A smoother ride

One of the long-awaited applications of technology in aircraft cockpits — the delivery of current weather information — has finally arrived.

Provided by the Federal Aviation Administration under a government/industry agreement with two vendors, the service broadcasts text messages and graphics via a radio network that eventually will span the country. Envisioned for years, the Flight Information Services Data Link (FISDL) became available in January with the delivery of the first cockpit systems.

By updating in-flight displays automatically, it enables pilots to identify hazards at longer ranges and plan ahead, aviation officials said.

"The issue is safety," said Denny Hugg, a TRW Inc. contractor working at the FAA. "We hope to reduce the fatal accident rate, which is high, by allowing them to make decisions well before entering the danger zone."

The service relies on data link technology, which uses radio airwaves to deliver information from a system on the ground to a system in aircraft cockpits. Until recently, pilots have relied on ground-based solutions, using data terminals at departure points and calling flight service stations for briefings.

The FAA has installed 40 ground stations — mostly on the East Coast, which has the most air traffic — to deliver the data to aircraft en route. Officials expect all 220 ground stations, which will cover the nation, to be up and running by the end of 2003. They will make it possible for pilots to get updates every five minutes.

"The problem is the weather is old by the time you get it in relative terms," Hugg said. "And the longer you fly, the more outdated it becomes."

Pilots also have to wrestle with paper maps to locate the unsafe areas station workers bring to light. "Oftentimes, they're places you haven't heard of," said Paul Fiduccia, president of the Small Aircraft Manufacturers Association.

Air transportation officials criticized the FAA during a House panel in July 1999 for failing to get up-to-the-minute data into cockpits.

"In fact, an airline passenger equipped with a satellite digital cell phone and a laptop computer with a modem can receive real-time weather data that the crew flying the airplane cannot receive in the cockpit," said Paul McCarthy, principal technical vice president for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations.

The panel met a month after American Airlines Flight 1420 overran the end of a runway and hit light structures at Little Rock National Airport in Arkansas. Thunderstorms and heavy rain were reported at the time of the crash, which killed 11 people and injured several others.

That September, the FAA signed an agreement with Honeywell International Inc. and ARNAV Systems Inc. to deliver a data link, said Alfred Moosakhanian, program manager for FISDL.

But it took time to get the technology in place.

"The radio had to be designed, prototyped, tested, certified, manufactured and distributed," Hugg explained. "In the meantime, [they] had to engineer, build, test and begin distribution of the ground stations."

On Nov. 19, 2001, the FAA certified VHF Data Link Mode 2, a data-only radio developed by Honeywell, for airborne use.

It costs about $15,000 to outfit a plane with receiver and display units. Honeywell made its products available in January and received 94 orders in the first month, according to Hugg. ARNAV is scheduled to start distribution later this year.

Already, FISDL has widened the in-flight view. "I can see the entire weather pattern coast to coast," Hugg said. "That is a new capability."

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Filling a Gap

Often, the best way for pilots to deal with severe weather is to find a way around it. But that's possible only if they know a problem is there, which is why the availability of weather updates in the cockpit is so important.

Denny Hugg, a TRW Inc. contractor working at the Federal Aviation Administration, put it this way: A pilot plans to fly 400 miles. A briefing from a flight service station identifies clear weather. The radar on board can detect problems 90 miles away, but storms form 200 miles away. With a data link, "an image alerts me to the area of storms," Hugg said.

The up-to-date information allows him to look ahead and plan a better route, said Alfred Moosakhanian, program manager for the Flight Information Services Data Link. "With this, he would have a good view of what exactly is out there."

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