Here’s a thought that may send a shiver down the spines of seasoned air-transport and corporate pilots–especially if they also regularly witness the chaos on the Los Angeles freeway or Washington Beltway or London’s M25 when driving home after a workday of flying: What if new technology and airspace regulations were to allow virtually everyone who now drives an automobile to fly their own aircraft?
A scary thought? The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) doesn’t think so–which is why it launched its Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) plan. Part of that plan includes uplinking weather and other data to general aviation pilots, which we cover on page 48. Other technologies planned for the universal use of personal aircraft include GPS, synthetic vision, ADS-B, FIS-B, and highly sophisticated autopilots.
Why make personal air transportation universal? A working paper out of NASA Langley in Virginia, gives a fascinating, if not compelling, explanation. It points out that the industrial revolution from 1850 to the 1900s caused a migration of people from the farm to the cities, and the cities were linked primarily by a rail system. Then, from 1900 to the 1960s, a second migration occurred, from the cities to the suburbs, and the transportation of choice became the automobile on an advanced highway system.
But now we are entering the information age and, according to the working paper, breakthroughs in communication such as fax, Internet, e-mail, and telecommunication are allowing people to migrate back to the rural areas–sort of full circle from pre-1850. This "third wave of migration" depicts a public that is hooked on the convenience of personal transportation (the automobile) and, therefore, now seeks a means of travel that offers even more speed and more flexibility.
Indeed, the report describes the current generation of adult consumers as "individualistic to the extreme...[they] are highly experimental and experiential, value the personal or human touch, place a premium on conserving time [and] look for convenience..." (Such an attitude to an extreme may explain the recent rash of passenger rage on commercial flights.)
Further propelling this promotion of personal air transport is the mounting pressure being placed on the increasingly congested hub-and-spoke airway system now followed by commercial carriers. Authors of the NASA working paper estimate that this system will reach its saturation point by 2008. SATS aircraft would use the under-utilized airspace and under-utilized airports, away from the hubs and the spokes. It also, the paper contends, would be the personal-transport alternative to contemporary mass transit, which is expected to be ultra-large aircraft (a la A3XX) and high-speed trains. Specifically, NASA’s goal with SATS is to increase the speed of travel fourfold over current highway speeds to 25% of rural America within 10 years, and to 90% within 25 years.
Do most people really want to fly? Well, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the number of piston-powered aircraft in the active U.S. fleet has grown steadily over the past five years, from about 142,000 aircraft to 164,000. Driving this boost has been a booming national economy, plus passage of the 1994 General Aviation Revitalization bill. But 164,000 units is miles away from the some 200 million automobiles on American roads.
"What is needed is a paradigm shift," says a NASA official, meaning a conversion in public thinking about personal flight. The agency hopes to make that conversion starting in 2005, when a proof-of-concept aircraft is planned for demonstrations. "We hope to take average people off the street and place them in the aircraft with an accomplished pilot and show them how easy it is to fly," says NASA’s Jim Burley.
Burley, who works on the SATS program, claims the technology for a safe, easy-to-fly aircraft exists. The main challenge is to integrate it on an airframe. Burley talks of "an airborne Internet" in which each aircraft is continually aware of all other aircraft in the area. With this, he maintains, an on-board system could calculate the host aircraft’s sequencing and spacing during an approach. "There would be no need for air traffic control [at the airport]," he claims.
Keeping pilots out of trouble would be a highly advanced, highly governing autopilot, not unlike the one on the Lockheed Martin Dark Star unmanned air vehicle (UAV), Burley adds. Pilots could be allowed to override the autopilot, but only after receiving sufficient training to do so.
Cirrus Design Corp. and Lancair Group have been busy developing SATS features for their airplanes. For example, Lancair plans to unveil at the Oshkosh show this month a fuselage constructed so that the occupants can walk away from a crash in which the aircraft hits the ground at a 30-degree angle at stall speed. NASA plans to test this aircraft next year. Meanwhile, the Cirrus SR20 already has an integrated ballistic parachute and a glass cockpit with moving map display. "2005 is the proof-of-concept deadline, but we may have to wait 15 years or so for a certifiable system," in which the public can be trained and approved to fly, says Burley. "We’re working with the Federal Aviation Administration to implement this, but, realistically, it could take 20 to 25 years."
As for the cost of a fully outfitted SATS aircraft, NASA recognizes the current expense of on-board processing, glass cockpits and composite airframes. But it believes high volume will bring the per-aircraft price to an acceptable level.
In short, an airplane in every garage would appear feasible–eventually. Still, as a Washington, D.C.-area driver who frequently negotiates the infamous Beltway, I can’t help but view the concept and have a bit of a shiver run down my spine.