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FEATURE ARTICLE  

Pilots Plan Flights on the Web 

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by Joshua A. Kutner 

The Internet has become a valuable vacation-planning tool for millions of travelers. Airline passengers now can set their flight itineraries over the Web, where they can easily compare costs and choose the package that best suits them. Then, the passengers can sit back and let the pilots take over. But how do the pilots prepare for the flight? A new Web site is designed to help.

AeroExplorer.com provides sample conditions and procedural data about airports and military bases. Pilots can use this data to learn about terrain, weather and runway conditions and airport landing procedures. The site, which was created by Litton TASC, of Boston, incorporates maps and data provided by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) so that pilots can study aeronautical and geospatial information over the Internet. The information is not updated in real time, said a company spokesman, but the site, nevertheless, provides a valuable learning and planning tool for pilots.

“The pilots get a great deal of information—information that they would need right now,” he said.

This resource does not eliminate the need for pilots to carry onboard the usual airport chart manuals, such as airport terminal procedure guides, which are required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These chart manuals can range from $100 to $2,000, “depending on geographic coverage,” said Joseph F. Ailinger Jr., a spokesman for Litton TASC. “AeroExplorer.com is primarily a flight-planning tool.”

“The AeroExplorer.com experience supplies the aviation industry an improved accessibility and convergence of the digital and paper products supporting aeronautical navigation and landing procedures, while continuing to ensure the safety of pilots who rely on them for pre-flight planning,” said Ailinger.

The site is designed to save users money, he said. It “allows government agencies and military services to ‘share’ the cost of [NIMA’s] Geospatial Information System with other government agencies that want to start leveraging their geospatial data. ... AeroExplorer.com provides the [Defense Department] a mechanism to exchange data.”

AeroExplorer.com intends to be a one-stop site for pilots to plan flights. Web developers at Litton TASC are using and seeking commercial off-the-shelf technologies to enhance the technology.

“Aeronautical data can now be accessed in a truly distributed environment using standard Web browsers [such as Netscape and Internet Explorer], thus eliminating the need for the customer to purchase hardware, software, and labor to develop/maintain similar flight-planning applications,” said Ailinger.

Once a user logs onto the site, he or she can order it to retrieve the necessary data. The user can request the following aeronautical information: airport/heliport, runway, navaid, waypoint, airspace boundary, special use airspace, airways, military training route, and off-route terrain clearance altitude. Then, he or she inputs what type of surface information to include: city, county, highway, water, landmark, obstacles, terrain, weather. The site then retrieves a map with the requested information.

Using the tool, I was able to retrieve runway layouts at Ronald Reagan National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base, and I was able to clearly see the runway layouts and decipher certain landing procedure and warnings.

The site, so far, has generated more than 100,000 hits, according to company figures. “Interest in AeroExplorer.com has spread mainly by word of mouth,” said Ailinger.

Although the site currently is available in a ready-to-use format, Ailinger asserted that further changes will be made.

“AeroExplorer.com is an evolving business concept,” he said. “[It] can be considered a beta-site that allows TASC to continue to refine the concept, its associated technologies and market applications,” said Ailinger.

“A key mission of TASC centers around the notion of getting the right information to the right decision-makers at the right time. That’s exactly what AeroExplorer.com is all about. It’s the concept of bringing together the right data and tools, so people can get what they need more easily. And we’re excited about the future benefits and efficiencies that this approach will someday bring to aviation users in both the public and private sectors.”

Since the site currently is in development, potential users can request a user name and password for free access. Eventually, Litton TASC will try to turn the site into a money-making enterprise. This could mean a subscription charge for users or sponsorship provided by an airline, or, simply, revenue generated from advertising, said Ailinger.

The company also is seeking to form strategic alliances with partners to increase the site’s prestige, said Ailinger. According to the Web site, Litton TASC “is interested in working with innovative companies focused on the design, development and manufacture of the next generation of products and services that will enable consumers, both large and small, to economically access navigational and situational awareness data on demand from the World Wide Web.” Such companies include makers of global positioning systems, weather information systems, network providers, wireless Internet providers, cell phone manufacturers, fixed-base operators and flight instruction facilities.

The company eventually wants to make it so that information provided by AeroExplorer.com can be sent directly to the cockpit.

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