AVIATION

CLEARED TO LAND

Garmin Autoland elevates passenger safety to new heights.

JESSICA HALL

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The flight has been uneventful thus far. He children are quietly napping while you both catch up on email via in-flight satellite Internet access.

Up front, the affable pilot provided by the charter service had been deviating around menacing, dark cloud banks to keep the ride as smooth as possible. Just an hour ago, the pilot invited the children to join him as he conducted a pre-flight walkaround of the aircraft, a Daher TBM 940. He mentioned that he began his aviation career in the military, then “retired” as one of the major airlines before starting a new career as a corporate pilot. It’s reassuring to have such an experienced pilot in command of today’s flight.

With a glance toward the cockpit, it appears that the pilot is now opting to fly into the dead center of the next dark cumulonimbus cloud bank. A cursory glance at the pilot leads to an odd thought. Has he fallen asleep? No wonder he isn’t deviating as he had before.

After exchanging concerned looks with each other, you both move forward through the cabin to wake up the pilot. As you get closer, mild concern turns to adrenaline-inducing shock. The pilot has a blue pallor and is non-responsive. He is not asleep; he is deceased. With no pilot experience between you, what do you do next? You’ve seen movies in which passengers in similar predicaments grab the radio calling “Mayday! Mayday!,” but how does this radio operate? As the plane enters the cloud bank, you bump your head on the ceiling as the plan violently tosses and turns. You accept the fact that you are going to need a miracle to come out alive.

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Garmin’s “Miracle”

Garmin, a company well-known for products designed for aviation, marine, outdoor, automotive, and sports, introduced something of an aviation miracle in 2020. Named Autoland, the scenario the family found themselves in can change from probable catastrophe to a near non-event.

Same Scenario, Different Outcome

 

In the aforementioned hypothetical example, a Garmin Autoland-capable flight would have saved the day.

As part of the pilot’s safety briefing, the pilot would have added, “This aircraft features an Autoland capability. In the unlikely event that I am incapacitated during the flight, you need only press this emergency button. The aircraft will go into Autoland mode which entails contacting air traffic control for you, picking the nearest safe airport (emphasis on the word “safe”) and then the plane will land itself. All the while, the cockpit screen and Autoland voice will tell you what is happening in real-time. In such a situation, I may be beyond saving, but you will have nearly zero risks whatsoever and a mighty interesting story to tell as well.”

Here is how Garmin Autoland works in greater detail: after a passenger presses the Autoland button that was highlighted during the safety briefing, a calm Autoland voice will enunciate over the aircraft’s speakers, “Emergency Autoland activated. The Emergency Autoland system is controlling the aircraft and will land at the safest, nearby airport”. In deciding upon the airport to land at, Autoland takes under consideration multiple factors including fuel range, terrain, weather, runway length, and time.

The cockpit screens, which may appear complicated to no-pilots, change to easy-to-understand messages that any non-pilot can understand.

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In parallel, Autoland communicated to air traffic control what the landing plan is. Given that this scenario is an emergency, air traffic control will clear any potential hazards such as nearby aircraft in the air or on the ground. Air traffic control will also alert airport emergency services to meet the plane after it has come to a complete stop and shut down on the runway.

The Autoland voice continues to provide updates, as do the cockpit screens: “Autoland has already informed air traffic control of your situation. Your estimated time to landing is shown on the top of all three displays”.

The screens provide additional information as well including a map, destinations airport, and time remaining. For those inclined to details, the screens also display fuel on board, altitude, airspeed, and heading.

The Autoland voice continues, “Your airplane has begun maneuvering into position for the final approach to landing. The Emergency Autoland system is controlling all flight functions. Wait for aircraft and propeller to stop before exiting the aircraft.”

Garmin Autoland has other practical applications as well. For example, if a pilot becomes nonresponsive, as might be the case due to oxygen malfunction leading to hypoxia, Autoland can take over. Another instance might be when a pilot becomes disoriented (spatial disorientation) such that the pilot’s click of the Autoland button will lead the plane to a safe landing.

Garmin Autoland is incorporated into the company’s G3000 cockpit system which also included other safety-enhancing technologies such as emergency descent mode and electronic stability and protection.

Upon receiving FAA certifications for general aviation aircraft in May of this year, Phil Straub, Garmin executive vice president and managing director of aviation exclaimed, “What started as a vision to develop the world’s first Autoland system for general aviation, became a reality today as we deliver one of the industry’s most forward-thinking technologies that will forever enhance aviation safety and save lives.”

Garmin has already announced Autoland availability for the Piper M600 SLS, Cirrus Vision Jet, and Daher TBM940 with the promise that additional aircraft certifications will follow.

While Garmin Autoland is today intended for emergencies only, there is little doubt that Autoland is a huge step forward toward a promising future of autonomous flight.