AOPA Pilot Magazine
October 2000 Volume 43 / Number 10
Future Flight: Air Traffic Control's Evolution
Changes will come gradually
Part 10 of 12
Stephen Beck, a pilot for Grant Aviation, is flying one of three Cessna 207s making the short hop from Bethel, Alaska, northeast to the Eskimo village of Akiak. One of the other Stationairs climbed 500 feet above him, and then passed a mile off to his left.
Because of his Cessna's high wing, Beck couldn't see the other airplane until it pulled ahead of him. But he watched it overtake him on the UPS Aviation Technologies (UPSAT) MX20 color multifunction display (MFD) in his panel.
All three 207s have what appear to be off-the-shelf UPSAT avionics packages, including a GX60 GPS/com and an MX20. Not visible, however, is the Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) datalink radio that, in a process called automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), transmits each aircraft's altitude and GPS-derived position. That information is displayed on MFDs in similarly equipped aircraft, as well as on air traffic controllers' radar displays.
The U.S. air traffic control system of 10 to 15 years from now may bear little resemblance to the ATC system in which we operate today. But pilots who fly regularly in the system may not notice that it's changing.
That's because the FAA is planning a series of small changes, each of which should bring incremental benefits to most�if not all�users. Although many of these system changes will be subtle, their combined effect could be considerable.
Several anticipated system improvements, including ADS-B, are being demonstrated in Alaska, where the FAA and industry partners hosted an open house in August for the Capstone program. Capstone is a joint industry and FAA Alaskan Region effort to improve aviation safety by installing new avionics in 150 participating air carrier aircraft, mostly single-engine planes flying for FAR Part 135 air taxis that seldom stray from the remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of southwestern Alaska. Capstone's technologies also show promise for increasing the efficiency and capacity of the air traffic system. The demonstration is centered around Bethel, population 5,471, from whose airport these air taxis distribute people and cargo�delivered primarily from Anchorage by Part 121 air carriers�to 56 villages. Bethel Airport has no radar service (although there is a contract air traffic control tower), and most carriers' operations are limited to VFR.
Another operational evaluation of ADS-B technology will be held in Louisville, Kentucky, later this month, and one of AOPA's two Capstone-equipped aircraft may participate. AOPA will be evaluating the technology at its Frederick, Maryland, headquarters this fall.
FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said in a press release that Capstone is instrumental in reaching the agency's goal of reducing the accident rate for all sectors of aviation by 80 percent by the year 2007. "These technologies will help us address two key safety priorities at the FAA�controlled flight into terrain [CFIT] and runway safety," she said. The accident rate for air taxis and general aviation in Alaska is three times the overall U.S. rate, and the fatality rate is almost double.
Pilots using the Capstone equipment, which already has been installed in 55 of the 150 aircraft, seem to appreciate the CFIT function. Runway incursions are a more recent FAA emphasis (see "Crossing the Line"), but Capstone users were much more interested in the potential for radarlike air traffic control services, moving maps, near-real-time Nexrad weather radar images, and new GPS approaches into airfields that previously were accessible only in visual meteorological conditions.
For many Alaskan pilots, considering the kind of flying they do and the Spartan avionics in many of their airplanes, just knowing the GPS groundspeed is a significant operational advantage. "I've been in a DC�3 making 60 kt over the ground, and your fuel just doesn't hold out if you've planned for a significantly faster groundspeed," commented Tom Wardleigh, chairman of the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation.
Alaska has extreme weather conditions that can change rapidly�which is a liability when you depend on air transportation. "For those of us who live in Alaska, aviation safety is an almost daily concern," said Lee Gorsuch, chancellor of the University of Alaska-Anchorage. "We fly a lot, and in many cases we don't have a choice."
"Our emphasis on safety needs to be changed," Wardleigh added. "When you honor a pilot who is �the only one able to make it through the pass VFR,' you're sending the wrong message. Technology has improved tremendously over the years. What hasn't changed is the unreasonable demand of the American public for aviation services."
Shaping the future
Steven J. Brown, FAA associate administrator for air traffic services and former AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs, said that tomorrow's air traffic control will be shaped by the airlines' future requirements. "Right now those are anything but clear," he said. "From an IFR perspective, I think the real wild card is how [airline] passenger demand is going to develop."
Three possible scenarios exist, Brown said. There could be more intense hubbing and banking of flights, and busy airports and airspace continue to be busy. Or airlines will develop strategies in which they bypass major hubs, perhaps using medium hubs as an alternative. The least likely scenario is that passengers become disaffected and travel less.
"I think we'll see more development of medium hubs�the major hubs can't get much busier," he said. Airline activity at cities like Dayton, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; and Milwaukee could increase under this scenario, he explained. "There will be more terminal airspace around to accommodate increasing passenger travel." While this scenario could be more troubling to general aviation, because of increased interaction with commercial traffic, he doesn't think that the adjustment will be impossible.
Other changes will be more widespread. "I think that in the next 10 years, certainly, we'll see the automation systems in ATC supporting flight-plan filing and direct GPS routings," Brown said. "That will accommodate requests for direct routings even in times of high traffic volume." More distinct altitude stratification is already appearing, with the introduction of a new low-altitude en route structure from about Flight Level 220 to FL320, primarily for regional aircraft.
VFR flying will essentially be unchanged, Brown said, with robust GPS providing enhanced positional awareness. A two-way datalink system could simplify communications. "There will probably be a skeletal network of ground-based navaids," he added, mentioning VORs and loran.
Brown sees Capstone's primary contributions to this future as terrain and traffic. "That's what it's really built around. It becomes really compelling when you have this real-time terrain database. The corollary benefit is the multifunction displays�all kinds of new applications will become available [for them]."
Steve Creamer, air traffic manager for the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center, suggested a few other ways in which technology might improve flying and flight safety: ground-to-air datalinking of notams and weather updates; eliminating frequency changes, including those for obtaining ASOS and AWOS information or activating pilot-controlled lighting; and more active flight service monitoring of aircraft on VFR flight plans.
Creamer is enthusiastic about ADS-B. "It's a great complement to radar in areas where radar coverage doesn't exist," he said. "We're looking at ADS-B to provide surveillance down into fjords where radar wouldn't do you any good anyway." Some in the industry have speculated that ADS-B could one day allow pilots flying IFR to separate themselves from other traffic, and eliminate the need for en route ATC radar.
Implementation of these technologies will involve incremental steps, each providing more information�"which I think is beneficial, even though it's not 100 percent," Brown said. "Too often in aviation I think we let the best become an enemy to the good." In other words, aviation passes up good systems that provide tangible benefits while it seeks the perfect solution.
The word on the street
Talks with several Alaskan pilots who have flown the Capstone-equipped aircraft indicate a generally high level of acceptance, although some had suggestions for improvements.
"It's a heck of a nice GPS," said Tom Ratledge, a pilot for Yukon Air, which has installed the equipment in two Cessna 207s and a Cessna 185 on floats�half of its fleet. He particularly appreciates the terrain warning function, and said that the traffic advisories will be nice once all aircraft are equipped. "You've got to remind yourself to look out the window," Ratledge said. "You may have three on the TV, but you have to look for the ones that aren't."
ADS-B data is not yet being used to control air traffic in Alaska. The data has been successfully integrated with traditional radar at Anchorage Center, and it should be used to control live traffic early next year. Likewise, a cable carrying a feed of ADS-B data has been run into the tower at Bethel Airport, but the data will not be displayed until some operational issues are resolved.
When the ceilings are down, IFR operations tie up the whole airport, Ratledge explained, and it's difficult for controllers to fit in special VFR operations. "It would help if we could speed them along a little. It's not so much that we have a day [of low weather]�we have three or four days in a row." Under those conditions, he said, special VFR traffic spends so much time waiting to depart�or holding until it can return�that pilots might fly an hour or an hour and a half per day, instead of a more normal six or seven hours.
"A lot of the people who are brand-new here like [the equipment]," said Ken Wallace, who has been flying for Grant Aviation for three and a half years. "It helps them learn the area." But Wallace finds the equipment distracting and its self-tests annoying. "Most days I'm pushing 25 or 30 takeoffs and landings. If I have to wait five minutes [for the equipment to test itself] before each one, I'm not going to get anything done."
Wallace also was concerned about the partial equipage of Bethel operators, a situation that will improve as the avionics are installed in more aircraft. "It's neat and all, but unless every aircraft is equipped, it's useless information." Officials said that avionics were being installed in the 95 remaining aircraft as quickly as aircraft schedules and limited radio-shop capacity would allow.
Pilot Stephen Beck said that the MX20's display is "really good." He also figured out a way to save some time when the GPS performs its self-test, averaging a minute and a half, after startup�he pushes keys to skip the system's IFR tests, because he's flying VFR anyway.
The Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation is supportive of the Capstone initiative, despite the foundation's own areas of concern. "For those people who are inclined to cheat, we're giving them the burglar's tool kit," said AASF's Wardleigh. "But for the others, it's a great safety tool."
"The problem with any technology out here is convincing pilots that the gizmo is not flying the airplane," added Ginny Hyatt, the foundation's secretary.
Does Capstone have a future beyond Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta? Capstone's charter was to "conduct experiments for the benefit of aviation within the State of Alaska," said Pat Poe, the FAA's Alaskan Region administrator. Poe then quoted a statement by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens: "We're going to go as far as safety permits and money allows." But it's not about what the FAA thinks, Poe added. "It's what the pilots think, and what they can demonstrate with [the technology]."
The datalink radio could change from the UAT before Capstone technologies are expanded outside of Alaska. "We don't know which datalink [technology] is going to be in the final National Airspace System decision," said John Hallinan, Capstone program manager. "Capstone picked its datalink through the old-fashioned bidding process."
Capstone equipment has been installed in less than half of the participating aircraft, and ADS-B has not yet been used to control traffic in Alaska. The University of Alaska-Anchorage and the FAA both will study Capstone's results. Alaskans will consider the demonstration successful if it shows a reduction in the aircraft accident rate.
Links to additional information about the Capstone demonstration and future avionics can be found on AOPA Online (www.aopa.org/pilots/links/links0010.shtml). E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.