Flight control computers 'to bypass pilots': Christian Wolmar reports on a new electronic system for air communications

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The Independent Online
WHILE aircraft flown with the aid of computers have transformed the role of pilots, communications between aircraft and ground control have changed little since the early days of aviation. 'Roger' and his pal 'out' still feature prominently, and misunderstood instructions have led to several of crashes.

All that is set to change. Yesterday the first test demonstration was held of equipment which will allow pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate through computers. An experimental BAC1-11 'flying laboratory', belonging to the Defence Research Agency at Bedford, flew above East Anglia sending and receiving messages on its on-board computer.

This project, called the Experimental Flight Management System, is part of a Europe-wide programme that is expected to enable commercial aircraft to begin communicating in this way by 1998, saving time and reducing the risk of accidents.

Trevor Gilpin, programme manager for the National Air Traffic Services, the organisation responsible for air traffic control, says the new system has many advantages: 'The airwaves are getting very cluttered and would not be able to cope with the expected doubling of air traffic over the next 15 years. The system also ensures that no mistakes are made.'

Pilots will be able to get weather information on their screens, whereas at the moment they can only do so by tuning to a special radio frequency.

The messages from ground control can also go direct to the plane's autopilot, which raises the possibility, already mooted by the European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus, that pilots may become redundant. Aircraft could be controlled from the ground with a person in the cockpit as a failsafe. A ground-based computer could ensure pilots have carried out its instructions and send a warning if they have failed to do so.

Mr Gilpin feels that there will always be a pilot but accepts that the role of both pilot and air traffic controller will be different: 'They will control by exception, in other words leaving all routine tasks to be done automatically by the computers.'

At the core of the system is a new form of radar communication, called Mode S, which allows information to be transmitted electronically. For it to be used widely, new transmission centres will have to be built throughout Europe. Mode S allows aircraft to be tracked in four dimensions - including time - which enables tighter control of airspace, reducing delays. Partial introduction of the system is expected in 1996.

Electronic information also needs to be sent between air traffic control centres. Already nine, mainly in northern Europe, are able to send messages to each other's computers. This is reducing delays since previously air traffic control centres had to telephone each other with flight plan information.

The urgency over introducing the new system was highlighted last month in a letter to Flight International, in which a pilot said that air communications between the Far East and Eastern Europe were so bad because of high demand and old equipment that an accident appeared inevitable. He said: 'If and when an accident does occur, I can imagine the amount of words which will be spoken and published in the press and official inquiries wondering how a state of affairs like this has been allowed to exist for so long.'

A long-haul pilot also told the Independent that at times he was unable to contact ground control when there were bad radio conditions over the Atlantic, 'while the guy in the back can phone his wife on a mobile telephone using satellite links'.