Not long after the FAA took a giant step toward Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) implementation in late May 2010, when it issued a final rule requiring many aircraft to equip with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out capability by 2020, we said the smart move was to do nothing right away (“Next Step Toward NextGen,” August 2010 AOPA Pilot).
Since then, a lot has happened. Much of the ADS-B ground infrastructure, scheduled to be complete by the end of 2013, has been installed. Expected completion of the nationwide ground network has slipped only one calendar quarter, to the end of March 2014. That success is tempered by federal budget sequestration, which has pushed back work on at least one NextGen component—the Metroplex Initiative—and threatens significant program delays in the 2014 fiscal year, which begins October 1 (budget discussions were under way as this issue went to press).
In addition, a few problems have cropped up that indicate the system may not quite be ready for prime time. While these problems have been corrected, they do illustrate that the ADS-B system is not yet mature.
What kind of problems?
Mike Mercer of Vienna, Virginia, is on short final to Lansing (Illinois) Municipal Airport in his Beech Baron on August 11, 2012, passing through 200 feet agl with the gear down. “The airplane yaws significantly to the right, and there’s a wicked noise. I thought something had fallen off the plane,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What was that?’ My buddy said, ‘I think it was an F–16.’”
The jet had crossed above him from left to right. “I’m guessing he couldn’t be more than 100 feet above the tail,” the Air Force veteran said. “He was in full afterburner when he came over the back of the aircraft.” Mercer said he had been “thumped”—an unofficial term for an unapproved procedure “that’s designed to shake the hell out of the pilot and make sure he knows you’re there.”
He also surmised that he had stumbled into a TFR. Mercer was monitoring Flight Information Service-Broadcast (FIS-B, a component of NextGen) information using a Stratus receiver and an iPad app, which depicted several TFRs—but none over the Lansing airport.
Mercer accepts responsibility for his error. He said his 72-page DUATS briefing included the notam but he misread it, because the description for the TFR’s outer ring was interrupted by a page break—and the iPad image looked exactly like what he expected from the misinterpreted briefing.
He had been in Purdue, Indiana, and did not file an IFR flight plan for the short, 72-nm hop to Lansing. “I almost never fly VFR, but for that short leg, I did not file IFR. There’s a lesson for me there.”
Mercer filed a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System form (see “Pilot Counsel: ASRS,” page 24) right away and, with an AOPA Legal Services plan representative, talked with an officer from the DuPage FSDO. “He didn’t care at all about the FIS-B display. They were uninterested in it because it was advisory only.” The FAA’s current Aeronautical Information Manual describes ADS-B In data as “advisory services” and FIS-B products as “for information only.”
The FAA found that while the textual information was complete, graphical depictions of TFRs were not always uplinked. If graphics were not available when a TFR was issued, and they were added manually later, the database was not updated with the graphical information. In February, the FIS-B software was modified to update the TFR database when TFR content is updated with graphical information.
Other problems have not been as dramatic. For example, many automated weather reporting stations were not available through the FIS-B data stream, because they were not specified in the original contract, said Heidi Williams, AOPA vice president for air traffic services and modernization. “We’re finding more and more issues with FIS-B,” she said. “As folks are finding these, the FAA is working to fix them. This is a benefit of a longer transition”
Pilots who observe FIS-B malfunctions not caused by aircraft system failures or covered by an active notam are asked to report them by radio or telephone to the nearest flight service station. Reports of TIS-B malfunctions also are requested. Additional reporting information can be found in the AIM.
Today’s portable ADS-B receivers provide incredible situational awareness in the cockpit, but they will not fulfill the FAA’s January 1, 2020, compliance mandate. In order to continue flying anywhere that a Mode C transponder is required today, you’ll need to equip with ADS-B Out. That includes Class A, B, or C airspace; within the 30-nm Mode C ring around a Class B primary airport; most Class E airspace at or above 10,000 feet msl; and certain airspace above the Gulf of Mexico.
There are two approved datalink options, and the best solution for you depends on where you’ll fly. The Universal Access Transceiver, or UAT, transmits on 978 MHz—and also allows you to receive FIS-B’s subscription-free weather information, as well as TIS-B traffic information. The other method uses 1090 MHz, employing a Mode S Extended Squitter transponder (ES for short, referring to the additional information appended to the Mode S transponder data). However, the 1090 ES datalink does not support reception of weather data. (Regardless of your choice, a transponder, either Mode C or Mode S, still will be required equipment after the deadline.)
For some pilots, the choice in ADS-B Out transmitters has already been made. For example, if you fly in Class A airspace (above 18,000 feet) or internationally, a 1090 MHz datalink transmitter will be required. Most other pilots can choose between Mode S and UAT. UATs generally are less expensive than a Mode S transponder, but be sure to consider installation expenses, including antennas. If you’re required to broadcast your position using Mode S and also want the in-cockpit weather and traffic information, you’ll need dual datalinks.
In addition, you’ll need an FAA-approved, WAAS-like GPS receiver, as well as an appropriate display if you want to view ADS-B In weather and traffic information. Because ADS-B In is not required by the FAA, you may be able to use an Apple iPad or another portable device to see this data.
While some owners are beginning to equip their aircraft, the greatest current interest surrounds portable ADS-B receivers feeding apps run on iPads—like Mercer uses. He remains bullish on ADS-B’s potential. “I think the FIS-B information is great. I can look at the METARs long before I get to the destination, and I can look at the weather,” he said. “It’s a huge positive that more pilots should be taking advantage of.”
Mercer said the FAA proposed a certificate action against him, which should be waived because of the NASA form, but he has heard nothing about his case since February. “As far as I know, they have not actually consummated their recommendation.”
It’s young pup versus a slightly older dog in this discussion about the promise of the future. Senior Editors Ian Twombly and Dave Hirschman debate the value of ADS-B.
To increase your understanding of ADS-B, and what it means to you as a pilot and aircraft owner, view the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s online course, ADS-B for General Aviation: The Basics. The 30-minute course will help you to better understand the ADS-B technology, its benefits, and what you need to know before considering any changes to your aircraft. The course includes a downloadable reference guide.
By Ian J. Twombly
Pilots are a notoriously cheap bunch. And for good reason. When fuel ticks more than $6 a gallon, it’s time to pinch pennies elsewhere. Sorry, kids, daddy needs to put gas in the airplane.
Lucky for us, there is one aviation service that is infinitely useful and pretty much free. ADS-B weather is available now for the most populated sections of the country, and is expected to be available nationwide by the end of the year.
It’s a refreshingly simple concept. Ground stations transmit the data. You buy a receiver and a display mechanism. You get weather—lots of weather.
There are two radar products, METARs, TAFs, pireps, airmets, sigmets, convective sigmets, winds and temperatures aloft, special-use airspace status, and TFRs. For all that there are no contracts. No accounts or passwords. No credit card on file. No activation procedure. It’s the easiest thing since “Lather, rinse, repeat.”
Did I mention it’s free?
Given the open-source nature of the broadcast signal, there are dozens of ways to display ADS-B in the cockpit, ranging from an iPad to a top-end multifunction display. If you already have a tablet, you can simply take your pick of any number of receivers, and you have weather. These are now about $699 and up, and there are around half a dozen to choose from. Most are cheaper than the various XM options. As the capability expands, so too will the equipment options. And it’s likely prices will come down as well.
Which speaks to one of the main reasons to go ADS-B. It is the weather source of the future. Some day we will all be flying around on our own with controllers only giving us basic traffic avoidance guidance. Even that will be secondary to the traffic displays we will all have in our cockpits, thanks to NextGen and ADS-B. By 2020 we will all need to be broadcasting our position via approved equipment (ADS-B Out), so we might as well benefit from the weather and traffic information that’s given back to us, even now. It’s like future-proofing your airplane and getting a nice parting gift of free weather as a thank you.
I say free, but of course you’re already paying for it with taxes. Best to take advantage of that investment and not waste a buck. It’s in your pilot DNA.
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By Dave Hirschman
If you think ADS-B is free, I’ve got news for you. We’re all paying for it. The system is needlessly complex and costly, and ADS-B weather (known as FIS-B) is a step down from XM Satellite Weather products that have long been commercially available.
XM’s main benefit is that it comes straight from satellites, so pilots can receive it on the ground before takeoff. If there’s a thunderstorm or heavy precipitation embedded in the clouds beyond the departure end of the runway, they show up on the screen before you fly into them. That’s not necessarily so with FIS-B, which transmits from ground stations and in most locations requires climbing to altitude for signal coverage. XM graphics also are more detailed and current.
ADS-B traffic, or TIS-B, is a fantastic safety enhancement that, once again, we’re all paying for. The FAA goes to a lot of trouble to block this signal to aircraft that aren’t broadcasting ADS-B Out signals. Denying this potentially lifesaving information is a strong-arm tactic meant to induce aircraft owners to install ADS-B Out by the FAA’s 2020 deadline. The FAA has so bungled this process that there aren’t enough avionics technicians and approved products to equip every GA airplane in time. The deadline will certainly slip, just like virtually every other misbegotten milestone in this glacial process.
ADS-B is a fantastic concept that the FAA’s pioneering Capstone project in Alaska proved in the 1990s. A commonsense approach would have delivered it nationwide a long time ago and made U.S. standards compatible with international ones. (Raytheon proposed giving an XM Weather subscription to every pilot in the country and adopting a single, international standard—a simple solution that would have avoided today’s dual-channel abomination and ground network. The FAA chose otherwise.) I have ADS-B Out in my airplane and see traffic and weather on a tablet computer. The situational awareness is extraordinary. If the FAA dropped its foolish signal-blocking gambit—at least until the eventual equipage deadline— pilots could see how wonderful flying with real-time traffic and weather is, and they would voluntarily adopt it (just as pilots who see value in WAAS GPS receivers already have done).
Instead, the aviation bureaucracies have run amok, and we’re stuck with a bloated, cumbersome system that costs billions of dollars more than it should and is many years behind schedule. If that’s your idea of a bargain, I’d hate to see a bad deal.
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