FAA Upgrades Alaska Aircraft to National ADS-B Standard

It isn’t always best to be an early adopter of a new technology.  Aircraft owners in Alaska that participated in the FAA demonstration program to implement ADS-B were among the first in the nation to experience the benefits of this new technology. Today ADS-B has become a core element of NextGen.  But when the FAA finally approved a technical standard for NextGen, the prototype equipment didn’t meet that standard.  Now FAA is offering to upgrade those aircraft that were “early equippers” so they won’t be left behind.

ADS-B display showing traffic during the Capstone Demonstration Program

ADS-B display showing traffic during the Capstone Demonstration Program

From 1999 to 2006, FAA conducted an operational demonstration program in Alaska to address some serious aviation safety issues.  Known as the Capstone Program, FAA used Alaska as a test bed to launch a new technology, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, better known as ADS-B.  This GPS-based system broadcasts (automatically) an aircraft’s location once a second, allowing another “equipped” aircraft to receive that information—a powerful tool for collision avoidance!

When within range of a ground radio, additional benefits become available.  Your aircraft position may be tracked by ATC, similar to what ATC radars do today—but with better accuracy in both time and space. If you fail to reach your destination, your ground track may speed search and rescue. But there is more… Ground stations allow aircraft to receive weather reports, NextRad weather radar and other information.  (If you are not familiar with ADS-B, AOPA has an online course which will walk you through the basics).

To obtain these benefits, the aircraft must be equipped.  In the course of the Capstone Program, FAA bought and installed the necessary equipment in about 400 aircraft in Alaska. Most of these aircraft operated commercially and were flying in the system on a daily basis, although some GA aircraft were included in the demonstration.  During this time, a few brave souls invested their own money and equipped their aircraft in order to receive the benefits of real-time traffic and weather in the cockpit.  Recognizing the benefits to aviation access and safety that this new technology represented, the Alaska Legislature adopted a low-interest loan program to help individuals and commercial operators (based in Alaska) to purchase and install this equipment in their aircraft.  The loan program continues today.

After the Capstone Program ended, a national standard for ADS-B avionics was adopted, however the original “demonstration” equipment no longer met the new standard.  To address this problem, FAA has launched a one-time project to upgrade the equipment installed in aircraft that were ADS-B equipped by November 30, 2013, to new “rule compliant” equipment. This includes not only the aircraft equipped by the FAA, but any Alaska-based aircraft that had invested in this technology prior to that date.  FAA has hired an installer who will be operating from different bases around the state on a defined schedule to make the upgrades.  Owners wishing to participate will be required to sign agreements, to have some equipment removed and new, rule-compliant avionics installed.  It may not be the way you wish to upgrade your airplane, but if you qualify, it would be worth checking with FAA to see if this upgrade program could work for you.  If you own an Alaska based aircraft equipped with Capstone-era equipment, contact the FAA Surveillance and Broadcast Services Program (907-790-7316 or [email protected]) to see if this helps upgrade your airplane!

  • Robert Carlson

    So now, it appears, the FAA will spend more of our money to the fortunate few who were given the initial largesse, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. Really? Have you seen the fares that the remaining handful of largely non-competitive air taxi (Part 135) operators are charging? How about $89 to go the 15 miles from Bethel to Atmautluak. They need taxpayer assistance? Good grief!

    As for Capstone, I went to some of the early Bethel meetings, where I was emphatically told that this program was for Part 135 operators only, Part 91 fliers need not apply. So I stopped going. Then, a few years later, I happened to be talking to a pilot would told me that he had gone into Anchorage (for the first time ever) to get the Capstone set installed, free, in his personal C-170. Looking into this, I discovered that, indeed, the FAA had installed the units in 10 Bethel private aircraft. There was no public notice or opportunity to apply for these. I repeatedly asked FAA personnel how these people were chosen, but no one seemed to know, or if they did, they weren’t saying. But guess what, the ten fortunate souls just happen to be local Big Men On Campus, not undistinguished peons like me. What a surprise.

    So while the FAA seems determined to drive pilots over a certain weight, and just about everyone else, out of general aviation, maybe to focus on helping the Big Iron make fatter profits, they still are willing to play Santa Claus with a favored few. What a country, eh?

    • http://www.aopa.org/region/ak Tom George

      As an operational trial and demonstration of new technologies, the Capstone Program focused mainly on Part 135 operators. AOPA encouraged FAA to include some Part 91 operators so we could get lessons-learned from that element of GA as well. Don’t know how FAA selected the Part 91 participants. The point of this post is that some aircraft owners that were not participating in the Capstone Program made a personal investment to equip their airplanes. The FAA recognizes that, and is willing to include them in the upgrade program, so they will be compatible with the national standard.