Any discussion of the recent tragedy of Air France flight 447 brings a somber feeling to all, especially Aviation personnel. As was sadly reported on June 1st the Airbus 330, en route from Brazil to Paris, crashed into the Atlantic, killing all aboard. However, there is a PIEDMONT connection to the event. During the apparent breakup of the Aircraft, messages were sent automatically to ground stations in the final moments of that doomed flight. As the media has reported the messages were sent by a system with the acronym ACARS. ACARS stands for Automatic Communication and Reporting System.
*** THE PIEDMONT connection! ***
(For those familiar with flight operations procedures...please bear with me.) A basic rule is that the airline dispatch office must know the status of any flight at any time....on ground, en route, etc. Since the beginning, Piedmont had met this requirement by having Company radios at all stations the airline operated.
Soon after take off, the Flight crew would initiate a radio call to the just departed station. A typical radio transmission would give the Flt. Number - OUT time (leaving gate) and OFF time (leaving runway). The Station agent would acknowledge the transmission then send a teletype message with the flight number and times to Dispatch and all the down line stations.
With the beginning of Piedmont flights to the west coast (this private notification system was not available toward the west), Piedmont had no stations within the range of the route of the flights to the west coast. A temporary fix was for the flight to call ARINC ground stations along its route which in turn sent the necessary info to the Piedmont Dispatch center in Winston Salem. This was very expensive as the ARINC ground stations, made up of personnel, facilities, and radio transmitter/receivers were quite costly.
In June, 1976, at the hotel on the grounds of the O'Hara Airport in Chicago, Bill Sebastian (avionics) and Captain Jack Tadlock were attending a meeting with ARINC (Aeronautical Radio Inc) and several major Electronic manufacturers. This meeting was to discuss the design and implementation of a new data link system, (eventually named ACARS).
Prior to this meeting, Piedmont had conducted discussions via letters and phone calls with the various manufacturers to build the new system. The discussions were not successful and this face to face mission was to convince someone to design and build the new system.
This last ditch meeting had not gone well...none of the manufacturers would agree to build the new system. In fact, the meeting was about to adjourn when Captain Tadlock stood up and asked the moderator if he could address the attendees.
A few minutes before Captain Tadlock stood up he had been quietly told a little story by Bill Sebastian. It seems that Bill was wearing a new digital watch he had ordered from an avionics magazine. After telling Captain Tadlock the little watch had the equivalent of hundreds of tiny transistors (this was before the modern day chips that represent thousands of components) and only cost twenty bucks, and that his (Captain Tadlock) own Seiko was an electronic marvel for this day and time.
The moderator acknowledged Captain Tadlock and he made his pitch. "I cannot believe that none of you are willing to tackle this problem," he loudly exclaimed in a booming voice. "Here in my hand is a simple digital watch containing the equivalent of thousands of components," holding up the black faced plastic cased watch.
Then he took off his Seiko and said, "Do any of you have a Seiko? Holding it up in the air? Look at it and then tell me you can't build this system we call ACARS."
Tadlock was still standing when a person stood up and said, "We'll build it!!!" This Company was Teledyne Controls and thus began the ACARS system. Soon the Piedmont Avionics department and the Flight operations were working with Teledyne to design the system. Within a few months the system was designed and the wiring and components were begun to be installed in Piedmont A/C. The first A/C to get the new system was the long range 727 A/C since they were flying to the west coast. The first ACARS equipped flight took place in May, 1977, 32 years ago
The basic ACARS system used sensors/switches to capture the ON/OFF times (air -ground circuit) and the IN/OUT times (cabin door and engine oil pressure switches). The tail number (N) number was hard wired into the ACARS processor. The system then automatically transmitted a digital signal soon after becoming airborne to an unmanned radio on the ground. This data was then sent electronically to ARINC facilities in Chicago that processed the data and sent it to the designated recipients. At this time in Piedmonts history, the data was sent to the EASTERN AIRLINES computer center in Miami which processed the data and sent it to the appropriate Piedmont locations.
(the basic system also sent the payroll numbers for the Flight crews - Pilots and Flight Attendants, but that's a story for another day!!! Any one interested can e mail me)
Piedmont had pioneered, help design, and FAA certified the present day ACARS system and was the first Airline in the world to utilize the ACARS system. Over the years the system has been greatly expanded and is probably utilized by most all Airlines today
Another first for Piedmont - The PACEMAKER
W. E. Sebastian July 7, 2009 Wmsebo@triad.rr.com
P.S. Another feature of the ACARS system was the ability of the ground personnel to contact the flight while in the air. This feature was called SEL-CAL and was utilized when necessary. Basically it reversed the procedure.
Recent media reports that this SEL-CAL feature was utilized by ground personnel trying to contact the lost for a while Northwest Flight .
P.S. 2 - If readers like or dislike these stories, please post a comment or e-mail the author.