If Program Is So Good... Why Is It Suddenly Too Dangerous?
Last week, Aero-News
reported on the alarm pilots in Alaska expressed upon learning that
the ADS-B program called Capstone had been
suddenly suspended, without notice, by the FAA. That
experimental program had been in use around the Bethel area in
southwest Alaska for five years, to provide weather info, traffic
separation, and other services to pilots flying through that busy
section of airspace.
The results of the program were nothing short of remarkable: in
five years, accidents around Bethel and southwest Alaska, dropped
47 percent compared to pre-Capstone years. On March 24, however,
the FAA shut Capstone down altogether.
When news of the shutdown got around, that led to an exchange of
letters between Skip Nelson, chairman of the Alaska Aviation
Coordination Council, and FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. Those
letters were obtained by Aero-News... and we now know more
about why Capstone has gone off the glass in Alaska.
"This action was taken as a result of a confirmed report that an
improper separation standard was being applied by ZAN (Anchorage
Center -- Ed.) between ADS-B surveilled aircraft and radar
surveilled aircraft," Blakey wrote in response to Nelson's inquiry
into why Capstone had been suspended. "To maintain the target level
of safety of NAS (National Airspace System) operations, [removing
Capstone] was appropriate pending an assessment of the operational
use of ADS-B in this area."
"As a result of this action, there were unintended consequences
with the operator fleet monitoring (OFM) and the Bethel display of
traffic information in the control tower," Blakey writes. "Upon
learning of this, we took corrective action to reinstate the
capability of OFM and display of traffic information to the Bethel
tower, both of which are now restored."
According to Blakey, that means the Flight Information
Services-Broadcast (FIS-B), Air-To-Air situational awareness, and
Search and Rescue capabilities of Capstone are back up and
ATC controllers, however, still do not see ADS-B-equipped planes
on their screens -- and that poses significant safety issues,
according to Alaska Business Journal correspondent Rob Stapleton,
who says now is the worst time possible to lose Capstone's full
"This is the time of year when we have floatplanes that are
mingling with twins, that are mingling with Cessna 208s flying 20
hours a day -- because we've got 24 hours of the daylight,"
Stapleton told ANN. "People are coming and going, we have fishing
activities going on, people transferring from one location to the
next... gold mining, you name it."
"There is not a time anyplace where you go -- as big as this
place is -- that you cannot look up and see an airplane in the
sky," Stapleton said.
Stapleton adds a series of meetings are being held in the wake
of the news... which may mean Capstone could be back up and running
in full by the end of July. For now, however, Stapleton says
Alaskan pilots are now more hesitant than ever to add ADS-B systems
in their aircraft... given the expense, and that the standards
might change, requiring retooling.
And then there's the chance that the FAA could kill the program
again... making their expensive transceivers essentially useless.
That's a problem Skip Nelson sees, as well.
"The FAA has asked us to modify our aircraft, train our pilots
and recognize our dispatch and flight following procedures in order
to shift over to what we now know -- based on thousands of hours of
actual experience -- to be a significantly better, safer and more
reliable system than radar alone," Nelson writes.
"We therefore request that you take... actions on behalf of
Alaska aviation safety and the integrity of the Capstone Program,
your Flight Plan, and the FAA itself [to restore Capstone.]"