Follow the leader: Airport hosts high-altitude test of NASA flight software

If you’ve ever been stuck on a plane longer than you wanted, there’s some R&D that could bring relief on the horizon: a new technology being developed by NASA (THE NASA) that could help reduce airline delays. And it was just tested at King County International/Boeing Field.

No, it doesn’t involve launching passengers into orbit, and you won’t need a space helmet. The system – called Flight Deck Interval Management – uses computer software to calculate and reduce the amount of time aircraft spend in the air.

How was it tested? Last week, NASA brought news crews in for a sneak peek, showcasing the technology via a game of “Follow the Leader” high above the clouds.

Three planes were needed: 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.Three aircarft circle Wenatchee as part of NASA's testing of its flight deck interval management technology. Two of the aircraft originated at King County International Airport/Boeing Field.

The small business jet was out in front, followed by the 757 packed full of reporters and researchers, then the 737 in the rear. NASA installed software on the two larger jets.

As we ascended out of the wet Puget Sound region and cruised to the designated landing area in snowy Grant County, east of the Cascade Mountains, the air traffic controllers told the pilots the ideal distance they should have between them and the plane in front of them.

The pilots entered the information into electronic tablets in the cockpit, which calculated the speed and distance the pilots needed to maintain to meet the goal.

Although the caravan never actually touched down in Grant County, the approaches produced pinpoint data for members of NASA’s Research Mission Directorate.A picture of snowy Grant County, Wash., that was taken from the inside of a 757 that was part of a test of new NASA technology

The testing continues this week, then researchers will analyze the results, according to Leighton Quon, NASA’s Project Manager for the testing.

“Today, was a good day because we got all our flights in and we’ve got our data,” he said after the demonstration Thursday.

If the data and tests prove the technology works, NASA will send it to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA can determine next steps whether to incorporate the technology for all aircraft.

It could take several years for it to be part of mainstream air traffic. Pretty cool that King County International Airport/Boeing Field played a role in its launch.

Researchers and media aboard a 757 discuss NASA's new Flight Deck Interval Management Technology, which is being tested at King County International Airport/Boeing Field“It’s been great,” Quon said of the Airport. “It’s been a pleasure to be here. They’re doing a good job for us. They’re taking care of us, and they’re getting our planes in and out as we had hoped.”

Check out this video to get a glimpse of NASA’s test beginning at KCIA/Boeing Field last week.