ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Editor’s Note: The Father of Free Flight

By David Jensen | November 1, 2000

William B. (Bill) Cotton has flown many types of airplanes. He flew for United Airlines right up to his retirement, when on Aug. 28 he reached age 60, and he is current on the Boeing 757, B767 and B747-400.

But his fondest memories of flying were in a Piper Cub out of a grass strip field in New Paltz, N.Y., some 40 years ago. He recalls from his days of initial flight training the freedom of flying by visual flight rules (VFR), in which you operate in a see-and-be-seen environment. He also remembers seeking his instrument training, and how then everything changed. The freedom was gone. But he never really accepted the fact that it should be gone.

"Why not change the processes so that the freedoms of VFR flight can be enjoyed in IFR flight, with even greater safety," he told me shortly after his retirement from United. "IFR is not very efficient. Not because there isn’t enough airspace; there’s plenty. It was because that’s all the technology could handle," he said, referring back to his Piper Cub days. "But now we have the technology in which we can be efficient."

Bill Cotton has been instrumental in much of that technology. He was United’s program manager for traffic alert collision avoidance system (TCAS) when the airline partnered with Bendix (now part of Honeywell) in the system’s development. He worked with AlliedSignal (now also part of Honeywell) on the enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS), and succeeded in having United become first to have an EGPWS approved on an air transport aircraft. Cotton was a Future Air Navigation (FANS)-1 advocate and also played a key role in reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) over the North Atlantic.

That’s a short list of his accomplishments; a much longer one also exists.

For good reason, Cotton also is referred to as the "father of Free Flight." And well he should be, for he never forgot how free the feeling of flying can be. He acknowledges that he probably views flying differently than the pilots trained in the military, where flight training maintains a rigidness from the start.

The concept of Free Flight stuck with him when he attended the University of Illinois, where he majored in aero and astro engineering. Cotton went on to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his Masters degree, and there the concept crept into his thesis. In a study entitled "New Direction of Air Traffic at John F. Kennedy Airport," he included comment on the safety of independent parallel approaches at New York’s JFK.

Cotton’s piloting skills surged forward after graduating from college, when he became a production test pilot for Piper Aircraft. His ongoing quest for Free Flight re-emerged when, shortly after joining United in 1967, he published an article entitled "Formulation of the Air Traffic System as a Management Problem." He was chairman of the Air Line Pilot Association’s National ATC Committee at the time.

What solidifies Cotton’s father-of-Free Flight title, however, is simply the fact that he wrote the definition for the concept. He presented his definition to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, and it struck a nerve. It wasn’t long (in 1996) before the RTCA launched the Select Committee on Free Flight, to expand on the concept.

Today Free Flight has become a "household" term and universal goal in the aviation community. Many programs, in both Europe and North America, are advancing the concept, with technologies such as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC) to name just a few.

Still, Cotton can become frustrated by FAA’s failure to implement new systems to facilitate Free Flight. "The one bright spot is Free Flight Phase I," he told me, referring to the FAA’s current plan to implement five air traffic management tools by 2003.

However, Cotton also recognizes that change can be slow. "Free Flight includes a cultural change," he told me. "But this was once true of TCAS, too, and today most pilots wouldn't fly without it."

And, though retired from United Airlines, Cotton is not finished championing Free Flight. In suburban Chicago he has established a consulting firm, Cotton Aviation Enterprises Inc., and much of his consultation involves–what else?–Free Flight.

So it was appropriate that Cotton’s retirement dinner in early September was preceded by the United Airlines Free Flight Symposium. Speakers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the FAA, United Parcel Service (UPS), and from as far away as the Netherlands, came to talk about technologies and procedures leading to Free Flight. It was a worthwhile event and one that perhaps could be held annually (this was United’s first such symposium), with representation from other aircraft operators–and the sole topic being Free Flight.

It would be a fitting tribute to a man who has dedicated his life to making flying more efficient, more safe and more free.

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