In college, I took a class called International Strategies and Security. I believe that I may have been the only non-military student in the class which, for a civilian, turned out to be like a Tom Clancy novel – only it lasted for a whole semester. We discussed technology that just blew my mind. I had no idea the things that were possible and I’m sure that what blew my mind then is Stone Age compared to what is possible now.
So yesterday, we talked a little bit about test flights Alaska Airlines is conducting to be greener both environmentally and economically. I think that there is a lot to celebrate with that. My one concern with their reliance (and more, with NextGen’s reliance) on satellite technology is the increase in solar storms projected over the next few years. I am curious to see how the technologists will handle it.
Since the systems do rely on satellite communication, they will be vulnerable to solar flares and storms, the kind we discussed back in March, which brings me back to the same concerns I expressed then. With so many new pilots being trained using only glass cockpits and satellite approaches, what happens when those systems are compromised? Worse, what happens when those systems are compromised and the pilots don’t know it? NextGen, RNP, OPD and RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) are all designed to increase efficiency by tightening up the airspace. This precision puts more aircraft into smaller spaces. Well, if a pilot was flying along a flight path ten years ago, he might have encountered another aircraft along the same path; but, since neither of them was flying with today’s degree of precision, there was still likely to be a safe distance between the aircraft. However, with todays’ greater precision, the space is greatly reduced. If all systems are operating as advertised, that’s no problem. In fact, it’s positive situation. However, if solar flares contaminate the positioning information, an aircraft may be hundreds of feet off position and not know it. If two aircraft are in the same situation, but are separated by only a few hundreds of feet to begin with, well, you do the math.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently awarded $125 million to Boeing and other companies to develop greener aircraft, fuels and technology. As aircraft become more advanced and the Gee-Whiz factor in them increases, by definition, they get further away from the simple, stick-controlled Stearman. I love the advances, don’t get me wrong. I just know that a great many young pilots are learning on advanced equipment and may not be learning some of the manual basics of their predecessors. For now, the young group still has access to pilots trained without all of the gizmos. Those pilots are available to act as mentors and assist the younger generation of aviators in gaining some wisdom, an invaluable asset, as Billy Minkoff pointed out last week. His example of the new, accessible very light jet and microjet is perfectly appropriate here. As precision flying gets more precise and pilot training gets further removed from non-precision equipment, without mentoring, how do we avoid the dangers of corrupted satellite data?
What technology and training do we develop to slow or halt the current trend as expressed by CFM Director of Operations Dwayne McMurry, “It used to be that the last words on a cockpit voice recorder were ‘Oh, (explicative)!’ What you hear these days is, ‘What’s it doing now?’ “