Are vintage piston-engine aircraft still airworthy to operate this day and age given that the gasoline used to power them is no longer manufactured?
By: Ringo Bones
When Hollywood actor Harrison Ford crash landed his World War II era vintage trainer Ryan PT-22 Recruit on a Los Angeles golf course back in Thursday, March 5, 2015, though he suffered gashes on his head and was described in fair to moderate condition when brought to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Given the situation could have easily turned tragic, I know wonder if vintage piston-engine planes are still airworthy to operate given that the gasoline that was used to fuel them are no longer currently manufactured by oil companies?
After Clair Cameron Patterson managed to raise awareness of the dangers of tetraethyl lead in gasoline and the subsequent phase-out of such fuel additives by the mid 1970s, it meant the death knell of piston engine planes that are not economically viable enough to be fueled by aviation gasoline whose octane ratings are boosted by non-lead based additives. This is the primary reason why the first piston engine plane to become commercially viable enough to operate by ferrying paying passengers alone – i.e. the Douglas DC-3 – virtually vanished and was considered extinct by the mid 1980s.
At about the same time of the golden age of aviation – i.e. civilian barnstorming – during the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was mixed with gasoline as a patented octane booster that allowed piston engine compression to be increased substantially which in turn resulted in increased vehicle performance and fuel efficiency. Sadly, the lead free aviation gasoline developed after the tetraethyl lead ban – even though good for everyone’s health - proved to be too corrosive to the piston and combustion chambers of the piston engines used in the Douglas DC-3 had resulted in the slow death of these iconic planes that by the mid 1980s, their engines are operated into destruction with lead free aviation gasoline. Unlike gas turbine engines that can be fueled with anything that burns – like fake Chanel No. 5 – and will still run.