How do you confirm that your collision warning systems are working properly? Simulate a collision, of course. And by “simulate” I mean try to actually cause one or get darn close to it on a real aircraft while in flight. For Honeywell Avionics and their products like the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) or Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) this means putting the kit on a plane and flying towards mountains or other planes and hoping that the system triggers an alert. That’s all in a day’s work for their test pilots but very much a different experience for me and several other journalists who were recently hosted at the company headquarters in Phoenix to learn about their products and test a few of them.
For our test flight the aircraft chosen was a Convair 580, first put in to commercial service with United Airlines in 1952 (MSN 2 of the type!). Now 60+ years old the plane is still a workhorse of the Honeywell test fleet thanks in large part to the sizable radome on the nose; it can handle gear which gets installed on much larger commercial jets without issue. So, after a briefing with the pilots where they explained that “we’re going to take a run at some mountains this afternoon” the ten of us headed out on to the ramp and on board this classic aircraft.
She’s old-school both inside and out – check out the hat racks – but there’s a lot more inside as well. The interior is fitted with racks of electronics and test gear which the company uses for making sure that the products they’re selling work in real life just as well as they do in the labs. I had a seat directly in front of the EGPWS/TCAS console which meant I got to play with the buttons and see how it operated in real life. It is definitely interesting to see the yellow and red show up on the display and then look out the window and see the terrain that is represented on the screen so close.
The systems are set up so that the audio alerts pipe in to the cabin for the engineers to hear, not just the flight deck crew, which adds to the fun. On the final approach we clearly heard the annunciator calling out the warnings for our landing (and you can hear them in the video here, too).
And while the terrain and the thermals made for a very bumpy ride I’m happy to say that no one on our flight made use of the convenience bags provided though it was close for a few of us; not all the demo flights were so lucky.
After the flight we got to tour the cockpit and generally geek out about being on a 60 year old aircraft which still flies (and not easy missions, either).
This was, to me, the epitome of cool and educational combined. Definitely a unique experience and a great way to see first-hand how the systems work and how they get to the point they’re on board the planes we all fly every day.
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