Honeywell’s new Sky Connect Tracker III arrived at Dallas Executive Airport (RDB) aboard the company’s Eurocopter AS350 AStar demonstrator, just in time for a flight around the south suburbs, augmented by the company’s helicopter Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS).
Sky Connect Tracker III provides simultaneous automated aircraft tracking, as well as text messaging and two-way voice communications to helicopter fleets anywhere on the globe, provided through the Iridium satellite network. Sky Connect allows for two simultaneous tasks, such as two-way phone calls and tracking, or tracking and texting. The new Sky Connect III also functions in temperatures as low as -55-degrees C, a characteristic of obvious value in cold climates. Currently undergoing FAA certification testing, Sky Connect Tracker III is expected to begin appearing on customer helicopters during the second quarter of this year.
Sky Connect also delivers access to real-time flight data, such as the status of fuel or the aircraft systems (for maintenance, for example), as well as limit alarms. Thanks to Sky Connect’s GPS-based recording system, time-stamped position, altitude, groundspeed and ground tracking information is expected to offer fleet managers significantly improved on-time performance. Flight operations can also be tracked on a map using any standard web browser.
The need for automated helicopter messaging is driven by operator demands to communicate in real time, often difficult in single-pilot helicopter operations such as the crowded Gulf coast region. Sky Connect tracks VFR flights with two-way data anywhere on the planet, while ADS-B is limited to outbound messaging more appropriate for ATC services.
Texting functionality primarily focuses on pre-formatted messages using Sky Connect, although free-form texts are possible through an in-panel message management unit (MMU). A sample message might include “Departing RBD at 1535,” with the time filled in from the on-board clock, and the GPS location grabbed automatically from the flight plan.
Honeywell’s Jeff Kauffman, Sky Connect product line manager said the system is “the de-facto standard for voice on most operators in the Gulf, including Bristow, PHI and Air Methods. Bristow also holds FAA approval to dispatch Part 135 flights using the Sky Connect texting system, eliminating the need for additional VHF or satcom calls.”
Another impressive portion of the Honeywell flight demonstration from Dallas Executive Airport was a look at the company’s helicopter-specific EGPWS, offering helicopter pilots in a variety of operations such as business aviation, EMS and search and rescue, the advantages of another pair of electronic eyes. Similar to the systems installed in fixed-wing aircraft, the Honeywell EGPWS warns pilots of approaching terrain and man-made obstacles, such as radio towers, an item of vital importance when flying down low.
An antenna farm near RDB, including a half-dozen 2,000 ft. radio towers, proved the unit’s new helicopter-specific algorithms have eliminated most of the nuisance alerts of earlier systems. Next to air med operations, day VFR cruise represents the largest number of helicopter accidents.