Aviation Regulators Need To Embrace Technology

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I got an email the other day from Lou Churchville, a pilot in Oregon who works for a company that makes enhanced-vision systems for aircraft. He had read a story of mine about safety issues for emergency medical helicopters, and he felt compelled to write. “We’re extremely frustrated — all of us in this business — because we know this enhanced-vision system could eliminate a major risk factor,” he told me on the phone today. “We just don’t know what to do to convince the operators and the FAA that this technology can save lives.” Churchville went on to explain to me the difference between an enhanced-vision display and the night goggles that the FAA encourages EMS pilots to use.I’ve seen these infra-red enhanced-vision displays — maybe you have, too — and they look like slightly fuzzy black-and-white TV images. It seems they really do have the power to “turn night into day,” as Churchville says. When a pilot is operating in difficult conditions — off roadsides, in forest clearings, at night, in low visibility — it seems clear that such a system would be an assett. The images are easy to interpret and don’t require special training or modified cockpit lighting, like night goggles do. They’ve grown in popularity with GA pilots as the prices sink. Churchville says an EV system for an EMS helicopter would run about $90,000. That seems like a lot, but then crashes aren’t cheap, either.In its May 2008 fact sheet on EMS helicopter safety, the FAA doesn’t even mention IR enhanced-vision as an option for improving the safety record.On a related note, a story in Reader’s Digest turned up in my news scan today. It’s an explanation to the masses about how air traffic control works. “The truth is, your car’s GPS system has more precision than the air traffic control technology in use today,” Reader’s Digest says. As shocking as that seems, we all know it is essentially true. Last year, the FAA made a real effort to “fast-track” its approval of moving-map devices for airline cockpits — but the agency’s idea of fast was still close to a year.The bottom line is, we all know that technology is moving way faster than the regulators, and we’ve gotten used to this being the case, but maybe we shouldn’t be so complacent. It’s a new century, and technology ain’t what it used to be. Even the best analog system is useless in a digital world. Maybe it’s time for us to demand that the regulators scrap their last-century ways and leap into the present with the rest of us.