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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org) to see if this helps upgrade your airplane!