Better WiFi, heat-resistant engines and, far, far on the horizon, self-piloting passenger planes

PHOENIX – The Boeing 757 is minutes from takeoff to the Grand Canyon, but the interior lacks that airliner feel – its silver insulation is exposed, its overhead luggage bins and row upon row of seats gone.

The exterior also is different: A third engine is mounted midway on the fuselage.

Even the preflight patter with passengers is different. You’ll have to watch your step, test pilot Helmuth Eggeling tells the two-dozen passengers on board, but instead of tripping over other passengers’ feet, they’ll have to avoid stumbling in a cabin full electronic equipment.

Eggeling, a test pilot for Honeywell International Inc. for nearly three decades, is surrounded by cabinets stacked with computers to precisely monitor the performance of new equipment on the test flight: new 3-D weather-radar systems, WiFi with improved connectivity, “smart” runways and a more efficient turbofan jet.

Testing planes in an era of congested skies

Honeywell develops and tests aviation systems in Arizona during an era of flight considered one of the safest in modern history, even though deadly accidents can occur, such as the one last month that killed a passenger when engine debris shattered a window Southwest Airlines flight and she nearly was sucked out of the cabin.

Honeywell and other aerospace industry leaders, including Boeing and Airbus, test new technology in Arizona, in conditions ranging from extreme heat to bustling runways.

Helmuth Eggeling, a pilot for more than half a century, flies his last flight for Honeywell on May 31, 2018. The former Air Force pilot flew for Honeywell for 28 years. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

Aviation manufacturers also are looking toward a more automated future that could include planes piloted by computers rather than humans, similar to the emerging driverless-cars industry.

Mark Pickett, a flight test engineer for Honeywell’s aerospace division, said Phoenix is prime air space to test new technology.

“The weather is great for flying here,” Pickett said.

The scorching heat, which has forced airlines to ground some commercial flights, is ideal for testing new engines’ ability to withstand intense conditions thousands of feet in the air, engineers said.

According to the Arizona Commerce Authority, Arizona ranks fourth nationwide in generating aerospace revenue, adding more than $14 billion to the state’s economy.

Honeywell develops a range of aviation technology, from small aircraft engines to electrical systems, called avionics, that perform such functions as weather and terrain detection, runway navigation and autopilot control, company engineers said.

“The philosophy is to get everything automated to reduce the pilot’s workload,” Eggeling said. “It’s necessary because the sky is getting crowded.”

Stephen Hill, a flight test engineer for Honeywell, monitors the test engine’s performance during the Phoenix-Grand Canyon flight. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, as many as 5,000 domestic flights are in the air at peak times every day, serving more than 2.5 million passengers.

Aviation-technology manufacturers must go through a strict FAA certification process to ensure every piece of new technology meets safety standards, Honeywell spokeswoman Amanda Jensen said, adding that safety regulations and improvements bring peace of mind to passengers.

“Weather radar helps with safety because you don’t have to fly through any rough weather,” Jensen said, and that makes passengers more comfortable.

The comforts of in-flight WiFi, better air-conditioning and smoother landings are important to frequent flyers, she said, which drives Honeywell’s strategy on what technology to develop.

Technology that may replace pilots with computers

The biggest development in the distant future may be pilotless airline flights, sparked by new drone technology.

FAA regulations require two pilots to be in the cockpit on all commercial flights, but that could change if drone and pilotless systems become more popular, said Dennis Wren, a professor of unmanned aerial systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.

One pilot might take the plane into the air while her co-pilot stays on the ground, even handling multiple planes at one time, he said. The technology that pilots drones is similar to that of planes, he said.

A modified Boeing 757 full of new technology wheels over downtown Phoenix before returning to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

A display screen allows flight engineers to closely monitor systems during the flight. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

Major airlines may be incentivized to adopt pilotless-aircraft technology because it’s less expensive than hiring human pilots, Wren said.

But pilotless commercial flights would require leaping over emotional, strategic and technological hurdles, including updated regulations and public fears, he said. Passengers are comfortable with autopilot systems because they know humans are in the cockpit as a backup, but a pilotless plane is beyond the imagination of most people.

Computers are good at flying when they know what to expect, he said, but may have trouble adjusting to situations experienced human pilots routinely handle, such as storms, wind shears or equipment failures.

3-D weather radar and terrain-avoidance systems were among the Honeywell systems being tested on the flight in late May. (Photo by Nick Serpa/Cronkite News)

“Aviation, the actual act of flying, is a very dynamic environment,” Wren said.

The airfreight industry may adopt fully autonomous-piloting sooner than commercial airlines do, he said, adding, “The two worlds are already starting to meet.”

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency isn’t aware of any commercial airlines proposing automated piloting services. But media reports said Uber signed a deal with NASA last year to launch a flying-taxi project by 2020.

The Phoenix-Grand Canyon loop was the last Honeywell flight for Eggeling, who said he doesn’t think passengers would embrace about pilotless airplanes.

“I hate to see the pilotless type of flying,” he said. “I hope I never see that.”

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