For decades, Detroit City Airport handled more takeoffs and landings than any other airfield in Michigan. But starting in the 1960s, traffic at the 264-acre airport slowly descended as officials struggled to acquire land to add more runways. Factory workers, flush with cash and eager for new homes, beat them to the punch.
As commercial and cargo traffic steadily shifted to the more expansive Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, City Airport began to lose its luster. A resurgence from 1988 to 1993 saw Detroit’s only airport handle nearly 800,000 annual passengers, yet the good times didn’t last due to an economic recession and fierce competition within the airline industry.
City Airport’s obsolescence, however, may prove to be its savior. NASA, the same agency that spawned the Apollo moon missions, is preparing for a future of safer, quieter, and nearly fully autonomous general aviation flights under a program called Small Aircraft Transportation Systems, or SATS.
The space agency’s initial SATS plan, developed more than a decade ago, has since been replaced by the Next Generation Transportation System, or NextGen, a wide-ranging program that will use satellite technology and other aviation breakthroughs to improve safety and manage a dramatic increase in demand for commercial, corporate, and general aviation airspace. Many insiders believe Michigan — specifically metro Detroit, with its plethora of engineering talent, manufacturing know-how, and available industrial space — is uniquely positioned to be at the leading edge of the technological revolution.
And Detroit City Airport, because of its narrow use — it handles some 60,000 small aircraft, or general aviation, flights each year — could lead a renaissance in the aerospace industry that seems almost as unattainable today as did the idea of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth nearly half a century ago.
“The one thing about City Airport is that it has the strong potential, due to its limited use, to be an early adopter of the next generation of aviation,” says Sandy Munro, CEO of Munro & Associates, a consulting engineering firm in Troy with a long list of aviation and defense clients, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics. “It’s something the whole state of Michigan would benefit from, as well as the rest of the world.” Munro is chairman of the Michigan SATS lab, based in his facility.
According to Bureau of Transportation statistics and NASA forecasts, commercial airline and cargo flights are expected to triple to 31 million annual flights in 2025 (up from 10.3 million such flights in 2010). What’s more, corporate jet and general aviation traffic will ascend to 19.8 million flights in 2025, up from 6.6 million flights last year, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
To meet this demand, the entire aviation industry must be overhauled, redesigned, and reconfigured. The current communications system, based on World War II technology like radar and party line radio, already is strained and cannot scale up to meet the rise in demand, experts say. To be sure, in recent months air traffic controllers have struggled to safely orchestrate takeoffs and landings at some of the nation’s busiest airports.
In April, a plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama had to be redirected after it came dangerously close to a 200-ton military cargo jet at Andrews Air Force Base. Prior to that occurrence, there were two separate incidents in which an air traffic controller working the overnight shift was found sleeping; on another occasion, a controller was caught watching a movie while on the job.
What’s more, the number of air traffic controller errors which have resulted in planes coming too close to each other have increased dramatically in the past year.
If communication equipment fails to reach the next level — NextGen calls for GPS systems in every plane that can more precisely broadcast the exact location and type of nearby aircraft, along with traffic and weather information — the ensuing shortfall would cost the U.S. billions of dollars annually in lost productivity, increased operational costs, and higher fares. There’s also the lost value from flights that airlines must eliminate to keep delays to acceptable minimums.
Keeping the U.S. competitive, say NextGen proponents, depends upon an air transportation system that can significantly expand capacity and flexibility, in the presence of weather and other uncertainties, while maintaining safety and protecting the environment.
To get there, the U.S. House of Representatives in April passed a bill that would pump nearly $60 billion into NextGen over the next four years. The House bill includes a labor provision that limits the rights of airline employees to unionize, while the Senate’s version, passed in February, was written without the labor clause. The two bills are now being consolidated into a single package to send to the White House. As it stands, President Obama has said he would veto the bill if it includes limits on organized labor.
Once NextGen leaps its political hurdles, Michigan — with its vast resources in engineering capacity and manufacturing expertise — could show the way for the transformation of the aviation industry.
“When NextGen gets going, it will lead to opportunities where Michigan can play a major role,” says Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association in Grand Rapids. “There are opportunities for electronics in planes, and even the hardware in air traffic control. NextGen is something that’s desperately needed to help our industry grow.”
Bruce Holmes, CEO of NextGen Aero Sciences in Williamsburg, Va., a company that supplies software for studying complex air transportation systems, says the technological hurdle is not just a vision, but also a necessity. He spent more than 30 years at NASA in various capacities, the last of which was as a senior aviation analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration. While in that position, Holmes helped organize the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office, a group comprised of FAA, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, and NASA representatives who ultimately conceived NextGen.
Obama referred to the need for NextGen in this year’s State of the Union Address as a “Sputnik moment,” recalling the Soviet satellite that sparked the space race — a political and technological contest that mobilized America’s space industry. “I hope that the concept of an economic Sputnik moment sticks somewhere in the country,” Holmes says. “It’s going to take some purposeful, forward-thinking action in order to employ our industrial capacity, which is untapped as far as aviation is concerned, in order to fully implement NextGen more rapidly. We really need entrepreneurs in the industrial and operating arenas thinking about what this nation’s 21st-century economic story is going to be.”
Holmes says metro Detroit would be a prime candidate to take the NextGen bull by the horns. “The parallel I would draw is that, at the beginning of World War II, Detroit became one of the manufacturing hubs for warplanes,”
he says. “Here we are in a situation where there is unused industrial capacity in Detroit and the surrounding area, and a network of suppliers that know how to work with each other (and) could be put to work on NextGen.”
Metro Detroit made significant contributions to advancing aviation even before World War II. Michigan companies produced aircraft and parts for World War I, and the Ford Tri- Motor was the first commercial all-aluminumclad airplane when it debuted in 1925.
During World War II, Ford produced 8,685 B-24 Liberator bombers, 50,000 Pratt & Whitney engines, and 4,203 assault gliders. Nash- Kelvinator, another Detroit manufacturer, crafted 150,000 propellers, while Chevrolet churned out 500,000 propeller blade, and Packard hammered out 55,523 Rolls-Royce engines for planes. Additionally, some of the biggest names in aviation — Boeing, Lear, Lindbergh, and Lockheed Skunk Works’ Clarence “Kelly” Johnson — had roots in Detroit.
“Michigan should be taking an aggressive role in the implementation of advanced safety systems in the air and on the ground,” says Jon Rimanelli, president of Romulus-based Nextronix Inc., which produces circuit boards and other technology for the aviation and automotive industries. He’s also chairman of Detroit Aircraft Corp. in Detroit, and recently joined with Munro to revive the Michigan SATS lab, a NASA consortium that researches and develops enabling technologies for personal aerial vehicle design and manufacturing (an element of NextGen).
The vision, Rimanelli says, is to develop lightweight aircraft using automotive mass production methodology and techniques to lower the cost of personal aircraft, which now are generally assembled one at a time, with a lot of customization.
Once built and equipped with NextGen technology, personal aircraft could fly virtually automatically from one place to another. The idea is to take the pressure off the nation’s large airports by bringing air travel closer to the people.
“Most of the country does not live near a big airport,” Holmes notes. “Aviation and aerospace are at a crossroads where the technologies are now becoming available to enable automated air transportation. Just look at what’s being done with drones in military applications. Some drone missions are flown autonomously, (while) others (are flown) remotely. The prospect of flying aircraft that have more safety … through the application of automation and certain levels of autonomy is a major piece of NextGen.”
However, jumping into an automated airplane taxi at an airport close to home, as Holmes and others envision, isn’t something that will happen overnight. “Safety is a design constraint,” Holmes admits.
“We have to figure out how to build the communication, navigation, and surveillance architecture so when — not if — an onboard system fails, you have a fail-safe recovery capability. Aviation has been good at this for a long time.”
Assuming all of the safety and technological hurdles are cleared, NextGen proponents see passengers turning themselves over to what are, essentially, small, pilotless aircraft controlled by trained personnel on the ground (much like drones are controlled today).
Holmes sees implementation of NextGen being a joint operation of airports both large and small. “The big airports will do certain things and the smaller airports will do certain other things at the same time, and sort of grow toward the middle,” he says.
“Smaller airports can do things much more quickly,” Holmes adds, referring to the ability for smaller airports to be more flexible in adapting to the needed changes.
Already, Detroit officials are making plans to provide for a private company to operate City Airport. Included in the bid offering is language that requires that the next airport operator assumes responsibility for, as much as possible, NextGen R&D, engineering, design, and the production of small aircraft equipped with off-the-shelf automotive technology like gas- or battery-powered engines.
“Can we say for certain that this will happen?” asks George W. Jackson Jr., president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. “No, but we’re laying the groundwork to position City Airport for the rollout of NextGen over the coming years. With all of the technology and manufacturing prowess in the region and state, along with our collective aviation history, we stand a good chance of being at the cutting edge of implementing this technology.”
Meanwhile, Detroit Metro Airport officials eagerly anticipate the incorporation of NextGen into their operations.
“The current ground-based radar systems used for air traffic control, and the signals they produce, pose challenges for airport planning and construction which would only compound as air travel continues to grow,” says Wayne Sieloff, director of planning, design, and construction for the Wayne County Airport Authority, which operates Detroit Metro and Willow Run Airport, in Ypsilanti. “Those of us in the field of airport planning look forward to transitioning to NextGen with great enthusiasm.”
Michael Conway, communications director for Detroit Metro Airport, adds, “The precision and efficiency promised by NextGen will reduce noise, save jet fuel, and provide more on-time arrivals and departures for our customers. It’s an expensive system to install. However, considering the current price of jet fuel and the cumulative costs associated with delays, it’s worth the investment.”
While NASA says its research will contribute to many, but not all, of the NextGen projects, it is looking to academia and private industry to fill in the gaps. “When you try to scale that up to what we project to be a tripling of the demand for air travel, that old system will not meet the new demand,” Holmes says.
NextGen, with its GPS and computer models for trajectories and flight paths, is just what the industry needs to move forward, according to aviation experts.
“By improving flight paths and utilizing airspace more efficiently, it becomes easier and more effective for the airlines to sell their services to their customers,” Holmes says. “Flights will be better-managed and performance will be more predictable. Ideally, as the costs come down, airlines would be able to serve markets they aren’t serving now.”
That’s why Holmes believes the country doesn’t have time for long political debates about new technological integrations or how labor issues will play a role in the future of the aviation industry.
“We don’t have a choice in this,” he says. “If we decide to do nothing, our nation loses one of its competitive edges in economic system performance. Air transportation is an essential ingredient in driving access to diversity of markets and access to innovative contributions to cities large and small.”
As monitoring aircraft with GPS becomes more detailed and reliable, highly automated systems will enable controllers to manage considerably more planes, and the human role of flight management will transition to strategic decision-making as the tactical separation of aircraft becomes more automated.
To that end, NASA and the FAA established NextGen to target, plan, and conduct costeffective research for the airspace system of the future. That includes developing virtual skyways with artificial vision, which work with autopilot systems to make aircraft safer and easier to operate. With more planes in the air, traffic will be monitored and controlled by an airborne Internet providing information about proximity and weather without radar, control towers, and other expensive ground equipment.
Rimanelli says Michigan’s role in NextGen could come from adopting the technology early on by allowing airports around the state to operate as test beds for demonstrating air taxis of the future. These taxis would incorporate lean automotive design, components, and manufacturing practices, as well as the use of advanced materials. “You could see low-cost aircraft using automotive materials (a Corvette engine, for example), design techniques, and manufacturing expertise,” he says. “The idea is to make aircraft as accessible as an automobile from a cost and operations standpoint.”
To that end, companies like Dassault Systems Delmia Corp. in Auburn Hills are equipped to digitally simulate aircraft manufacturing and production before components or planes advance on an assembly line. The company has created digital simulations for the production of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, technological retrofits of C-130s, and myriad automotive facilities and nuclear plants.
“We look at NextGen as a major opportunity for businesses in Michigan,” says Patrick Michel, a Delmia vice president. “By simulating NextGen capabilities and production needs ahead of time, you can save a lot of time and money. If you wait and try to figure out everything on the shop floor, you’re looking at the potential for delays that won’t benefit anyone.”
NextGen also calls for a new generation of lower noise- and emission-generating aircraft that are more fuel-efficient. Ultimately, this means using electric propulsion — first for smaller planes, and then for larger aircraft. Detroit, given its experience with electric automobiles and batteries, has an opportunity to advance aviation technology. “Work on electric aircraft propulsion really needs to begin in earnest,” Holmes says.
Another industry where Michigan companies can advance NextGen is the creation of advanced, lightweight material development. There is sufficient progress in the use of carbon nanotubes and boron nitride nanotubes that aircraft could be built with half the current weight of planes, Holmes notes.
“If you can’t solve the battery weight problem any other way, this will help solve it,” he says. “Electric propulsion or not, lighter aircraft will improve fuel efficiency right out of the box.”
It would seem that the mating of NextGen, with its advanced technology requirements, and metro Detroit, with its engineering, manufacturing, and technological skill sets, are advantageously suited to enhance NextGen offerings. “Putting all of the technology together is where the magic happens, and when the real benefits are achieved,” Holmes says. “If you put it together in a place like Detroit, it is a way the country can leverage its investment in NextGen and bring about 21st century air mobility. We really don’t have a choice in the matter; it must be done.” db