Guided entirely by autopilot, an Air China Boeing 757 jet
last month snaked along a narrow river valley between
towering Himalayan peaks.
Pilots and passengers looked out
to mountains left and right as the airplane automatically
followed the twists of the valley, descending on a precisely
plotted highway in the sky toward a runway still out of
It was the first commercial flight into Linzhi, Tibet,
one of the world's most difficult-to-reach airports.
Capt. Chen Dong Cheng, an Air China pilot who rode as an
observer on the inaugural flight, said the commercial
service into the 9,700-foot-elevation airport wouldn't be
feasible without the precise, automated navigation system
custom-designed for that particular plane and airfield by
"We are making impossible things possible," Chen said.
Using global-positioning satellites and on-board
instruments, Naverus' navigation technology pinpoints the
location of a fast-moving jet to within yards. Chen, in a
phone interview, described it as "the future of the aviation
Charting the future of airport navigation
Founded in 2003 by two Alaska Airlines pilots who in
the 1990s developed the Naverus navigation technique for
airports in Alaska, where weather and terrain made
Custom-designed landing procedures for specific jets
at specific airports, using global positioning
satellites and onboard sensors to precisely and
automatically guide an airplane to a runway. Officially
called Required Navigation Performance (RNP).
Naverus' system is used at airports in Australia,
Canada, China and New Zealand. Now completing an Air
China contract in Tibet for Boeing 757s, it hopes to win
contracts at the same airports for the airline's Airbus
Naverus has created 90 percent of the 350 or so RNP
guidance procedures so far completed at airports around
the world. With just 30 employees, the company's main
competitor is Boeing's Jeppesen subsidiary, based in
Kent-based Naverus has raised $10 million in capital
to date. It had one positive cash-flow quarter in 2005.
Executives won't disclose revenues.
Similar systems could someday be used to dramatically
increase traffic flow at run-of-the-mill airports like
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, easing capacity issues
that routinely cause passenger delays.
On a conventional approach, a 757 jetliner 6 miles out
from the airport needs a path 4 miles wide free of other
aircraft and obstacles.
By contrast, the twisting valley into Linzhi is at its
narrowest only three-quarters of a mile wide.
On the Sept. 1 flight to Linzhi, known in Tibetan as
Nyintri, another observer was Buzz Nelson, retired Boeing
test pilot and now technical pilot at Naverus.
As the company's navigation system took control of the
757's descent from 38,000 feet, Nelson said, he could see
only clouds below, pierced by the 20,000-foot mountaintops.
About 140 miles ahead, nestled in a river valley, the runway
The plane dropped down on a gentle gradient, and for the
last 45 miles to the airport it flew between the peaks,
following the turns of the valley.
"You're watching the whole thing unfold. The airplane is
turning, going where it's supposed to go. You're looking at
the valley; it's all automatic," said Naverus Chief
Executive Dan Gerrity.
As the airfield appeared in view ahead, tightly bounded
by the meandering river, the autopilot aligned the plane
with the center of the runway.
Less than 500 feet from the ground, the pilot took
control and landed.
Two months previously, Naverus co-founder and chief
technical officer Steve Fulton, a former Alaska Airlines
pilot, had flown with Chen on the first test flight into
Linzhi, laying the first black rubber tire tracks on the
"I'd never done that before," said Fulton. "Watching the
autopilot and flight controls work this airplane in these
complex maneuvers was just fantastic. There was nobody in
that airplane who wasn't visibly impressed."
In January, Naverus debuted its first system for Air
China, at Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The company has so far
invested about $2 million in China, and the two Air China
contracts it's completed so far are each worth "six figures,
not seven," said Stew Chapin, vice president of marketing.
Though higher than Linzhi, Lhasa airport is at the end of
a straight, wide valley that makes landings relatively
straightforward. Commercial jets have landed there for 40
The brand-new $92 million airport at Linzhi was a much
more severe test.
Naverus designed the approaches into Linzhi after months
of gathering data about the airport, the surrounding
terrain, weather conditions, the 757's performance, its
flight-deck systems, the airline's training procedures and
Chinese aviation regulations.
It charted several approach scenarios, including the
track to follow when a jet aborts a landing — and assuming
one engine fails in the climb out.
Still, even after exhaustive analysis, simulation and
testing, the moment-of-truth first flight is tense, said
"Everyone's convinced themselves this is right," he said.
"We've gone through all the risk assessments and convinced
ourselves things are going to work.
"Then you get in the airplane and take off and you're
really happy that they do," Nelson said. "There's a huge
relief, that, yeah, it did work."
The Chinese aviation authorities are deploying the
Naverus system — a sophisticated version of technology
that's broadly known as Required Navigation Performance (RNP)
— initially in the west, where the nation's aviation
infrastructure is undeveloped and where the terrain limits
the usefulness of traditional radio-transmitter ground
stations that require line-of-sight contact.
But China is considering applying the same technology to
ease congestion in its large coastal cities.
RNP allows controllers to safely reduce separation
distances between planes and put them on much more narrowly
defined flight paths accommodating many more planes in the
"In the old days, you needed airways that were many miles
wide, because the airplanes couldn't navigate with
accuracy," said test pilot Nelson. "Now, these airways can
be very narrow. That's the revolution in technology."
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in
July published a "road map" of the planned evolution of RNP
"for improving flight efficiency and airport access."
The plan envisages implementing a basic form of RNP
approach procedures at 25 of the busiest U.S. airports each
year through 2010 and mandating the technology in crowded
airspace after 2016.
The FAA is considering a policy change to allow
nongovernmental operators like Naverus to provide more
sophisticated versions of the technology to airlines.
Packing more planes into airspace could alleviate the
circling overhead and long lines of jets queuing to take off
that are common at U.S. airports.
"Think of Sea-Tac right now," said Hal Andersen, Naverus
co-founder and vice president of flight operations and
another former Alaska Airlines pilot. "There's not that many
airplanes in the sky."
But would more crowded skies be safe as well as
Safer than now, asserted Andersen, because the fixing of
the aircraft's position is so much more precise and it's
equipped with multiple redundant systems.
Airlines are sold on the technology by its efficiency, he
said, but pilots want it because it's safer.
"This has an order-of-magnitude better level of safety
... than the traditional approaches," Andersen said. "That
is ... the way a lot of pilots are attracted to it."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or