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." />

Alaska’s difficult terrain, unpredictable weather and high rate of aircraft accidents prompted the FAA to conduct the Capstone project in Alaskan airspace, reducing the number of GA accidents in the state by 40%.
Not all the challenges for Capstone have been technical. Convincing the FAA’s regulatory branch to accept Capstone equipment as a substitute for conventional navaids has required a great deal of work on Hallinan’s part: “Once in a while, we have problems with other orphan regulations that addressed really important problems years ago, but stand in the way of modernization today. We had to get special approval to deviate from these rules to requirements for ground-based navigation systems. The flight standards folks interpreted the existing rules as requiring equipment to receive ground-based navigation signals for operators flying IFR. Thanks to SFAR 97, in Alaska, only WAAS is required today for IFR operations.”

Beyond Phase II, there are plans to expand Capstone to the entire state of Alaska in Phase III, which is expected to take place between 2005 and 2008 (budget permitting). This will make Alaska, in many ways, something of a laboratory for the entire national airspace system—and have no doubt, Capstone technology is coming to the Lower 48. The FAA already has a program under way to put ADS-B into the eastern seaboard as well as Pres-cott, Ariz., areas. The joint FAA-NASA Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) program is experimenting with how technology similar to Capstone’s Phase II could be used to improve IFR safety at smaller airports, including Unicom fields.

The benefits of Capstone are all very well, but what does it cost to add the equipment to an existing airplane? According to Hallinan, who owns a Cessna 182 that hasn’t yet been Capstone-equipped, “You can get a WAAS receiver for around $10,000—and I expect that to drop. A Garmin MX20 runs about $5,000, while an ADS-B datalink transceiver costs in the realm of $7,000. Installation is extra—every airplane is quite different! Phase II is a lot more complex.”

John Hallinan doesn’t believe that Capstone should be limited to operators with the budget for this kind of equipment: “We’re also looking at portable technologies to allow VFR pilots to get the advantages of ADS-B and in-cockpit weather affordably. I’m not going to put an MX20 in my personal C-182, but I might be able to carry a Tablet PC. We’re looking at how to provide some of the navigation performance in a package that private pilots can afford. That’s a chunk of aviation that’s both important and frequently overlooked. We want to be sure that safety improvements extend to everyone, not just the high-end guys!”

When he was asked about the XM WX satellite radio receivers that are becoming a common way to get low-cost weather in the cockpit, Hallinan says, “We’re looking at that. Within reason, we believe that the more information we can put in the cockpit, the better!”

And about the future, Hallinan comments, “As the technology, standards and regulations mature, I expect us to see WAAS-based routes, ADS-B systems, and all of that stuff, extended throughout the state. We’re also looking at the capability of using the Iridium satellite telephone system to enhance our ADS-B datalink. All of this technology is available commercially. It comes down to the FAA getting things approved. We need to commission WAAS-based approaches and airways. We need to allow ADS-B in more centers, which actually outperforms radar!”

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