MIAMI — We are holding short of Miami International Airport’s runway 9R as a slow-moving line storms takes its sweet time clearing the airport. While the ominous dark cloud deck seems to descend to the ground, lightning erupts and thunder crashes all around. ATC crackles with reports of a 55 knot micro-burst at the airport.

In other words, this a fairly typical summer afternoon in storm-laden South Florida. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, MIA and its airport brethren to the North, Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport, experienced 56,508 (39 days) of weather delays just in the first six months of 2014. According to U.S. Travel Association Research, every hour a flight is delayed costs the U.S. economy an average of $3,300 in passenger-related lost economic activity. That means that the direct economic impact of flight cancellations and delays cost the economy $3.5 billion in 2013.

This is a perfect day and perfect place for flying. If you’re going storm chasing, there is no place more reliable then the tropical, flat terrain of South Florida where the Everglades, heat, and sea breeze conspire to reliably produce copious numbers of thunderstorms each day during the area’s rainy season.

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Ironically, today’s storm chasing flight is delayed over an hour by a ground stop at the airport due to, you guessed it; storms. The airport taxiways and ramps are virtual parking lots as the field comes to a complete standstill. Even though our conveyance is a Convair 580, first built in 1952, we are the first aircraft or “test balloon” allowed to take-off. It certainly helps when up in the pointy end of the plane lies the most advanced weather radar in commercial aviation service today: Honeywell’s IntuVue RDR-4000. While most flights are routed to avoid the worst of weather, our flight crew’s goal today is to seek it out.

honeywell-convair-580-storm-chasing-cabin-1 Since its introduction in the 1950s, weather radar had evolved incrementally. Though power, range, and displays have evolved, most systems still utilize the same single or dual scan approach that they did in the 1950s. Most current airborne radars in use only show a single slice of the weather at a time depending on where the azimuth of the radar beam is positioned, rather than a full-range picture of the weather from the ground to the upper fringes of the troposphere, where most weather forms.

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The manual operation is not only labor intensive for pilots, but it’s as much art as science: operations and interpretation (and thus effective) usage is only as good as the person who’s running it. Most current radar technology leaves out crucial information that makes flying safer, more comfortable, and more cost-effective owing to fewer diversions from the filed flight plan.

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As our elderly Convair test bed, under the control of Honeywell chief test pilot Markus Johnson, finally lurches into the foreboding, tempestuous skies, we are about to experience first-hand the advantages of IntuVue. Our vantage point is the open flight deck and mid-century cabin of an original United Mainliner Convair 580, where old meets new.

Though the seats are modern and generously pitched affairs, the rest of the heavily vibrating cabin with its hat racks, original passenger service units, and square windows easily convince us we are flying a 1950’s milk run. Snapping us back into reality, is the extensive compliment of test equipment, workstations, and large LCD flat panel screens allowing us to see the radar functioning in real-time, and a live cockpit-view camera. We are seeing what the flight crew sees. From this reporter’s perspective, think of this as United’s Channel 9 taken to a whole other level.

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The flat panel screens from the flight deck and our scuffed up windows display a virtual atmospheric mountain range of towering cumulus-nimbus clouds. Our Convair is quickly swallowed by the clouds and buffeted by light to moderate turbulence. The magenta painted on the IntaVue confirms we are around the edges of a turbulent part of the storm. “The radar detects movement of humidity and radar indicating turbulence cause by precipitation though not CAT”, remarks Captain Johnson.

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Turbulence detection is one of the obvious passenger features of the radar. While weather radars paint the intensity of precipitation from echo returns, the escalating colors of greens, blues, and rains don’t necessarily provide data leading to the safest and smoothest rides. Dangers can be embedded in lighter precipitation areas while conversely more intense areas of convection may actually produce less hazardous conditions. The RDR-4000 goes much further, using predictive algorithms to analyze which storm cells are producing turbulence (up to 60nm in advance), wind shear, lightning, and hail. The radar’s 320 nautical mile detection range gives the pilots valuable decision time with these aforementioned hazard warnings coming at 5-10 minutes in advance based on the current flight plan. Warning icons appear on our screen which are pilots avoid.

Proving the radar’s atmospheric metal, our ride turns nearly smooth as we exit the magenta reading of the display. This being a demo flight, we aren’t subjected to the full gamut of severe weather that Honeywell tests its radar in. “We can get rocked around a bit during testing and certification when we fly into wind shear, hail, and other hazardous weather. What we see on radar in the air is also verified by ground detection systems.

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The Convair is a sturdy aircraft which suits the mission well”, volunteers Captain Johnson as he picks his way around the edges of another ominous cell. In a move suggesting a bit of humor and caution, Honeywell’s crew begins an in-flight service of water, candy, Dramamine, and barf bags. The company had served us a generous lunch just prior to the flight and wasn’t taking any chances, nor were some of the more nervous flyers aboard.

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Introduced in 2006, The IntuVue RDR-4000 is the world’s first airborne 3-D weather radar. Beyond hazardous weather detection, IntuVue represents a quantum leap forward in situational awareness and automation. Older generation only display the weather on the azimuth that the beam is scanning. While tilting below or above the flight path, the current weather ahead isn’t accurately displayed. Likewise, weather above and below isn’t painted when the beam is focused straight ahead. It’s obvious that gaining the most complete picture requires lots of manual intervention on the part of the flight crew.

Conversely, Honeywell’s product is fully automated. Rather than focusing on operating the radar, pilots are able to focus on detection and analysis. Honeywell claims the IntuVue reduced operator training as well. The RDR-4000 scans from the ground to 60,000 feet in 30 seconds in an interlaced tilting scans of eight slices up and nine slices downs, and does this all automatically. This ultra-fast scan and a 3-D graphics buffer display a constant complete picture of the weather above, below, in front of, and around the plane out to 320 nm. Weather above and below a 4,000 foot slice of the current flight level is displayed in a crosshatch pattern giving complete situational awareness, but with a focus on the current altitude.

Often radars will falsely indicate black indicating “no weather” behind more distant and intense cells which potentially mislead crew into believing the weather is clear up ahead or providing no or false. IntuVue displays predictions as to what is ahead, but identifies those readings as being of a lower degree of confidence. IntuVue allows for manual over-ride which allows easy to determine storm cell height for example, yet keeps the full buffer display from ground to 60,000 feet displayed on the other pilot’s display.

As we begin our initial descent into Miami, the radar looks quite active, but most of the weather indicated on screen is above us, as indicated by the cross-hatched display. On previous generation radars, it would take a lot of manual tilting and scanning of the radar’s beam along with communication with ground control to determine the actual weather along the flight path. Alleviating the pilot’s workload during the critical aspects of flight such as landing contributes mightily to their appreciation of IntuVue.

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Ground clutter returns are also attenuated and earth curvature is corrected by IntuVue via use of software tied to Honeywell’s worldwide terrain mapping. As we noted back in May on a flight on this very aircraft in Phoenix, this capability is tied to the company’s Enhanced Ground Proximity Radar System product. This expansive feature allows pilots to make informed decisions earlier for re-routing and altitude changes leading to safer, more comfortable, and more efficient flying.

honeywell-convair-580-storm-chase-t-shirtDescending to 8,000 feet with a few cells separating us and MIA’s runway 9L, we are asked to return to our seats. As a testament to the accuracy of the IntuVue, Honeywell has kept the seat belt lights extinguished most of the flight. With the pilots deviating around weather, our flight has been quite smooth. True to its billing, the pilots seem to spend most of their time flying and analyzing the radar with the manual controls only accessed at our request for demo purposes.

Honeywell produced a piece of swag that elicits some guffaws: a t-shirt decorated with a lightning cloud and the words. “I survived storm chasing with Honeywell and all I got was this t-shirt.” Indeed, we did a lot more storm chasing than storm penetrating, though keeping us out of the most hazardous weather was the point.

To date, over 2,200 aircraft are flying with IntuVue radars under the colors of around 70 airlines. Current customers includie Southwest, USAirways (American), British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Korean, and Lufthansa ,with more operators coming online in the future. The RDR-4000 is available as SSFE/BFE equipment on the Airbus A320, A330, A340, A350, and A380 (which utilizes dual motors and receivers for long-haul backup), Boeing’s 757, and now the Gulfstream G650 executive jet. The A320neo and 737 MAX will fly with IntuVue from their entry-into-service.

Surprisingly, IntuVue isn’t offered either as original equipment or a retrofit on the 747-8, 787, or upcoming Bombardier CSeries. No public decision has been announced for the upcoming 777-X. “The split of original IntuVue installations at time of delivery to retrofits of existing aircraft like 757s and older 737s, A330s, and A340s is 80% to 20%”, according to Greg Schauder, Honeywell’s Director of Product Marketing.

Honeywell is perpetually scanning the skies for new opportunities for safer flying into the future. With the move to tablets and electronic flight bags, Honeywell is introducing the Weather Information Network Plus (WINN+). This provides a data-link of weather data to the pilot’s EFB. According to the company, this provides “strategic only in-flight decision making, with respect to weather information by providing up-to-date weather data for selected areas per a flight crew request.” Honeywell claims this leads to reduced fuel burn and emissions, better alternate route planning, reduced maintenance, increased safety, passenger comfort, and reduced delays at the destination.

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The next major update, billed as Hazard 3.0 scheduled for 2017 will add cell tracking for diversion planning. Clairvoyantly, this feature will predict if storms will cross the current track at the time of aircraft arrival allowing pilots to plan diversions, thus minimizing fuel burn. While there is much attention paid to high altitude icing, a new IntuVue feature will allow for high-altitude ice detection. These small ice crystals that form at altitudes greater then 30,000 in warmer storms, can cause engine damage and power loss. Trials have been completed with Airbus on an A340.

With both Allison 501D turboprops shut down, we shuffle down the built-in air stairs of Honeywell’s anachronistic steed, the 60 year old Convair. We can’t help what the future holds for this trusty ol’ bird. Johnson points out that though an aircraft with 102,000 cycles and 67,000 hours built before most of its pilots were born won’t last forever but it’s still a great aircraft for the job. “The aircraft’s long 30 inch nose allows us to test different types of antennas. It has instant thrust and lots of lift, and it’s built like a tank.” The CV 580, which has flown for the company since 1991, acts anything like a senior citizen.

It also supports other Honeywell test programs such as its Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, Traffic Collision Avoidance System, and SmartLanding / SmartRunway systems. For other missions such as high – altitude & high speed tests where the 580’s limited 20,000 foot ceiling and pokey 297 kt maximum speed isn’t adequate, Honeywell also uses a Boeing 757, North American SabreLiner, and test equipment mounted on manufacturers aircraft during testing such as the A350.

honeywell-convair-580-storm-chasing-before-takeoff-1An AeroStar helicopter and Beach King Air are also part of the company’s fleet. Pilots are all cross-trained to fly 3 aircraft in the stable. The 737 and MD-80 are rumored one day perhaps to replace the Convair.

honeywell-convair-580-safety-cardIt’s ironic that so much of the future of airborne radar is being tested and refined on a plane that began its life when weather radar was just being introduced. Though Honeywell’s venerable test bed is in its twilight years, Honeywell’s IntuVue technology clearly appears to loom large in the next generation of aviation.