When MIT aeronautics researcher John Hansman bragged that, armed with some up-and-coming technology, he could take a 12-year-old off the street and have him or her flying a plane after only a few minutes of training, Technology Review couldn’t resist putting him to the test. Hansman seemed game, so I presented him with a subject: my 12-year-old son, Alex. At stake in this experiment would be a question critical to the long-term vision of the NASA-backed Small Aircraft Transportation System program, which aims to ease highway congestion by making us a nation of pilots. Can an average joe with little training really get behind the controls of a small plane and, fed the right information with the right technology, pilot the aircraft from takeoff through landing?On a frigid but sunny morning last December, Hansman met Alex and me at Hanscom Field in Bedford, MA, where Hansman’s four-seat, single-engine Piper Arrow was parked. After a five-minute briefing on basic airplane control by the MIT prof in a nearby pilot’s lounge, Alex climbed into the main seat, and Hansman-who has logged 6,000 hours of flying time-sat to his right behind a second set of controls. (Hansman is confident, but not foolish.)
I crammed into the back next to our photographer, cradling a secret weapon: a laptop computer hooked up to a $160 Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver made by Magellan, running a prototype version of a software program called Free Flight, made by the eponymous startup company in Pasadena, CA.
Together, the computer/GPS/Free Flight setup would function exactly like the Highway in the Sky systems slated to hit the market later this year. The makers of those systems didn’t have any available for our test. That’s why we turned to Free Flight, which has not yet been submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval. As an uncertified system, Free Flight can’t legally be used as the primary means of navigation-only as an informal backup, which is how we employed it. Aside from some initial difficulties in getting the software to recognize the GPS signal, the program worked perfectly.
Our flight plan was simple enough: take off, fly about 40 kilometers west to Fitchburg Municipal Airport (away from the more heavily trafficked and controlled airspace around Boston’s Logan Airport), land, take off again and return to Hanscom. Alex, normally self-assured and a tad laconic, seemed humbled by the array of gauges before him-and he nodded quickly (perhaps a little too quickly) as Hansman pointed out the functions of some of the gauges and reviewed the different flight controls. But when the engine roared to life, and Hansman asked if he was ready to go, Alex took a deep breath, and said in characteristic fashion: “Yup.”
Moments later we were rolling across the parking ramp. Guided by common sense, his briefing on plane steering and Hansman’s occasional barked instruction, Alex was able to taxi to the runway and take off, with just a bit of wobbling. Of course, as any pilot will tell you, taking off is the easy part. The true test of Hansman’s boast would be whether Alex could get us to Fitchburg and land the plane.