The Promise to Come Home Every Night
By Edwin Miller, FAA General Aviation and Commercial Division
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was an Army first lieutenant attending the Apache qualification course in Fort Rucker, Ala. Being a kid who grew up with Star Trek and video/arcade games, I considered myself pretty tech-savvy. But none of that prepared me for the gadgets on the Boeing AH-64A Apache. I just had finished watching the movies “Fire Birds” and “Iron Eagle” the week before, but here I was getting into this modern-day helicopter with the latest technology. My instructor was always asking me trivial questions, but this one hit home and has stuck with me for a career of flying: “Why do you have all of these great features on this aircraft?” My answer: “Because the manufacturer designed it like that for maximum effect on the battlefield.” His answer: “No lieutenant, it is because the taxpayers want you to bring this aircraft and your crew home every night!” Let that sink in.
The Apache I flew in 1993 was equipped with special vision systems that used a head-up display (HUD) attached to the flight helmet to enhance both night and day vision. Fast forward 30 years. Now we are able to display almost all of the helicopter’s instruments and symbology onto our helmets or onto a screen so you are always looking outside the aircraft. Having this capability helps you avoid impacting the ground, power lines, or antennas. It also creates a safer flying environment for you and your passengers or crew. Modern advancements in vision system technologies also offer the potential to “see” clearly in degraded visual environments, a common operational challenge for helicopters. These systems help helicopter pilots operate more safely in areas that lack the infrastructure for standard approaches associated with normal airport operations.
The aviation safety community has risen to the challenge, developing a wide array of options that pilots can use to “see” better in their helicopter or airplane. Vision systems comprise a suite of technologies that provide visual data to the pilot to help them see and understand surrounding terrain. These technologies include enhanced vision systems (EVS), synthetic vision systems (SVS), or a combination of the two, known as combined vision systems (CVS). Another term commonly used is enhanced flight vision systems (EFVS), which typically describes a system with an EVS and a heads-up display. The challenge here is that rotorcraft typically have less space for this equipment than many fixed-wing airplanes. But the FAA and industry vision systems developers are working to bring the best solution to the operational user.
At the FAA’s Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., a team of engineers, human factors specialists, and pilots is working on several different vision systems concepts. Being on the pilot side of this testing is exciting and takes me back to my earlier days as an arcade aficionado. One thing is for sure: technology is getting better, and with it comes marked improvements in flight safety. Working with these great professionals is an honor, but working on accident reduction is an even greater honor. The FAA, the United States Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), and many other industry experts believe that some type of vision systems technology will be a must-have item in the future to improve a pilot’s situational awareness. The overall goal is to make sure that everyone comes home to their loved ones every night.
Edwin Miller is an aviation safety inspector with the General Aviation and Commercial Division’s Operations Branch.