Like most of you, I think of avgas in a very one-dimensional way, regarding our old true blue 100LL as the only aviation gasoline, at least until a 100LL alternative hits the pumps in a few years.
But it turns out that’s not really true. There’s another approved aviation fuel for sale today, Swift Fuels’ UL94, an approved aviation unleaded gasoline. The fuel, you might not know (I didn’t), is available at around 50 airports across the country. And a lot of us can put it in our airplanes and just go flying. There are some of us who can’t, however, and here’s the story behind that, too.
It’s no secret that lead is bad stuff, which lead paint user Vincent van Gogh and his poor ear found out the hard way, but never knew what hit him. Today, we do know. Lead is poison. And that’s not touchy-feely environmentalism or opinion. It’s just a fact. Many of us remember that it was just a few decades ago that lead poisoning from exposure to lead-based house paint resulted in irreversible neurological damage to tens of thousands of children. So the need to get rid of environmental lead isn’t optional. And 100LL remains the only approved lead-additive product in the United States. So it’s not a question of if it goes away but when…and how.
Creating an unleaded avgas isn’t all that hard compared to higher-octane formulations, which we also need in order to run heavy-breathing aircraft engines. And here’s an interesting fact that Swift Fuels uncovered while it was doing research into what airframe/engine combinations could use their UL94 fuel: You remember the old 80 Octane fuel that lots of pilots happily used in their light GA planes? Turns out that 80 Octane, which everybody assumed was a leaded fuel, might not have been, at least not all of it. Swift Fuels found that 80 Octane was sometimes UL80, formulated without the lead because the airplanes that used it didn’t need the lead. So the company is confident that those airplanes that ran on 80 Octane for much of their lives will be just as happy, if not more so, on UL94.
You also know that you don’t want to run high-compression, big-bore engines without any lead, or at least something that works as well to keep engines happy at higher octane ratings. In the 1970s, our best response to general aviation’s contributions to the long-known dangers of environmental lead wasn’t to eliminate it, but to cut down on it. That strategy has lasted for nearly 50 years, but 100LL’s days are numbered. Instead of waiting for the EPA to ban the fuel and ground tens of thousands of airplanes in the United States alone, the FAA has taken the lead (poor choice of words) and fostered a program to develop a higher-octane unleaded fuel. The competition for companies to develop a suitable fuel under the PAFI program is down to two finalists, petroleum giant Shell and newcomer Swift Fuels. The FAA hopes to pick a winner by 2020, at which point we’ll get a new, widely available and suitable alternative to 100LL.
All this understandable hullabaloo over this new fuel has stolen the spotlight from another new fuel from none other than Swift Fuels, 94 UL. I had a chance to visit with the company’s VP of Commercial Operations, Jon Ziulkowski, at the Sebring Sport Aviation Expo and learned a lot about the new fuel, and I came away surprised and delighted by what I heard.
We all want lead to go away, but it hasn’t been that easy, because a relatively small but crucial percentage of airplanes still need 100LL. Heavy-breathing piston engines need higher octane and some way to tame that higher-octane fuel. That mitigating chemical agent has always been lead. The PAFI program aims to find another alternative, and the prospects are promising.
Still, you might be surprised by how many airplane engines can do fine with unleaded avgas. I was.
Ziulkowski told me that there are actually a lot more candidates for UL94 than even Swift Fuels realized when it started the project. For starters, all the airplanes that qualify under one of the STCs for using auto fuel (via EAA or Petersen Aviation) are eligible. On top of that, airframe/engine combinations (it’s complicated, but that’s the way you need to think about these approvals) that were approved for 80 Octane can use UL94 too. On top of that, there are tens of thousands of planes that were approved to use 100LL at a time when that was the only fuel available. All of Cessna’s new 172s, which use the same Lycoming powerplants as previous models approved for 80 Octane, are theoretically able to use UL94 too, though they need approval to do so. On top of that, many thousands of homebuilt, LSA and other experimental aircraft can use the new unleaded fuel from Swift Fuels.
It’s not just an alternative to 100LL, Ziulkowski said: it’s the superior product. Ziulkowski told me that while most pilots think of lead as a lubricant, it’s actually very much the opposite. He showed me a carburetor body that had lead deposits in it, proof, he said, that lead does bad things to engines, especially the ones that can run without it.
He also claimed that those operators running their Rotax 912 engines on UL94 have seen maintenance intervals increase and unscheduled maintenance events decrease. Lockwood Aviation, the biggest Rotax service center in the United States, uses UL94 in its airplanes exclusively and has been delighted with the experience. Purdue University’s Able Flight program, which provides training to people with disabilities, is also using UL94 exclusively and, according to Ziulkowski, wouldn’t have it any other way. Happy customers are a great sign.
I know what you’re all wondering: How much does it cost? I asked that question and was greeted by a sigh from Ziulkowski. The answer, as it often is with complex issues, is that it depends. Swift Fuels, which manufactures and distributes (on its own or with a partner) UL94, is only responsible for the wholesale price of the fuel. What FBOs charge for it at the pump is up to them. So how much does UL94 cost? Well, it depends on where you get it and when. All that said, Ziulkowski said that the fuel was cost-competitive with 100LL in most places, cheaper sometimes and a little more other times. Fuel prices are volatile, but he said that the overall trend was for it to be about a wash for pilots who would otherwise have to use 100LL.
And the next question, unfortunately, is even more complicated. Where can you get it? There are around 50 airports where the fuel is available, Ziulkowski said. Most are in the Southeastern or Midwestern United States. But Ziulkowski expects the rate of adoption by airports nationwide to pick up steam as the word spreads about this new fuel option. For now, to find out where you can get UL94, visit swiftfuels.com. The company is working with the FAA and with data distributors like ForeFlight, Seattle Avionics, Garmin and Jeppesen, as well as the FAA, to add the UL94 category to its databases so pilots can find it just by looking at their favorite app. In the meantime, we all need to check out SwiftFuels web page, perhaps while urging the FAA to fix things.
Thanks To Our Readers
In our March issue, I reached out to our readers and asked you for your feedback, giving you my personal email address. I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of feedback, the vast majority, I’m delighted to say, positive. Based on those responses, I’m confident in saying that you love the new Plane & Pilot. And based on a few complaints, we have some ideas about how to make it better. Thanks for the kind words and for the gripes. They’re both tremendously helpful. As anyone who studies customer service knows, the complaints are perhaps more important than the words of appreciation. So don’t be shy. We want to hear from you.
So I’ll ask you another question to help us with our goal of continuously making Plane & Pilot your favorite aviation brand.
As I promised almost a year ago now, we’ve done a lot of things differently than any aviation magazine has. One thing we did was to stop reporting on the news as a separate department. We write about news all the time. We’ve been first in the world, we’re proud to say, in giving you flight reports on several remarkable new airplanes—the HondaJet, the Mooney Acclaim Ultra, the Piper M600 and the Cirrus SR22 G6 are just a few of them. But we’ve decided to report aviation news on planeandpilotmag.com and in our weekly eNews. Our rationale was that aviation news is so readily available on so many outlets that by the time you get your issue of Plane & Pilot in the mail, you’ve likely read the news already. So our question is, have we made the right call, or do you miss reading a recap of big aviation stories in our print magazine?
We’ve also included a couple of new wrinkles. Our Plane Facts puts data front and center, focusing on unusual and little-known facts about one topic: this month, it’s propellers. The feedback we’ve gotten from a number of readers is that they like Plane Facts, a lot in fact. Do you agree?
Finally, question three. Our audience—that’s you—is remarkably experienced and knowledgeable, so we tend to focus on higher-level subjects and handle them in a way that assumes a lot of reader experience. Does that work for you or would you rather see more barebones tips about how to fly safer, cheaper and more enjoyably?
And thank you for your contributions to Plane & Pilot. Our need remains for new submissions for Lessons Learned about Flying (and about life), and stories about working an aviation job for our AirFare column. We’re always looking for great stuff on how to fly more safely with outside-the-box ideas on how we approach flying and why we might want to think a little differently about it.
Thank you so much for helping make the new Plane & Pilot a big success, and please feel free to reach out at anytime with ideas or complaints.
And, finally, let’s all go flying. After all, that’s what this is all about.