Device aims to improve landing, takeoff safety
By Trevor Pritchard
Mechanical Engineering PhD student Shane Pinder is making sure airplane flight remains safe for future travellers like his son Nathan.
"Fifty years ago, most airports in the country were first being built," Pinder explains. "Since then, cities have basically grown around airports. And as aircraft have gotten larger and larger, coping mechanisms have been developed to deal with the fact that runways are really not long enough to take off with certain safety."
Working with Transwest Air, Pinder designed the Global Positioning Data Recorder, a device that may one day allow pilots to judge with increased accuracy just how much room is left on the runway during takeoff.
As with automobiles, airplanes are more likely to experience engine problems as the pilot increases the thrust. Airplane companies want their pilots to accelerate to takeoff speed - approximately 200 km/h - as gradually as possible, says Pinder, thus minimizing the amount of strain placed upon the engine and reducing the cost of engine upkeep. By accelerating too gradually, however, the airplane may not reach takeoff speed until after the point on the runway where a takeoff can be safely aborted - a risky proposition for any pilot.
Using the information provided by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting the Earth, Pinder's data recorder pinpoints the precise location on the runway after which the pilot will not have enough room to come to a complete stop. "Airplane pilots need to be prepared to abort a takeoff if something goes wrong before they reach takeoff speed," Pinder remarks.
His device has shown it is possible to predict the future location of the airplane a few seconds in advance, giving the pilot more time to respond to a potentially unsafe situation.
The data recorder Pinder designed was installed on a Transwest Jetstream 31, a 19-passenger, twin turboprop aircraft commonly used on gravel runways. Since Saskatchewan's flight industry is tied to northern rural airports, where paved runways are a rarity, Pinder decided to focus his research upon the dangerous complexities of landing and taking off from gravel surfaces.
Pinder sees the potential for his data recorder to become a marketable commodity, although he realizes he will have to do much of the initial work himself. "With any project like this, the person that is going to further develop it almost invariably has to be the person who came up with it."
"While there's nobody breaking down my door saying 'Can I have one of these things,' emergency medical aircraft are going to be the ones most likely to benefit first."
The data recorder would work ideally with air ambulances, claims Pinder, because emergency medical pilots land at different airports on a daily basis. They don't have the familiarity and comfort with the landing surface that a commercial airline pilot would normally have, and many of their flights are to and from remote rural airports. And detailed charts and graphs, he says, are useful but cannot take into account tricky variables like reaction time and human error.
"Two seconds doesn't sound like much," says Pinder, "but when you're going 200 km/h, two seconds covers a lot of runway!"
The son of a private pilot, Pinder is acutely aware of the many perils, some bordering on the absurd, that are associated with landing at northern airports. "There's stray animals crossing runways, limited snow removal, and the runway slope can be extreme," he says. "Pilots are literally taking their lives into their hands when they fly into these airports."
Earning his pilot's license in 1991, Pinder has logged more than 300 flying hours and has landed and taken off in all manner of challenging conditions. His experiences in the pilot's seat have made him aware of the necessity of having sophisticated technological devices to aid pilots in their decisions, which must be both swift and accurate.
Pinder has also been busy outside the cockpit. In the fall of 2000, Pinder taught upper-level physics and mathematics to aspiring pilots at SIAST (the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology), which he calls a "short but positive" experience. He has also taught several undergraduate engineering courses and has served as the president of the Graduate Students' Association, in the 1999-2000 academic year.
Pinder is enthusiastic about future applications for his data recorder, which he sees eventually leading to a system that will eliminate the potential for human error. "The long-term vision is [to come] up with an automatic deceleration system, so that if you've reached the part on the runway where there's not enough room left to take off, the plane's going to decelerate."
Trevor Pritchard writes profiles of U of S graduate students as part of his Graduate Student Fellowship work for the College of Graduate Studies & Research.