FAA warms up $400M free-flight demo plans

The Federal Aviation Administration last week unveiled the first details of a $400 million program called Flight 2000 that will test how a revolutionary method of air traffic management works in real-life operations.

Flight 2000 is a crucial step toward the free-flight concept which would allow pilots or airlines to choose the best route altitude and speed for a given flight based on current weather and traffic conditions instead of following preset paths established by the FAA. Airlines estimate such flexibility could save billions of dollars a year in fuel and other costs.

Flight 2000 will take place in Hawaii Alaska and Oakland Calif. in about three years and will test the concept and the underlying technology of free flight which will include an integrated network of air ground and airborne communications systems in conjunction with on-board computers and satellite-based navigation systems.

The Flight 2000 Initial Program Plan defines the scope of the demonstration where it will take place and how said David Tuttle Flight 2000 program director at the FAA. It lays out budget estimates for the nearly $400 million program and serves as a framework for fostering public/private partnerships which are "necessary to make this happen " he said.

According to the plan about 2 000 aircraft including military transport planes and helicopters will be equipped with advanced avionics equipment in order to participate in the demonstration. Information will be integrated via digital communications navigation satellites weather processors cockpit displays and air traffic control and flight planning tools.

Flights will take place between Hawaii and the West Coast areas controlled by Oakland's Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) among the Hawaiian islands and within Alaska. The Anchorage ARTCC will act as the "communications clearinghouse" for the majority of Alaskan airspace while Honolulu's Combined Center Radar Approach Control will be the center of activity for intercity travel and improved pilot services. The Oakland ARTCC will be responsible for oceanic airspace and the transition to domestic airspace.

Until now free flight has been evaluated only through modeling and simulation. But Flight 2000 will allow the FAA "to demonstrate and assess capabilities we need to move in the direction of free flight " Tuttle said.The FAA is negotiating with the Office of Management and Budget and Congress to secure $131 million in fiscal 1998 funding for Flight 2000.

The Air Force is working closely with the FAA on Flight 2000 and believes the technology has promising applications for pilots in battle. "This type of technology will [deliver] weather and terrain information and other real-time data right to the cockpit " said Lt. Col. Bob Siter the Air Force's liaison to the FAA in Alaska.

Dick Pitts vice president for FAA programs at ARINC Inc. said Flight 2000 is a good opportunity for the FAA to resolve technology and operational issues that will lead to free flight and regain its status as a leading-edge agency.

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