Ensuring safety in the skies is the Federal Aviation Administration's core mission, but that can too easily get lost under a blizzard of bureaucratic rules and regulations. Consider the FAA's ambitious "Next Gen" air traffic control system, which by 2020 will replace 300 aging radar stations with a sophisticated satellite-based global positioning system. The FAA could easily have included all aircraft in its final rule requiring pilots to be able to broadcast their position and velocity to other air traffic in the general vicinity. But nonmotorized aircraft, including gliders, were inexplicably exempted despite the fact that nine people have died and dozens more have been injured in accidents involving gliders and airplanes, including two pilots who were killed in a midair collision last November over Middletown, Calif.
This omission is particularly disturbing given that the National Transportation Safety Board, which has investigated all of these crashes, has repeatedly recommended that the FAA require gliders to carry devices that make them visible to other aircraft. Glider owners have long resisted these efforts because the available technology was cumbersome and expensive. FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto told The Examiner that gliders were exempted because "they fly in remote areas." That logic cannot be encouraging to the owners, pilots and passengers who use more than a quarter-million general aviation aircraft in this country, many of which operate in the same "remote areas."
Takemoto also noted that gliders were exempted by FAA officials because they can't support current position-identification equipment used on powered aircraft because it consumes power and adds excessive weight to the aircraft. However, those objections have largely been eliminated by a new miniaturized transceiver, developed by McLean-based Mitre Corp., that is cheap, lightweight and can run on four AA batteries. The device, originally designed for unmanned aircraft, can alert other aircraft of a glider's presence within 80 nautical miles, giving them enough time and space to avoid a collision.
After The Examiner took the FAA to task last year for not acting on the NTSB's repeated recommendations, the FAA finally agreed to test the prototype on gliders and fix several technical glitches in Frederick, Md., this summer. "We'll see if the damn thing works," Phil Umphres, president of the Soaring Society of America, told us, adding that Mitre has agreed to make the technology commercially available if and when it gets the green light from FAA officials. That's encouraging, but FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt should also explain -- on the record -- why his agency has ignored the NTSB's recommendation that gliders no longer be exempted from carrying this life-saving technology.