High-altitude redesign heralds Free Flight era

 - January 30, 2008, 10:55 AM

When the high-altitude redesign (HAR) portion of the FAA’s national airspace redesign program begins initial implementation this year, it will signal the beginning of the end for dependence on station-to-station navigation between ground-based Vortacs and represent a first step toward Free Flight, the Holy Grail of 21st century airspace management.

That is what a 30-year ATC veteran and current en route controller at Chicago Center told attendees at an Arizona Business Aviation Association (ABAA) meeting on March 11 in Scottsdale. The FAA calls it “an innovative approach to en route airspace, with a foundation in RNP (required navigation performance) and Rnav” technology. Larry Bicknell, now retired from the FAA and a consultant with BAe Systems in Washington, D.C., and Don Wishowski of the Chicago Center and representing the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), outlined the goals and timetable for HAR and offered projections of cost savings to the business aviation community.

HAR Phase 1 will encompass airspace at FL390 and above in seven en route centers covering the Northwest U.S. Bicknell called HAR “the closest thing to Free Flight we’ve seen so far.” He said the satellite-based concept “will not be like RVSM. You won’t need new equipment, and it’s not exclusionary.” A primary goal is to strike a balance between flexibility, for both pilots and controllers, and the existing jet route structure to achieve maximum system efficiency. Bicknell described the “pitch and catch” protocol in which participating aircraft will enter and leave Rnav airspace, and the new navigational reference system (NRS) on which flight plans will be defined without reference to ground-based navaids.

‘Pitch’ and ‘Catch’ Gates
Bicknell said system designers intend to establish NRS waypoints on every degree of longitude, from 10 to 30 minutes of latitude apart. This grid system will be the basis of defining “pitch” and “catch” gates as well as waypoints for deviation from direct routes around special-use airspace, primarily military operating areas (MOAs). He noted that the first airspace chosen for HAR was selected because it covers 59 percent of the U.S., has relatively low traffic density, averages 5,000 flights per day at or above FL390 (more than half by general aviation) and contains numerous MOAs for which to develop and evaluate deviation waypoints. It is bounded on the east by Chicago and Kansas City Center airspace and on the west by Seattle and Oakland Center territories. Bicknell added that the airspace also includes several current Rnav routes between Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area over which to test the concept.

The HAR will add another seven ARTCCs, those west of St. Louis in addition to Jacksonville and Miami, Fla., next year, and complete the coverage with the six en route centers covering the high-density airspace of the Northeast U.S. during 2005 and 2006. Lowering the HAR floor to FL350 is planned to begin next year.

Wishowski told the group that corporate aviation will provide most of the first civilian pilots to experience HAR and evaluate its potential benefits. “You guys are the ones flying up there [above FL390].” He explained that a higher percentage of the corporate jet fleet is equipped with integrated digital avionics suites, including FMS and GPS. Wishowski noted that few airliners operate above FL390, and that most of them still use VOR/DME for navigation.

Bicknell cited a Mitre study predicting that, in the first year of direct-route operations at FL390 and above in the seven covered ARTCCs, participating aircraft will accrue total savings of $7 million.

Two of the corporate pilots attending the briefing said they expect their operations to benefit. Both Phoenix area-based pilots fly frequently from Phoenix to the Midwest and East Coast. John Rudd, the ABAA’s incoming vice president, who captains a Phoenix Sky Harbor-based Gulfstream IV, predicted that the HAR “will affect us greatly. We do a lot of trips to the East Coast. It will give us, in effect, more direct routing because everything we do is at FL410 and above. We definitely will be using the ‘pitch and catch’ routing. On an 1,888-mile Phoenix to Newark trip we might save as much as 10 to 15 percent on fuel through more direct routing.”

Brian Ready, the incoming ABAA president, said the Hawker 600 he flies for Giant Industries, an oil producer, refiner and marketer based in Scottsdale, will not be part of initial HAR operations. “The aircraft is certified to FL410, but it doesn’t really like it up there. We normally fly at FL350 to 370. We do have FMS and GPS, so when the HAR airspace is lowered to FL350 it will be great for us.”