Capstone safety program takes flight in Southeast Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, April 01, 2003

L.A.B. Flying Service chief pilot Chuck Thompson and company operations director Lynn Bennett landed an aviation first when they flew a Seneca Piper II from Anchorage to Juneau on Friday.

Two new computer screens in the cockpit and satellite-based technology helped guide the plane through Alaska's skies. The first-of-its-kind system, part of the Federal Aviation Administration's Capstone program, fared well in a typical tour of Southeast weather, Thompson said.

"About 20 miles out from Yakutat it started getting dark and we were in the soup the whole time," he said. "We had turbulence, light icing, but it was right on the money."

Someday soon, such equipment will be the norm in Southeast Alaska, according to the FAA, which developed the new system and procedures with help from the aviation industry. FAA Regional Administrator Patrick Poe said Capstone is making historic strides in flight navigation and communication worldwide.

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"It's going to provide the public and the fliers in Southeast Alaska some options they don't have today. Options to fly lower routes, better routes, safer routes, get out of the ice, get out of the bad weather," he said at a briefing Monday at the Juneau Airport. "Those options mean more access in and around Juneau. Those options mean more emergency medical services will be performed in a timely way and a safer way."

The new equipment uses the Global Positioning System, and puts moving maps of a plane's flight path into the cockpit. Eventually, Southeast pilots will be able to track other airplanes on screen and automatically receive detailed weather data, said Capstone's Gary Childers.

"Today, you have needles that swing, round dials and course deviation indicators that slide back and forth and up and down," Childers said. The new equipment "is a very interactive and intuitive tool. There's a highway in the sky floating right out in front of you in a three-dimensional way."

The equipment may be invaluable in Alaska, where terrain and weather are a challenge. While the state has 10 percent of the nation's commercial air operators, it has 35 percent of the country's commercial air accidents. A study of 112 air accidents in Alaska over three years showed 38 percent could have been avoided with Capstone-type equipment, according to the FAA.

The FAA implemented the first part of Capstone in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in 1999, equipping about 200 commercial airplanes in the region. The next step is Southeast Alaska, where the FAA will equip another 150 to 200 planes and helicopters at a cost of $50,000 apiece.

The program was well-received in the Bethel area, where pilots largely navigate by eyesight. The program will go a step further in Southeast Alaska, adding aircraft with instrument-based navigation, Childers said.

The FAA also is working on a new tool - similar to a carpenter's level - for helicopter pilots. The technology, called a hover vector, could help avoid flightseeing accidents in bad weather on local glaciers, Childers said.

"It will be a little dot in the center of the screen ... and will allow the pilot to see which way they're moving, to the side, forward, backward," he said. "Hopefully the crews will have a lot better situational awareness."

Right now, the new equipment and procedures have added more than 40,000 feet of usable airspace over 1,500 nautical miles of published airways in Southeast, according to the FAA. The project also will allow pilots to use instrument approaches into more Southeast communities.

Flying lower allows pilots to avoid icing conditions, said James Call, a FAA flight standards division safety inspector who has been involved with the Capstone project.

L.A.B., the only air taxi service certified to use instrument navigation in Southeast, has been working closely with the FAA on the project, Bennett said. The company has a Capstone flight simulator in its Juneau office and its pilots have gone through training developed by the University of Alaska Anchorage. The company plans to equip 13 more of its planes with the new technology, Bennett said.

"This will be huge for every air taxi pilot in Southeast," he said. "The situational awareness is the best way to describe what a pilot's going to have in his cockpit. The other thing that's driving this is the ability to see other aircraft."

Thompson, L.A.B.'s chief pilot, noticed a positive reaction from passengers on trips from Juneau to Kake and Hoonah last weekend.

"If a pilot follows the rules and is doing what he should be doing, this will help keep him out of trouble," he said.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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