NASA testing (really cool) flight software at King County International Airport/Boeing Field

Flight Bag

A view of the electronic flight bag screen as it’s being used in simulations to prepare pilots and flight coordinators for the ATD-1 flight campaign.Credits: NASA Langley / David C. Bowman

If NASA’s newest technology to increase airline efficiency and reduce air traffic delays eventually takes flight, remember that King County International Airport/Boeing Field played a small role in helping it go mainstream.

How? By hosting one of the coolest games of “Follow the Leader” we’ve ever seen.

NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is in the Northwest testing airborne flight deck interval management software. That’s a mouthful, but basically it’s technology that can help pilots better space their approaches into airports so air traffic controllers and airlines can pinpoint when planes will land, literally to within a few seconds. It’s part of a series of flights known as Air Traffic Management Technology Demonstration, or ATD-1 in NASA speak.

They’ve got details online at the aeronautics and space administration agency. They explain how the testing involves three airplanes – Honeywell’s Boeing 757 and business jet based out of Boeing Field, as well as a United Airlines Boeing 737 based out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Here’s how the technology works, according to NASA:

The Boeing aircraft are equipped with NASA-developed software that can more precisely and safely manage the arrival of aircraft to airports. The business jet, flying lead, will broadcast its speed and position information to the 757 and 737, and the two larger airplanes will follow, allowing the test software to automatically calculate the speeds and distances the pilots must maintain between aircraft. That information is displayed on a tablet computer in the cockpit.

Flight Bag

At NASA’s Langley Research Center, retired airline pilots test procedures that will be used during upcoming flight tests of a new aircraft spacing tool. The simulator is set up like a 757 jet, similar to one of the aircraft in the ATD-1 flight tests. Credits: NASA Langley / David C. Bowman

In other words, the technology can help predict the moment an airplane touches down. By better syncing up planes in flight and for landings, the technology will help airplanes spend less time in the air, which saves fuel and reduces noise and engine emissions while reducing airplane delays.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, NASA is inviting media to cover the technology during a limited-seating test flight from Boeing Field to Grant County International Airport. (Local media interested in reserving a seat must contact NASA’s Kathy Barnstorff at or 757-344-8511 no later than 9 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7).

We’ll see what news we can share on The Centerline following the test and media coverage.