Airline wins support in battle with ESA

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GUEST COMMENTARY: Norway’s regional airline Widerøe is currently in the midst of defending itself against a potentially punitive and expensive regulatory action from the European Free Trade Association (EFTA)’s competition authority (ESA). The small airline, which took expensive corrective action of its own many years ago to help it operate safely in and out of some of Norway’s most challenging airports, has won some sympathy from a US aerospace expert and former engineer at Lockheed Martin in California, Richard Bull. He writes here that there’s a reason Widerøe has been granted some of the state-subsidized routes it flies.

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Widerøe is best known for serving small airports with short runways, often surrounded by towering mountains and prone to bad weather. Its investment in special navigation systems helps it safely land at airports like here at Volda on the West Coast, a major factor in why it has won the concession to serve several state-subsidized routes that has prompted complaints from a Danish competitor. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Brønnøysund is about a three-hour flight from Ålesund, much of which is consumed by a stop in Trondheim. Brønnøysund is not a particularly friendly place from which to operate aircraft. A combination of weather, terrain and runway orientation make it a challenge on an average day.

In May 1988 a deHavilland Canada DHC-7 “Dash 7” operated by Widerøe, designated Flight 710, crashed on its approach to Brønnøysund, killing all 36 on board. The tragedy that was soberly observed on its 30th anniversary earlier this month became known as the Torghatten ulykken, because of the location of the wreckage found scattered around the distinctive Torghatten island offshore. The cause of the crash was determined to be that the approach began seven kilometers too early. It was also found that there was a passenger present in the cockpit, a likely distraction, and that crew training and protocol issues may have been a factor.

Flight 710 was only the second of four Widerøe accidents between 1982 and 1993, responsibility for which were all assigned to the airline’s operations and policy. This series of mishaps very appropriately precipitated extensive corrective action, including examination of current electronic navigation aids. Such were rather obviously absent or inadequate. The pervasive navigation aid at the time, the Instrument Landing System (ILS), had limited or no interface with the avionics of an aircraft. It’s unclear whether ILS was present or operational at Brønnøysund during this mishap, but it is known that Flight 710 was operating under Instrumentation Flight Rules; IFR. There was heavy fog at the time, which ruled out Visual Flight Rules, VFR. The VOR/DME system (VHF Omnidirectional Range and Distance Measuring Equipment) was present and operational.

As a result, in addition to crew discipline, human factors, and other corrective actions, Widerøe began to examine navigational options beyond ILS and IFR. During this period, GPS was a rising technology. By 1993, standards for a GPS-based navigational aid were emerging. In 1996 Honeywell’s Differential GPS Satellite Landing System was announced in Avionics News Magazine. As soon as this technology became available, Widerøe pounced on it. Not that it became immediately available; it would take years to realize.

There’s a memorial here in the Russian settlement of Barentsburg on Svalbard to the 141 victims of a crash eerily similar to the Widerøe tragedy eight years earlier. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

In the meantime, a tragedy highly similar to the one at Brønnøysund occurred on Svalbard with the crash of Vnukovo Airlines Flight 2801 on August 29, 1996. This is counted as the deadliest crash ever on Norwegian soil. The factors in both mishaps, while not identical, were excruciatingly similar. As before, the aircraft was kilometers (15) from the runway, and as before, struck a promontory. One thing that distinguishes this crash is that we know that both the radio altimeter and ground prox warnings were repeatedly activated. Once again, however, the crew did not know where they were, recognized they were in desperate trouble, but available navigation systems were inadequate to inform them, too late, of other than a welter of doom. Crew error was of course identified as a major contributor here as well. Miscommunication played a part in both cases, but as mentioned above, the technology would take another decade.

In 2005, Aviationweek.com wrote that “FAA STC Type Inspection Authorization flight tests were successfully conducted at multiple airports in Norway with Avinor, the Civil Aviation Authority Norway, using ground stations,” wrote Aviationweek.com. In 2007, website flightglobal.com wrote that the “world’s only certificated global navigation satellite system (GNSS) precision approach system guided its first passenger-carrying aircraft to touchdown on 29 October (2007) at a remote airport in Norway. A Bombardier Dash 8-100 of (at the time) SAS subsidiary Widerøe carried out the inaugural approach to Runway 04 at Brønnøysund.” (SAS later put up the profitable Widerøe for sale as part of restructuring efforts when SAS was struggling financially, with the small airline now owned by two Norwegian transport firms.)

One of the revolutionary aspects of Universal Avionics’ GLS-1250 GPS
Landing Sensor System is not merely precision. It incorporates an extensive interface with an aircraft’s avionics. This is important. Your GPS smartphone tells you where you are, and what you need to do to arrive at your selected destination; also perhaps your relative speed and estimated ETA. Since you are on a (presumably) flat or at least continuous roadway, any altitude or other information is kind of a bonus. But suppose it could make you slow down for that exit ramp? Or predict a traffic signal interruption?

Aircraft navigate in three dimensions, so not only relative altitude, but also glide ratio and a lot of other parameters are critical. Too low, too fast. Too high, too slow. And you can’t always pull around. No; just telling the pilot where to go isn’t enough. You need to tell the aircraft. Therein lies the rub.

Then there is the ground station thing. When the system was implemented, it was recognized that direct-from-satellite signals were a bit dodgy. So simplistically, a ground station transmits data directly to that pesky airborne receiver.

Back to telling the aircraft. The system employed by Widerøe is actually not just a receiver stuck in the cockpit. It is a fully redundant and integrated part of the avionics system of the aircraft. This is why the bland “lack of available receivers” statements in the complaint and repeated by the press are sort of a canard. One cannot go on Amazon and pick up some nav boxes and duct-tape them to the dashboard. It requires an extensive and expensive retrofit, for which many existing aircraft may be ill-suited. A lengthy and costly certification of each and every model of aircraft so equipped (similar to US-FAA Type Acceptance and other mandatory requirements) and crew certification is then necessary.

What to do, what to do? I can’t put one in my fave aeroplane and the Norwegians are unsympathetic. Whine to the regulators. Never mind the expensive development and implementation cycle. Ignore the fact that Avinor also made a significant effort and investment. Never mind the folks who died before this technology was mature enough to be implemented. You are unfairly competing because you and the government of Norway invested in a technology we don’t have. I want my mommy!

It is almost incomprehensible why this should be entertained as a competition issue. There is not even a whiff of competitive inequity. It is a critical safety and operations issue. Bring your flying Danish pastries up to scratch, or get off of the runway.

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Contributor Richard Bull has worked in the aerospace industry for the last four decades, including Rockwell-Collins Microline aircraft avionics product manufacture, then design and maintenance of various space launch vehicle avionics and explosive ordnance systems. He has participated in several engineering boards of inquiry involving flight mishaps. He specializes in test, failure analysis and corrective action.