Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

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

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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