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February 2006


Doing Something About the Weather - Now

Weak Snowbands

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Mention NASA and most people think of space flight or futuristic aircraft. However, weather forecasters in the nation's heartland are making better local predictions for pilots thanks to an airborne sensor being tested by NASA's Aviation Safety Program in conjunction with fellow JPDO partner agencies FAA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other researchers and scientists. This innovative program is living proof of Secretary Mineta's words, "Transformation starts now."

Researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., led the team that designed, built and equipped dozens of Mesaba Airlines aircraft with the "Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Report" instrument.

More than a tongue-twister, it allows aircraft to automatically sense and report atmospheric conditions. Observations are then sent by satellite to a ground data center that processes and distributes up-to-date weather information to forecasters and pilots. In the Next Generation System, thousands of global weather observations - from ground, airborne and space based sources - will be used to determine real-time weather and to feed multiple weather forecast models.

"Initial research shows the airborne sensor makes a 10 to 20 percent improvement in forecast error in numerical models and that's just with temperature," said Taumi Daniels, NASA project leader in a release. The sensor also measures humidity, pressure, winds, icing and turbulence with the help of location, time and altitude provided by built-in GPS technology.

Large airliners fly above most weather and collect limited atmospheric data. But when equipped with the weather sensor, regional aircraft (such as those operated by Mesaba), which typically fly below 25,000 feet, can provide more information. According to NASA, the information the team collects can also benefit weather models and forecasts, because it increases the number of observations in the lower atmosphere. There are only 70 weather balloon sites in the continental United States that collect temperature, wind and moisture data from twice-daily atmospheric soundings. The experiment added 800 more daily atmospheric soundings.

"Meteorologists at the National Weather Service have found the Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Report to be useful in forecasting severe thunderstorms, dense fog, precipitation types of winter storms and low-level wind shear," said Richard Mamrosh, National Weather Service meteorologist in Green Bay, Wis. "In summertime its best use is in determining if and when thunderstorms might develop. In wintertime it really helps in determining whether a storm will bring sleet, freezing rain or snow," he added.

Building on forerunner technology such as this, the potential for reducing weather-induced delays in the NGATS is dramatic. A JPDO analysis of a future with three times today's demand reveals that, without Next Generation System the average flight delay more than doubles on a typical day in which bad weather strikes many parts of the country as compared to a good weather day throughout the system. But with NGATS, the impact of bad weather is reduced to a mere 2 percent greater delay.

Putting Dollars and Cents Behind the Next Generation System Initiativ

63 Mesaba Airline’s Saab 340s are installed with TAMDAR

63 Mesaba Airline's Saab 340s are installed with TAMDAR.

Speaking at the roll-out of the proposed FY 2007 budget for the Department of Transportation, Secretary Norman Mineta gave ample proof that the NGATS is the real deal. Following up on JPDO's first Interagency Program Review conducted last year, the Administration is now proposing targeted investments to accelerate the development of key projects with Next Generation System capabilities.

"Looking to the future, the Department's budget provides $122 million for the Next Generation Air Transportation System initiative. Early progress in this multi-agency effort is encouraging, and our budget includes $80 million for the FAA for the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) program, a technology that will replace ground-based radar systems and revolutionize air navigation and surveillance," the Secretary and JPDO Senior Policy Committee Chairman said. JPDO will launch a second wave of demonstration projects this year that will include ADS-B.

In addition, the budget would provide $24 million for System-Wide Information Management (SWIM), which will make a network-enabled air traffic system possible, improving safety, efficiency, and security. Such a system will ensure that all information regarding aircraft operations is directly available to everyone who needs it, whether it's an airline dispatcher, controller, or even Federal Air Marshalls and their colleagues on the ground.

Indeed, this shared situational awareness has real-world implications. Speaking at the Aero Club of Washington earlier this year, Secretary Mineta observed: "Having a common operating picture will save precious minutes - perhaps precious lives - when an 'aircraft of interest' or other abnormality is detected." SWIM will also be the subject of a JPDO demonstration project this year.

Clearly progress is being made on the road to the Next Generation System. "These are the building blocks of the NextGen initiative, which will transform the way that America flies." the Secretary concluded at the budget briefing.

NASA Aligning Aeronautics Towards NGATS

Lisa J. Porter, NASA Assoc. Administrator for Aeronautics Research Credit: NASA

Lisa J. Porter, NASA Assoc. Administrator for Aeronautics Research Credit: NASA

In a move designed to better align the JPDO partner agency's aeronautics research, NASA Associate Administrator of the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate Lisa Porter, announced on February 6th a comprehensive restructuring of the research programs that will play an important role in creating the Next Generation System. (See related article below.)

"NASA is returning to long-term investment in cutting-edge fundamental research in traditional aeronautics disciplines," said Dr. Porter in statement. "We are investing in research for the long-term in areas that are appropriate to NASA's unique capabilities, and meeting our charter of addressing national needs and benefiting the public good."

Dr. Porter pointed to four key objectives that will guide this effort: (1) re-establish NASA's commitment to mastering the science of subsonic (rotary and fixed wing), supersonic, and hypersonic flight; (2) protect and maintain NASA's key aeronautics research and test facilities as national assets; (3) focus research in areas that are appropriate to NASA's unique capabilities; and (4) "directly address the needs of the Next Generation System in initiative in partnership with the Joint Planning and Development Office."

The new approach includes fundamental aeronautics, airspace systems, aviation safety, and the aeronautics test programs. The NASA Associate Administrator went on to observe how the airspace systems program is responding to our nation's "urgent need to transform its air transportation system" through the NGATS.

"The transformation includes both the operational management of our national airspace system, as well as the types of aircraft that fly within it. The primary research role for the program is the operational aspects of the airspace system. The program will be responsible for developing concepts, capabilities, and technologies for high-capacity, efficient, and safe airspace and airport systems." Dr. Porter concluded.

NASA Chief Backs NGATS in Congressional Hearing

Testifying before the House Science Committee on NASA's FY 2007 budget request, Administrator Michael Griffin reinforced NASA's strong commitment to building the Next Generation System. "We will conduct the fundamental research that is needed to meet the substantial challenges of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, and we intend to work closely with our agency partners in the Joint Planning and Development Office," Dr. Griffin observed.

The NASA Administrator told the House panel on February 16th that the agency is taking a long-term, strategic approach to its entire portfolio of aeronautic research plans. The implications for the Next Generation System are clear. For example, in its Aviation Safety Program, the JPDO partner agency is taking a proactive approach to ensure that the research conducted will lead to capabilities and technologies for improving safety consistent with the revolutionary changes anticipated in air vehicles foreseen in the future.

And in the Airspace Systems Program, Dr. Griffin said that "NASA will conduct the fundamental research required to bring about the revolutionary capabilities articulated in the JPDO's vision for the NGATS. Our research will focus on the development of future concepts, capabilities, and technologies that will enable major measurable increases in air traffic management effectiveness, flexibility, and efficiency."

As part of its overall portfolio, Administrator Griffin concluded that NASA program managers and researchers "will work closely and constructively with industry, academia, and other Government entities to enhance our Nation's aeronautics capability. In this vein, as a principal member of the interagency JPDO, NASA has established investment priorities that directly address the research and development needs of the NGATS which will enable major increases in the capacity and mobility of the U.S. Air Transportation System."

Innovative Eclipse Wins Prestigious Collier Trophy

Eclipse 500 in flight. Credit: Eclipse Aviation Corporation

Eclipse 500 in flight.
Credit: Eclipse Aviation Corporation

Eclipse Aviation Corporation has won the prestigious 2005 Robert J. Collier Trophy "for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America." The 95 year-old trophy will be presented to the company "for leadership, innovation, and the advancement of general aviation" in the production of very light jets, specifically, the Eclipse 500.

In announcing the 2005 winner, National Aeronautic Association President and CEO David Ivey said the selection committee's criteria included recognition of the rich heritage of the Collier Trophy, and "the spirit of entrepreneurship, technical innovation, and the impact on American aviation," exemplified by the Eclipse 500.

Led by founder, President and CEO Vern Raburn, Eclipse is applying technological innovations to drive down cost, increase performance, improve safety, and spur a new type of air travel - the air taxi - which could be major part of the Next Generation System.

Perhaps the company's greatest contribution is making jet technology available to a larger segment of the population. With an acquisition cost one-third of today's small jets and the lowest operating cost per mile of any jet, the Eclipse 500 provides the lowest jet costs ever achieved.

In an endorsement of the Eclipse nomination, Microsoft founder and Eclipse investor Bill Gates said: "True to the spirit of excellence and advancement that the Robert J. Collier award stands for, I believe the Eclipse 500 represents the best of aviation's rich past - and its bright future. "

The award presentation will be Monday, May 15, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

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