August 1, 2012
By Alton K. Marsh
Marc Ausman reached for the red button on the panel of his Van’s RV–7 and pushed it once. Then he reduced power to idle and pulled the propeller to coarse pitch, reducing drag. Within two minutes he was at the approach end of the runway at Double Eagle II Airport near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he hadn’t touched the controls. That’s the secret behind Ausman’s latest product, the Vertical Power 400 with a Runway Seeker.
Albuquerque-based Vertical Power will soon produce the VP-400, which is a backup electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) combined with the Runway Seeker. During normal flight it acts as an independent source of attitude, position, airspeed, and database information, including airport and terrain data. He has interest from an Experimental airplane manufacturer, and from Light Sport companies that may offer it as an option. It starts at a base price of $8,000 and could be ready by the fall.
Runway Seeker is intended for loss-of-power emergencies, or for getting safely on the ground in case of bad weather. What if there is no runway to seek? In those cases, Runway Seeker turns in the direction of the nearest airport and stabilizes the wings level but at best glide speed—even with power still on—while you run the emergency checklist. In the future, it may have the capability to find roads to land on, or at least flat terrain. The VP-400 moves flaps, controls landing gear if it is retractable, and flies the airplane via the autopilot. The pilot pushes the red button as the screen displays a red box that says, “Pull Black Handle, Pull Blue Handle.” Advice to nonpilots to move the throttle or prop control if the pilot is incapacitated.
Thirty times a second, the VP-400 computes whether it can glide to a nearby runway that is the best available—one that has favorable winds assuming the aircraft receives weather data, and one that is not at a busy international airport. It makes sensible choices about the airport it chooses. If loss of power occurred near Seattle Tacoma International Airport, and the system knew it could reach Boeing Field, it would take you to Boeing Field instead. When it has no solution, it marks the airplane icon on the screen with a red and white circle. When it does have one, it shows the path to the airport and provides the name. Touching the name, you get frequencies and airport data.
The system still has bugs which Ausman hopes to eliminate by the end of the summer. On engine startup for my demonstration, the software crashed. “I thought we had that fixed,” Ausman said. On the first attempt to glide to the runway, with the unit indicating it had a “solution,” the RV–7 would have landed short. Ausman found that other engineers in his company had set the unit to a different airplane model. Resetting it to the specifications of his RV–7, subsequent trips to the runway from downwind at Double Eagle II were successful.
While it picks the best runway for the landing, you can override the decision by touching a different runway number on the screen. The best one will be green, but if you want to go to the yellow runway number, touch it and you’ll eventually find yourself above it with a few seconds to take over and complete the landing. It considers terrain, obstacles, glide ratio, wind, and runway length before picking a runway.
While it also picks the best airport, others are shown on the map and color-coded based on gliding distance and the quality of the airport. To pick one, touch it and a new glidepath is calculated. If an airport is close but has a short runway or lacks a tower, it may be coded red while an airport farther away is green because it has a control tower, a clear approach, and longer runways.
What if you never use it? Ausman says he takes great comfort in seeing his invention calculate where the airplane could land in case of an emergency.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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