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Flying for Dummies

It’s been a long time coming. Drive over to the nearest small airport-it’s almost certainly less than a half hour away-and peek in a window of any of the four- or six-seat aircraft parked on the ramp. Chances are you’ll be looking at a control panel dominated by a dozen or so needle-and-numbered-dial gauges, making it mostly indistinguishable from a panel that came off an aircraft assembly line in the 1950s. In flight, an experienced pilot can glance at the dancing needles in these gauges and immediately infer the plane’s altitude, heading, speed, rate of turn, rate of climb and “attitude”-its angle with respect to all three axes-as well as the aircraft’s rough location in relation to navigational radio stations. To a novice, however, translating the gauge readings into an understanding of the flight situation is an opportunity for serious math anxiety. “How many people enjoy doing math calculations in their heads?” asks Dean Vogel, vice president of research and development for Cirrus Design, an aircraft maker in Duluth, MN. “How many like doing them in their heads when they know that if they get the wrong answer they’re going to kill their wife and kids?”

Vogel poses this gruesome question because he thinks he has the answer-at least a big part of it. In 1999, Cirrus started turning out a four-seat plane called the SR20. For a pilot used to the traditional small-aircraft panel, the SR20’s console is jolting in its simplicity. Gone is the dizzying array of gauges and needles. In their place: a 26-centimeter video display fed by Global Positioning System (GPS) data that provides a literal picture of the terrain beneath the aircraft, with airport, flight route and weather information superimposed on it. “You let a computer gather the information you need and integrate it,” says Vogel, “and then it presents the information to the pilot in a form that the brain understands intuitively.”

And that’s not the half of it. The SR20 display is the precursor of a more comprehensive set of pictorial tools being advanced under a multimillion-dollar program called Highway in the Sky that is funded chiefly by NASA, in concert with the aviation industry. A display developed under this program will be fed by GPS satellites and an onboard geographic database containing information on everything from terrain to dangerously tall antennas and airport traffic patterns. After a pilot push-buttons her way through a series of intuitive menus to program in the destination airport, the system will compare the aircraft’s position to the intended flight path throughout the journey, calculating the direction in which the plane must fly to stay on course. But here’s the impressive part: enlisting a graphics processor, the system will display the correct flight path as a series of hoops, lines or brackets superimposed on a 3-D-like simulated view of the airspace and terrain in front of the plane.

Flying with a Highway in the Sky display thus becomes largely a matter of lining up the crosshairs in the screen’s center with the hoops or lines-a task the average 12-year-old could accomplish with one hand while working a Game Boy with the other. “I could take someone with no training and in five minutes have him flying a plane all the way through a landing,” says John Hansman, an MIT aeronautics researcher involved in developing pilot control interfaces. That isn’t much of an exaggeration. Technicians at NASA’s Langley, VA, facilities brag that one day they grabbed a secretary who’d never sat in a small plane and got her to fly a “Highway”-equipped aircraft around a traffic pattern. And, since I happen to be the proud owner of my very own 12-year-old, I challenged Hansman to demonstrate with my son, Alex.

Some of the first production copies of these displays are likely to come out of AvroTec, of Portland, OR. AvroTec’s new panel is going through a painstaking FAA certification process. However, it is expected to be standard equipment later this year on four-seat planes made by Lancair, of nearby Bend, OR, while also available in a “retrofit” version for older aircraft. At an expected cost of $35,000, the system is pricey, but not prohibitively so, since conventional panels run about the same. AvroTec president Mary Nolan points out that the system will lower the bar even on some of the most challenging flight situations. “A computer is perfect at calculating minute changes to a course and projecting those changes out into a flight path,” she says. “That frees the pilot to do the kinds of things that the human brain is suited to, which is assimilating information and executing judgment.”

Nolan offers as an example a pilot taking off from inside a cloud-shrouded canyon-an extremely hazardous scenario often encountered in the Rocky Mountains. Once off the ground and in the clouds, the pilot would normally have to estimate his location with respect to the canyon walls on a printed chart while watching gauge needles to make sure he stayed on course. With the new technology, the pilot would simply follow the hoops or dashed lines on the display. Because the system synthesizes its image from GPS data and onboard terrain databases-not the view from the cockpit-it works just as well in poor visibility. What’s more, it would be programmed to account for the aircraft’s performance capabilities-along with air density, temperature and wind data-allowing it to calculate the safest way out of the canyon. The pilot could check the projected path before takeoff, and if it passed too close to the canyon walls, he could scrub the flight and wait for better conditions.

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