Opening a new frontier
- By Paula Shaki Trimble
- Sep 11, 2000
Tom Ratledge pushes a black button on the display of his small airplane's
control panel and boots up a radar-like view of the west bank of the Kuskokwim
River. Color graphics show the boundaries between land and water, as well
as arrow-like images that represent other planes flying close by. Ratledge
looks at the picture on his display, which represents the position of his
own plane, to gauge his distance from other planes and from the ground.
Ratledge's short flight from Bethel, located about 400 miles west of
Anchorage and the hub city for 56 villages, to the Eskimo fishing village
of Akiak is nearly complete when the gravel runway along the river comes
into view. Ratledge, who flies chartered flights for Yukon Aviation to provide
small towns such as Akiak with access to medical care, groceries and other
supplies in Bethel, touches another button to reveal a close-up view of
Akiak's airport, which consists of a small building beside a 3,000-foot
runway. The runway turns red on his screen as the plane touches down on
the bumpy airstrip.
The technology in Ratledge's cockpit is part of a Federal Aviation Administration
program to give 150 pilots in the Bethel area information they never had
before about other planes in the air around them and the terrain ahead.
The FAA, along with the University of Alaska at Anchorage, demonstrated
the systems last month and plans to use what it learns in Alaska to design
similar systems for general aviation and commercial pilots nationwide.
The positioning and data communication technologies are the same ones
that pilots and air traffic controllers want in oceanic airspace and rural
areas where there are limited navigation aids and difficult terrain. Terrain
databases will help any pilot see what's up ahead even when the view out
the window is obscured by low visibility or darkness.
The demonstration is part of the Capstone program, which the FAA, the National
Transportation Safety Board, the National Weather Service and the National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) started in 1998 to
give pilots and controllers in Bethel and the Anchorage Air Route Traffic
Control Center flying information they never had before.
Capstone users can monitor the position of an aircraft when taking off,
while en route and when landing thanks to a system based on the Global Positioning
System, which uses satellites to verify the position of an aircraft and
sends the information through a low-cost, high-bandwidth data link to controllers
in Anchorage. They also will soon be able to see upcoming cloud cover and
weather patterns that may obstruct runway views or give warning that they
should stay on the ground.
Alaska: No Mystery
Alaska is a fitting place for Capstone, which includes automated weather
information systems as well as GPS and terrain avoidance hardware and software. When Ratledge demonstrated Capstone, it was a clear
day with an unobstructed view of the runway. But it isn't always that easy
to get to Akiak or any of the other remote villages that surround Bethel.
Before Akiak's runway was lengthened from 1,900 feet to 3,000 feet and
runway lights added, a pilot once had to land at night by the light of snow
plows lining the gravel strip. "This is like a Third World country," said
John Hallinan, the FAA manager for the Capstone program.
Despite the wide-open spaces, mid-air collisions occur more frequently
in Alaska than in other parts of the nation, as do individual plane crashes.
The state accounted for 37 percent of all commuter and air taxi accidents
in the United States from 1990 to 1998.
In the 1990s, Alaska averaged one aviation accident every two days,
according to a study by NIOSH. The number of aviation fatalities in Alaska
during that period was 398 — an average of one every nine days.
The day after Ratledge's demonstration flight, a Cessna 180 returning
to the remote Alaska peninsula was unexpectedly caught in cloud cover and
crashed into a steep mountainside, killing three people. A few weeks from
now, the FAA system in Ratledge's cockpit will provide him with real-time
weather information that could prevent him from flying into the same kind
of bad weather that doomed the Cessna 180.
"If you didn't have an Alaska, you couldn't find a better test bed than
Bethel," said Pat Poe, FAA regional administrator for the Alaska region.
But while Alaska may be embracing the technology quickly — "When you
go to an area with a screaming need, you see momentum," Hallinan said — the FAA is taking the time to develop certification requirements for some
parts of the system so that the technology will be applicable to the entire
National Airspace System.
Opening up the Airspace
Capstone will basically open up the airspace for air traffic controllers
by providing them with more visual information than they have ever had.
At present, air traffic controllers have sole responsibility for keeping
aircraft separated from one another in bad weather, but with Capstone, a
pilot will also see the planes other pilots are flying in relation to his
or her own, which acts as a second level of control, said Doug Helton, vice
president of air traffic services and technology for the Aircraft Owners
and Pilots Association. The need to get better positioning and other aircraft
data onto controllers' displays also is a good excuse to upgrade air traffic
control automation systems, he said.
If Capstone is successful, the FAA will be motivated to initiate and
certify further enhancements to the National Airspace System, Helton said.
Air carriers will have new tools, such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast
(ADS-B), which will provide information to help them improve separation
and capacity in airports, he said.
Government and industry officials hope to place Capstone displays, developed
by UPS Aviation Technologies, into 150 aircraft by the end of this year,
which will cover 95 percent of air operations in Bethel. They can then begin
measuring whether the technology reduces the number of crashes in and around
Bethel. Fifty-five planes are already using the system.
The two key technologies for Capstone are GPS and a low-cost data link.
GPS is a system of operating satellites that provide precise information
about an aircraft's location and a universal time stamp.
The Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) data link is one of three types
of data links being considered by the FAA as a standard for sending data
between aircraft and air traffic control towers. The UAT data link splits
a single channel to allow aircraft to send position reports to air traffic
controllers via the satellite-based Alaska National Air Space Interfacility
The same data link will be used to send weather forecasts and reports
from the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center to aircraft, allowing
pilots and controllers to view the same information on their displays. Aircraft
are represented by arrows or aircraft icons, and geographical features such
as mountains are displayed as well. Weather information will be relayed
in text and color graphics much like those shown on typical weather maps.
The data link was designed by the Mitre Centre for Advanced Aviation System
A digital terrain database is included in the pilots' displays to help
them determine where they are in relation to the landscape, avoid collisions
even if land features are obscured and find an airport if conditions warrant
an early landing.
The University of Alaska at Anchorage is under contract with the FAA
to train pilots on the new equipment.
In the future, the FAA hopes to add the GPS/data link radio capability
to airport ground vehicles to improve runway safety. The Bethel air traffic
control tower is being wired for Capstone to help its controllers monitor
the traffic in and around the airport. An automated weather observation
system will be installed at 10 village airports around Bethel to enable
the use of GPS approach procedures.
An FAA safety review of Capstone is expected to be completed by January,
Looking Beyond Bethel
Although Capstone will be well worth the money if it reduces the accident
rate in Alaska, "it's important that Alaska not become a cul de sac on the
road to modernization," Hallinan said. The FAA needs to look at how Capstone
technology, either individually or as an integrated unit, can be applied
in the entire National Airspace System, he said.
"There's probably not anything that the "Lower 48' can't learn from Alaska,"
said Steve Brown, FAA associate administrator for air traffic services.
Capstone is part of the FAA's Safe Flight 21 partnership with industry.
Safe Flight 21 allows the FAA to test new surveillance systems and air traffic
procedures in real air operations. For instance, Capstone is testing the
ADS-B, which takes an aircraft's GPS data and broadcasts it to the air traffic
control center. ADS-B is also a focal point of FAA's free flight concept,
which will be deployed throughout the country over the next few years.
Free flight will allow pilots and controllers to work together to manage
air traffic and will permit pilots to fly the most direct, cost-effective
routes, saving airlines and passengers time and money. Under Capstone, the
FAA is evaluating seven of nine key enhancements that will eventually be
used in the FAA's free flight concept.
Within the FAA, other programs such as the GPS-based Wide Area Augmentation
System and Local Area Augmentation System are complementary to Capstone
and need to be part of an integrated system, said Dan Salvano, deputy director
of the FAA's Office of Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Systems.
WAAS and LAAS would provide verification to the user that the GPS data is
correct and would give Alaska the capability for precision approaches.
Barriers to Expansion
Although the FAA and industry understand the need to quickly deploy
technology that will enhance safety, there are always bumps along the way.
The air traffic controllers are reluctant to endorse technology that
might eliminate jobs, Helton said. Controllers fear that if communications
are automated and pilots have the same information as controllers, then
it might be perceived that fewer people are needed to do the job.
Officials also are reluctant to certify new technology such as ADS-B
unless they see more risk in not doing so than in doing so, he said. Pilots
are used to performing much of the navigation and communication work on
their own and may resist new technology as well, he said.
Certifying Capstone equipment for certain low-visibility weather conditions
is a challenge, said Greg Holt, manager of FAA's aircraft certification
office for the Alaska region. Industry usually must receive approval for
a product or design before it is installed, but in the case of Capstone,
the FAA needed to figure out what product it wanted to buy and then create
requirements for it, he said.
Hallinan said the FAA hopes to certify Capstone equipment to provide
services in low-visibility conditions by Jan. 1, 2001.
Another obstacle for Capstone is radio frequency spectrum, said Gary
Bennett of Northern Lights Avionics and a member of the Alaska Aviation
Safety Foundation. The spectrum band that Capstone's data link uses is shared
with other systems, such as the military Joint Tactical Information Distribution
System. Although that system is allowed in the band under the condition
that it not interfere with other systems, agencies now want to locate more
complex systems there that may cause interference.
Mike Biggs, senior engineer in the FAA's Office of Spectrum Policy and
Management, said he believes at least a short-term solution will be found
in the next few weeks.
"The technology's there," Hallinan said. "We just need to keep moving
A greater challenge, how-ever, may be convincing pilots who are used
to winging it that they need Capstone. Ratledge, for instance, was one of
the last pilots in his group to install the Capstone equipment, and he is
still a skeptic.
"A simple GPS will do the same thing," he said. "I wouldn't buy it for
$10,000. I find myself looking at this thing more than I really want to."