Pilot Journal
Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The FAA’s Capstone Project

Phase II brings this remarkable high-tech situational awareness a step closer to the Lower 48 states

capstoneGeneral aviation in Alaska is different. Changeable weather and difficult terrain create an environment where you’d expect most flying to be done on instruments, but an antiquated route structure and limited navaids make this impossible in many places. Yet many towns and villages depend on aircraft to a degree that’s almost unknown in the rest of the country." />

The FAA’s Capstone project uses a ground-based transceiver and support equipment on Mt. Robert Baron outside of Juneau, Alaska, to relay ADS-B transmissions to ATC facilities.
The result: A dramatic reduction in the accident rate for aircraft equipped with the Capstone Phase-I avionics suite. A 2004 study by the University of Alaska at Anchorage and MITRE showed a whopping 40% reduction in accidents for Capstone-equipped aircraft in comparison to non-equipped aircraft.

According to Hallinan, “ADS-B takes your GPS position, puts that into a data packet with an altitude and N number, and pumps them out of the airplane once per second. It also can receive that data from other aircraft. We pick up this information on surveillance receivers and transmit it back to the Anchorage center. It has been approved since January 1, 2001, as a substitute for radar in areas where radar coverage isn’t available. It benefits both VFR and IFR pilots—for the first time, it’s possible to get VFR flight following in most of the state. Chief pilots and dispatchers, with appropriate access, can get real-time data showing positions of aircraft both in the air and taxiing on the airport. They’re using it to dispatch fuel trucks, and it allows airplanes to be turned around much faster than they could be otherwise.”

“Below 10,000 feet, probably half of Alaska has no radar coverage,” continues Hallinan. “We’re finding that giving people the option to move from a purely VFR environment to an environment where it’s practical to fly IFR is a big benefit to everyone. Take a look at the approach plate for Juneau—it gives a 2,000-foot or so MDA with two to three miles of visibility required. You need pretty good VFR to get in there, even on an IFR flight plan—and that’s at the state capital. Over in Naknek, we have two villages just five miles apart—but you can’t move from one side to the other by road most times of the year because there’s a river between them and no bridge. There’s only one school, so kids from South Naknek actually go to high school by air. Elsewhere in the state, we have kids commuting by air for intramural sports. Sometimes pizzas for delivery go by air. And the very things that keep people alive here—food, fuel, etc.—goes by air. That’s the way you move here!”

The benefits of Capstone aren’t limited to IFR operators. According to Hallinan, “We’re finding out that our new technologies—ADS-B, GPS-WAAS [or Wide Area Augmentation System] and related systems—help to build our IFR infrastructure as well as to benefit the VFR guys. We have people in the southern part of the state who fly Otters on floats, which help them.”

Phase I was just the beginning. In Phase II, Capstone is being expanded to southeastern Alaska, which has even more demanding requirements due to a combination of extremely mountainous terrain and large bodies of water, leading to frequent ground fog. To meet these challenges, for Phase II, Capstone is expanding to include GPS-WAAS along with synthetic vision systems.

According to Hallinan, “Phase II expands Capstone to exploit WAAS and its related capabilities—including terrain awareness. It also gives us something called required navigation performance [RNP] by turbojet operators, allowing for reduced separation. At Juneau, Alaska Airlines developed an approach for RNP-equipped airplanes that get down to much lower minima than the regular instrument approach.”

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