FAA tests new navigation technology in Alaska commuter planes

Posted: Monday, August 28, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Federal Aviation Administration is testing some new navigation aids for pilots in Alaska.

The system incorporates detailed terrain map images on computer screens in airplanes. The images display the locations of mountains, rivers and other aircraft, and they show where bad weather might be originating.

FAA officials and contractors displayed what they call the ''Capstone Project'' last week at the University of Alaska Anchorage Aviation Technology Center and at the Bethel airport.

Capstone is a mix of technologies that eventually could bring more detailed navigation information directly into the cockpit.

''This is the next generation in (aviation) navigation,'' said Elmer Webster, one of the engineering contractors working on the project. ''It can keep pilots from flying into mountains and keep them from flying into each other.''

The technology has been undergoing testing around the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for nearly a year and is being directed toward commercial air carriers.

Those carriers are the primary forms of transportation in rural Alaska. The companies fly smaller planes to rural hubs like Bethel and link to the smaller villages, carrying several passengers along with mail in single-engine planes. They're the kind of flights where pilots estimate the weather as best they can on the ground, then hope the forecast holds as they trace their route on paper maps.

A half-dozen of the commuter carriers have placed the new technology in 55 airplanes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area. Plans are to equip nearly 100 more aircraft over the next year.

The FAA will evaluate the technology at the end of the testing period and decide whether to give it an official blessing and then whether it should be made mandatory or optional.

Special congressional appropriations of $17 million over the past two years have funded the project, FAA officials said.

The Capstone technology consists basically of three boxes -- two installed in the plane's control panel and one behind the pilot's seat.

Two of the gadgets already are on the market in some form. Global positioning systems already are available for aircraft, as are digital screen mapping and navigation displays.

This project added a transceiver developed by UPS Aviation Technologies. The transceiver brings real-time, up-to-the-minute information to the screen, like live weather and the positions of other Capstone-equipped aircraft.

That allows a pilot to see where other planes are and the direction they're headed within a 150-mile radius. The mapping shows where mountains are. And they're color-coded -- any mountain range that appears in red on the screen means the mountains are higher than you are. Stormy weather shows up soon enough that you can avoid flying into it.

Installing the components runs about $19,000. If the FAA approves the technology, then that price could be expected to drop as other companies start making the components, said Ken Shapero of UPS.

What all this new technology could mean for passengers is more safety, said Dr. Don Hudson, medical director for Life Flight, which performs airlift and ambulance flights to rural Alaska.

His crews and medical personnel run an average of three to five flights a day between Anchorage and the Y-K Delta.

''This technology would allow us to fly out and get to people we couldn't get to before,'' Hudson told the Anchorage Daily News. ''It will cut our risk substantially.''

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