Manipulating a control stick mounted far on my left, I follow the bee, which flies through the boxes 12 seconds ahead of the airplane, turning as it turns and descending as it descends. After a while I spot a runway in the distance, and then look up at the larger screen-Reality. And in Reality everything is muddied by clouds. So I look down and concentrate on the bee as it banks and descends. Having taken instrument flying lessons, I know this view is much friendlier than scanning small round instruments. I fly through the clear-blue skies closer to the landing strip, and then onto the runway. Then I look up to the big screen and see the same runway-a little misty perhaps-just as I hit the centerline.
Computers, of course-not my own flying skills-made that touchdown possible. SmartDeck led me to a near-perfect landing with the help of information it received from the Airport Communications Technology Trailer, a ground station consisting of a collection of servers being developed by Harris that will be stored near airport runways. The servers send information to the airplane about weather, traffic (from live FAA radar feeds), and obstacles on the ground, and calculate and communicate flight path changes. The SATS system works entirely without the input of air traffic controllers, unless the aircraft flies near a large hub or spoke airport or in airliner airspace, which is above 18,000 feet. Then the pilots will have to deal with ATC, just as they do now.
The cost per airport to install a ground station will be $500,000, says Harold Bracket, senior engineer at Harris' Government Communications Systems Division. Compare that to the $5 million minimum needed for a single radar installation and $1 million for an instrument landing system, both of which are necessary for commercial air traffic. But universal installation of the SATS system won't be cheap, either. Setting it up at all 5,400 public-use airports will cost a hefty $2.7 billion. SATS proponents hope that local and state governments, supplemented by federal grants, will foot the bill, seeking financial rewards from increased traffic to local airports. But the program's supporters concede this may be unduly optimistic, and that a variety of joint public/private ventures may be necessary for SATS to get off the ground.
The system's designers are also counting on broad acceptance of the SATS concept to help curtail the loss of public-use airports around the country. Sprawling suburbs are eating up an airport every two weeks. At that rate there won't be any small airports by 2025, when the SATS infrastructure is scheduled to be completed, unless businesses and governments support the local strips in hopes of financial payoffs later.
Another key to the success of SATS will be the development of the next generation of small business jets. There are several on the horizon, including one that is being designed specifically with SATS in mind. The six-seat Eclipse 500, whose prototype was unveiled in July, has a pair of Williams International EJ22 jet engines that each weighs only 85 pounds yet produces 770 pounds of thrust. It can land on runways 2,500 feet long or less, and though it will initially come with its own avionics, the jet will be upgradable to the SATS system when it becomes available. The Eclipse is expected to cost less than $1 million (most new business jets start at $6 million). What's more, operating costs for the Eclipse are expected to be around 56 cents per mile, compared with $2 for most other business jets.