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ADS-B Keeps Aerobatic Pilots in the Loop


The FAA policy for ADS-B is being written similarly to that for transponders.

ADS-B equipment will experience reduced performance during aerobatic maneuvers, and the FAA will not penalize pilots in that situation.

Pilots who equipped with ADS-B Out ahead of the January 1, 2020, mandate, and have optional ADS-B In are being alerted to unsafe weather and traffic conditions.

The FAA will require pilots who are practicing aerobatics, performing in an air show, or competing in an event to report their positions via Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) Out, just as the agency currently requires an operating transponder.

The agency understands that ADS-B avionics performance will be reduced during aerobatic maneuvers due to GPS signal drops associated with antenna masking and other issues. But aerobatic aircraft should meet ADS-B equipment performance requirements when not engaged in aerobatics — such as during cross-country flights to perform in the next air show or competition, or en route to a practice area after takeoff. The FAA maintains that the ability of controllers and other pilots to identify and track aerobatic aircraft via ADS-B will enhance safety.

The FAA is interested in having aerobatic pilots enjoy ADS-B benefits when flying to or from air shows or other events, or to aerobatic practice areas (APA). According to Sue Gardner, the agency's national aviation events specialist, the FAA has three messages for the community of aerobatic pilots:

  1. ADS-B equipment will experience reduced performance during aerobatic maneuvers, and the FAA will not penalize any pilot in that situation. ADS-B equipment is expected to meet established performance requirements during non-aerobatic maneuvering.
  2. ADS-B Out is valuable for safety when an aerobatic aircraft is not performing dynamic maneuvers. It will transmit an aircraft's identity and position to controllers and pilots of other aircraft equipped with ADS-B In, even if the aircraft is not being tracked on radar. ADS-B Out will be required in most controlled airspace as of January 1, 2020.
  3. Equipping with ADS-B Out and In will help pilots of aerobatic aircraft travel safely to and from events.

With lightweight ADS-B avionics available, more aerobatic aircraft owners are recognizing the value of equipping with ADS-B to enhance safety. Some systems combine ADS-B Out and In into one unit.

Steve Johnson, an aerobatic competition pilot who previously served as safety director for the International Aerobatic Club, said ADS-B can help pilots avoid unsafe situations. He flies a lightweight MX2 experimental aircraft powered by a custom-built 330-horsepower engine.

Steve Johnson flying his MX2 aircraft.

Aerobatic competition pilot Steve Johnson equipped his MX2 with ADS-B Out and uses ADS-B In on his iPad.

Johnson did his own installation of ADS-B Out on his aircraft, which cost $2,000 after the $500 FAA rebate. He watches weather and traffic using ADS-B In on his iPad, which he carries on cross-country flights. ADS-B In alerts him to other aircraft he didn't know were flying nearby. It also helps him spot the traffic pointed out by controllers and determine how fast other aircraft are moving relative to his aircraft, which cruises at 170 knots. At that speed, "Things happen quickly," Johnson said. He also likes using ADS-B In to spot traffic in the pattern when flying into an unfamiliar airport for a refueling stop.

Johnson finds ADS-B In weather helpful for strategic planning, looking at storms and weather 100–300 miles ahead of his aircraft. He uses a subscription weather service for closer-in views. Johnson pays careful attention to staying in visual conditions all the time. He is an instrument-rated pilot, but his aircraft is only equipped for visual flight rules flight.

"ADS-B is another tool in the arsenal of an aerobatic pilot, which keeps us safe when flying to and from contests and air shows," he said. He logs more hours on the cross-country flights than he does in the events. Johnson flies in about eight competitions annually and has placed first in regionals and second in nationals. If aerobatic pilots fly aircraft equipped with optional ADS-B In, they can glance at a screen whenever they are flying to and from aerobatic practice areas, or to other airports, and see if other aircraft are nearby. In some cases, ADS-B In aircraft displays have saved the lives of general aviation pilots in flight by alerting them to another aircraft on a collision course.

Tom Haines, then editor of AOPA Pilot magazine who is now AOPA senior vice president of media and outreach, was flying under the hood in 2014 in his Bonanza with an instructor pilot when he heard a warning of an approaching aircraft. The instructor pilot spotted the other aircraft just in time and told Haines to climb, thus avoiding what Haines said was a probable midair collision.

In an example where ADS-B Out and In would have helped, a pilot practicing aerobatics with a Grumman F8F Bearcat experienced a close call with a Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ). The CRJ pilots didn't spot the Bearcat. The warbird's transponder was off, and it was not equipped with ADS-B Out. Fortunately, the pilot spotted the CRJ passing through the aerobatic practice area and maneuvered to avoid the passenger jet. The two aircraft avoided a collision, but it was a close call. The aerobatic area was listed in a Notice to Airmen, but the information had not registered with the airline or the CRJ crew. The safety observer on the ground did not spot the CRJ soon enough to call out the traffic to the Bearcat pilot.

The FAA has developed policy and Advisory Circular (AC) guidance for aerobatic pilots on ADS-B. There soon will be a new aviation-events policy in the FAA's Flight Standards Information Management System created by Order 8900.1 and the new AC 9145D, Waivers: Aviation Events. The policy and AC are in the process of being published.

Gardner said the FAA policy for ADS-B is being written similarly to that for transponders. The transponder rule has no waiver under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations section 91.205. With few exceptions, pilots are required to turn on the transponder.

More than 400 air shows are conducted in the United States each year, and aerobatic pilots use upwards of 170 long-term practice areas. Aerobatic pilots and aerobatic competency evaluators can establish a temporary APA or an Aerobatic Competency Evaluation/Practice (ACE/P) area for 1–30 days. ACE/P is a new program that provides the aerobatic pilot community with a means for access to protected airspace so routines can be practiced and pilots can be evaluated for aerobatic competence. Pilots can also fly aerobatics maneuvers above 1,500 feet as long as their aircraft are not within 4 miles of an airway or over any congested area or open-air assembly of people.

ADS-B, airspace, airspace requirements.

ADS-B airspace and airspace requirements.

"There is less and less uncongested airspace," Gardner said. "This is especially true on the east and west coasts. Having ADS-B installed on an aerobatic aircraft is an important safety tool for pilots flying in [those] regions. It can also help pilots avoid danger in uncongested airspace that can be found outside of major metropolitan locations."

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