USDA Forest Service taps Iridium for automated flight-following

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) has fitted 200 primarily contract aircraft with equipment from Iridium Satellite.

The aircraft are part of the interagency Automated Flight-Following (AFF) program and are mainly helicopters and fixed-wing airtankers used for wildland fire fighting and other natural resource agency missions.

The agencies use Iridium for flight-following as well as cockpit voice and data communications.

The system automatically tracks and displays the location and other associated information for aircraft on operational missions. Mapping data includes information on cities, tanker base locations, topography, airports, thermal detection, lightning, flight restrictions, and other critical, time sensitive information.

Under visual flight rules (VFR), aircraft on official missions are required to establish positive contact and report aircraft position at least once every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the agency. The land management agencies used to rely on voice radio reports to flight-following dispatchers, who recorded aircraft positions by hand. Frequent lapses in radio communication coverage and aircraft position reporting required pilots to toggle between different radio frequencies for aircraft position reporting. Position reports consumed limited radio “air time,” and increased dispatcher and pilot workloads.

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