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.
It was a clear day, and by the time we reached our cruising altitude of 750 meters, Alex seemed to have gotten the hang of the controls-and our flight felt smooth. We could easily make out downtown Boston’s skyscrapers some 25 kilometers to the east, and the industrial sprawl of Lowell and Lawrence to the north.
But the westerly view before us was a blanket of forest and farmland, lifted by a small mountain here, divided by a tiny highway there-with Fitchburg nowhere to be seen. Hansman pulled out an aeronautical chart and showed Alex where we were-and where Fitchburg Airport lay. But Alex shrugged; a novice could glean no useful information from the chart, because there is no intuitive way to correlate its information with the view out the window. In short, he had no idea which way to go.
Hansman then produced a conventional $800 GPS receiver with graphic display that’s popular among pilots. It depicts a simulated overhead view of the airplane with respect to ground features and radio navigation aids. But Alex only shook his head. I asked what he was thinking, and he told me the symbol-and-number-packed display was “the most confusing thing I have ever seen in my entire life.” This from a kid who has never needed to read the instructions for any of the hundreds of computer and video games he has played.
By this time, the experienced Hansman could make out Fitchburg Airport in the distance, and he pointed it out to Alex. But to the untrained eye a small airport is utterly indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain, and Alex wandered off course as he searched for it. (In fact, even experienced pilots sometimes fail to recognize unfamiliar airports and other landmarks when navigating visually.) Here in our plane, however, we had our secret weapon. Hansman turned to me and asked if I had the Highway in the Sky-like system fired up. I did, and I handed it to him.
Hansman held the GPS-equipped laptop against the instrument panel in front of Alex. There, displayed in bright colors, sat an uncluttered image of the terrain before us. On it were superimposed two parallel lines of columns that receded into the distance, along with a blue cone planted off to the right. The lines of columns defined our current flight path, I explained to Alex, while the cone represented Fitchburg Airport. “Oh, okay,” he said. “So I just need to aim at the cone, right?” With the flair of a video game master homing his X-wing fighter in on the Death Star’s lone vulnerable hatch, Alex immediately banked the plane to bring the cone to the middle of the flight path. We were right on course.
In theory, Free Flight (or any FAA-certified Highway in the Sky system) could have pictorially guided Alex all the way through a landing-even in low visibility. However, because landing requires quick, minute adjustments, and because the margin for error is small and the consequences of mistakes high, Hansman wisely decided to leave Free Flight out of it. Instead, the MIT professor functioned as a sort of verbal Highway in the Sky, telling Alex which corrections to make as Fitchburg’s Runway 32 loomed in front of us: “A little more to the right…nose up…add a little power…”
Alex made the approach look easy, following Hansman’s instructions to level off just above the runway, cut power and then raise the nose as the slowing plane lost its lift and sunk. We touched down softly, aiming straight down the runway-a landing that wouldn’t have embarrassed a professional pilot. Hansman then took the controls for about 10 seconds to execute an immediate takeoff-a timesaving “touch and go” maneuver too dangerous to leave to a rookie. Other than an occasional tweak of the power settings, this was the only time during the nearly one-hour flight when Hansman got physically involved in controlling the aircraft. (Hansman also worked the radio to make sure we had air traffic clearances and avoided other aircraft, something future Highway in the Sky systems may do automatically.)
On the way back, we once more placed Free Flight before Alex. Not only could he pick out Hanscom, he spotted the Minute Man Air Field Airport in Stow, which we would pass on the way, as well as Logan off in the distance. Again, we shut down Free Flight as we neared our goal. This approach was complicated because of the need to weave our flight path into those of other inbound aircraft. But Alex followed Hansman’s instructions without trouble, and we landed with only a slight bounce. Alex then kept the controls down the runway and back to the parking ramp. After we exited the plane, he nodded toward the laptop with a big grin: “That was like playing the world’s coolest video game.”
Could later iterations of tools like Free Flight reliably guide inexperienced pilots from takeoff through landing, even in the presence of other aircraft? Absolutely, insists Hansman. “There wasn’t anything I told Alex that couldn’t have been told to him by a computer display,” he says. “That’s just mechanical stuff.” Once pilots are freed from such mundane demands of flying, he adds, they’ll be able to concentrate on weather issues and other higher-level decision making. At least until that’s taken over by computer, too.