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Small Aircraft To Get Flight Data More Quickly


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Small aircraft to get flight data more quickly


GREENSBORO -- It's like seeing an 18-wheel truck rig three miles down a road shrouded by fog, or seeing the weather in Raleigh while driving through Greensboro. All at the same time.


Only this technology is for small aircraft.


A statewide navigation system that combines radar and satellite data goes active across North Carolina this December, giving pilots real-time weather and air traffic information.


North Carolina becomes the second state to offer its pilots a service that officials hope will prevent crashes similar to the one Oct. 24 that killed 10 people, including executives of Hendrick Motorsports, on Bull Mountain, Va.


The National Transportation Safety Board could issue an official cause for the crash as early as next fall.


But investigators know the plane traveled through foggy conditions before hitting the 3,211-foot peak.


Federal and state aviation officials spent $1.2 million to install eight ground stations needed to help pilots navigate safely in the Tar Heel state. Airports in Burlington and Salisbury host two of those stations.


"For the first time the pilot has the ability to have situational awareness, what other airplanes around him are doing," said Paul Fontaine with the Federal Aviation Administration. "This provides general aviation-type pilots with the traffic information they just don't see today."


General aviation refers to flying enthusiasts who operate small aircraft.


Delaware, because of its geographic location near ground stations in Maryland and New Jersey, already offers pilots the navigation system dubbed Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast.


The FAA plans to install a network of towers up and down the East Coast in the coming years.


In theory, by the end of 2005, pilots who spend roughly $8,000 for the necessary equipment will be able to fly from Florida to New Jersey using the GPS-based technology.


Here's how it works:


Equipped airplanes carry a computer that measures altitude, direction and airspeed. The computer sends signals to other airplanes, telling pilots of each aircraft's whereabouts, and ground systems that route data to air traffic controllers.


Even planes without the new technology show up on cockpit displays. Traditional ground radar identifies aircraft lacking the system and merges their location into the system.


Plus, ground radar updates pilots on local weather conditions. It used to be that pilots readied themselves for bad weather with pre-flight briefings or, over long distances, by radioing nearby airports.


"The problem with that, which the technology will correct, is that it's time dated," said Bill Williams, director of the state's aviation division. "If they update their reports every hour, you get an hour-old report. With this you have real-time information."


Other features provided by the new system include flight-restriction information and terrain data. An example of a flight restriction would be airspace around a nearby nuclear plant or military base.


"It helps the pilot in understanding the game plan," Fontaine said. "Picture you're on a football field. If you just had one narrow view of that picture, you're probably not going to execute the play that well."


North Carolina's division of aviation signed a cooperative pact with the FAA. Both sides agreed to foot half the cost of installing the state's ground stations.


Each station comes with a $150,000 price tag, a small fraction of the average $13 million spent on radars currently used by airports. Some of those radars will eventually be phased out.


Officials estimate ground stations will operate at an annual cost of $16,000 per location.


More than 18,200 registered pilots living in North Carolina own a collective 8,000 small aircraft, according to the state's aviation division.


At least one pilot expressed skepticism about the immediate spread of the new technology.


Tom Rudisill, vice-president of the Apex/Cary chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, said corporate jets and pilots with commercial interests might be interested right away in buying the technology.


But for pilots who fly a few hours each month, spending money on equipment may have to wait until prices drop in the coming years.


"Typically, general aviation pilots are flying when you have good visibility and won't put out $8,000," Rudisill said, adding that aviation history shows technology proliferates as costs drop. "It's the only way I know to judge what's probably going to happen."



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