A company in Boise, Idaho, has registered the first milestone on the Highway In The Sky. Chelton Flight Systems was recently granted a technical standard order (TSO) for its synthetic vision Electronic Flight Information System. That means anyone can install this panel-of-the-future technology, which provides nearly every conceivable type of performance, navigation, weather and systems information and throws in a virtual 3-D picture of the world outside. "Everything is right on the panel," Chelton President Gordon Pratt told AVweb. At $71,000, the system isn't for every aircraft but there's a big market awaiting it, he said. "Our target is people who do a lot of single-pilot IFR," he said. The primary flight display combines pitot-static information from an air-data computer, attitude and heading data from a solid-state three-axis gyro and position input from a GPS/WAAS receiver, plus topographical information. The system creates a display that some test pilots have called "virtual VFR" because it electronically depicts the view outside the plane while giving constant readouts of all essential flight data. If the system detects something unusual about the flight profile, pop-up windows alert the pilot of the emerging situation. It'll even show you glide potential for a dead-stick landing. The navigation part uses Jeppesen NavData and can incorporate weather and traffic data. That sounds like a lot of information to be packed into two screens but Pratt said the result is a much lower pilot workload. "It sure makes it easier to fly the airplane," he said.
It's the kind of technology FAA planners have been saying is necessary to modernize the National Airspace System, but the agency has been slow to embrace the technical advances. "There are a lot of people in the FAA who are nervous about this technology," said Pratt. That all changed for some senior FAA staffers on a flight over the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State 18 months ago during a convention on synthetic vision technology. "They were blown away by what it can do," said Pratt. The system was chosen for use in the innovative Capstone program in Alaska, which is aimed at putting technology to work to reduce the high accident rate there. With the help of FAA officials in Alaska, Chelton was able to convince senior FAA staff that the technology was ready for general use. "This is a tremendous step in forward thinking by the FAA," Pratt said. "People have been telling us for years that the FAA would never approve this technology." In fact, said Pratt, once they saw it at work, FAA staff became part of the impetus behind the project and, in a little less than a year, awarded the TSO. The system is unaffected by an NPRM issued by the FAA earlier this year distinguishing synthetic vision from enhanced-vision systems. That NPRM proposes to allow the use of enhanced-vision heads-up displays to visually acquire the runway on an ILS approach when, to the naked eye, it would be below minimums. Pratt said his system isn't intended for use below published minimums. "It just keeps you from hitting a mountain while you're doing it," he said. So far, 20 systems have been sold and five are flying.