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Reality Check

No matter how good a procedure looks in a simulator, however, a real-world test is the only way to see if it truly works. For eight nights in late October and early November 2002, Clarke, his MIT colleagues, the Boeing and NASA researchers, two pilots, a meteorologist from UPS, and an air traffic controller from the Louisville control tower monitored nightly flights for noise. Each night they selected two UPS planes: one to fly the traditional landing procedure and the other to fly the continuous-descent approach. Four or five crews headed for Louisville were given briefing packets describing the procedure before they took off. Once the planes were airborne, two crews were notified that they’d been chosen to participate. “We picked the pilots at random and basically told them, hey, you’re going to do this procedure tonight,” says Clarke. This method verified that UPS could implement the procedure without having to give its pilots special training.

Then the Boeing, NASA, and MIT researchers headed out to seven different locations in Floyds Knobs that were under the flight path, bringing with them noise measurement equipment. “We drove into people’s fields, or pulled up off the road, and set up microphones,” says Clarke. Was he nervous that the procedure might not reduce noise as planned? “Nah,” Clarke says with a smile. “I was nervous that the pilots would fly them right.”

Clarke needn’t have worried; after the team analyzed the data from the tests, it found that the continuous-descent approach reduced the noise from between 69 and 70 decibels to between 62 and 63 decibels. That’s a significant amount, considering that a three-decibel reduction in noise is noticeable to the average person, and a 10-decibel reduction is perceived as being half as loud. The researchers also discovered that airplanes flying the procedure saved about 225 kilograms of fuel.

Although the 2002 tests were a success, more work needs to be done to prove that the procedure is practical in moderately heavy air traffic. When several planes land in quick succession, air traffic controllers typically use the speed of the planes when they level off to approximate how far they are from the runway and each other. However, a plane using the continuous-descent approach never flies level, and its speed continually decelerates. If many planes fly this approach, it’s difficult for air traffic controllers to predict how close they will be to each other as they approach the runway. The procedure Clarke designed for the 2002 test attempted to account for this by keeping the planes’ speeds as constant as possible during the initial descent, but it was only tested in light traffic.

This September, however, Clarke will test the procedure in moderately heavy traffic. He is designing an approach that 20 UPS planes will fly as they come into the airport within two minutes of each other. Clarke hopes that this test will prove that air traffic controllers can manage multiple-aircraft landing using the new approach. If all goes well, the team will then apply to the FAA for approval of the Louisville procedures, a process that Clarke estimates could take less than a year.

Silent Airplanes

Meanwhile, Clarke is bringing his expertise to the Cambridge-MIT Institute’s multidisciplinary Silent Aircraft Initiative, which was launched last fall. The three-year initiative is bringing together researchers from the University of Cambridge and MIT, as well as experts from industrial and government partners, to design an airplane so quiet that its noise would be imperceptible outside the airport. Aeronautics and astronautics assistant professor Karen Willcox, SM ‘96, PhD ‘00, is using Clarke’s noise simulator in her evaluations of the team’s experimental designs.

While most of the engineers in the initiative will be working on the new airplane, Clarke will focus on creating a continuous-descent approach for existing commercial aircraft at the Gatwick Airport in London. The team hopes to conduct a flight test in 2005 and have the procedure implemented at Gatwick in 2006.

Clarke’s work on the continuous-descent approach will help the Silent Aircraft Initiative make the case that its work will help the U.K.’s economy-a mission common to all CMI joint research projects (see “From Cambridge to Cambridge,” MIT News, May 2003). Quieter landing procedures could have broad economic benefits for airports, airlines, and communities. For example, airports that have noise curfews could operate more flights, thus cutting down on congestion and delays-problems that ultimately lead to higher airline operating costs and ticket prices. In the long term, quieter landings could help alleviate community concerns over the construction of new runways. A dramatically quieter airplane would significantly increase the number of flights that can fly in and out of airports worldwide, but it will take decades to bring to fruition. “It takes 10 years to develop an airplane, and then another 15 years before significant numbers of them get  into the fleet,” says aeronautics and astronautics professor Ian Waitz, who’s leading the economics component of the initiative. “But the operation things that J-P Clarke is involved in, those, a year or two down the road, can change things.”

Indeed, if Clarke’s approach is approved for Louisville and Gatwick, the residents of Floyds Knobs and London can look forward to sleeping a lot more soundly in just a couple years.

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