These are the Days

31 January 2007 (Last Updated January 31st, 2007 18:30)

Being part of designing next-generation air transportation makes this the most exciting period in aviation history. Nicholas A Sabatini, associate administrator for aviation safety, FAA, takes us through developments at this exciting time.

These are the Days

Imagine yourself in Wichita in the 'Roaring 20s'. In 1920, you could have been in on the ground floor of the E.M. Laird Airplane Company. Your co-workers on the Laird Swallow would have been Walter Beech, Clyde V Cessna, and Lloyd Stearman.

Five years later, those three aviation greats formed the Travel Air Airplane Manufacturing Company, which built the Travel Air B6 Special Racing Plane that Walter Beech flew on the first National Air Tour. In 1927, the Travel Air Model 5000 won the Dole Race flying non-stop from San Francisco to Honolulu.

What a time to be in aviation! Some would say 'those were the days'. I say, without hesitation, that these are the days.

Right now, the FAA is working with the Joint Planning and Development Office, which is on its way with plans for 2025 with the Next-Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. The system we foresee will allow safer and more efficient movement of people and goods throughout the US and around the world. It will be a smarter system, allowing pilots to have greater control of their flight paths and giving them vastly improved situational awareness through greater use of new technology. It will be a system flexible enough to accommodate whatever type and mix of aircraft we might see in our skies by 2025.

The FAA recently issued a Type Certificate to the Cessna Citation Mustang, an entry-level business jet. It is one of 20 light jet models that are in various stages of design and production. FAA forecasters project that up to 5,000 of these jets will be in operation by 2017. That's just one new class of aircraft that will place increasing demands on the US National Airspace System.

The number of light sport aircraft – another new category of aircraft – could climb to 14,000 over the same period. The impact of light sport aircraft is already being felt. At the 2006 EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Cessna unveiled its proof-of-concept aircraft as a potential contender in this market.

COPING WITH GROWING DEMAND

Adding to operational complexity in our airspace is the growing demand for civil applications of unmanned aircraft. The FAA's Air Traffic Organisation has seen a dramatic increase in authorisation requests for unmanned aircraft to fly in US civil airspace.

"Annual traffic on US airlines is on track to reach one billion passengers in 2015."

Over the past year, the FAA has begun issuing experimental certificates for these aircraft while its Unmanned Aircraft Program Office develops a comprehensive approach to ensure their continued safe integration into the National Airspace
System. Light sport aircraft, unmanned aircraft, thousands of air carrier flights and a wide range of general aviation flying are just a sample of what is in our airspace today.

Annual traffic on US airlines is on track to reach one billion passengers in 2015 – and with more and more proofs-of-concept becoming reality, US airspace will get even busier and even more complicated. Our challenge – a collective challenge for government and industry – is to accommodate growing demand, while at the same time improving safety.

We have achieved much. Today, the safety of US aviation is the envy of the world. US airlines are enjoying their safest period ever. Airline accidents are rare and random – an accident with fatalities occurs about every 15 to 16 million flights. The year 2006 is general aviation's safest year since records began. This is thanks to pilots, mechanics, owners and operators, and to outstanding collaboration across the entire general aviation community.

WHAT IS NEXTGEN?

"Adding to operational complexity in our airspace is the growing demand for civil applications of unmanned aircraft."

The foundation of NextGen is a performance-based airspace system where we describe the required total system performance. This is comprised of required navigation performance, required communication performance and required surveillance performance.

We in the aviation industry have long struggled with how to replicate in bad weather what pilots and planes can do in good weather. Today in Los Angeles, for example, aircraft conduct approaches and landings 750ft apart on parallel runways – literally wing tip to wing tip, under VFR conditions. So what is keeping us from doing this in IFR conditions?

TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN INGENUITY

We need to extract great precision in navigation solutions. What about a more precise coupled autopilot? And then there's situational awareness – the ability to know your relationship with other aircraft. As you use technology to safely add incremental – and then significant – capacity to the system, we know there is more than technology at play here. We know there are tradeoffs between equipment designed to meet performance requirements and real-life operations flown by
real-life pilots. There are a host of human factors involved.

How do we find the balance between useful information and too much information? How do we present pilots with the most useful information during any phase of flight, and how do we do this in a standardised way to minimise or eliminate negative habit transfer from different cockpit layouts in different aircraft? Is there a way to be smart about system design so we can allow design flexibility to meet performance targets, while retaining some standardisation as pilots move from cockpit to cockpit?

This must be addressed through the coordinated efforts of engineers, policymakers and those who develop and deliver pilot training.

"The best way to predict the future is to create it."

That is the micro level – looking at the aircraft and the interaction between pilot and machine. What about the system perspective? How do you design aircraft today that will work in the NextGen of 2025, and beyond?

A SYSTEMS APPROACH

This is where we need to think about taking a systems approach to an entirely new level. We're doing more and more of that today by adopting safety management systems (SMSs). This closed-loop approach enables organisations to identify and manage risk far better than before. Operating under an SMS ensures a disciplined and standardised approach to managing risk. The best aspect is that we can review past experience and address known hazards. At the same time, we can look ahead and rigorously apply safety risk management principles to any changes or introduction of new elements.

Furthermore, under an SMS, the whole process – identifying potential problems and putting corrections in place – is ongoing and the procedure is continuously assessed to make sure it is working. In short, SMSs formalise risk management, which is imperative as we move from a forensic, or after-the-fact, accident investigation approach, to a diagnostic and then a more prognostic, or predictive, approach.

With the accident rate as low as it is, we must get in front of information, analyse trends and anticipate problems if we are to continue improving on an already remarkable record of achievement. Operating under an SMS will allow airlines, manufacturers and the FAA to do this better than before.

"Today, an accident with fatalities occurs every 15 to 16 million flights, we must improve on this."

CREATING THE FUTURE

The writer and business philosopher Peter Drucker said: "The best way to predict the future is to create it." That's what we in the aviation community are doing with enhanced flight vision systems, predictive weather programs and other technologies, as we move surely, steadily and safely towards a performance-based National Airspace System. Together, we are creating a safer and stronger future for aviation.

The original aviation pioneers – visionaries like Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, and Lloyd Stearman – brought us to a level that following generations were able to build upon. Imagine what future generations will be able to accomplish based on the designs being envisioned today.