The crew of a Lufthansa Boeing 747-200 has become the first on a revenue flight to take part in Eurocontrol's high-profile PETAL II trial of pilot/controller datalinking.
PETAL II is the second phase of the Preliminary European Test of Air-Ground DataLink programme to examine the use of datalinking operational techniques - rather than the technology - in relatively congested airspace.
The original PETAL programme, run in 1995, yielded encouraging results but involved only Airbus A320 aircraft being ferried by the manufacturer's crews between Toulouse and Hamburg. On the ground, the trial was conducted mostly by specially selected controllers.
The result was that, although the work went very well, the use of better motivated crews meant that it was not considered representative of what might happen in a truly operational environment.
As part of PETAL II, however, revenue crews from airlines including Lufthansa, SAS, Swissair and Air New Zealand are all expected to take part and give a better feel for the issues to be confronted if widespread datalinking is to be introduced.
The first Lufthansa flight, which took place yesterday, was a service from Frankfurt to Miami. The carrier hopes to match up the same aircraft with the same crew for their return flight later this week.
PETAL II trials manager, Rob Mead, explains that the German aviation authority - the DFS - gave permission for the datalinking to take place just on those two flights and, assuming that all goes well, will then approve the continuation of the trial on six Lufthansa 747-200s.
The aircraft performed the datalink communications as it passed through one sector of Eurocontrol's Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre.
Typically the pilot controller pass information such as: frequency changes, level changes, direct routes, top of descent, and other clearances. The exchanges are backed up with voice communications.
Mead says: "It was all extremely routine - which is exactly the idea. PETAL is the first to do this in congested airspace and this was a 'first' in being a commercial, revenue-bearing flight."
As well as being a key step for the PETAL II work, yesterday's activity was also an important development for backers of the particular datalink involved - the STDMA (self-organising, time-division, multiple-access) system.
STDMA, a VHF frequency-based datalink, also known as VHF datalink Mode 4 (VDL-4) in ICAO circles, is a Swedish developed technology which European interests are increasingly backing as their favoured datalink technique for widespread use in the future air traffic control environment.
Two of the PETAL II participants in particular - Lufthansa and SAS - have been supporting its use for a variety of surveillance and navigation purposes.
The first PETAL II flight, however, made use of STDMA only because that is what Lufthansa is using - the programme managers do not necessarily favour that, or any other, technology.