Aviation Safety Research Is Alive at NASA

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2001, p. 26
By Capt. Roger Bloom (Northwest)

Airline pilots are keenly aware of the cyclical nature of our industry. We recognize the difficulty of developing and implementing long-term aviation safety improvements amid the boom-or-bust economic status most airlines are facing. Warning signs of narrowing safety margins are given low priorities unless an accident has occurred. In periods of rapid growth, frustrated by airport and airspace crowding, managements and pilots face powerful financial pressures to increase productivity and capacity. In periods of economic recession, no money is budgeted for nonessential programs. In good times and bad, balancing these pressures with safety and suggesting improvements falls chiefly to the operational employees, particularly pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, and mechanics.

Before September’s traffic downturn and then the hijackings, programs designed to expand current airspace system capacity had eroded many operational safety margins. Examples included the radio frequency and airspace crowding (especially near hubs) that contributed to operational errors such as missed clearances, runway incursions, and unstable approaches, as well as greater exposure to collisions and wake and weather-related turbulence. Other examples included reduced powerplant redundancy in overwater operations; reduced separation standards; increased LAHSO operations; increasingly inflexible arrival, departure, and runway restrictions; and more-complex human interaction with computer systems during critical phases of flight.

The airline industry’s current financial situation has left little if any budget for safety-related research and development. With a few innovative exceptions, even under normal conditions, an airline will very rarely pioneer aviation safety research, unless such research has minimal costs and immediate returns. Manufacturers of airplanes still strive to develop new and safer designs, undertaking significant research and development, yet their products must appeal to the broadest group of potential customers and match prices with international competition.

In today’s air transportation world, does any organization still have both the means and the mandate to conduct innovative flight safety research and development? Since 1997, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in close cooperation with the FAA and the U.S. airline industry, has pursued an aviation safety initiative—the Aviation Safety Program—with the goal of reducing the U.S. airline fatal accident rate by 80 percent over 10 years. The Program has six guiding strategic directions:

1. Increase weather knowledge and tools for tactical avoidance.
2. Reduce the threats of low-visibility operations.
3. Harmonize interactions between humans and machines.
4. Create crash-resistant, self-repairing systems.
5. Enhance accident survivability.
6. Develop better safety measuring, monitoring, and training techniques.

Four NASA research centers (Langley in Virginia, Glenn in Ohio, and Ames and Dryden in California) are involved in efforts to reach these goals. The current annual budget for the Aviation Safety Program is approximately $80 million—certainly a significant research investment. However, when compared with the purchase price of even one new widebody transport, the amount rapidly shrinks into perspective.

Among the examples of current NASA projects is the Aviation Weather Information (AWIN) system, a weather information system for the cockpit using a laptop computer-like screen display. It could provide pilots with real-time weather radar, turbulence plot, and other graphic displays as enroute tactical planning tools. AWIN has been flight tested within the last year using a United Airlines A320 and a Delta Air Lines B-777. United’s Flight Operations Department, an early advocate of AWIN, has pursued independent research and testing agreements with the U.S. aviation industry to create a customized unit including flight publications (see "Pilot Report," October, page 43). United expects both economic and safety returns when it begins equipping its fleet within 2 years.

NASA’s research B-757 flying test bed is constantly being configured to support Aviation Safety Program projects. In December 2000, the B-757 penetrated moderate to severe turbulence in convective clouds to provide data for a radar experiment on predicting turbulence. A heads-up display in the B-757 cockpit is being used in synthetic-vision experiments to prevent runway incursions and controlled flight into terrain. Further tests of the system continued this summer in mountainous terrain near Eagle, Colo.

At the Glenn Research Center in Ohio, the icing wind tunnel is validating models of aircraft aerodynamics and handling during icing encounters. The large number of smaller airliners still equipped with leading-edge deicing boots and flown at lower altitudes makes this research a life saver for the general public, which expects one level of airline safety.

In the 22-foot wind tunnel in NASA’s Langley, Va., Center, unusual-attitude tests of a scale-model B-757 have extended the capability to acquire data to 90 degrees angle of attack and 45 degrees of sideslip. No previous data in these regimes have existed for a large commercial transport.

The data support projects to design systems and displays for preventing loss of control. Such systems might someday intervene in such potentially deadly scenarios as the Lauda Air B-767 inadvertent deployment of its thrust reversers, or the USAir B-737 uncommanded rudder input.

In another project, air traffic controllers at the Ames Research Center in California control the flight of volunteer airline pilots in a flight simulator across the country at the Langley Research Center. The goal is complete use of enroute and arrival ATC communication by datalink. The scenario tries to control real-time traffic in a simulated major hub environment.

Other projects are working on reduced cabin-material flammability, more-reliable fire-detection and -suppression systems, lightweight sensors to continually monitor in-service damage to structures and systems, automatic damage control logic, and general aviation and rotorcraft applications.

The Aviation Safety Program is only part of NASA’s aeronautical research. Another NASA research program that also affects aviation safety is the Aviation Systems Capacity Program, which includes wake turbulence research. The Aircraft Vortex Spacing System (AVOSS) is a system for predicting wake turbulence. In several years of testing, it has proved itself able to allow controllers to safely space aircraft in constantly changing atmospheric conditions. Overall, it provides for a greater number of takeoffs and landings while maintaining consistent, verified safety margins that are less subject to scheduling pressure or controller or pilot inexperience.

This has been an introduction to NASA’s aviation safety research. Future articles will focus on individual projects in greater depth. Working with NASA are numerous universities, aerospace manufacturers, airlines, ALPA, and the FAA. NASA’s talented people, the facilities they operate, and the developmental research they conduct are national resources.

The aeronautics portion of NASA’s budget has consistently been reduced in the last decade. Hopefully, a more widespread understanding of NASA’s role as an industry research catalyst directly helping the traveling public may begin to reverse this trend.

Airline pilots and their passengers who daily depend on aviation safety in a competitive, deregulated industry should be encouraged by the Aviation Safety Program and NASA’s innovative aeronautical research.

Capt. Roger Bloom (Northwest) flies B-757s and is based in DTW.