Thankfully and at least in the U.S., we can still fly around in a lot of airspace without showing up on ATC radar screens or talking to anyone. In fact and as a testament to private aviation’s anonymity, more than a few pilots in recent years have made a point of flying from one coast to the other in aircraft lacking electrical systems. It’s a privilege that should be preserved, though it probably won’t be.
Put aside recent revelations about government surveillance of citizens and use of video cameras to monitor surface vehicles. The March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—as this is written two months later, no trace of the Boeing 777 has been found—is likely to put increasing pressure on governments to identify and track civil aircraft, and obtain at least some operational data. The initial emphasis will be on scheduled passenger operations, but there will be additional pressures to establish takeoff-to-touchdown monitoring of all flights. It all can and likely will trickle down to personal aviation eventually.
Many of the necessary components already exist, no matter the size of the aircraft: Modern avionics for piston singles on up record and store a wide variety of flight information, down to flap position and altimeter setting. The ADS-B OUT requirement going into effect January 1, 2020, mandates transmitting identification and position data to FAA ground stations by all aircraft wishing to use certain airspace. Piggy-backing additional information into that data stream should be simple enough that even an FAA contractor could do it.
We already have WiFi in our personal cockpits, aboard both portable devices and certified avionics. And it’s just a matter of time before someone comes up with affordable broadband service at altitude that doesn’t require hardware more expensive than the airplane. All of which brings up privacy and enforcement concerns about the eventual stream of operational data from commercial and private aircraft alike.
Ideally, current trends in government and corporate acquisition of identifying information would not extend to private aviation. Good luck with that. The real issue is how that data can be used, by whom and for what. For example, having near-real-time operational information would eliminate one of the arguments against per-flight user fees. It also could be used for search and rescue operations: someone would know a flight’s last transmitted location, and we’d at last be able to rid ourselves of cantankerous ELTs. I give it no more than 20 years.
One of the points of all this is that the industry needs to be thinking about answers to these questions. The ASRS and FOQA programs are good places to start developing a policy for operational data, and hopefully will be the ending point, also. In the meantime, we’re still able to fly around in radio-less aircraft, or turn off the one we have. That’s a good thing, while it lasts. — Jeb Burnside