The "In" Thing in Aviation Safety Making the Most of Your ADS-B System Solution

--by John Croft, FAA NextGen Updates and Messaging Branch

Pilots and operators of all stripes who are equipping with ADS-B Out face the same question: Should I pay the extra money for ADS-B In?

As a co-owner of a 1977 Piper Archer with two other pilots, our answer to that question, when we purchased an ADS-B system, was “Yes.” The decision was largely based on intuition rather than hard facts: Wouldn’t having traffic and weather at our disposal be a boost to situational awareness and safety?

For us, purchasing an ADS-B system was a necessity since we live and fly inside the Mode C veil around the Washington, DC area, where ADS-B Out will be required by January 1, 2020. Though not required to install ADS-B In, the “In” portion of the ADS-B system only increased the purchase price by about $500 because we planned to use our portable tablets and smart phones to display the traffic and weather information. This pushed the fully installed ADS-B system to about $6,000. We had previously been using a portable ADS-B In unit, but were concerned about gaps in traffic coverage — the devices only receive traffic information when an ADS-B Out equipped aircraft is in the vicinity.

Coming up with an extra $500 when an old aircraft needs so many other upgrades was painful, but we had a strong feeling that the full package would pay off in better situational awareness and safety.

That intuition was right. Based on the traffic and weather intelligence ADS-B Out and In has provided us over the past 12 months, the extra $500 was well worth it.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Cape May airport in New Jersey, I was reminded of that wisdom. I was under the hood practicing instrument approaches, while my co-owner buddies were providing the safety pilot services from the other seats. Given the nice weekend weather, the beach area was buzzing with general aviation aircraft. While my safety pilots were ensuring adequate separation, based initially on the ADS-B position then visually, I had the traffic right there on my approach chart on the iPad, boosting my comfort level, and confirming yet again the decision to equip.

While the extra money was not a showstopper for us, the choice for others can be more difficult and require some deep analytics.

We’re All In

Andrew Walton, Director of Safety for Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics, used a cost-benefit analysis, rather than intuition, to convince his employer to support the purchase of ADS-B In for its fleet of 25 aircraft. The extra cost was significant — $5,000 over the purchase and installation costs of the ADS-B Out system for each of the school’s Cessna 172s and twin-engine Piper Seminoles. Walton analyzed several ADS-B In offerings, some that were lower cost, but favored sticking with their original avionics provider. “We wanted a solution that would show the traffic on the multi-function display,” said Walton. “That way we didn’t have to install another box and the ADS-B In information would be seamless for our instructors and students.”

Money was not initially a factor in Walton’s thinking. In 2012, he systematically surveyed the risks for the University’s flight training operation as part of a Safety Management System evaluation, studying more than a decade of flight training accident statistics from National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) records. He determined that the highest fatality risk for flight training operations was loss of control (LOC), followed by mid-air collisions. To address LOC, the University retooled its stall training and invested in angle-of-attack sensors for all of its aircraft.

To reduce the chance of a mid-air collision, the flight school embarked on several low- and high-technology solutions. They worked with the nearby Roanoke TRACON to set up assigned call signs and transponder codes, arranging for practically every Liberty flight to be under positive ATC contact for every training flight. Training flights also take place in assigned sectors, which are coordinated by flight school dispatchers and pilots. Liberty has 50 flight instructors training about 200 students in any given semester. Its aircraft typically fly 50 times per day, accumulating about 14,000 training hours per year.

Liberty University flight school’s Director of Safety Andrew Walton discusses strategic heading options with Liberty flight instructor, Gabrielle Disanza, during a training flight around the crowded Lynchburg, Virginia area.

On the technology front, ADS-B In promised to provide even more help to pilots through traffic and weather information. But could an economic case be made? Walton used the NTSB crash data, along with FAA estimates of flight training hours nationwide, to determine a fatal mid-air risk per flight hour. Over the study period, Walton estimated that eight of the 24 fatal mid-airs could have been prevented by having ADS-B In.

Based on the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) methodologies, the cost savings in averting those eight crashes (that would have killed approximately 14.4 instructors and students), boiled down to just under $4 per flight hour. Since each of Liberty’s aircraft fly approximately 600 hours per year, the break-even point for justifying the added cost of ADS-B In would be reached in just under three years per aircraft. The University determined that the investment was sound and allocated money to buy the ADS-B In equipment along with ADS-B Out. His team started adding the feature in spring 2016 and took about a year to install it in all aircraft.

“We could have installed just ADS-B Out for less cost, but we reasoned that the safety benefits of a system that would tell you ‘Traffic! Two o’clock. Two Miles. Same Altitude,’ would more than justify the cost,” said Walton. “If it avoids one mid-air collision, you’ve paid for it, easily,” he said.

The flight school previously had used the Traffic Information Service (TIS) available with its installed avionics, but Walton said the TIS traffic callouts were based on local radar and did not make audio announcements of the traffic’s location, distance, and altitude. He said there were also dead zones in the radar coverage, a shortcoming largely eliminated with ADS-B.

The free weather available on the 978 MHz UAT link also helped with boosting safety for its twin-engine aircraft. Walton said the University was also able to substitute the XM weather subscription it had purchased for its Seminoles with FIS-B, using the savings to help purchase flight envelope protection software to aid in LOC prevention.

Evidence of ADS-B benefits at the flight school is mounting. “We have had various safety reports of traffic conflicts where instructors or students have said, ‘Because we had ADS-B, we were able to see the traffic coming and take evasive action that had we not taken, would have led to a close call.’”

One of Liberty’s flight instructors, Gabrielle Disanza, was quick to appreciate the automatic audio callouts of the position and altitude of nearby traffic when she is busy instructing. Before coming to Lynchburg, Disanza earned her ratings in very basic aircraft flying out of relatively rural airports in New Jersey. “Traffic avoidance was strictly ‘See and Avoid,’” she said. “Down here, where there is training taking place 16 hours a day — a constant coming and going of aircraft — I absolutely couldn’t imagine flying without it.”

All “In” a Day’s Work

Out in Akron, Ohio, a flight department operating a wholly different kind of animal — an airship — took the ADS-B In plunge early on as a strategic move. Michael Dougherty, chief pilot for Goodyear Airship Operations, said when the company was working with Germany’s airship builder, Zeppelin, on the cockpit design for its three new airships seven years ago, long-term choices had to be made, or pay the price later.

Goodyear, which uses its semi-rigid airships to provide TV coverage above sports events and to travel the country promoting the company brand, knew it had to install ADS-B Out for the 2020 mandate because of where it flies, but it had to take a gamble that ADS-B In would be worth the extra investment. “Once we build an airship, it’s really difficult to go back and change the certification for a major modification on the avionics,” said Dougherty. “So we wanted to make sure all the tools that we thought we would need down the road would be included at the start.” ADS-B In was one of those tools, and it has paid off already.

Goodyear’s three Zeppelin NT airships, one each based in Southern California, Florida, and Akron, Ohio, provide TV coverage for events throughout the country. When traveling between venues and occasionally going back to Akron for maintenance, the airships often transition through very busy airspace at low altitudes.

When traveling to events in the New York City area, the airships might fly up and down the hectic Hudson River corridor, or for games in Los Angeles, the busy low-altitude VFR helicopter routes that allow general aviation traffic to navigate across the city without disrupting commercial traffic. “We can be flying the corridor with four helicopters and an aircraft towing a banner,” said Dougherty. “ADS-B is a check and balance on the pilot’s eyes being outside the cockpit and the possibility that air traffic controllers may be too busy to call out traffic.”

As with other ADS-B In users, the 13 Goodyear pilots (Dougherty as chief pilot and four pilots at each regional location) give high marks to the aural alerting features that avionics or software providers typically include with ADS-B In applications. “It alerts you when you have a lot of other things going on, which we often do,” said Dougherty. “We can fly single-pilot TV events where we have a pilot in the cockpit and a camera operator in the back of the gondola.” Communications is complicated. Dougherty said pilots sometimes have to sort out simultaneous directions from the TV director (on the ground), the camera operator at the back of the gondola, and air traffic control.

ADS-B is a prominent feature in the cockpits of all three of Goodyear’s new Zeppelin airships. Here, chief pilot Michael Dougherty prepares for a flight from the company’s base in Akron, Ohio. ADS-B In traffic can be seen in the top right display.

“Since the pilot’s primary function is still to aviate, navigate, communicate, the audible alerts from ADS-B are really helpful,” Dougherty said. “That’s one of our biggest benefits from ADS-B In — enhanced situational awareness and helping the pilot maintain a safe environment under high workload and busy airspace.”

We’re “In” Business

The positive impressions that Dougherty, Walton, Disanza, and I have are not at all unique when it comes to ADS-B testimonials. In seeking out opinions from pilots and operators, I have largely found two camps — those who have equipped and will no longer fly without it; and those who have not equipped and do not yet know what they are missing.

This is not to say ADS-B is a cure-all for the mid-air collision threat.

“ADS-B is another layer in the safety net, but we have to guard against complacency,” noted Walton. That’s even more relevant in Lynchburg, which is outside the airspace where ADS-B Out is required (below 10,000 feet). “Because we’re not within the Mode C veil, there are pilots flying around with no electrical systems. There are birds; there are drones. There are aircraft that might have the transponder turned off.”

But as a new layer in the overall flight safety net, Walton said ADS-B is “really, really nice to have.”

I concur.

John Croft is an FAA-certified flight instructor and a writer/editor in the NextGen Updates and Messaging Branch. 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 January/February 2019 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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