President's Position

The silent utility

May 1, 2007

Phil Boyer has served as AOPA's president since January 1, 1991.

In her continuing quest to "sell" the agency's financing proposal, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey recently stated, "You know, GPS is the law of the land in virtually every other business and logistic situation that we have. Even hikers on a mountain use GPS. We are not using it in the aviation system. We've got to transition." Doesn't it strike you that Blakey was trying to indicate that none of the aircraft we fly today relies on GPS? As we all know, nothing could be further from the truth. From highly capable handhelds to panel-mount GPS receivers that perform many other functions, AOPA member pilots embraced satellite navigation long before it came to the other markets that the administrator mentions. At a recent speech in Southern California I asked the audience members how many have more than one GPS — panel mount, handheld, or combination — and half the hands went up.

Planning for the current constellation of 30 GPS satellites began in the late 1970s and was an activity solely funded and managed by the Department of Defense (DOD), which continues in that role today. Most of us flying in the 1980s first experienced long-range navigation with state-of-the-art (at the time) receivers that offset the existing network of stations by entering a radial and distance to set up a great-circle route. Following these early area-navigation receivers came loran-C, in configurations that match some of today's GPS receivers. For the first time, our nonflying passengers could understand something on the panel other than the fuel gauges! Loran displays showed both time and distance to a destination. However, the spectrum used by this basically maritime service was below the AM radio broadcast band, and subject to interference, especially signal degradation or loss in precipitation. This hampered instrument en route and approach capability. It was in the late 1980s while attending an AOPA convention in Washington, D.C., that I first heard about satellites being deployed to allow point-to-point navigation with greater accuracy and less interference than loran. One of the first documents I was handed in 1990, while preparing to assume the position of AOPA president, was titled "The Future Is Now." AOPA took a leadership role in aviation by researching and documenting how important GPS would be to aviation, and encouraging its rapid adoption in all segments of this country. As a pilot who recognized the benefits of navigating in this fashion, I led our association to advance satellite navigation within general aviation. Unlike loran, the instrument approach capabilities were astounding, and with the Wide Area Augmentation System we can now make approaches to precision approach minimums, guided by a space-based system.

Earlier this year I was nominated by NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, AOPA 965891, to serve a two-year term on the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board. "The board will provide advice...on U.S. space-based PNT policy, planning, program management, and funding profiles in relation to the current state of national and international space-based PNT services." With the exception of yours truly this is a distinguished group of almost two dozen active and retired leaders (U.S. and foreign) from industry, government, and the military. Representing U.S. aviation were Joe Burns — a United Airlines captain and managing director of flight standards and technology — and me. Joe, like so many airline pilots, also enjoys general aviation flying.

NASA Administrator Griffin opened the two-day meeting by relating his previous day's flight back from Indiana in his Grumman Tiger, relying solely on GPS. However, as the meeting progressed, my eyes were opened to the worldwide use of the GPS signal today. We think of the navigation and positioning elements, but far greater use is made of the highly accurate timing signal than I imagined. Bank automated teller machines, cell-phone and specialized computer timing, and military precision chronology are all critical applications using the satellite timing signals. Although many foreign countries have GPS constellations planned, none is a reality yet. Some may never succeed since, unlike our DOD "biting the bullet" on funding and then releasing its system for worldwide use without charge, countries are concerned about who pays for it. Compatibility is key, since more satellites means more redundancy and more accuracy. As we concluded, it became apparent that the 30 satellites we have now could be reduced to only 24, which is the current Defense Department's thinking. None of us agreed that the number should be reduced to that level, so our panel's work lies ahead to make the case for continued U.S. space leadership with regard to PNT.

Although GPS is a household word, NASA's leader described it as an "international public utility." He was right; with so many industries depending on the timing signal, cars now using it for navigation and emergency (OnStar) services, and the host of other applications, GPS is much like our other public utilities such as electricity, telephone, water, and cable TV. I left the meeting realizing how much more GPS means to all of us than just getting from point A to B in our GA airplanes. It truly is a "silent utility" that must be protected, continue to be government funded, and remain available free and without user fees.