Going Direct: ADS-B: Big Problems and a Bigger Upside

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The future of aviation is bright, which is good, because is it wasn’t so amazing at its core, it would be really hard to see it with all of the obstacles between now and the future. The roadblocks include high costs, especially fuel costs, expensive maintenance and overhaul, aging airplanes, lead in our avgas, restricted access to airport ramps in larger cities and the gradual, ongoing extinction of great GA airports in big cities.

What lies beyond those vexing and hard or impossible to solve issues is a future defined by two things: affordable digital goodness and lower costs.

We’re already seeing the computer part of it with new, low-cost panel mount avionics that our do more and cost less than ever before, thanks to a recent and long overdue alliance between the FAA and the GA industry that did something I’ve been advocating for years, ditching the prohibitively expensive overkill of certifying avionics for light GA planes as though the electronics were headed for a wide-body Boeing.

And one really cool thing in our immediate future is ADS-B, the benefits of which we’re been partially enjoying for years but haven’t yet gotten the full taste of. The FAA in its wisdom disables much of the traffic capability of ADS-B from aircraft that are not yet sporting certified equipment—the weather is the carrot, so I guess this was the stick part of the FAA’s drive to encourage ADS-B equipage. But things will change once ADS-B is fully implemented, well, kind of fully implemented—there are probably 100,000 airplanes not yet equipped.

Once the switch gets flipped we see all the traffic there is to see on ADS-B, we’ll be flying for the first time in our lives with a reasonable sense that we know where the traffic is, what it is, what kind of a threat, if any, it poses to us, and how we should modify our course or altitude in order to avoid the conflict.

True, there will be planes not equipped even after the January 1, 2020, deadline. In fact there are likely to be many tens of thousands of planes not equipped in time. They will still be able to fly, so long as they stay out of ADS-B mandatory airspace, which means Class G everywhere and then some. So if you’re on a long cross country heading from Pennsylvania to Ohio and cruising VFR at 6,500 feet, might you see non-ADS-B traffic along the route? Sure. But remember that that traffic will by definition have to take off and land from airports outside of the ADS-B veil (I term I might have just invented). And you won’t see any jets or pressurized turboprops without ADS-B, because it’ll be required for the flight levels. Even above 10,000 with few exceptions for flights in very high terrain, everybody will have to be equipped. So ADS-B will be the rule of the air for many of us the way we fly on a daily basis, and that means we'll know where all the other traffic is, at last.

In addition to traffic, we get weather, of course, and ADS-B weather has gotten better and will likely continue to get better. Is it as good as XM-Sirius Weather? It’s not. But is it good enough for most of us if we don’t want to pay subscription? Heck yeah, though satellite weather is terrific and pretty affordable, too.

To the point, I for one am looking forward to 2020, not only because it’ll be fun to say 2020 Vision about everything—well, it’ll be fun for about 15 minutes—but because ADS-B makes a lot of sense.

And with a number of new, lower-cost ADS-B options available for small planes, the pain of equipping is less than I thought it would ever be. In terms of cost, it’s not painless, but what in aviation is. The idea is, the rewards make up for the pain, and such will be the case with ADS-B.

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