Alaska turns to simulation for air training

Officials at the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs have a new tool to take on the challenges that make the state the country's most dangerous place to fly. They are using $1.6 million worth of Space Imaging Inc.'s IKONOS satellite imagery to better navigate the Alaska's 12 mountain passes.

Statistically, someone dies from an aviation-related incident every nine days, department officials say. They have contracted with E-Terra LLC to use the IKONOS imagery to develop flight simulation training modules, which include animations with 2- and 3-D viewing capabilities and cockpit control.

E-Terra, which has a separate task order for $1.06 million, has already completed two of the 12 simulation training modules with the remaining 10 to be finished within six months. The simulations are part of the Alaska Aviation Safety Project, which has partnered with NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and several private companies.

The simulations are designed to familiarize pilots with the conditions of each mountain pass. "Weather patterns can changes so rapidly in Alaska," said Jeremy Hale, a spokesman for E-Terra. "Running into mountains, getting lost, thinking you're somewhere else, flying into a box canyon and realizing, 'Whoops, it's the wrong one,'" are scenarios the imaging is intended to prevent.

The training modules are aimed at helping Alaska officials meet the FAA's new requirement of reducing the state's aviation accident statistics by 20 percent before 2008.

The state has about 600 public airports and more than 3,000 airstrips. Alaska has just 10 percent of the nation's air carriers or commercial operators, but at one point had 35 percent of the nation's air carrier and commercial operator accidents. Although that number has decreased, many observers blame the relatively high rate on a combination of the extreme weather and terrain and the fact that Alaskans rely heavily on planes to traverse their state, the largest in the country.

"These training modules will prepare pilots to safely travel through these dangerous passes and lower the risk factor for accidents," said Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, the department's commissioner. The satellite imagery gives pilots an exact virtual 3-D image of what it's like to fly through these passes, he said.

Space imaging and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar — an aircraft-mounted sensor that measures surface elevation — create detailed elevation data, Hale said. "Then, it's a process of meshing the two data sets together," he said. "E-Terra processes the elements that go into the modules, including animation and input from local pilots and aviation experts who have flown the passes."

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