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Air France 447 – Why satellites didn’t find missing plane

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(CNN) — Cars have Global Positioning System devices to pinpoint where drivers are when they get lost, so why can’t GPS be used to locate the exact position of planes when the worst happens?

There is no constant tracking of planes when they go oceanic, although a sytem is being developed.

There is no constant tracking of planes when they go oceanic, although a sytem is being developed.

It took search and rescue teams over 30 hours to locate the wreckage of the Air France plane that crashed in the Atlantic on Monday. The aircraft’s onboard GPS system was no help to rescuers in the mission.

Although details of Flight 447’s fate remain uncertain, in some air accidents, this critical time could mean the difference between life and death for any survivors.

Michel Roelandt, aviation expert for Eurocontrol, a European air navigation safety organization, told CNN that some planes are fitted with GPS systems, but these are essentially “dumb” units — like those in cars — that receive location information from satellites but do not send any data back.

So while a flight crew knows its exact position over an ocean, the information is not automatically sent to air traffic control. That is left to someone in the cockpit to relay via satellite communication when the plane is out of radar range. Read more about how flights are tracked »

According to industry experts, satellite technology that would allow constant monitoring of an aircraft’s exact position is available, and although plans are afoot to introduce it, cost may be deterring some airlines.

“Airlines often have a contract with a private operator to provide their satellite communications. Some companies pay for it, some have free contracts,” Roelandt said.

The United States owns most of the GPS satellites in space that track the positions of commercial aircraft. As long as an airplane is within range of two to three satellites in space, it uses them to triangulate its position and send the information to the nearest ground station via a transponder, said Bill Waldock, professor of safety science at Embry Riddle University in Prescott, Florida.

It’s also possible, although unlikely, that the location of a troubled aircraft could be pinpointed by military defense satellites, experts said.

Some U.S. military satellites employ heat-sensitive cameras that scan the skies for missiles and could possibly detect a plane if it were not obscured by clouds, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a public policy organization whose Web site provides news on weapons systems and the defense industry.

Roelandt stressed that the idea of GPS tracking has not been part of any safety review within the aviation industry. The general consensus has been that a trained flight crew is on hand that always has the capability to be in contact with someone on the ground should an emergency arise.

In the case of Air France Flight 447, it appears that the crew had no time to relay an emergency message.

Shortly before the plane disappeared, its automatic system initiated a four-minute exchange of messages to Air France’s maintenance computers, indicating that “several pieces of aircraft equipment were at fault or had broken down,” Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said on Monday.

“Usually these data reports send information on normal systems, things like what the in-flight entertainment is doing, or that the cabin temperature has dropped by a few degrees,” said Kieran Daly of Air Transport Intelligence, an online aviation news service.

“It’s like your car telling you something is wrong, but in this case the A330-200 sent out a signal to Paris, basically warning that when it arrives in X number of hours, this is what’s wrong with the plane,” said CNN’s Richard Quest. “It was the automatic system on the plane telling Air France headquarters we’ve got a problem.”

Based on the aircraft’s route and the timing of the data reports, search and rescue teams could know where, roughly, to look for the plane.

Upgrading from radar to satellite system

The aviation industry is moving toward replacing its traditional radar-based tracking system with a satellite one that would allow air traffic control to know where a plane is at all times, even over oceans.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has begun implementing a system, nicknamed NextGen, in which GPS signals would transmit an aircraft’s precise location to air traffic controllers via ground receivers. The system would allow planes to fly more direct routes instead of zig-zagging between radio beacons.

The FAA is testing the system in pockets of the U.S. and plans to be using it by the end of the year in the Gulf of Mexico, much of which is out of radar range. The agency hopes NextGen will cover the entire country by 2013.

Roelandt says a similar system will be implemented in Europe by 2015.

“It means planes will automatically transmit the GPS position to the ground and surrounding aircraft within about 150 miles,” he said. “In the far future the idea is to be in a free flight condition,” where pilots have more flexibility in their routes while GPS keeps planes safely separated.

In a trial last year using an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system, two Airbus planes were able to change altitude safely while cruising over oceanic airspace.

At present, airliners flying over oceans are usually not permitted to change altitude, because oceanic airspace beyond a certain distance from land cannot be controlled by radar. Controllers and pilots keep the planes on vectors, or defined highways in the sky, to maintain safe distances between aircraft.

The ADS-B system is being developed internationally. But the expense of outfitting planes with GPS is dwarfed by the cost to upgrade from radar to satellite tracking of planes. According to a 2006 FAA report, it would cost $4.6 billion to change to a satellite-based system in the U.S.

“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation,” Roelandt said. “If you don’t put an implementing rule on this equipment, airlines won’t install it as it’s a costly operation for them. It is ongoing, and will be installed on European commercial airliners, but it takes time as always.”

CNN’s Brandon Griggs and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this story.


Boeing, Denmark’s TEC Aviation, Dutch World Class Aviation Academy Sign MOU to Advance Aerospace Maintenance Training

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HVIDOVRE, Denmark, June 3, 2009 – The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA], Danish aerospace maintenance training leader TEC Aviation, and the Dutch World Class Aviation Academy (WCAA) today signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to explore opportunities to develop state-of-the-art maintenance training, courseware development, computer-based training and virtual maintenance training for the Northern European aerospace market. This initiative paves the way for the possible exchange of students, instructors and course materials between the two schools, as well as potential joint pursuit of funding for the collaboration.

The signing took place at TEC Aviation’s new campus in Hvidovre and was attended by Danish Minister of Education Bertel Haarder and representatives from the Danish Metal Workers Union. Many of the union’s more than 140,000 members are trained in aviation maintenance in support of Denmark’s aerospace industry.

“It is our goal to become a leading educational center for aerospace maintenance in Northern Europe,” said Per Madsen, TEC Aviation chairman. “We are very proud of our partnership with The Boeing Company and the Dutch World Class Aviation Academy, and we look forward to working with them to develop maintenance training courses that meet future military and commercial aviation needs.”

The WCAA, based in Woensdrecht, The Netherlands, provides vocational education and training for military and civilian aircraft in the Netherlands. It is a Part 147-certified* aviation academy with some of the same needs and requirements as TEC Aviation. In March, Boeing signed a letter of intent with the ROC West Brabant regional training center in the Netherlands to explore the development of the WCAA.

“We are very excited at the opportunity to work with our aviation training colleagues at TEC Aviation and with Boeing,” said Peter Huis in ‘t Veld, WCAA executive director. “This collaboration on technical aviation training sets a new standard for cooperation within the industry, education and our governments, to everyone’s benefit.”

Boeing Northern Europe President Jan Narlinge said this alliance is the latest step in a growing partnership Boeing is forging with Denmark.

“TEC Aviation is a well-respected leader in Danish aviation technical learning and we are proud to be working alongside them in this venture,” said Narlinge. “We hope to learn from each other as we continue leveraging our aerospace and business resources in Denmark for years to come. Along with the World Class Aviation Academy, TEC Aviation and Boeing can have a dramatic impact on the future of aviation maintenance training in Northern Europe.”

Steve Winkler, director of International Alliances for Boeing International Support Systems, said the MOU indicates “that businesses and countries alike are moving to form global alliances in pursuit of cutting-edge technology and education in the aerospace maintenance industry. We hope that our expertise and experience will contribute to the Danish economy and at the same time make the region a leader in aviation technology training.”

A unit of The Boeing Company, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is one of the world’s largest space and defense businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions, and the world’s largest and most versatile manufacturer of military aircraft. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is a $32 billion business with 70,000 employees worldwide.


Boeing Submits CANES C4I Proposal to US Navy

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SAN DIEGO, Calif., June 3, 2009 – Boeing [NYSE: BA] on June 2 submitted its proposal to develop the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) program for the U.S. Navy. CANES will reduce the information technology infrastructure on naval vessels while implementing a common computing environment across shipboard networks.

The Navy’s Program Executive Office, Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (PEO C4I), is expected to award the system design and development contract by the end of this year. In order to support this customer, Boeing has opened a CANES program office in the Liberty Station area of San Diego.

“Our proposal offers a CANES solution to the Navy that can be deployed quickly, reduces life-cycle costs, and is reconfigurable to support changing missions,” said Nan Bouchard, vice president and general manager of Boeing C3 Networks. “Boeing understands the Navy’s requirements and is fully committed to its vision for CANES.”

The Boeing proposal enables the Navy to deploy an innovative, low-cost, cross-domain solution that allows data to be seamlessly accessed or transferred between different security levels. Boeing’s IT-related experience includes managing one of the world’s largest global networks that securely connects employees, customers, partners and suppliers worldwide, and developing open architecture and battlespace networking solutions for the U.S. military.

A unit of The Boeing Company, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is one of the world’s largest space and defense businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions, and the world’s largest and most versatile manufacturer of military aircraft. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is a $32 billion business with 70,000 employees worldwide.


Boeing Reacts to Appeals Court Decision in A-12 case

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Chicago, June 2, 2009 — J. Michael Luttig, executive vice president and general counsel of The Boeing Company [NYSE:BA], today directed that an immediate appeal be made following a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decision upholding the government’s position in the long-running A-12 case.

“Today’s decision, which awards no amount of damages to either the contractors or the government, is but the next step in this regrettable litigation that is now in its eighteenth year.

The decision is fatally flawed under what has been the law governing this case from the outset. It creates out of whole cloth a new law that essentially requires the case to be tried anew from the beginning,” Luttig said.

At issue in this litigation, which has been pending over a decade, is the manner in which the Defense Department terminated the A-12 military aircraft program and whether the government owed Boeing (then McDonnell Douglas) and General Dynamics Corporation money for work in progress when the contract was terminated, as well as certain other expenses. The trial court originally ruled in favor of the contractors, but various appeals over the years have delayed a final decision.

The A-12 was to have been the Navy’s next-generation, carrier-based advanced tactical aircraft utilizing low observable “stealth” technology.


Boeing Submits Proposal for USMC Unmanned Cargo Aircraft Demonstration

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ST. LOUIS, June 2, 2009 – The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA] on June 1 submitted a proposal offering its A160T Hummingbird for the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Immediate Cargo Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Demonstration Program.

“The Marines have identified an urgent need for unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver supplies in lieu of putting trucks and personnel on dangerous roads,” said John Groenenboom, A160T program manager for Boeing. “The A160T was designed from inception as a UAS with significant payload-carrying and high-altitude-operation capabilities, so we are confident in its ability to meet the requirements of this critical mission.”

The demonstration contract is expected to be awarded in July. Boeing will demonstrate it can deliver 2,500 pounds of cargo per day from one simulated forward-operating base to another in fewer than six hours per day for three consecutive days. The demonstration program could lead to future business opportunities.

The A160T has a 2,500-pound payload capacity. It features a unique optimum-speed-rotor technology that significantly improves overall performance efficiency by adjusting the rotor’s speed at different altitudes, gross weights and cruise speeds. The autonomous unmanned aircraft, measuring 35 feet long with a 36-foot rotor diameter, has hovered at 20,000 feet and has cruised at more than 140 knots. The A160T established a world endurance record in its class in 2008 with an 18.7-hour unrefueled flight.

A unit of The Boeing Company, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is one of the world’s largest space and defense businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions, and the world’s largest and most versatile manufacturer of military aircraft. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is a $32 billion business with 70,000 employees worldwide.


BizJet Slump Helps Dull Bombardier Results

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Darren Shannon darren_shannon@aviationweek.com

The continued slump in business jet demand continues to affect Bombardier Aerospace, which posted a near 50% year-on-year dip in its fiscal first quarter earnings before interest and taxes, which fell to $110 million in the three months ended April 30.

Revenue for the period fell 6.8% to $2.2 billion due primarily to a 21.7%, or $91 million, decline in services and a $46 million drop in “other” sales.

Manufacturing revenue for the Canadian manufacturer’s aerospace division decreased just 1.3%, or $24 million, to a little less than $1.87 billion, the same total as the company’s cost of sales for the three months.

“The severe recession affecting most economies worldwide has continued to have a negative impact on our first quarter financial results. At Bombardier Aerospace, although overall deliveries have held up relatively well during the quarter, cancellations in business aircraft have outpaced the level of new orders,” said Bombardier President and CEO Pierre Beaudoin in a release.

“We are taking action to cope with the present economic situation and we continue to invest in new products such as the CSeries, the Learjet 85, the ZEFIRO high-speed train and the ECO4 suite of technologies. At $47.4 billion, our large and well-diversified backlog, combined with our strong balance sheet, high level of liquidity, and the cost-cutting measures already in place, will enable us to weather the storm,” added Beaudoin.

Aerospace’s backlog totaled $22.4 billion on April 30, about $900 million below the backlog posted at the same time last year.

First quarter deliveries met expectations, with business jets falling 25.9% year-on-year to 43 aircraft, and commercial rising 10.7% to 31 deliveries. The quarter’s delivery total of 75 aircraft marked a 13.8% year-on-year decline.

The slump in aerospace’s performance is reflected in Bombardier’s company-wide results despite a buoyant performance at its rail-based Transportation division. Sales totaled $4.5 billion, a $300 million year-on-year drop, while EBIT fell from $324 million to $235 million. First quarter net income declined 31% to $158 million. Bombardier had $2.7 billion in cash on April 30.

Photo credit: Bombardier