With its poor safety record, Alaska is an ideal place to test new navigation and situational awareness technology Chris Kjelgaard/BETHEL, ALASKA
As far north as Helsinki, as far west as Hawaii and a 3h jet flight from the nearest large urban centre, Alaska's biggest city, Anchorage, is as remote as any community of its size on earth.
Short summers, lots of cloud precipitated by the mountains that surround Anchorage on three sides, and long, hard winters make the location of this city of 250,000 people inhospitable. Yet compared with the small western Alaska town of Bethel, 650km (400 miles) west and situated 65km inland on the Kuskokwim River, Anchorage seems easily accessible and its climate forgiving. No roads link Bethel with the outside world.
Founded by Moravian missionaries in the mid-19th century, Bethel lies at the farthest point up-river that is navigable by large cargo barge. Because of this proximity to the Kuskokwim, which residents use as an ice road for seven months of the year, Bethel has become a transport hub for 56 Yunik native villages dotted throughout the tundra within a radius of more than 160km.
Bethel might seem an odd choice as the site for one of the US Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) most ambitious new technology tests ever. But the FAA is investing considerable time, effort and $17 million of resources at Bethel in the Capstone safety technology initiative.
Capstone involves operations throughout a 285,000km² (110,000 miles²) area - an area rather bigger than the UK - in western Alaska. Since launching Capstone in 1999 with an end-to-end technology demonstration, the FAA has been conducting an operational evaluation in co-operation with Bethel operators.
Capstone equipment obtained supplemental type certification in February and, with around 60 aircraft now outfitted, the FAA plans instrument flight rules (IFR) certification for the technology in January.
Even more remarkable than the test location is Capstone's first beneficiary. General aviation-type operations will receive the synthesis of new navigation and situational awareness technologies before the same sophisticated blend of technologies is available to the major airlines.
Since 1999, Capstone has operationally synthesised GPS satellite navigation, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), universal access transceiver (UAT) datalinking, an on-board terrain database, advanced graphical weather services and traffic information services - broadcast (TIS-B) to create an integrated traffic/weather/terrain picture on a cockpit multi-function display (MFD).
To give some bite to Capstone's cockpit graphical weather reporting capability, the FAA is installing 13 automated weather observation stations (AWOS IIIs) at villages throughout the Capstone operating area.
Rather than relying on expensive satellite transmission, to keep Capstone costs within the $17 million budgeted, the FAA is also installing a dozen ground stations for two-way datalinking of ADS-B and TIS-B (radar-derived) positional and other information between each aircraft and the Anchorage air route traffic control centre (ARTCC).
The FAA is outfitting, at its own cost, 150 Bethel-based general aviation aircraft with these potentially huge advances in aircraft navigation situational awareness - GPS receivers, MFDs and UAT transceivers - at an overall per-aircraft cost of $12,000, compared with the $80,000 that an enhanced ground proximity warning system would cost.
Built on permafrost tundra and boasting just 13km of paved roads, this isolated community of 6,500 provides the infrastructure upon which the surrounding villages depend for their survival. Bethel has a modern hospital and many health facilities, boasts two relatively large supermarkets and hosts institutions vital to the civic and cultural life of much of Alaska, such as a town hall, a courthouse, a showplace library and a university branch.
But during the long and harsh western Alaska winter - in some months the average temperature rarely crawls above –28°C - Bethel and its dependent villages have literally no means of surface transport to rely upon for their most basic food, supplies and medical needs.
As a major transport hub, Bethel's most precious asset is its airport, whose 6,400ft grooved asphalt runway allows operations by large transports such as the Lockheed Electras and Boeing 727-100 freighters of Reeve Aleutian Airways, Lynden Air Services' Lockheed L-100-30 Hercules and Alaska Airlines' Boeing 737-200 Combis. The Douglas DC-6s and 727-100Fs of Northern Air Cargo, too, are regular visitors.
With the big river barges dedicated to bulk supplies of fuel oil and large equipment such as trucks, cars and the ubiquitous ski-mobiles, Bethel obtains almost all of its food and other portable supplies by air. But although the large jets and turboprops offload this in relatively large amounts, they cannot land at the rough gravel strips serving the surrounding villages.
Consequently, a unique, large-scale network of operators flying general aviation aircraft on commercial scheduled and charter services has developed. More than a dozen companies operate a wide variety of small aircraft to serve the remote outlying villages.
The de Havilland Canada Twin Otter, the Shorts Skyvan and the CASA 212 are their largest aircraft, but these are dwarfed in importance as workhorses by the six-seat Cessna 207, which is used by all of the Bethel operators in large numbers for multi-stage services hopping from village to village. Cessna 208 Caravans and Piper Navajos are also widely used.
The constant movement of these aircraft on commercial flights makes Bethel Alaska's third-busiest airfield overall - after Anchorage's GA airport, Merrill Field, and Anchorage International Airport - and the state's busiest in terms of commercial movements. Bethel accounts for no less than 25% of all the commercial flights in Alaska.
However, Bethel's weather can change quickly and dramatically at any time of year - and in winter, pilots in non-instrument flight rules (IFR) Cessna 207s, needing 500ft (150m) vertical and 2nm (3.7km) horizontal visibility to land, are often faced with white-out conditions where sky and horizon merge.
Steve Austin, station manager for local operator Grant Aviation, says such situations typically occur when pilots take off from Bethel in good conditions to fly to, say, Scammon Bay - a 3.5h round trip in a Cessna 207.
By the time an aircraft flies to its destination and back, the barometer mercury can have dropped 10mm at Bethel, forcing as many as 40 to 50 aircraft to orbit the field at the same time in what the local operators call a "special hold". All hope desperately for a break in the cloud or driven snow to let them see the runway, but the rules call for aircraft operating under instrument flight rules - aircraft which in such conditions probably least need to make a quick landing - to have landing preference.
Such adverse weather conditions are so common that, although the area around Bethel is flat for nearly 160km in any direction, on one isolated 180m hill about 240km away no fewer than five aircraft crashed during the 1990s. Even though their pilots knew the hill was there, they were simply unaware that the atmospheric pressure had plunged and that their uncorrected altimeters had become useless for IFR flight.
Because of the huge state's extreme weather and the population's total reliance on air transport for survival, Bethel's commercial pilots - and those of Alaska in general - are faced almost daily with two conflicting imperatives.
The first, which should always be primary, is safety. Far too frequently, however, the need to serve the customer seems more important - particularly when that customer might be very ill and urgently needs hospitalisation, or perhaps simply food supplies.
Austin illustrates this graphically: "It's imperative in winter to get there on time and to have a very tight operation. There are no terminals. The airstrips are windswept and snow-blown." Having walked miles, people turn up and stand there in the snow simply in the faith that the aircraft will arrive, on time. If it does not, they could freeze to death. Some have.
But Tom Wardleigh, chairman of the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation and probably Alaska's most experienced professional pilot with 50 years of flying under his belt, says the gung-ho must-go attitude to flying is too prevalent in Alaska.
"I think safety has not been recognised by the community in Alaska," says Wardleigh, charging that the state's citizens admire the traditional Alaska Sourdough "get through the pass when the others can't" attitude. He adds: "We're doing the wrong thing when we applaud the risk-taker and write books about him" - a reference to the many accounts available of the exploits of Alaskan bush pilots.
Noting that pilots do not receive training in professional ethics, unlike their contemporaries in other highly-skilled professions, Wardleigh says: "When they take passengers on an airplane, I think pilots need that. I think most Alaskan aviation accidents come from a lack of self-imposed ethics to avoid the circumstances that you know you can't cope with. I've lost a great many friends in Alaska throughout the years: almost to a man they were trying too hard to please a customer."
Wardleigh admits that the aviation infrastructure in Alaska has improved greatly over the years. The state has ploughed Airport Improvement Programme money into lengthening and widening runways to reduce over-run incidents. There are "lots more instrument loading system" installations and weather information has improved with the advent of advanced automated weather reporting stations, each incorporating a video camera - the cheapest yet most informative sensor of all.
But, he says, the thing that has not changed is the "unreasonable demand of the American public" for an Alaskan operator to fly on demand, regardless of weather conditions. "What has to be changed is the expectation of the public," says Wardleigh.
In Alaska, such change is unlikely. That is the FAA's prime reason for banding with the Alaskan aviation associations, the University of Alaska at Anchorage (UAA) - for Capstone training and safety data collection and analysis - and UPS Aviation Technologies (the maker of the Mitre-developed UAT transceiver and the MX-20 MFD used in Capstone aircraft).
At the heart of the FAA's determination to make Capstone work is Alaska's poor aviation safety record, a direct consequence of the state's fearsome terrain - which varies from flat tundra to the highest mountains in North America - and dreadful weather.
The FAA believed a major new effort was needed because of Alaska's 1990s commercial air safety record - six times worse on average in terms of accidents than the rest of the USA - and because that record has not shown much sign of improvement. Particularly marked was Alaska's bad record of mid-air collisions and accidents involving controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), stemming from its weather and geography. As a result, the FAA is stressing Capstone's ADS-B "enhanced see and avoid" function and the terrain database programmed into each aircraft's on-board computer.
Based on the UAA's analysis of Alaska's aviation accident/incident record in the 1990s, the FAA expects Capstone to reduce CFIT accidents and collisions within the Capstone area by up to 25% and to lower fatalities in such accidents by up to 35%.
The FAA's regional administrator for Alaska, Pat Poe, explains the agency's "real sense of urgency". He says: "The number of accidents in Alaska has been very consistent and flat. In the 1990s, we've averaged an aircraft accident every other day and a fatality every nine days.
"Of those commercial pilots who fly in Alaska for 30 years, 11% will perish. It's now the most dangerous occupation in Alaska." In fact, a fatal crash occurred in Alaska while the demonstration was being held.
Capstone programme manager John Hallinan provided a sobering illustration at a technology demonstration late in August at the UAA aviation campus in Anchorage. Asking an audience of 100 Alaskans to raise their hands if they had had a close friend or relative killed in an air accident within the state, every single person did so.
Commercial pilots based at Bethel say the first versions of the Capstone technology need considerable improvement to become operationally reliable. Equipment unreliability stemmed from a software bug, which produced incorrect displays of GPS-derived aircraft positions and other data. Also, the MX-20 screen has not proved bright enough.
Grant Aviation's Austin also admits that some Bethel pilots - perhaps many - have resisted Capstone "because they thought it was a watchdog effort" on the FAA's part. As Poe notes, too often the state's aviation community has felt the FAA's motto should be: "We're not happy until you're not happy".
Austin notes, however, that since a recent software upgrade, the Capstone technology now installed on three of Grant's aircraft appears to be working better.
Similarly, he adds, UPS has re-designed its MX-20 control buttons ergonomically to make them bigger so that pilots wearing fur gloves in winter are able to use them. At the same time, the MX-20 screen display has been made much brighter.
As an operator, Austin is prepared to give Capstone a testimonial - as close to a glowing tribute the system will get from a rugged Alaskan individualist. "If you learn the system the way it's meant to be operated, I can't see it doing anything but help," he says. "I've been impressed with the [FAA] officials. They've worked very hard. I think we've got something here."