Capstone proves its worth in rescue of downed pilot

 - January 9, 2008, 6:20 AM

You’ve truly made it in aviation when your accomplishments are included among the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s collection of historic firsts. That’s the prestigious accolade recently bestowed on developers of the Alaska Capstone Program, whose activities are chronicled as part of an exhibit devoted to ATC.

But the Capstone demonstration has been doing more than educating the museum-going public. This winter, as pilots flying aircraft fitted with Capstone avionics in remote areas of Alaska brace for the worst that mother nature has to offer, there is solid evidence that the program is proving its worth as an apt surrogate for ATC in places beyond the sweep of radar.

Anchorage Center late in October used automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) to locate a downed pilot whose Cessna 207 had crashed at night in strong wind and turbulence shortly after a departure from Marshall Airport, in Southwest Alaska, for an intended 65-nm trip south to Bethel, the airplane’s home base.

Severely injured and stranded in freezing temperatures, 30-year-old pilot Erick Gutierrez’s only realistic hope was that someone would come to his rescue that night.

For some reason the airplane’s ELT never activated. When Gutierrez was more than an hour late returning to base, coworkers at Grant Aviation notified the FAA and state troopers. Within 20 min a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter was in the air on its way to the Cessna 207’s last known position–in rugged terrain about four miles south of Marshall Airport–thanks to Anchorage controllers, who provided the rescue crew with the airplane’s precise location.

Aided by night-vision goggles, the rescue helicopter found the downed airplane two hours later. Gutierrez was sitting in the rear of the demolished Cessna, with a broken leg and ankle, sheltering himself from the wind.

A week later, recovering at home from his injuries, Gutierrez told the NTSB investigator in charge that his Capstone equipment probably saved his life. He recalled that it was a “very dark night, with no visible horizon or ground references discernible.” The planned route, he said, was direct to Bethel at 1,400 ft msl, but on reaching his cruise altitude he encountered severe turbulence. Just before hitting the ground, he recounted, the vertical speed indicator showed a high rate of descent and his Capstone display of terrain was almost completely red.

Launched in 1999, the Capstone demonstration has improved safety for Alaska bush pilots by providing about $19,000 worth of special navigation and datalink equipment in 189 commercial airplanes operating in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The goal is to reduce aviation accidents in a region where there is no radar, the terrain is rough and weather can turn bad quickly.

Capstone equipment includes a UPS Aviation Technologies MX20 display capable
of portraying detailed moving maps, the location of other aircraft flying in the area
and datalink weather information. Aircraft equipped with ADS-B continuously broadcast digital datalink signals of their GPS-based position to Anchorage Center, which controllers use to track aircraft operating IFR outside radar coverage.

Engineers working on the Capstone project are now investigating whether it may be possible to share a GPS antenna with an Iridium satellite antenna. Iridium provides excellent coverage in the Arctic and Antarctic, and Capstone researchers believe the satcom service could give bush pilots a reliable communications backup. They plan to test the idea later this year.