You can watch the last six minutes of that approach on YouTube, and they are riveting. The crew is talking in Chinese the whole time, but you can hear Fulton’s voice in the international language of aviation, English, calling out altitudes as they head down. Because this was a test flight, and no one had proven that the autopilots could keep them from running into a mountain in the clouds, they were required to conduct the flight under VFR conditions. Fulton had carefully arranged with the Air China crew the circumstances under which they would break off the flight if it turned out that the mapping was wrong or the autopilots didn’t work or the weather got too bad.
“As we turned each corner in the valley and went into each new segment of the approach, we kept being just under the clouds,” Fulton recalled. Indeed, that is what the video shows—the cloud level coming down, and the plane descending just enough below it so that the pilots could still see ahead of them. “It was a kind of ballet down the river valley, with sweeping turns back and forth.” Then, at 200 feet above ground level—practically landing, from the layman’s point of view—the plane’s autopilots made an S-turn around a crag that sat between it and the runway. The plane automatically veered around the final obstacle, aligned itself with the runway, and touched down exactly on the center line. The 15 people jammed in and around the cockpit—including brass from Air China and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC)—gave a round of applause. “Captain Jiang, the senior Air China pilot, turned to me and said, ‘I have full confidence in this technology!’ ” Fulton later told me. “We all knew that people from the minister on down would have been fired if we’d crashed.”
Instead, the CAAC vice minister proclaimed that “the future looks good for RNP technology in China.” Six weeks later, the first regular commercial airline flight ever to reach Linzhi touched down, guided through clouds and difficult weather along the RNP path. Naverus won contracts to develop several more approaches in China, starting with Bangda, at its unmatched 14,219-foot elevation, and then for another Tibetan airport, Nagqu, which when it opens in 2015 will be even higher. The business boomed so much that in late 2009 the Naverus company was acquired by GE and is now known as GE Aviation PBN Services. Boeing and Airbus now have their own subsidiaries working on RNP approaches. There is a race to cover China with these new navigation systems that will make travel to remote areas safer, more reliable and more fuel-efficient.
“The point is that they can navigate to any airport in the world with absolutely nothing on the ground,” Sergio von Borries, a pilot from Brazil who had become a vice president of strategic development at Naverus, told me at a conference in China. “These truly are the highways in the sky, and we are the highway engineers.”single page