“Getting There” in the Future: “NextGen” has become, “NowGen”

This is the first in a series of posts on the rapid and ongoing adoption of RNAV (RNP) and RNP AR approaches, and what that means for 21st-century flight crews.

This past month, as part of my own training, I flew my first RNAV (RNP) AR approach with an RF Leg. It was done in the simulator, so I got to fly a few as the PF, a few as the PM, and also a few with equipment failures, go-arounds and even one or two to a landing. Big deal, right?

At least that was my thinking before the training. While flying my first (ever) RNP approach with a curved segment (not to be confused with the traditional arcing segment associated with a VOR approach), in VNAV mode with both speed and altitude constraints along the flight track, it occurred to me that I had not given this new vocational requirement the advanced consideration it deserved. Clearly, I thought to myself, I needed to learn more before achieving a mastery-level ability, and certainly much more if I was going to provide instruction to others. It was a real eye-opener.

In case you haven’t been following NextGen progress that closely, this aspect of airspace and aircraft modernization falls under the “PBN” umbrella (Performance-Based Navigation), along with a few other related innovations (we’ll look at these in subsequent posts, as well). For review, In general terms, PBN:

“Delivers new routes and procedures that primarily use satellite-based navigation and on-board aircraft equipment to navigate with greater precision and accuracy and can provide benefits through all phases of flight. It provides a basis for designing and implementing automated flight paths, airspace redesign and obstacle clearance. PBN benefits include shorter, more direct flight paths, improved airport arrival rates, enhanced controller productivitiy, increased safety due to repeatable, predictable flgith paths, fuel savings and a reduction in aviation’s adverse environmental impact.”

(FAA NextGen bulletin, “Peformance Based Navigation: Untangling the Airspace.” 2014)

If this reads like nothing but Greek so far, it’s important to stop and consider that for decades the FAA has been working on NextGen technologies that promise to make flying more efficient, precise, and of course, safe. The above text was written by the FAA NextGen staff two years ago, when the anticipation about “curved, VNAV approaches to lower minima” was little more than “hippie talk” to most pilots. I think it’s time that we begin to think of NextGen as NowGen, since many of us are now flying with this technology routinely, if not every time we get in the cockpit (getting our clearance via datalink, participating in many, if not all aspects of FANS, ADS, and CPDLC, etc.).

Among the many advantages of NextGen technology listed above, simplicity in adopting new procedures across the aviation profession is not included as a deliverable. It all reminds me of a quote that I read (and then wrote down) that captures contemporary aviation problem solving, even if it is from another era of scientific and technological advances: 

“The World we have made, as a result of the thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.”

– Albert Einstein

It’s not far-fetched or even far-sighted any more to contemplate that the way we get to our destination runway is increasingly going to depend on these new technologies, and thinking of them in the same way that we have been for conventional approaches over the past half-century is a mistake. Some of the procedures and techniques associated with conventional, “legacy” procedures may map over to the new procedures, but there are aspects of the new designs that require a new kind of mindset, beyond just casually adding these new instrument procedures to our repertoire of traditional (and soon to be obsolete) procedures, with little more than some background knowledge and practice.

In a previous posting, I wrote on the importance of diving into the source documents for any new innovation, and this is a great example of how that can benefit every 21st-century pilot. To get a running start on this new family of approaches, in our next post we will dive straight into the most current (2016) guidance on the subject, FAA Advisory Circular 90-101A (Change: 1). It’s a technical AC in many respects, but it does bring to the forefront all of the issues that pilots should be considering as they bring this capability into their everyday routine. We’ll try to decode the AC and possibly help make sense of the new technology.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

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