Alaska's bush pilots test future of navigation

New satellite system being tested in rural Alaska could replace radar as way to guide air travel across the country.

Travel by small plane is common over the tundra between the mouths of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers in southwestern Alaska. No roads connect the dozens of Yupik Eskimo villages that dot the Colorado-sized area.

Common, too, are white knuckles and air crashes. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has no radar service. Air fatalities here are nearly nine times the national average, according to a study by he University of Alaska, at Anchorage.

Now, commercial aircraft in the region are being equipped with new navigation equipment that federal officials say is the biggest advance in aviation technology in the past five decades, when radar was first adapted for civilian use.

The Federal Aviation Administration's "Project Capstone," currently being tested in the Yukon-Kuskokwim center of Bethel, combines satellite -positioning equipment and computer-data links for a navigation system that bypasses radar and, proponents say, outperforms it. If the experiment is successful, it will reduce crashes and provide a model for safe flying not only elsewhere in rural Alaska, but across the rest of the world.

"We're moving to the forefront of technology here in a state that has traditionally been at the tail end," says John Hallinan, Capstone program manager for the FAA.

No more flying blind

Capstone's key feature for Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta pilots is an additional set of eyes during inclement weather. A computer screen mounted in the cockpit displays terrain that may be impossible to see during whiteout conditions. Black areas on the screen represents terrain that is safe to fly over, at least 2,000 feet below the aircraft.

As topographical or man-made features get closer, their representation on the screen goes from green to yellow to red. Red means structures are within 300 feet. "This is a no-brainer. If something turns red in front of you, you don't go there," Mr. Hallinan says.

So far, the Capstone equipment has been installed in over 140 commercial aircraft that work in the Bethel region. They range from tiny, single-engine two-seaters to a 108,000-pound DC-6 that ferries cargo to the villages. Bethel, a city of about 5,500, was chosen as the test site because it is a hub for the region's commercial flights.

In an area where the only travel between villages is by boat, snowmobile, or airplane, the Capstone advances have been welcomed. "Our automobile is the airplane," says Bethel Mayor Tundy Rodgers, a longtime Capstone advocate. With the new technology, he says, "[it's] like driving a vehicle on a clear day, no matter what the weather is. Because the pilot can actually see what he can't see."

With Capstone, pilots get up-to-the-minute reports on weather, flight restrictions and other information flashed on the computer. They can see symbols for other nearby aircraft, helping them avoid mid-air collisions. They can study detailed maps of the areas under their planned flight routes. They can turn knobs for instant information about airstrips and availability of fuel.

'Better than maps or radar'

Even in a radar-covered area, much of that information would have to be relayed by air-traffic controllers, instead of being in graphic form at pilots' fingertips. And, unlike radar-based systems, the Capstone technology works at low elevations and on the ground.

The system is much better than the usual paper maps and charts, says the FAA's John Hallinan. Pointing at a page in an FAA manual of recommended descent routes in southeast Alaska, he complains: "This is technical. It's complex. It's subject to human frailties."

The system has far-reaching potential applications beyond Alaska. Inquiries about Capstone have already been made from places as diverse as China, Botswana, Russia and Australia - countries with large, sparsely populated or undeveloped regions that also lack radar coverage.

Officials in the continental US are interested, too, Hallinan says - despite the abundance of radar coverage there - for help in smoky and other hazardous conditions.

Averting terrorist attacks

The Sept. 11 attacks spurred additional interest in Capstone technology. Already, there is discussion within the FAA of setting up a Capstone-like program for the East Coast to prevent terrorist attacks.

In the event of a hijacking or other emergency, ground-based controllers would be better able to track an errant aircraft using this technology than by using radar, which registers planes less frequently.

Officials plan to expand Project Capstone to Juneau, where steep, fog-shrouded mountains are aviation hazards. Capstone's biggest supporters do not expect Capstone to be a panacea for all of Alaska's aviation woes - the most optimistic forecasts foresee about a 40 percent reduction in crashes.

So far, only one Capstone-equipped plane has had a crash caused by navigation problems, and it was not considered serious.

That is a promising start in a state that, over the past decade, has averaged an aviation fatality every nine days. In fact, the FAA reports that 11 percent of the commercial pilots that spend a 30-year career flying here are expected to die in their aircraft, compared to the 2.5 percent national rate.

Boosters say Capstone has already provided benefits at a relatively paltry cost, $11 million allocated for startup in fiscal 1999.

"Some of my best friends were killed in airplane crashes. A lot of them were pilots. If Capstone would have been here then, I wouldn't have lost so many of them," Mayor Rodgers says. "If it catches on nationally, I'd step up with them and give a big hurrah."

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