Hangar Flying: SATS Progress Report

 - October 9, 2006, 7:31 AM

SATS, the small aircraft transportation system research program funded jointly by industry and government, concludes later this year, five years after it superseded the Agate (advanced general aviation transportation experiment) program, which set this ball rolling in the mid-1990s. Last month in Danville, Va., NASA, the FAA and the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility staged an expo to serve as a progressreport–and maybe pry loose some funding from Washington, 247 road miles and about five hours’ driving to the northeast, to extend the research program.

Of course, the U.S. has had a small aircraft transportation system for decades, witness the tens of thousands of GA airplanes that meet the personal mobility needs of the 1 percent of the population licensed to fly the things. Some portion of that fleet also provides transportation to paying passengers who are simply trying to get somewhere conveniently. SATS aims to make small aircraft more readily available and more reliable to provide safe commercial air service from regional airports out to a radius of 1,000 miles or so.

Not surprisingly, advances in aerodynamic design are playing a relatively minor role in this new thrust, which is being propelled primarily by the power of computing and, in the case of the VLJs, small turbofan engines. The real advances that will bring this dream to reality hide beneath the skin in avionics feeding a new level of information to the pilots’ instrument displays, and in software that can juggle the ever-changing intricacies of scheduling and dispatching air limos.

The centerpiece of SATS2005, as the Danville event was called, was a live demonstration by six aircraft performing self-controlled instrument approaches to one runway at Danville in the course of 30 minutes. The same information that the six crews were seeing on their onboard ADS-B screens to fly these approaches in the self-controlled airspace (SCA) that the FAA had established overhead Danville was shown on big screens throughout the exhibit halls.

The pilots of the six aircraft–an FAA Convair 580, an Aztec, two twin Cessnas and a couple of Cirrus SR-22s–began the process by asking ATC for permission to enter the SCA. Once issued thatapproval, each pilot headed for one of two designated initial approach fixes, and thus began a process not unlike the convergence of pleasure boats on a marina, cars at a junction or people stepping onto an escalator from all directions.

To see this happening with airplanes whose pilots were on the gauges and getting no instructions from air traffic controllers was to see a new era unfolding indeed. If small airplanes are to shoulder a larger share of air transportation, the airports and airways system needs to be able to handle HVOs (high-volume operations), and the Danville demo provided a clear picture of what is to come.

The SATS organizers chose Danville because it exemplifies the sort of airport that a small aircraft system will serve. For those who arrived by air (including the administrators of both the FAA and NASA), small aircraft proved their worth; those who drove to Danville (which lies in the extreme southwest corner of Virginia, almost in North Carolina) from, say, Washington had many hours of highway driving to ponder the appeal of a swifter alternative. Space constraints in this issue preclude fuller coverage of SATS2005, but a future issue will take a more detailed look at the program’s implications.