By Don Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2001; Page A01
NAPAKIAK, Alaska -- For more than seven decades, this has been the Alaska aviation experience: A small single-engine plane flies low over the frozen tundra, spots a crude airstrip near a road less native village and drops in to deliver the necessities of life.
Yet three things were starkly 21st century on a below-zero day in March when pilot Chris Garland flew into this small village in the far western Yukon River Delta. First, Garland was delivering a television satellite dish. Second, a snowmobile -- not a dog sled -- met the plane. And third, his plane was equipped with a satellite-based guidance system called Project Capstone.
Project Capstone uses satellites and other technology to provide a wealth of information to pilots, allows controllers to track planes in areas with no radar, and lets controllers and pilots exchange messages without radios. It is being tested in the vast Yukon-Kuskokwim delta in western Alaska, where severe weather and lack of navigational aids make it one of the most dangerous places in the United States to fly.
Eventually the Federal Aviation Administration plans to use satellite-based systems in the rest of the United States, part of its effort to completely revamp the nation's air traffic control system so that it can handle more traffic, while easing delays and increasing safety. Satellite-based systems may even one day allow free flight, where pilots can choose their own routes rather than fly in pre-selected patterns, to avoid congestion and save time.
The FAA and the aviation community have been closely watching Project Capstone, which is providing an initial test of the potential and limits of a satellite-based air traffic control system.
Project Capstone also is a window into how the agency makes decisions and why a project that has been so popular in Alaska -- and even has the support of top agency officials such as Administrator Jane Garvey -- has had problems within the FAA until recently. It illustrates how the FAA sometimes seems to be in a quiet war with itself and how these bureaucratic tussles can slow decisions and actions, even when all sides are persuaded their way is the safest.
"You picked a good day to come out," Garland said, as he flew on one of the rare days when the snow-covered featureless tundra did not blend into a milky sky. His fingers danced over the computer buttons, bringing up maps and navigational information.
For a cost of $15,000 per plane, pilots like Garland get a small box and a six-inch video screen mounted in their dashboard that gives them access to an amazing amount of information. With one touch, Garland can call up a map of the surrounding territory showing numerous features such as mountains, lakes, and radio towers.
With another touch, he can turn the map into a four-color rendering of his location in relation to the terrain and other obstacles around him. (Black means the plane is at least 2,000 feet above the ground. Green, yellow and red indicate lower levels.)
"Anything that's red, you're dead," said Leonard Kirk, a professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, who helped design the box.
The screen alerts the pilot to other aircraft in the area that are equipped with Project Capstone equipment, revealing their speed, altitude, identity, aircraft type and direction of travel. Pilot notices and advisories are also relayed to pilots over the screen.
The system can warn pilots when they are running low on fuel and tell them what airports are available before that happens. And it can help pilots find any airport, including gravel strips and lakes for float planes.
"If you want to land on a frozen lake, Capstone will calculate the time and distance and give you a bearing," Kirk said. "You've got a box out there with more datalink capacity than a 747."
That word "datalink" is one of the keys not only to Capstone but to the future of aviation. Voice radio transmissions are limited by the speed of spoken language. But a datalink transmission can stream a mass of information, such as an accurate weather map, in a fraction of a second. Many airliners are already using datalink for some kinds of communication.
For air traffic controllers, the system provides a plane's position, altitude, identity and other information to control centers and towers, even when the plane is in areas with no radar coverage.
These features have improved safety significantly, according to an FAA study. The review of past accidents in the Capstone-covered area in western Alaska indicates that Capstone would have helped prevent 48 percent of the fatal accidents.
That has made some pilots and FAA officials up here passionate about Capstone. In Alaska, pilots have an 11 percent chance of dying in the cockpit during an average 30-year career. There is an average of one accident every other day, and an average of one aviation fatality every nine
Major airports in the lower-48 may have terrible congestion problems, "but up here there's blood on the runways," said John Hallinan, who heads Project Capstone.
At the core of Project Capstone are two systems, the Global Positioning Satellite system and a new system developed by United Parcel Service called ADS-B -- for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. The systems determine a plane's exact location by satellite and broadcast it to controllers and other planes with the same equipment.
Those two systems alone could eventually make radar redundant, according to the Cargo Airline Association, which is experimenting with ADS-B as a way to move cargo planes quickly at hubs such as Memphis and Louisville. The FAA is also looking at ADS-B as a possible way to prevent runway and taxiway collisions.
In a cavernous room filled with radar screens, air traffic controller Keith Weerheim has watched over the busy Juneau sector for 17 years at the Anchorage Air Route Control Center. One of his problems is that once planes drop below about 10,000 feet, Weerheim can no longer see them.
Juneau, the state capital, has no radar coverage below about 10,000 feet. It is the next area scheduled to get Project Capstone.
Andy Thomas, safety manager for Temsco Helicopters Inc., said Capstone will not only allow his pilots to travel required routes more precisely, but it will broadcast helicopter locations everywhere, even out on glaciers where there is no radio coverage.
Thus Thomas and other flight operators in Juneau and throughout Alaska can't understand why Capstone isn't being expanded more rapidly. "You go back and tell those people in Washington, those of us in industry, we don't understand why the wheels turn so slow," said Robert N. Jacobsen, president of Wings of Alaska Airlines, which serves small communities and islands from Juneau.
For several years, Capstone was caught between some FAA officials who were great enthusiasts and others who felt it was being forced on them too rapidly.
Some FAA officials argued that Capstone should be deployed and certified quickly because it could save lives. Others resisted because the system did not meet the 99.99999 percent reliability standard for flight-critical systems.
Out of those arguments has come a compromise. Pilots can officially use Capstone only under "visual flight rules," meaning when the weather and other factors allow sufficient visibility to see terrain and other planes.
Capstone is not certified for flight in poor conditions when pilots can fly only by instruments, called "instrument flight rules." But it is an open secret that some Alaska pilots will use it that way anyway, worrying critics.
Nevertheless support for the program has been growing, especially as results of the Alaska program are analyzed. Top FAA officials say Capstone is now a key part of the agency's plans.
There are still some issues. Some pilots fear the government could use the system to spy on them. To allay those concerns, Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and a strong Capstone supporter, said he persuaded the FAA to alter Project Capstone so that controllers and other airplanes can "see" an aircraft on radar screens but cannot identify it, if the pilot wants to be anonymous.
Another problem is the lack of adequate radio frequencies, which has thus far limited the scope of Project Capstone in Alaska. Many airplane owners and operators who asked to participate were told they could not because of inadequate bandwidth.
That problem might be close to resolution. After years of negotiations, the FAA and the Defense Department have reached a tentative agreement to share part of the radio frequency band that the military has been using for a secure, frequency-hopping communications system. But the Pentagon has not given that agreement final approval.
Meanwhile, the value of Project Capstone, at least in pilots' eyes, is best illustrated by a recent accident. On April 3, a single-engine Cessna 207 crashed into a 1,000-foot mountain in the Yukon Delta. The veteran 52-year-old pilot and his six native passengers survived, but with serious injuries to a woman and two children. Ironically, the aircraft was equipped with a Capstone box, which should have identified the mountain. This was the first Capstone-equipped plane to crash. A passenger said the box was turned off. The pilot contradicted him, but acknowledged he didn't have the terrain-awareness map on the screen, and wasn't looking at it anyway. "It's a damned shame he didn't use it," said Gary Childers, an FAA official assigned to Capstone.
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