July 4, 2004
By The AVweb Editorial Staff
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When the U.S. Border Patrol began late last month to fly two Hermes 450 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to help patrol the Arizona-Mexico border, the deployment raised questions about collision avoidance. "UAVs pose a significant threat to air traffic along and near the border," one AVweb reader, a professional pilot based in Tucson, wrote to us last week. "Not only for my company, but also for the many GA airplanes that transit the border, and the airlines coming from Mexico on descent to Tucson." AOPA also expressed concern, asking the FAA to establish an industry committee to address UAV operations outside of restricted airspace and to develop aircraft certification standards dealing with collision avoidance. The UAVs in Arizona are operated by the U.S. Border Patrol for the Department of Homeland Security. The flights are in a testing and evaluation phase through the end of the summer.
Collision-avoidance concerns underwent an extensive review prior to deployment, and precautions are in place, U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Roger Maier told AVweb last week. The approval process requires that the UAV operator satisfy the FAA that the UAV provides an "equivalent level of safety" compared to a manned aircraft. The UAVs now are flying pre-programmed routes that are filed 24 hours in advance with airspace officials, added Andy Adame, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. Both FAA and military air traffic controllers in the region are informed of the route in detail, Adame said. The UAVs are equipped with onboard cameras that provide around-the-clock images in real time to ground control stations, which are monitored constantly, he said. For nighttime observations, the UAV has a thermal imaging unit (compared to the human eye's own unaided night vision). The UAVs also can be operated by remote control. The Hermes 450 drones are flying at about 9,000 to 13,000 feet. The can fly up to 95 knots, and weigh about 1,000 pounds each. The goal is to keep one in the air 24 hours a day, Adame said, with the two aircraft taking turns. They are intended to detect illegal immigration as well as smuggling operations. This is the first non-military use of UAVs for border protection.
In March of 2002 and April of 2003, Proteus (a Scaled Composites design) flew as a NASA test-bed for UAV see-and-avoid technology with success. In 2002, the equipment (a Goodrich Skywatch HP Traffic Advisory System) sensed transponder-equipped aircraft and directed Proteus to avoid them. In the later tests an Amphitech OASys 35-Ghz primary radar system sensed the non-transponder-equipped aircraft involved in the test and relayed their positions to ground-based pilots who made course corrections as needed to avoid collisions. Last week, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) said it has completed a report to establish the fundamental design and performance specifications for an airborne sense-and-avoid (S&A) system for UAVs that would make it easier for them to operate in the National Airspace System. Much like the one tested onboard Proteus, the system would sense the presence of other aircraft in nearby airspace, and would take steps to divert the UAV from the other aircraft, the ASTM said. "This standard is a first step down the road of getting FAA approval for UAV S&A sensors and, ultimately, UAV 'file-and-fly' access to the national airspace similar to the process for manned aircraft," said Ryan Schaefer, a systems engineer on the committee that issued the report. The report outlines parameters that are essential for any mechanical system that is designed to take the place of a human pilot while still maintaining an equivalent level of safety to that pilot, the ASTM said.
UAVs currently must operate in the National Airspace System with special authorization from the FAA. This permission, which is called a Certificate of Authorization, is contingent upon a list of requirements, one of which is that a UAV operator must provide a method to sense and avoid other aircraft. This can be satisfied in a variety of ways -- ground observers, radar coverage, or a manned chase plane -- but these methods are not always cost-efficient or mission-appropriate, says the ASTM. Adame said no chase planes are used in the current deployment. Adding a sensor to the UAV platform is a viable solution, but no onboard sensor has yet been certified by the FAA for UAV sense-and-avoid. "An S&A standard was needed for the industry to move forward, a standard to which all classes of UAVs can demonstrate compliance," Schaefer said. Although initial users of the S&A specification will be within the UAV community, Schaefer says, it was designed to address the overall problem of collision avoidance in national airspace. Because of this, Schaefer feels that the standard will also be useful to develop S&A systems that assist human pilots in avoiding midair collisions.
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When the NTSB late last month asked the FAA to consider making CO detectors mandatory in GA aircraft, AOPA's Air Safety Foundation (ASF) was quick to respond, saying that such a requirement is not necessary. "We found just 10 accidents caused by CO poisoning in fixed-wing singles since 1993 in our ASF GA accident database," said Bruce Landsberg, ASF executive director. (Some dispute the figure, citing difficulty in correlating statistics with often-ambiguous but still dangerous CO-induced degradation of pilot performance.) "That's one a year. While we agree that an FAA-approved CO detector could be helpful, putting the money they would cost into pilot education on the much more common killers, such as low-level maneuvering flight and continued VFR into instrument weather, would be much more effective." The ASF said a market survey showed commercially available (non-aviation) CO detectors run from $8 to almost $250. Should the FAA adopt the NTSB suggestion to require such units, the cost of CO detectors meeting a yet-to-be-developed FAA technical standard order would almost certainly be a minimum of several hundred dollars per airplane, the ASF said.
The FAA last week told AVweb that it would be premature to comment in detail on the NTSB recommendation, because they had not yet had time to review it. "What we can say, is that we'll look at this seriously, as we do with all NTSB recommendations," said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. "We implement a large majority of NTSB recommendations -- they find our actions 'acceptable' 84 percent of the time -- 90 percent on urgent recommendations." Aviation columnist Mike Busch said in an e-mail to AVweb this weekend that while he disagrees with the ASF on the magnitude of the problem, he agrees with their position that the NTSB recommendation to mandate "FAA-approved" CO detectors in every cockpit might be a bit over the top ... and vastly increase the cost of the otherwise-affordable product. "I'm confident that any FAA-approved detector would cost 10 or 20 times what the currently available unapproved ones cost" ... "I can't see mandating the installation of a $1,000 or $2,000 panel-mounted unit when a $100 portable gets the job done just fine." Busch recently wrote an extensive report on CO detectors for AVweb and is a partner in Aeromedix.com, which sells CO detectors -- among a large list of other products. His position is that CO in the cockpit is "a much bigger safety problem for single-engine general aviation aircraft than what AOPA-ASF seems to believe." For a laundry list of reasons, every piston aircraft should have a CO test as part of each annual inspection at the very minimum, says Busch.
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The way Notices to Airmen are written is confusing to pilots, and it can be difficult to extract important safety-of-flight information from the mass of data, researchers at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, have found (winning them our thanks ... but possibly also our, "Gee, you think so?" award). "This is critical information, yet the way it's transmitted is vintage 1960s or 1970s at best," said Florian Jentsch, research director, who is also a CFI. "As a result, it's an extremely confusing system, and it's very difficult to find what you need." The notices should be written in "plain and simple" language instead of abbreviations that can confuse even experienced pilots, the researchers found. They also said the notices should be better organized so pilots can sort the data on their own and easily find important information pertaining to their flights. Critical characteristics of NOTAMs that the researchers panned are the use of all-capital letters and abbreviations, and the lack of a system that allows pilots an efficient way find the notices by time, place or altitude to figure out which ones are relevant. Jentsch and his research team gave written surveys to 77 pilots and dispatchers, most of whom indicated they want the notices to be written in "easy-to-read, plain language." Changes would make flying safer and more efficient and would also help pilots stay out of TFRs, Jentsch said. The format of NOTAMs today is basically the same as when the messages were sent by Teletype machines 30 years ago.
"We have funds to carry us to certification and beyond," Safire Aircraft CEO Camilo Salomon told AVweb on Thursday, saying also that his workers will be back on the job tomorrow. "We just closed [on our financial deal] yesterday in Geneva," he said, talking on his cellphone from a noisy street in Europe. "We have a very strong investor group behind us now, and we don't expect any further problems." He said he would be back in the U.S. today. While the financial problems that prompted a month-long shutdown of the Florida company will delay the first flight of the Safire Jet -- which was expected in September -- Salomon said he doesn't expect "significant slippage" in the production schedule overall. "Once we get back to work, we'll see where we are in the program, and we'll have a more comprehensive view by the end of the week," he said. The company will be at AirVenture Oshkosh later this month, he said.
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Honeywell and four other U.S. companies involved in the manufacture and distribution of an onboard Traffic Alert Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) were named last week in a suit by families of Russian victims who died in a midair collision over Germany in July 2002. The suit alleges the pilots' training and instructions to operate the system were inadequate. The official report found that if both crews had followed the TCAS instructions, they would have been safe. The TCAS advised the Russian pilots to climb while a controller told them to descend; the pilots descended and crashed into a DHL cargo plane, which was descending in response to its TCAS warning. "The Russian pilots did not have sufficiently clear instructions as to what to do when this alarm system started to give them instructions at the same time that the air traffic controller was giving them conflicting instructions," said Gustavo Fuentes, a Miami attorney who filed the six lawsuits, according to the Associated Press. "Had those instructions been clear and effective, this accident would not have happened," he said. Honeywell International said in a statement that it had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it, the AP said. "However, from everything we have learned from the authorities investigating this accident, it appears that the TCAS on both aircraft functioned according to their FAA-approved design criteria and the tragic outcome could have been avoided if the pilots of both aircraft had followed the TCAS commands," the statement said.
Five P-3 Orions will return to service fighting fires in the Western U.S. today. The Forest Service had cancelled its contracts with its fleet of 33 aging tankers in May, after an NTSB report on three fatal crashes raised concerns about a lack of safety guidelines for the firefighting aircraft. To establish a set of guidelines, the Forest Service has hired DynCorp Technical Services, of Fort Worth, Texas. So far the five P-3s have passed, and DynCorp has three more reviews in progress. The new criteria include a maximum of 19,000 hours of operation for each aircraft. The five P-3s cleared for service, which are owned and operated by Aero Union Corp. in Chico, Calif., are the youngest of the fleet, and have 3,000 to 7,000 hours of operation left. Each tanker usually flies about 300 hours per year. The five P-3s are expected to be deployed to Fairbanks, Alaska; Moses Lake, Wash.; Prescott, Ariz.; BLM's Battle Mountain Air Tanker Base, 220 miles northeast of Reno; and Landcaster, Calif., according to the Associated Press.
"DynCorp Technical Services provided the expert analysis, and has worked to research the operations and maintenance records of these aircraft, and performed a thorough site visit to examine them," Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said in a news release Friday. "With better information, and a precedent set for more thorough inspections by the contractors, we believe we can operate this equipment safely this fire season." The aircraft and pilots will be re-certified with a check pilot, and new contracts are being negotiated and implemented, the Forest Service said. DynCorp is currently examining the data from five other contractors, and will submit each report to the Forest Service as it is completed.
CS&A REPRESENTS OVER 40 MAJOR PROPERTY & CASUALTY UNDERWRITING COMPANIES
Inspired by the excitement and progress generated by the Ansari X Prize, NASA is establishing a cash-prize program (possibly up to $20 million in 2005) of its own, called "Centennial Challenges." The program is designed to tap the nation's ingenuity to make revolutionary advances in support of the Vision for Space Exploration and other goals, NASA said. At a workshop in Washington, D.C., last month, NASA invited engineers, scientists, officials from the X Prize Foundation and others to brainstorm and help establish priorities and parameters for the program. NASA spokesman Michael Braukus told AVweb last week that the conference generated a lot of ideas, and they are now under review. It's too soon to say when decisions will be made regarding what the categories and prize amounts will be, he said. Congress has not yet authorized funding for the prizes, he added. "Centennial Challenges is a small but potentially high-leverage investment by NASA to help address some of our most difficult hurdles in research and exploration," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a news release. "I look forward to stimulating competitions and very innovative wins that advance the nation's Vision for Space Exploration." The goal of Centennial Challenges is to stimulate innovation in fundamental technologies, robotic capabilities, and very low-cost space missions. The initial round of prizes is expected to comprise purses of $250,000 or less, with prizes of up to $20 million to follow in fiscal year 2005. The concept was supported in a recent report released by the President's Commission on Moon, Mars, and Beyond.
EAA's Camp Scholler opened up at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, and folks were already waiting in line to get a spot for AirVenture ... which doesn't even start until July 27. A steady stream of campers arrived throughout the day, EAA said. The afternoon air show lineup has also been announced, featuring Patty Wagstaff, Sean Tucker, Soucy/Stokes Wing Act, Liberty Parachute Team, and the AeroShell Aerobatic Team, along with many others. SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and test pilot Mike Melvill are scheduled to arrive at the show in a Beech Starship, and will participate in several forums and events. Aeroshell Square, right at the center of the airfield, is the place to find the showcase aircraft, and this year's lineup includes an Air Force C-141, a jet-powered Cozy homebuilt, unlimited air racers, the CarterCopter, the Starship, and many more.
E-OX: A HIGH-QUALITY PORTABLE OXYGEN NEED NOT COST AN ARM AND A LEG
The nine-day-long World Hot-Air Balloon Championships wrapped up this weekend in Australia. Two German pilots, Markus Pieper and Uwe Schneider, finished at the top of the competition, with Australian Paul Gibbs coming in third. "It's a big deal," Gibbs told The Age. "It's like the Olympics coming to your country." It was the first time the event was held in the Southern Hemisphere, and also the first time that a German team has won the top spot. Winds grounded the pilots for several days, but in the end they were able to complete the competition, which drew about 100 pilots from 38 countries. Johnny Petrehn of the U.S. came in fourth. The next championship is set for Japan in 2006. For the final rankings, go to the official Web site.
Aviation advocates in Australia say proposed fee changes at airports could drive general aviation operators out of business...
AOPA "surprised and shocked" by remarks last week by Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) calling aircraft "killing machines," saying large corporate aircraft could inflict half the damage seen on 9/11...
The Pennsylvania legislature is working to pass a law against drunken flying...
U.S. Reps. Don Young and John Mica have asked the TSA to allow repair stations working under Parts 135 and 91 to be treated differently from Part 121 shops when it comes to security requirements, NATA said last week...
Pilot Paul Wood launched Thursday on a round-the-U.S. flight in his Aviat Husky, to raise money for children in need...
The FAA last week awarded a $13.5 million contract to begin upgrading its traffic-flow management system to Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) of El Segundo, Calif. CSC will design an advanced computer platform that uses air traffic data from across the country to better predict when the number of flights exceed available routes and capacity, the FAA said...
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee will soon vote on a proposal to give $14 million to the FAA to begin hiring air traffic controllers in anticipation of an expected deluge of retirements, NATCA said last week...
. Aviator and Young Eagles spokesman Jamail Larkins is scheduled to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman on Thursday night.
AVIDYNE ANNOUNCES MULTILINK MULTIPLE, COMPLEMENTARY SATELLITE DATALINK
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CEO of the Cockpit #34: Ground Control to Captain Tom
Say what you want about whether unionizing pilots is good or bad for aviation, it is an established tradition at many airlines. AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit wonders if that tradition should be established for the newest private "space" pilot.
United Nation of Air Forces
In this age of multinational forces -- peacekeeping and otherwise -- it is more important than ever for military pilots to practice with aviators from other countries. Once a year, in a huge, Canadian military reservation, aircraft from around the world join forces in simulated combat to prepare for future battles.
IF YOUR CELL PHONE CAN SURF THE NET, IT CAN RECEIVE AVIATION WEATHER
Reader mail this week about TFRs for presidential candidates and national conventions, federal inefficiency and much more.
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THUNDERSTORM SEASON IS HERE; IT'S TIME TO PREPARE
Candor in Caldwell
Super Cruiser: Caldwell tower, Super Cruiser N### has just departed Morristown, I would like to transition your airspace to the north.
CDW: Super Cruiser transition approved at or above 1700 ft.
(About 5 minutes later...)
CDW: Super Cruiser, say again aircraft type. Super Cruiser: Caldwell Tower, I am a PA-12, 1946 Piper Cub Super Cruiser, just a bit old and slow. CDW: Roger ... not unlike some of us in the tower.