Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University logs 100,000 flight training hours each year at its Daytona Beach, Fla., campus and 50,000 at its Prescott, Ariz., campus. For the nation’s leading aviation educator, safety has always been paramount. However, Prescott is not served by terminal radar. The nearest facility is 100 miles (161 km) away, in Phoenix. For years we have looked for ways to improve the safety of our flight training operations and reduce the risk of midair collision at that campus. We were successful in our efforts to attract a stand-alone radar display to the Prescott air traffic control tower, but we still wanted a better system.
Then in 2001, Prescott’s flight department learned about an exciting program being conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration in western Alaska. The Capstone program is an accelerated effort to improve aviation safety and efficiency by installing GPS-based avionics and data link communications in 200 commercial aircraft and providing appropriate ground equipment and services.
Suddenly, a terminal radar system lost much of its appeal. In 2002, Arizona Sen. John McCain assisted us by attracting the interest of the FAA, which was seeking to replicate in the lower 48 states the capabilities that were proven in Alaska. After taking a test flight in an automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast- (ADS-B) equipped airplane piloted by Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, we were convinced to go forward. We soon entered a partnership in which the FAA would put in the ground stations if we would equip the planes. In July, Embry-Riddle began installing a new aircraft collision-avoidance system that is hailed as a breakthrough equal to the invention of radar.
We believe the university’s acquisition of ADS-B technology could start a revolution in the way general aviation aircraft are controlled in flight. By giving pilots of small aircraft unprecedented awareness of their surroundings, the system decreases hazards associated with traffic, weather and terrain.
The technology, embodied in MX20 multifunction displays and DL90 universal access transceivers (UATs) from UPS Aviation Technologies, is being installed in more than 100 of Embry-Riddle’s training aircraft at both campuses. It will be fully operational by January 2004.
ADS-B relies on the satellite-based GPS to determine an aircraft’s precise location in space. The position is then converted into a digital code and combined with other information, such as aircraft type, speed, flight number and whether it is turning, climbing or descending. This information is updated every second and broadcast from the aircraft on a discrete frequency.
Pilots in the air see traffic on a cockpit display, while controllers on the ground see the ADS-B targets on their traffic display screen, along with radar targets. Unlike conventional radar, ADS-B works at low altitudes and on the ground, so it can be used to monitor traffic on airport runways. It is effective in remote or mountainous areas where radar coverage is limited or nonexistent. One major benefit is that it allows both pilots and controllers to "see" the same data. The cockpit-based avionics also can receive uplinks of weather and air traffic radar data. These uplinks will later include information about temporary flight restrictions and special-use airspace status.
As part of its Safe Flight 21 Program, the FAA plans to construct UAT-equipped ground stations in Arizona and Florida in February 2004 to support Embry-Riddle’s aircraft and permit the university to track its fleets. The agency further plans to install ground stations along the east coast from Florida to Maryland in the fall of 2004. It also has issued a solicitation for new ground stations for Alaska, with an option to buy enough units for the entire United States.
Onboard equipment, costing between $12,000 and $15,000, is affordable for the general aviation pilot. When other pilots learn about the benefits of this system and begin to install ADS-B technology in their own planes, it will jump start a change in the way general aviation flies.
Although Capstone has blazed a trail for Embry-Riddle to follow, there will be some differences in our use of ADS-B. For example, our flight instructors also will use a recording/playback capability that lets them debrief students after each flight.
For flight students at our Arizona campus, located in a mountainous area, the system’s terrain avoidance feature will be an essential aid, while in Florida, where afternoon rainstorms and lightning are frequent, the up-to-the-minute weather data will be an important benefit. But the most important beneficiaries of this amazing new technology will be found beyond our campuses: general aviation pilots everywhere will reap the rewards of the same safety features that commercial pilots enjoy.
Sean Jeralds is the flight department chair at Embry-Riddle’s Prescott, Ariz., campus. Richard Theokas is the flight department chair at the Daytona Beach, Fla., campus.