Flight-Simulator Technology Finds Way Into Real Cockpits

Nail-biting blind landings in foul weather may soon be a lot less perilous, thanks to a new corporate jet equipment that could also find its way into airliner cockpits.

The technology, known as Synthetic Vision Systems, displays a computer-generated view of the terrain ahead — even in heavy fog or clouds, when the ground can be invisible to other advanced "vision" equipment such as infrared sensors.

Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. became the first executive plane maker to announce plans to offer an SVS aboard its jets. The deal was announced at last week's Farnborough Airshow.

Once certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, SVS will result in "more accurate tactical flight decisions by pilots and ultimately increased safety," Gulfstream said.

The Honeywell International Inc. (HON) equipment chosen by Gulfstream is a highly detailed, three-dimensional Global Positioning System satellite navigation screen for planes.

Existing satellite navigation systems already allow pilots to pinpoint their positions. The SVS display uses the same GPS satellite signals to show a pilot exactly where the plane is heading — in enough detail to carry out landing approaches or other precision maneuvers in low visibility.

Instead of the traditional blue-over-brown artificial horizon, a pilot using the new screen sees an ever-changing virtual view from the cockpit, overlaid with the familiar altitude, attitude, speed and heading indicators.

Later, Honeywell says it may offer similar technology that projects the imagery onto the inside of the cockpit window.

Despite appearances, it is nothing like a video game, Honeywell Vice President Robert Smith said in an interview.

"This is not Microsoft Flight Simulator," he said.

The software draws on an extensive global database of runways and obstacles — such as tall buildings and masts — superimposed on global terrain mapping data gathered by the space shuttle Endeavor in a February 2000 radar survey of Earth's surface.

If the pilot is on course to collide with a mountainside, the rocky slope appears in bright red on the display, followed by an audible alarm as the aircraft gets closer. Honeywell's display also can show warnings from other collision-avoidance systems such as those in use at major airports.

Gulfstream spokesman Robert Baugniet declined to discuss pricing plans for the system, which the company plans to start fitting in its G350, G450, G500 and G550 business jets once it receives FAA certification, expected next year.

The FAA initially had reservations about the safety of SVS displays but now appears to be recognizing the benefits, officials say.

"They could potentially reduce accidents of the type that often happen in bad weather, at night or in limited visibility," said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette, who declined to comment on the likelihood of certification.

Nevertheless, there are still concerns that in some situations, pilots could be lulled into a false sense of security by the SVS — which does not itself detect potential obstacles in a plane's path, such as other aircraft or runway obstructions.

"Synthetic Vision may be so compelling that pilots try to use it beyond the intended function," the FAA cautioned in December 2005 guidelines.

But experts predict the technology will give pilots greater awareness of their surroundings — particularly during difficult landing approaches or takeoffs in mountainous areas.

It also allows pilots to fly much more accurately during low-visibility landings at smaller airports without state-of-the-art instrument landing systems, said David Learmount, operations and safety editor with Flight International magazine.

"It's absolutely brilliant for business jets," Learmount said. "The whole idea of a business jet is to be able to fly safely to any airfield you like, including small regional airports."

Learmount is skeptical of the potential for rapid SVS uptake by airlines, since the airports they serve typically have sophisticated instrument landing systems that guide landing passenger jets when visibility is low.

Nevertheless, Honeywell and its competitors believe SVS offers a valuable additional layer of protection that will eventually catch on with large commercial carriers.

The technology's advocates say it could help avoid accidents such as a 1997 crash in Guam, when a Korean Air 747 plowed into a rocky hillside while attempting to land in rain, killing 228 people.

A report concluded that problems with the airport's low-altitude warning device may have been a factor.

"We've talked to virtually everyone. They're certainly looking at these systems," Honeywell's Smith said. SVS should appear in airliners around 2012-2014, he predicted, declining to elaborate on the discussions.

Rockwell Collins Inc. (COL), another U.S. avionics maker, is developing its own SVS displays and expects demand from airlines and from another of its regular customers — the U.S. Air Force.

"We also see military applications," company spokesman Nancy Welsh said. "Imagine you're flying in a brownout [thick dust cloud] in Iraq. Synthetic vision might be quite useful."