New Boeing technology designed to increase airplane safety in skies

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

SEATTLE -- From the outside, the Boeing 737-900 looks much like any other airplane.

But inside, the aerospace giant's technology demonstrator is in a class all its own. Puffy white insulation surrounds the windows, wires run down the aisles and along the walls, and nearly bare bulbs illuminate the very few seats. Huge computer monitors display graphics that look more like Microsoft Flight Simulator than actual pilots' equipment.

Boeing hopes this computer game-like technology will be incorporated into airplanes across the country, making flying safer, more efficient and easier on the pilots.

Boeing and its partner aerospace companies took a group of journalists on a tech test flight Tuesday night, unveiling gadgets that ranged from a system for taking off more quietly to one that lands the plane using global positioning.

Over the next two months, the company will host as many as 20 more such test flights for airlines the world over.

The goal, Boeing product marketer Ken Hiebert said during Tuesday's demonstration, is partly to sell new technology in a depressed market.

But the world's largest airplane maker also believes the new gadgets can make it possible for more airplanes to fly more safely at the same time and in bad weather, thus ensuring future business for the airplane maker.

The gamble is unusual for Boeing, which for decades has been known primarily as an airplane manufacturer but in recent years has started thinking about the larger aviation market.

''For Boeing, you gotta believe this is 'outside the box,' '' Hiebert said.

For the average passenger, the test flight is too. To show off the new technology, pilots Mike Carriker and Ray Craig do things that would likely send those complimentary in-flight beverages flying.

Cruising at about 11,000 feet, Carriker suddenly banks sharply toward Mount Rainier, some 80 miles away.

Immediately, a digital display inside the cockpit turns the mountain an ominous red. A line between the plane and the mountain shows Carriker his potentially dangerous course.

Carriker banks away, and the mountain turns a more inviting green.

Carriker turns again, cruises for a while, and then, along with Craig, prepares to land the plane at Grant County Airport in Moses Lake.

Instead of heading straight for the runway, the pilots make a sort of in-flight U-turn.

The plane's course is tracked on a graphical display that looks more like a computer game than a cockpit -- bright green grass, black runway and blue sky are offset by a yellow box that tells the airplane where it should be at all times.

Such an unusual flight course -- made possible by advanced systems for tracking more closely where an airplane is at all times -- could eventually allow more planes to land more quickly, from different angles.

, thus alleviating the crowding that causes airplanes to circle while waiting for an open spot to land.

At 400 feet, the pilots pull up sharply, bank dramatically one last time and prepare for another descent. This one is hands off -- a global positioning system does most of the work, smoothly dipping the plane onto the runway using the same satellite-based technology people use in their cars today.

That technology is at the heart of Boeing's air traffic management plan, but -- with only a handful of airports equipped for the technology -- it's far from market-ready.

Other technology is already in use, however. Taking off to fly back to Boeing Field in Seattle, Carriker and Craig show off a new way to make airplane takeoffs quieter -- a quick ascent, followed by a bubble of quiet over noise-sensitive areas -- then back into the ascent.

While all the gadgets could save headaches for air traffic controllers and residents near airports, Boeing says the package could have the biggest benefit for pilots, who can more easily spot potential trouble by using the simple graphic displays.

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