Nation: Death over San Diego

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In fact, the cost of operating at many of the larger airports has become almost prohibitive for the middle-income private pilot. The safety equipment he must have can cost as much as or more than his plane. At the biggest airports this now includes updated two-way radio equipment capable of handling more than 360 channels (typical cost: $2,000); a transponder, which automatically enlarges the small plane's radar blip on a controller's screen ($1,500); an encoding altimeter, which projects the craft's altitude on the radarscope ($3,500). Even some private pilots concede that special training for those wishing to enter the high-pressure "bird cages" around major airports should be required. But the problem is how this experience can be obtained without posing the very danger it is meant to prevent —as at San Diego, where the special training available only at Lindbergh Field drew the Cessna into the area.

Considerable bitterness erupted in the aviation community last week when the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Captain JJ. O'Donnell, charged at a congressional hearing that the FAA has been dangerously delaying the use of a practical system for automatically warning pilots of a possible collision. The need for such a device has been conceded by most aviation experts for years; yet none are in general use. Asked Eastern Air Lines Pilot Jack Howell: "I wonder how many more San Diegos we will have before we get an efficient system?"

The pilots contend that the technology for such a system is at hand, and they cite one "black box" device used successfully by the McDonnell Douglas Corp. on the F4 Phantom jets it produces and tests near St. Louis. The airborne box sounds a Klaxon when a Phantom pilot is on a collision course with another plane and even tells him whether to go up, down, left or right. Simultaneous and opposite orders go to the other approaching pilot. But the device is expensive (up to $15,000 by one estimate).

FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond argued at the same hearing that no warning device is yet practical in a heavy traffic area. "There would be whistles and buzzers going off constantly in the cockpit," he told the committee, "and this would not serve the interests of air safety." He said that no system is yet reliable enough for general use. Florida Democrat Dante Fascell was unconvinced. He said he would introduce legislation making such devices mandatory on all large aircraft.

Coincidentally, the FAA issued new safety regulations last week for the various unscheduled small-plane commuter lines, chartered aircraft and "air taxis" that are adding to major-airport congestion. Their pilots will henceforth have to maintain full airline-transport-pilot certificates, and their planes must carry a ground-proximity warning system, cockpit voice recorder and either thunderstorm detection equipment or weather radar.

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