Plane & Pilot
Saturday, October 1, 2005

Avgas Alternatives

Is there a solution to skyrocketing fuel prices?

I did something incredibly stupid the other day. My fuel is on an open account, and the price is always buried in a seldom-seen monthly statement. So, I asked the price. The nice young lady said (with a perfectly straight face) that because I’m a tenant, I get a discount. I’m only paying $3.88.

I blurted out, “Three dollars and eighty-eight cents?!” and my expression must have looked as if a lifetime of cheeseburgers had just found my aorta because she quickly said, “But the pump price is $4.08.” As if that was going to make me feel better.

Every six months or so, I make it a point to ask the same psychologically damaging question, and the last number to stick in my mind was something like $2.45. Now, it’s nearly a buck and a half higher! Hey, folks, something has to give here. At those rates, every nine hours of flight, I pay more for fuel than I paid for my first airplane when I was in college. Okay, so it wasn’t much of an airplane (a not-quite-dead L-3), but what do you expect for $350? When your gas tank holds only 24 gallons, as mine does, it’s easy to think that fuel is a minor cost until you multiply the “only 24 gallons” by four bucks and get choked up at the result.

So, what are we going to do about it? Obviously, the oil companies aren’t going to take pity on us. That’s like expecting the phone company to give you a discount just because they like the way you sound. So, what do we do? I’m all for finding an alternative to avgas.

My first exposure to the now-popular phrase “alternative fuel” was in my grandmother’s house on her farm in southeastern Nebraska. It was the early 1950s, and she had this wonderful old cast-iron cook stove that had been converted to burn corncobs. That’s right, corncobs, which explained the huge (nearly as big as the house!) pile of cobs outside the door. The old stove gave off a rosy glow and made the kitchen a warm memory from my youth.

So, how about a corncob airplane? Engines run by converting fuel to BTUs, which magically turns a propeller, which, even more magically, gets us off the ground. We can grind up corncobs, maybe let them ferment—no, that’s wrong; it’s the corn that does the fermenting, isn’t it? And then, there’s the problem of the huge cob pile. Bad idea.


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