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State of Alaska Capstone Aviation Loan Program to Sunset

Alaska may be the only state in the nation to make financial loans available to encourage aviation safety.  This unique Capstone Program helps individual aircraft owners and aviation businesses finance avionics upgrades to take advantage of ADS-B and the WAAS GPS instrument approaches that have become key elements of the NextGen air transportation system.   After being available for a dozen years, however, only 20 loans have been approved, and the program will sunset on July 1st 2020.  It may still be worth considering, if you are planning upgrades that meet the program criteria.

Information on the loan program is available at: https://www.commerce.alaska.gov/web/ded/FIN/LoanPrograms/CapstoneAvionics.aspx or google “Alaska Capstone Loan”

Background
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Capstone Program pioneered the use of ADS-B and other technologies to improve aviation safety.  From the time the demonstration project became operational in 2000 until 2006, the program demonstrated a 47% reduction in the accident rate for aircraft operating in southwest Alaska that were equipped with ADS-B, WAAS GPS navigators, and moving map displays compared to the non-equipped aircraft.  Those technologies along with the installation of additional weather stations to support instrument approaches in the area contributed to this change.  But it was recognized early on that the cost of equipping aircraft would be an issue. While the demonstration equipment had been funded by the FAA, subsequent equipage would be a financial burden on aircraft owners and operators.

On the strength of these results in accident reduction, to encourage use of this safety equipment in the state, the Alaska Legislature established the Capstone Avionics Loan Program in 2008.  For the past 12 years, the program has made it possible for Alaskans to obtain a 4% fixed rate loan that will pay for 80% of the cost of installing ADS-B, GPS/WAAS navigation equipment and a multifunction display in aircraft that are principally operated in Alaska.

Not Many Takers
During the life of the program, only 20 loans have been approved. Seven of those went to private individuals and the remaining were taken out by businesses.  I was one of the individuals that used this program to install ADS-B, and a WAAS GPS in my aircraft.  The loan application process was straight forward. It required filling out a financial statement, information about the aircraft, providing a copy of my preceding year’s tax return and a $50 application fee.  One detail that is worth noting–many people that are making upgrades choose to change out other components of their panel at the same time. In my case, I installed a Garmin G5 attitude indicator and directional gyro so I could ditch my vacuum system.  It was no problem to have the avionics installer split the items that were eligible on a separate invoice from those that were outside the scope of the loan program.  Once approved, the check was sent directly to the installer, and I only had to come up the remaining 20% at the time the bill was due.

Loan Program Sunsets Next July
The legislation that established the program has a sunset clause, and unless further action is taken it will be terminated on July 1st 2020.  There are two important details related to that deadline:

First, if you haven’t yet equipped with any of this suite of equipment, there is still time.  But don’t put it off much longer, as it does take time to have a loan application reviewed and approved.  I would recommend calling the folks that run the program at the Division of Economic Development and review what you are planning, to figure if it fits your circumstances.  They have offices and staff in Anchorage and Juneau that are a phone call away.  They can be reached at (800) 478 5626 (toll free in Alaska) or (907) 465-2510 and ask to speak with one of their loan officers.  Their office hours are 7:30am – 4:30pm,  Monday – Friday.

Second, the low use of the program makes it hard to justify an extension.  Please take the one-question survey to express your needs regarding this program:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/323WWR2

If you are considering purchasing ADS-B or WAAS GPS navigation equipment for your aircraft, this opportunity may be worth exploring.  Don’t let a lack of current funds stop you from making technology upgrades that can help keep you and your passengers safe.

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This article was initially published in the Alaska Airmen Association’s Transponder

It’s About Time!

I just added ADS-B Out to my airplane. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a very long time—48 years to be exact.

Air Facts (May 1970)

Air Facts (May 1970)
click image to read article

It was 48 years ago that my very first aviation article was published. Its title was “The Role of Computers in Air Traffic Control.” I was 26 years old at the time, not long out of college, and starting a career in computer software at the dawn of the computer age. I’d only been a pilot for five years and an aircraft owner for two.

I timidly submitted the 3,000-word manuscript to Leighton Collins (1903-1995), the dean of general aviation journalists (and Richard Collins’ dad). Leighton founded his magazine Air Facts in 1938, the first GA magazine to focus primarily on safety. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Leighton became a pioneer in using GA airplanes to fly IFR, something that was considered risky business at the time. In 1970, I was a newly-minted CFII and Skylane owner, and Leighton was my hero and Air Facts my bible.

Leighton loved my article, and published it in the May 1970 issue of Air Facts.  I was thrilled. I was also hooked and went on to write more than 500 published aviation articles between then and now.

How big is the sky?

I’d been instrument-rated for about four years when I wrote that article, and had thought quite a bit about the differences between VFR and IFR flying:

A pilot flying VFR in clear weather is unlikely to see more than a few other aircraft on a typical flight; to him the sky seems to be a rather empty place. Yet to the pilot stuck in an IFR hold with an estimated-further-clearance time forty-five minutes away, the sky seems to be an order of magnitude more crowded. Why? Clearly there is no shortage of airspace; every VFR pilot knows that. The aircraft flying under IFR have the best equipment and the most proficient pilots aboard. Where does the congestion come from?

My conclusion was that the fundamental difference between VFR and IFR lies in who is separating aircraft. VFR pilots are responsible for their own separation, while IFR pilots rely on air traffic controllers to keep them separated from other traffic. Thus, I reasoned, the comparatively low capacity of the IFR system must be attributable to some failing on the part of controllers. Yet as someone who has spent many hours visiting ATC facilities and observing controllers at work while plugged in beside them, I can testify that these folks are amazingly sharp, skilled, and well-trained professionals who do their jobs exceptionally well.

So why can’t these hotshot controllers separate IFR aircraft nearly as efficiently as VFR pilots are able to separate themselves? My conclusion was that the very nature of the separation task is fundamentally different:

A pilot is concerned solely with the one aircraft that he’s flying, but a controller must keep track of several aircraft at once. Give a person several things to do at once—even simple things like head-patting and tummy-rubbing—and his performance in each task drops sharply. Keeping track of a high-speed airplane is considerably harder than either head-patting or tummy rubbing. Keeping track of a dozen such airplanes travelling in random directions at random altitudes is simply beyond the capabilities of any human.

Our IFR system is designed to simplify the controller’s job to the point that it is within the realm of human capability. It does this primarily by eliminating the amount of randomness the controller must deal with. It strings airplanes along a few well-defined airways/SIDs/STARs, confines them to a few standard altitudes, and sometimes slows them down to a few standard speeds. Doing these things makes the airplanes much easier for the controller to keep track of and keep separated, but it also wastes most of the available airspace and reduces the capacity of the system.

Do we really need ATC?

It seemed to me that the capacity of the IFR system could be vastly increased if we could just stop relying on controllers to separate airplanes and enable pilots to self-separate, much as they do when flying VFR. In 1970 when I wrote the article, we were right on the cusp of two major technological breakthroughs that I believed had the potential to make that possible.

GPS ConstellationOne of them was the promise of accurate satellite navigation. The Naval Research Laboratory had launched its Timation satellites in 1967 and 1969, the first ones to contain accurate atomic clocks suitable for navigation. Meantime, the Air Force’s Space and Missile System Organization was testing its more advanced system (codenamed Project 621B) for aircraft positioning between 1968 and 1971. These were the progenitors of today’s GPS system—something I could see coming in 1970, although a seriously underestimated how long it would take to become operational. The first constellation of 10 “Block-I” GPS satellites wasn’t in orbit until 1985, and the system’s full operational capability wasn’t announced until 1995.

MicroprocessorThe second breakthrough was large-scale integration (LSI)—the creation of integrated circuits containing tens of thousands of transistors on a single silicon chip—and the emergence of the microprocessor. Microprocessors weren’t yet invented in 1970 when I wrote the article, but as a computer scientist (my day job at the time) I could see them coming, too. As it turned out, Intel introduced its 4004 microprocessor in 1971, its 8008 in 1972, and the 8080 (which really put microprocessors on the map) in 1974. This watershed development made it feasible to equip even small GA airplanes with serious computing power.

The ATC system of tomorrow

Traffic DisplayIn my 1970 Air Facts article, I painted a picture of the kind of ATC system these new technologies—GPS and microcomputers—would make possible. I postulated a system in which all IFR aircraft and most VFR aircraft were equipped with a miniaturized GPS receiver that continually calculated the aircraft’s precise position and a transmitter that broadcast the aircraft’s coordinates once per second. A network of ground stations would receive these digital position reports, pass them to ATC, and rebroadcast them to all aircraft in the vicinity. A microcomputer aboard each aircraft would receive these digital position reports, compare their coordinates with the position of the host aircraft, evaluate which aircraft are potential threats, and display the position, altitude and track of those threat aircraft on a cockpit display.

Such a cockpit display would enable IFR pilots separate themselves from other aircraft, much as VFR pilots have always done. It would permit them to fly whatever random routes, altitudes and speeds they choose, giving them access to the same “big sky” that VFR pilots have always enjoyed.

I theorized that pilots are highly incentivized to self-separate and would do a much better job of it than what ground-based air traffic controllers can do. (Just imagine what driving your car would be like if you weren’t allowed to self-separate from other vehicles, and instead had to obtain clearances and follow instructions from some centralized traffic manager.)

What took so long?

NextGen controllerWhen I re-read that 1970 article today, it’s truly eerie just how closely the “ATC system of the future” I postulated then resembles the FAA’s “Next Generation Air Transportation System” (NextGen) that the FAA started working on in 2007 and plans to have fully operational in 2025. Key elements of NextGen include GPS navigation and ADS-B—almost precisely as I envisioned them in 1970.

I was wildly overoptimistic in my prediction that such a system could be developed in as little as five years. If the FAA does succeed in getting NextGen fully operational by 2025, it will be the 55th anniversary of my Air Facts article.

NextGen also includes improved pilot/controller communication (both textual and VOIP) and various improvements designed to allow use of more airspace and random routes. Sadly, it stops well short of transferring responsibility for separating IFR aircraft from ATC to pilots as I proposed in 1970—although our aircraft will have the necessary equipment to do that if the FAA would just let us. Maybe that’ll have to wait another five decades until NextNextGen is deployed (and there’s an autonomous self-piloting octocopter in every garage).

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

ADS-B Coverage gaps in Alaska: Your help is needed

If you fly in Alaska and have invested in ADS-B equipment for your airplane, you may be a little frustrated. When the places you fly aren’t within range of a ground station, to provide current weather data and the full picture of surrounding air traffic, you may be asking yourself—why did I invest?  Today, the network of ground station is limited, and it is easy to fly out of coverage. If this is happening to you, FAA (and AOPA) would like to hear from you, to help make the case to expand the network of stations.

Background
Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B in our acronym laden world, is a major component of the FAA’s NextGen Program, to modernize the National Airspace System.  It relies on equipment in our airplanes that uses GPS to tell other aircraft (and the FAA via ground stations) where we are, and allow us to see each other.

[See AOPA’s website for more information about ADS-B, or take the Air Safety Foundations online course.]

The system is designed to improve situational awareness for VFR operations and to help Air Traffic Control provide traffic separation for IFR aircraft.  It also offers a stream of aviation weather data, and other information to come directly to our cockpit–when we are in range of a ground station.  And that is the problem.  The network of ground stations in Alaska leaves a lot to be desired.  The map below gives an estimate of current ADS-B coverage in Alaska.  But there is hope for expanding the network.

The light blue areas show the estimated coverage areas of the current network of ADS-B ground stations in Alaska. Major gaps in interior and south central and the Brooks Range leave almost 40 percent of Alaska without coverage at the altitudes typical GA aircraft fly.

The light blue areas show the estimated coverage areas of the current network of ADS-B ground stations in Alaska. Major gaps in the interior, south central and the Brooks Range leave almost 40 percent of Alaska without coverage at the altitudes typical GA aircraft fly.

Making a Business Case
The FAA has a process to prepare a “business case” before investing in infrastructure. They are currently re-evaluating the needs for ADS-B coverage in Alaska, and if they can find sufficient need to justify it, we could see an expansion of the ground station network.  Here is where you come in. The FAA would like to know:

(a) if your aircraft is equipped,

(b) where you operate that does not have ADS-B coverage today and,

(c) what kinds of flying you do—activities like commercial operations, medivac, aerial data collection, guiding, game surveys, recreation, etc.

The more evidence of need by the aviation community they can document, the better chance of making a positive business case to expand the network.  The map below shows where the ground station network currently in place shows flights on May 9th.  But chances are there were ADS-B equipped aircraft flying outside those areas which would have benefited from additional ground stations.

Map shows the tracks of ADS-B equipped aircraft. Most of the green tracks are from airlines in the flight levels. In many cases the aircraft at lower altitudes were flights that went beyond the limits of coverage. Hearing from the pilots who fly ‘off the edge” of the map could help make the case for additional ground stations.

Map shows the tracks of ADS-B equipped aircraft. In many cases the  flights went beyond the limits of coverage. Hearing from the pilots who fly ‘off the edge” of the map could help make the case for additional ground stations.

How you can help
If your aircraft is equipped with ADS-B Out hardware, and you are willing to share the answers to the question posed above with the FAA, please contact Jimmy Wright in Juneau, at: [email protected] or (907) 790-7316.  The more need for this system we can establish, the better chance of filling in some of the coverage gaps, to provide Alaska with a minimum operating network of stations.

Yes, that’s FAA Administrator Michael Huerta…

AOPA President Mark Baker (left) shows FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (center) the AOPA Sweepstakes 172.

AOPA President Mark Baker (left) shows FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (center) the AOPA Sweepstakes 172.

…checking out your AOPA Sweepstakes 172 in progress at Yingling Aviation in Wichita.

Huerta was in town for a meeting at the Wichita Aero Club. He announced June 6 that the agency will give $500 to the first 20,000 owners of single-engine piston aircraft who equip for ADS-B under a rebate program to be launched in the fall. (You can read more details about that program here.)

AOPA President Mark Baker showed Huerta our sweepstakes airplane, a Cessna 172N that is undergoing a Yingling Ascend transformation. The airplane looks a little scruffy on the outside, because it isn’t painted. Appearances are deceiving, though. For example, the airplane already has:

  • new flight controls and cables
  • new brakes
  • new tires
  • a new 180-hp Lycoming engine to replace the original 160-hp engine (and you’ll be able to read about the STC from Air Plains in the August issue of AOPA Pilot)
  • new Sensenich propeller (but no spinner as yet–that’s being polished)

Those are just a few of the enhancements. I’ll be detailing more in the weeks to come, in this blog and in the pages of AOPA Pilot.

The AOPA Sweepstakes 172 will be on display at the AOPA tent at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. You won’t want to miss it!

Learn more about how you could win a Cessna 172 in the AOPA 172 Sweepstakes.

GA pilots evaluate ADS-B options

I’ve been on the hunt since AirVenture for evidence that ADS-B is really the future of air traffic separation and services. And, having flown from south Florida to Lake Superior, to Kalispell, Montana, and back, I’ve got news.

ADS-B is designed both to separate traffic and provide inflight weather information.

ADS-B is designed both to separate traffic and provide inflight weather information.

Aviators are adopting ADS-B. Not in droves, mind you, but being ADS-B equipped myself, I can see the other ADS-B aircraft on my display screen, and there are more of them than ever before. Along the entire trip there was only an hour in Wyoming, at low altitude, where I did not have ADS-B coverage.

No, we aviators are not keen on dropping money for avionics we aren’t certain we’ll be required to use. I mean, we resisted Mode C until the veils were dropped over Class B airspace and spun down to the ground (I actually know a couple of anarchists out there still flying Mode A transponders).

ADS-B is particularly problematic because the specs kept changing. They are, according to the FAA, set in stone now, though. For aircraft operating above 18,000 ft and/or outside the U.S. a Mode-S ADS-B transmitter (1090ES) is needed. If you stay in the U.S. and below Class A airspace you can stick with a UAT transceiver. Of course, we’ve seen stone change, too. And ADS-B is not without its weaknesses. That said, the most recent interaction I had with the FAA was on point–adapt, or you’ll be left out of controlled airspace above 10,000 ft and Class B and C airspace, they told me. On January 1, 2020. The date’s not moving. That’s the FAA’s story and all manner of individuals I spoke with are sticking to it.

The L-3 Lynx installed in a typical general aviation avionics stack.

The L-3 Lynx installed in a typical general aviation avionics stack.

These kinds of rock-solid statements by the FAA have begun to bring consternation to the people who run the avionics companies. Why? Because with less than five years left to meet the mandate, they know it will be a struggle to equip all of the aircraft in the U.S. that might need this technology with this technology.

There are only so many avionics shops. And when it comes to the higher end equipment, business jets and helicopters sporting integrated digital avionics, for instance, there are even fewer designated service centers that can handle the job. Really, though, that isn’t the crux of the problem.

At the core of the problem are older high-end integrated panels. A TSO authorization, issued in accordance with 14 CFR 21 subpart O, is not required to upgrade them. Yet, ADS-B Out systems and equipment installed or used in type-certificated aircraft must have a design approval issued under 14 CFR 21 (or must be installed by field approval, if appropriate). To upgrade these legacy avionics is proving to take far too long. That’s a lot of lost revenue and inefficiency for the companies, mostly small-to-medium businesses, that own them. And that is before the cost of equipping is considered in the mix.

Some OEMs are actually trying to persuade these aircraft owners to trade up to ADS-B and ADS-C equipped aircraft–new aircraft. Great idea on the surface, if it wasn’t for the economy. Companies are cautious after 2008. They are not easily coaxed into new acquisitions. They might be more easily convinced by their own finance departments to shed the flight department altogether instead of buying new equipment–something they did in droves in 2008-9.

Back in my light airplane world the news is not quite as bad, until you get to older light aircraft, that is. No one wants to put 10 percent or more of the value of the airplane back into the avionics, particularly for one key piece of equipment.

And experimentals? They had the advantage of being able to use less expensive, non-Compliant ADS-B boxes, until recently. The FAA is now telling us that as of January 2016 those early transceivers will no longer receive accurate traffic information. Yes, the FAA is going to make flying LESS safe for those users, at a time when there are still hardly any users on the new system. All without proving that the non-Compliant boxes are a hazard.

I think it is time to get the pens out and start complaining, to your congressman, to your local FSDO, to the FAA at 800 Independence Avenue. There are a lot of good things about the way ADS-B can change our National Airspace System, but recent declarations from the FAA have me feeling squeamish about the execution of the transition to this new system. What do you think?

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

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

Background
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!