environmental specialist with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Bureau, said the E10 program was implemented by the gasoline industry and was not a state program. She said she understood that a bill calling for an exemption would be submitted this session.

“This is industry-led,” Morrill said Thursday. “I’m not sure what recourse we have unless there is legislation.”

McGee said all small-piston engines, such as those used in tools, watercraft, lawn mowers, snowmobiles, antique cars, classic motorcycles and older, single-engine aircraft, will be damaged by using the ethanol mix. He said the flying club has a tank of about 2,000 gallons of regular gas, but once that is used up, members will be out of luck.

He said they would either have to ground their planes or acquiesce to using 100 octane unleaded gas. That product currently sells for $4.25 a gallon, compared to $2 for regular 87 octane gasoline. He said the older engines were not made to burn high-octane fuel.

“To fly safely, it will cost twice as much because we can’t afford to take a chance that there is ethanol of any percentage in the fuel,” McGee said. “We have so many people at this airport with vintage airplanes; [more] than I’ve ever seen before. It’s really the small person that is being hurt on this.”

Not only will the little guy get hurt, the scores of children the club takes flying during its annual Young Eagles program could find themselves grounded. The club operates out of Knox County Regional Airport, the third-busiest general aviation airport in the state after Bangor and Portland.

The Young Eagles program is designed to spur an interest in flying among youngsters. Both Johnson and McGee began flying while still in their teens. McGee said the club gave free rides to 80 children during last year’s event, but is weighing canceling the flights because of the price of fuel.

“It’s not only that we want to protect our people but we want to protect everyone, everyone who flies out of here and all the other places,” Johnson said. “We hope that this gets resolved quickly. We hope the Legislature comes up with some bill.”

wgriffin@bangordailynews.net

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