More than Traffic and Weather
What is not obvious in the study results are the secondary benefits that operators, pilots, investigators and others are increasingly discovering.
One area where ADS-B Out is boosting safety and situational awareness is with flight following — a capability that would likely have sped up the rescue operation for Wright. On that fateful day, Wright was flying from Juneau to False Island to Angoon then back to Juneau. The standard operating procedure at the time was to have a flight plan for each leg and for the pilot to call the home base every 30 minutes en route on an FM radio frequency, along with calling after a takeoff or landing. Dispatchers would keep track of the reported positions on a spreadsheet. In some cases, radio contact wasn’t possible and calls couldn’t be made on time because of the terrain.
It was on the leg from False Island to Angoon that Wright encountered the snowstorm. Based on his flight plan and departure call, the air taxi’s agent in Angoon knew when his flight should have arrived. Ten minutes after his ETA, the agent knew something was wrong. What he didn’t know was where, along the 25 nautical mile route, Wright had disappeared. The search began, but finding him took much longer due to the lack of surveillance and the limited reception of his 121.5 MHz Emergency Locator Transmitter in mountainous terrain.
That’s a situation air taxis in Alaska no longer have thanks to ADS-B Out. “We have in our flight follower’s office and in our main office a program that has a map showing all of our equipment — tail number, position, altitude, and speed, based on standard pressure,” says Brett Coblenz, chief pilot of Juneau-based Alaska Seaplane Service. Coblenz says there are still some “dead zones” where the ADS-B Out signal can’t be received, “but for the most part we can see where the aircraft are at all times on a computer screen.” When they do receive ADS-B, they can narrow down an aircraft’s position to about 1,000 ft.
ADS-B position accuracy and a speedier recovery could have made a difference for Wright, who ultimately lost part of his leg in the accident. After his recovery, Wright returned to floatplane flying until he joined the FAA as a subject matter expert on ADS-B in 2004, based largely on his experience with Capstone. Today, he is a human encyclopedia of knowledge about the technology, and rarely is he not on the phone talking to repair shops, manufacturers, and pilots solving technical problems. He is also a regular staffer of the ADS-B exhibit at various trade shows throughout the year.
“I’m always on the lookout for ways to serve,” he says.
Jimmy Wright is a familiar face at the FAA booth at Sun 'n Fun and other shows, where he helps pilots assess their ADS-B performance.
John Croft is a flight instructor and a speechwriter/editor in the FAA Office of Communications. Croft uses ADS-B in the Piper Archer he co-owns with two other pilots, and he regularly flies a small team of FAA communicators to talk to pilots and other stakeholders about ADS-B.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.