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Global Positioning Systems Improve Helicopter Safety

By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2009 – Global positioning system technology is being applied to older rotary-wing aircraft to help save lives, a senior helicopter pilot based at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., said.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
U.S. Air Force Col. Pete Mapes discusses the Garmin 500W GPS during a Defense Safety Oversight Council demonstration on Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Sept. 17, 2009. DoD photo by William D. Moss
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Air Force Col. Peter Mapes and other pilots at Andrews will install and test advanced GPS units, designed originally for airplanes, in some of the 316th Wing, 1st Helicopter Squadron’s UH-1N “Huey” helicopters.

“This is game-changing technology because it directly addresses the leading cause of loss of life in this type of aeronautical vehicle,” Mapes said.

The Defense Safety Oversight Council sponsored the test as part of efforts to reduce helicopter mishaps. From 1985 to 2005, 917 non-combat mishaps occurred, resulting in death, injury, damage exceeding $200,000, and the loss of aircraft.

Most helicopter fatalities are caused by impact with terrain – unseen mountains, trees or other obstructions -- known as controlled flight into terrain or CFIT. Because the vehicles are generally moving at high speed during such collisions, more than 90 percent of passengers and crew exposed to these events are injured or killed.

The GPS units installed in the Hueys help prevent- CFITs by displaying maps of potential obstructions at a certain elevation.

“This device has a global terrain database and will warn you of any potential collision," Mapes said. "It also has an obstruction database for North America, Central America and Western Europe that will warn about towers if you're in those areas.”

The new GPS systems, he explained, turn each helicopter into a sort of “mini radar station.” In addition to providing data on obstructions and terrain, it also tracks weather patterns – including lightning strikes, wind flow and rain – and other aircraft in the area.

Unexpectedly bad weather is the second leading non-human factor responsible for Army helicopter mishaps, and the leading non-human factor causing fatalities.

But, by using the new equipment, officials say, a pilot can essentially fly “blind” using the GPS and weather data to make flight plans, observe potential obstructions and even land the aircraft with minimal visibility.

The unit, a GNS-530AWT produced by Garmin, also gives the helicopters radio communication and navigation requirements, making them easy to deploy worldwide.

(Ian Graham is a writer for the Defense Media Activity’s Emerging Media Directorate.)

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