Instrument flight rules (IFR) certification of Alaska's Capstone navigation technology programme is now planned for January 2001 and the various elements of the programme are "almost there", according to a leading member of Alaska's commercial aviation community.
Pen Air's vice president of operations, Dick Harding, who devised and developed for his carrier a safety risk assessment system that is now widely used throughout Alaska by the enormous state's myriad of small commercial operators, says the timeline for the installation of the necessary avionics in aircraft is meeting the schedule set by the programme'.
At least 150 small-to-medium-sized aircraft - including a wide variety of types from the Cessna 172 to the Douglas DC-6 - will be fitted with the Capstone avionics package.
These aircraft operate throughout a 280,000km2 (110,000mi2) area centred on the town of Bethel, the largest community in a huge Western Alaska semi-wilderness in which the deltas of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers are both situated. In this area there are no roads: transport is by air and boat and snow-mobile and in winter aviation is often the only possible means of transport.
The FAA and Alaska's aviation industry have chosen the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area - which is as large as the state of Wyoming and is considerably bigger in area than the entire United Kingdom - for the Capstone demonstration area.
Harding reveals that should the project deliver within the remaining two years of the demonstration period the primary safety and incidental operations efficiency benefits expected, Alaska's aviation industry wants to expand it to a huge area of airspace in Southeast Alaska and then to another area adjacent both to this and the original Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area.
However, for now the original Capstone demonstration has two more years to run. After an initial allocation of $11 million from the US government in fiscal year 1999, the programme has received another $6 million for this year, reveals the FAA's Capstone programme manager, John Hallinan.
Much progress is expected from a major demonstration of the Capstone technology this week, in an "open house" session which leading US congressmen and government figures have been invited to observe. Many have made the long trek northwest - Anchorage is as far north as Helsinki and as far west as Hawaii - to see the technology in action.
Hallinan says most of the major Capstone pieces are now in place in terms of certification, but there is one major issue still needing to be resolved. That is the radio frequency bandwidth allocation the Capstone technology needs for the crucial air-to-ground datalink element of the programme.
One of Capstone's most important features for the world at large is that it is the first long-term, wide-scale demonstration of the automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) and traffic information services broadcast (TIS-B) technology that lies at the heart of the worldwide CSN/ATM 'free flight' air navigation initiative.
Capstone is already using ADS-B on a daily basis and one of the important parts of this week's testing is calibration by one of the FAA's own Boeing 727s of the completeness of the ADS-B coverage throughout the planned Capstone area.
Coverage is by no means yet complete because nine of 12 planned ground stations needed to relay the ADS-B data from aircraft to the FAA's Anchorage air route traffic control centre (ARTCC), which controls IFR traffic throughout western Alaska, still have to be built. Capstone relies on ground stations rather than satellite constellations for datalink transmission to keep costs low.
Another major benefit of the programme will be the way it introduces new technology at very low cost to make installation in smaller commercial aircraft, corporate aircraft and even private aircraft affordable for Alaska's pilots.
The head of the Alaska Airmen Association, Felix Maguire, a commercial and corporate pilot in Alaska for 27 years, says if all goes as planned installation of the Capstone avionics at $12,000 per aircraft - or less, as the numbers of installations rise - will make it unnecessary for his employer to install an enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) in the Cessna Citation VI that he pilots.
US Federal Aviation Regulations now mandate installation of EGPWS in corporate jets by 2005 and Maguire points out this would cost $80,000 per aircraft.
However, another technology at the heart of Capstone is a topographical terrain database, displayed in the cockpit by means of flight information services (FIS) graphical services data-linked up to the aircraft through an on-board UPS Aviation Technologies (UPSAT) universal access transceiver shown on a UPSAT MX20 multi-function colour display.
This database provides the pilot with situational awareness of the terrain over which the aircraft is travelling and provides visual alerts of the proximity of terrain.
The MX20 is also used to display to the pilot the "enhanced see and avoid" situational data provided by ADS-B and TIS-B, showing the whereabouts of other aircraft and their tracks, as well as IFR airway information.
One other major technology upon which Capstone relies is GPS satellite positional signals. Capstone will use GPS signals to allow non-precision IFR approaches down to about 500ft at remote strips, serving communities that absolutely rely on aviation for their goods and passenger transport needs. Some are so remote that they have gravel strips and no runway lights, so operations can only take place in daylight.
Initially the FAA is publishing non-precision GPS approaches for 13 remote airstrips. It has published approaches for six so far.
However, these GPS non-precision IFR approaches also need accurate weather data and the FAA has developed improved automated weather observation stations (AWOS-III) for deployment at a dozen locations - some of which, but by no means all, are the same as the airstrips for which GPS approaches are being published.
The chairman of the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation, Tom Wardleigh, who has flown more than 34,000hr during 50 years as a pilot in Alaska, notes that the state's aviation community was instrumental in persuading the FAA to take the common-sense step of including a video camera as one of the sensors on each AWOS III station.
"It's the least expensive sensor, that gives the most information," says Wardleigh.