Robbie Lunnie briefs Fly-ND 2024 on Advanced Air Mobility

In 1985, Steve Meretzky at the game studio Infocom imagined the futuristic metropolis of Rockvil, South Dakota, at the centre of “The Quad-State Region” – a sprawling urbanization throughout North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, all connected by “skycars”. Though “A Mind Forever Voyaging” may remain in the realm of fiction, by the real year 2031, it may indeed be possible to fly from Bismarck to Belle Fourche in a personal eVTOL aircraft.

UND Associate Professor Robbie Lunnie shares the FAA EB-105 recommendations for Vertiport landing zones at the 2024 Fly-ND Conference on March 5. (Fargo Orbit)

The dream of the flying car has also been a powerful inspiration for Robbie Lunnie, an associate professor at the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences, who briefed the 2024 Fly-ND conference on plans for Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) and Urban Air Mobility (UAM).

Advanced Air Mobility is a coalescing set of operating principles to handle the coming wave of what could be glibly called human-sized drones. The development of high-powered lithium ion batteries, lightweight electric motors, and advanced control software that enabled the quadcopter RC revolution a decade ago has finally resulted in several viable machines, some of which may be FAA certified as early as 2025.

Expecting another wave of low-skilled users to the national airspace, NASA and the FAA have scrambled to get ahead of the problem, developing standards for AAM operations and facilities, and intentionally separating the coming traffic from existing heliports, which are mainly equipped only for professional pilots and gas-guzzling motors, instead focusing on developing new “vertiports” more properly equipped to recharge electric aircraft and handle passengers.

AAM will first be tested in rural locations like North Dakota – the wide open spaces, existing UAV testing environments, and the presence of one of the world’s largest aeronautical educational facilities, would seem to make the region a nearly perfect proving ground for new aviation concepts. Lunnie has already sketched out where one Vertiport may go – adjacent to the Fargo Aero Center at Hector International Airport, already a common transit point for Air Taxi clients. Another potential location? As close as possible to Lunnie’s own home in Thompson.

The familiar “H” at heliports may not make it to Vertiports, which may use a distinctive landing zone reticule instead. (FAA)

Urban Air Mobility applies AAM principles to the crowded space in and above cities. The dense traffic and limited available land means that uses may encounter a variety of access points, like small “Vertistops” and larger “Vertistations”, with aircraft moving along designated Urban Air Corridors. These corridors will be specially defined streets in the local airspace, which will be laid out in cityscale AFR (Automated Flight Rules) maps much like the familiar but longer-range VFR sectional charts of today. These streets in the sky will be at different altitudes based on direction of travel and whether passing is needed – and as AAM/UAM has developed, their planned altitude has risen from about FL015 in early concepts to around FL050 now. More space to work with means more safety margin in flight.

If that sounds like you’re going to need a pilot to figure it all out, you’d be right. Even though AAM/UAM expects a great deal of computerized assistance for passengers, as the first models are starting out, your eChopper will come with an onboard pilot. That could change later on, but not because of AI. Aviation has tons of existing infrastructure and uses in America, and there will always be a lot of problems to navigate around. Autonomous systems can only go so far, so the real future of “driverless” eVTOL is Turking. Much like the luxury “self driving” cars of today, a gaggle of telepresent pilots at the far end of the cellular network will be standing by to handle your takeoffs and landings. Eventually, centralized control centres could see as many as 5 flights monitored by a single certified pilot, pending the results of time and attention studies being conducted by UND and other researchers. In such a future, pilots wouldn’t be obsolete, but the offered jobs may lack the thrill of skyward motion.

Finally, how to power it all? The electrical demand from Vertiports may prove to be a unique challenge even greater than the EV revolution, if fast-charging of fixed batteries is relied on. Alternatives like drop-and-swap battery switching have also been floated, but Lunnie doesn’t think such swaps will be a feature of approved aircraft because of how the FAA regards safety matters. Presently, battery servicing is a job for certified mechanic. Landing on a spare battery could also cause a fire, so the draft EB-105 vertiport standard presently does not allow for padside storage of battery packs. Other energy sources are left entirely to future consideration.

There are still a lot of rough edges mixed with “gee-whiz” hype in the AAM/UAM mindspace. In practice, the economics may prove unfavourable in many ways, particularly when considering rural distances and load factors for AAM testing, then proceeding to the conflicting land use priorities and noise abatement measures sure to cross paths with UAM. Still, democratized flight accessible from the next street corner over is the sort of 21st Century amenity we’ve always hoped would arrive.

Stuck: UND can’t fly on UL94 until Lycoming resolves engine valve issue

UND mechanics present their results to the Fly-ND conference, 4 Mar 2024 (Fargo Orbit)

The University of North Dakota’s School of Aerospace Sciences confirmed it is continuing a pause in its switch to UL94, an unleaded avgas likely to replace 100LL, a legacy fuel with 2.2 grams of lead per gallon. The EPA and FAA are engaged in overlapping but separate efforts to eliminate leaded avgas over the next few years.

At EAA AirVenture 2023, UND announced a pioneering effort to use UL94 for its entire fleet of training aircraft. The school eventually plans to return to unleaded, but encountered teething issues, and is now waiting for a fix from engine maker Lycoming.

The results were promising at first. The University’s Piper PA28 Archers came into the repair shop running cleaner and their engines were easier for mechanics to take apart and repair. But then, after a fleet average of 450 power-on hours, their Lycoming IO-360 engines began to suffer from valve malfunctions.

The valve problems were generally irreparable except by swapping out the entire cylinder, quickly becoming a headache even with a fully staffed maintenance hangar. In a fleet that flies thousands of hours a week, the failures just kept coming at a concerning rate. UND’s mechanics ran though 120 replacement cylinders in just 4 months between June and October 2023, leaving only 60 in stock for the rest of the training year.

At present, UND’s mechanics lack a consistent theory for the failures. They briefly investigated fuel logistics as a factor, because other aircraft, like the American Champion Decathalon or the Robinson R44 helicopter, had similar engines but were still flying fine. Those aircraft mostly stick around Grand Forks, but the Archer, on the other hand, is frequently flown “cross-country” to other airports. Because 94UL was only available in Grand Forks, the planes often return filled with 100LL from another airport. But looking into this didn’t end up proving any strong link between switching fuel and the valve problems. Instead, it seemed more like planes that used more 100LL failed less.

Lastly, there were the economics of burning thousands of gallons of fuel. Though both fuels were comparable in price when UND made its decision, soon afterward, the price of 100LL dropped significantly, while UL94 stayed over $6.00 per gallon. UND Aerospace had promised students that the UL94 initiative would not be significantly expensive, yet was quickly forced to pass on relatively higher costs.

94 mogas for avgas prices in Grand Forks

Though a plane can fly with a stuck valve, it isn’t airworthy in the full meaning of the term. Placing the change on hold, the Dean of Aerospace announced a move back to 100LL. Just like the switch to UL94, the fuel systems at GFK needed no modifications, only a few decals changed at the fuelling tanks and trucks. The remaining UL94 in planes was used normally, but new fuel loads used 100LL. The switch took just 4 days.

It seems clear that Lycoming will need to isolate the issue, and respond with a fix, whether that is some list of operational changes, or a physical fix to the valve design. The issues identified by the UND effort should go a long way toward finding the right answer as quickly as possible.

B-1 Lancer crashes during icy Ellsworth AFB landing

A 28th BW Lancer at Andersen AFB, Guam, in 2022 (USAF)

A B-1 Lancer attempting to land in freezing fog crashed the evening of 4 Jan 2024 near Ellsworth AFB. Four crew ejected and had non-life-threatening injuries.

The supersonic, swept-wing B-1 is more complex to fly than other aircraft types, and requires specialized training. It was retired from nuclear duties in 2007, but still falls under the Air Force Global Strike Command.

KRCA weather was Mist or Freezing Fog with low clouds 3 and 4 January 2024. (

At 1012 MST on 5 Jan 2024, Denver Center issued a TFR prohibiting flight operations from Ground to 3000 AGL (or about 6275 MSL) within 3 nmi of the north end of the runway at KRCA. The Air Force is in charge of the response operation.

Monticello nuclear plant leak took five months to make the news

A wastewater leak at the Monticello nuclear plant is headline news in the StarTribune on 16 March 2023, but from a reporter’s perspective, perhaps the larger issue is that the issue has been unfolding for five months or more, without a serious effort to brief the public.

Improving the media response time for incidents like this an open problem. The nuclear factor especially serves to decrease the amount of information shared with the public.

Fission power is relatively clean in many respects, but it comes with downsides like these. Tritium in the water is not great. It is a manageable problem, but it shouldn’t happen with properly designed reactors, if for no other reason than Tritium has economic value as a useful beta emitter for things like glowsticks and wristwatches. It’s also potentially a fusion reactor fuel – and the Fargo Orbit will have more on that topic to share later this month.

F-16s shoot down balloon near Michigan

TFR 3/4885, active on 12 Feb 2023 (Fargo Orbit / OpenStreetMap)

On 12 Feb 2023, NORAD issued a TFR over Lake Michigan, roughly between Marinette, Wisconsin and Traverse City, Michigan. The order expired at 1730Z, or 11:30am local time.

Reports indicate that an F-16 shot down yet another balloon, this time over the Great Lakes. Yesterday’s incident in Montana was a false alarm.

Fresh Montana scare turns back rural air service flight

The US Air Force issued Temporary Flight Restrictions near Havre, Montana on 12 Feb 2023, until 0020Z.

TFR 3_4763, active on 12 Feb 2023 near Havre, Montana. (Fargo Orbit / OpenStreetMap)

The region was near and overlapped with the pre-existing Hays MOA. Military Operations Areas are airspaces where military aircraft conduct various testing and training operations. At the same time, a US Air Force KC-135 was in the area.

The region included KHVR, the regional airport in Havre, which had been expecting Cape Air Flight 110 out of Billings at about dusk on Saturday afternoon. As a result of the flight restrictions, the flight returned to Billings. The plane had been in the air for about 24 minutes, and was roughly halfway to Havre, before it turned back.

Cape Air 110 Flight Path, 12 Feb 2023 (Fargo Orbit / FlightAware)

Cape Air holds Essential Air Service contracts for several Montana communities and uses the Tecnam Traveller, a two-engine propeller craft that seats 9. The unpressurized plane typically operates at FL100 and most flights last less than an hour. It is usually operated by a single pilot. Among other things, that pilot would not want to run into a KC-135, or anything else being refuelled, while descending over the Bearpaw Mountains.

Traditionally if the MOA is active, that information is provided to the pilot at a pre-flight briefing, indicating that the Air Force’s operations Saturday night were either extremely urgent and/or not communicated to the FAA in the usual manner. An unidentified object flying between ground level and FL340 is not likely to be a weather-type balloon, unless the balloon is taking off or landing.

A diplomatic row entirely up in the air

F-22 fighters screaming after Chinese spy gizmos is the stuff of James Bond movies – yet it happened over Montana this week. Canada and the US are complaining about a monitoring balloon the Middle Kingdom recently floated over North America, prompting public concern as it was spotted by skywatchers and storm chasers in western Canada, then across the central US from Montana to Missouri and on to points southeast.

As Chinese observation platforms are not totally unprecedented in American skies, this is not a Sputnik moment by itself, though it’s ill-timed at best. Tensions with China have been raised recently over a range of issues, and just last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists edged The Doomsday Clock 10 seconds closer to Midnight.

The device appears to be solar powered, with a significant amount of line control and levelling equipment to stabilize the observation platform. Save for the giant balloon hoisting it up, it looks somewhat like a scale model of the International Space Station – or, more aptly, like a Google Loon. Loon made huge strides in stationkeeping free-flying balloons in hopes they could replace cell towers, but their position could only be reliable for hours, maybe days, at best. The number of natural disasters where the tech was really useful were too uncommon to keep the system in commercial use.

Stratospheric balloons are also commonly used in weather research. However, there’s two main organizations that use these balloons – weather offices that have a budget, and universities that don’t. In the latter case, they want to get their equipment back so badly, there is always a chase afoot for the balloon on the ground, tracking APRS feeds and mapping its location in real time, right up to landing.

See also: Wyoming balloon reaches 28 km

Though spies in the sky might be worrisome, there is some precedent for adversarial overflight. In 2020 and 2021 the US and Russia withdrew (China never participated) from the Treaty on Open Skies, which was one of the hallmark agreements for post-Cold War de-escalation. The agreement promoted security stability by allowing member states to observe each others’ defence capabilities. The idea was that by keeping more military details in plain sight, there would be less need for all parties to overspend and overdeploy military equipment against unknown threats.

On the other hand, the balloon does pose a more mundane risk: it’s a hazard to navigation. Though since the demise of Concorde, commercial jets aren’t typically seen above FL450, for safety’s sake, Class A controlled airspace still extends to FL600, which is about the altitude where the Chinese balloon has been spotted. Flying in Class A airspace without ATC clearance, a radar transponder, and/or ADSB is an easy way to lose your pilot’s licence.

Duluth Airshow Roars Over North Shore

4 Vans RV-3 (Vanguard Squadron) powered by ethanol fuel at KDLH 17 Jul 2022.

The two-day Duluth Airshow brought aviation to life for hundreds braving the hot, humid weather. The Fargo Orbit was there Sunday, 17 July 2022.

[Further details to follow]

Ground displays

Air displays

Wind flames out Northern Thunder 2022

The Thunderbirds parked and grounded at KRDR, 18 Jun 2022 (Fargo Orbit)

It just doesn’t happen every year. It was called off two years ago, and it didn’t quite take flight this year, either. The Grand Forks AFB Air Show, this time simply called “Northern Thunder”, couldn’t get away from Grand Forks’ defining feature: the wind.

Not only was it gusting to almost 20 m/s, it was coming from the wrong direction for takeoffs and landings. Even if the base had extra runways, they  would never be built facing into the rather unusual direction.

Not everything at an air show is airborne, of course: Though a few announced planes didn’t quite make it to the tiedowns, this was more than offset by the surprise visit of a CC-130J Super Hercules, which drew a huge crowd despite being placed just about the farthest from the food and port-a-potties.

Not past local noon, the wind shot up violently, sending aircrew scrambling to check their lines and chalks, while visitors with loose items soon found themselves deprived. As nothing had taken to the skies, the event program turned to the occasional pull of the Shockwave, essentially a semi-truck with an afterburning jet engine stuck on the back.  Loud and flashy, it kept spirits up during the lengthening wait for the return of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds to the Grand Forks skies.

By 1800 UT, there was a thick black cloud clinging to the ground around the airfield. This dirty air should have been hot and acrid with jet wash, but was instead a hazy, gritty Minnesota soil sample, carried on the raging southeast gale that turned hats and corn chip bags alike into wrathful FOD. It was time to visit the food trucks.

Food and Vendors at Northern Thunder, 18 June 2022. (Fargo Orbit)

Vendors from all over the region were onsite; among the more impressive drives, Cookies For You brought baked cookies and frozen cake pops from Minot. Magic Bean, also from Minot, brought its black van and baristas, and Fargo’s Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine brought a unique flavour.

Overall, it was a great event for young learners, a chance to grab squeeze toys, pop can coozies, and air-themed stickers and mission patches, or to hang out of the door of a refuelling tanker, sit in the hotseat of a fighter jet, or spin around the turret of an air defence system.

2LT Shields of the North Dakota National Guard demonstrates an FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS at Grand Forks Air Force Base, 18 June 2022 (Fargo Orbit)

For older or wiser folks, there were a few tables from institutions doing fundraisers or fly-ins, or perhaps the beer garden for those not in a rush to drive back. Stick around and you might learn something about these metal beasts, the people who flew them and knew them, or even hear an RCAF corporal waxing on about the merits of Lobster Poutine.

As the haze only grew by 1900 UT, any would-be pilots had no choice but to save their kerosene for some other time. The show previously known as “Thunder Over the Red River” will still be looking for its first aerial event since 22 May 2010. And since the one before that was in 2006, there’ll be a fair while to wait again.

Coronavirus information

FiveThirtyEight has published an excellent summary of what every person needs to know about COVID-19, which is updated frequently.

Vaccines are widely available in the US and Canada for walk-in service at medical providers and pharmacies. Many areas are still operating dedicated immunization clinics. Vaccines are safe and effective, including against the omicron variant of concern. Vaccines are now available for all age groups.

As of June 2022, travel restrictions have largely ended for travellers with up-to-date vaccinations. Be ready to show proof of vaccination when crossing national borders. Canada also requires use of the ArriveCAN app or website.

Continue reading “Coronavirus information”