Passengers and flight crews who fly in and out of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport depend on a vital piece of electronics that ensures they make it to their destination on time.
Few know it's made just across the street from the airport at GE Aviation.
Like car navigation devices, flight management systems (FMS) use global positioning satellites to provide precise location information for mapping software to route flights from takeoff to landing. More than 12,000 aircraft, including Boeing's 737 and the Airbus A380, use GE's flight management systems — making it one of the top-selling products built at the facility.
“If you think about how airplanes flew years ago, the pilot did everything manually,” says Hilary King, vice president and general manager of platform solutions at GE Aviation. “Over time we've developed software capabilities that allow us to create those flight plans in a database, so that they're repeatable.”
By automating much of the flight planning using an FMS, pilots have a powerful tool that not only allows them to get passengers to their destination on time, but also delivers the smoothest flight by avoiding bad weather and flying at just the right speed to maximize fuel efficiency.
Although today's flight management systems are radically more powerful than earlier units, in some ways the systems are akin to yesterday's Blackberry phones, says Matt Caddell, senior product manager for navigation and guidance at GE Aviation. Today's units are limited by a smaller screen and fixed keypad. Tomorrow's FMS will have attributes similar to today's smartphones, Caddell says, including “touch screens with a better user interface, and also the ability to display and give the pilot more information.”
The GE Aviation team in Clearwater, in conjunction with a GE team in Grand Rapids, Mich., is working on such a product in TrueCourse, GE's next generation flight management system. Currently in prototype stage, TrueCourse could see another two years of development and tweaks before it becomes a commercial product. GE Aviation officials decline to release the specific financial investment in the system.
TrueCourse uses flat panel touch screens similar in size to a tablet computer to give pilots access to more information at their fingertips, without having to cycle through multiple menus or look at different displays. In addition to navigation information, for example, it can display weather and traffic conditions and optimize the flight based on performance data fed from the engines. TrueCourse is built as a modular system, making it easy to update and add features, even after the product launches, Caddell says.
The Clearwater GE Aviation unit, which employs 440 people and builds products for military and civilian aviation, is part of the company's avionics systems business. GE Aviation revenue in 2016 was $26 billion. Overall, GE Aviation employs 45,000 people at more than 80 locations worldwide and is a major maker of jet engines, components, avionics, digital and integrated systems for commercial and military aircraft.
This year marks GE Aviation's 10-year anniversary in Clearwater. The facility opened in 1969 as a division of United Kingdom-based Smiths Aerospace, which was involved in maintenance and repair of military and commercial aircraft. GE acquired the division in 2007 for $4.8 billion.
The extensive process GE Aviation uses to not only design and develop electronics for its aviation and military customers, but to manufacture the components to exacting standards, is part of what makes the company tick. “We have a purpose statement at GE Aviation that we use as our mantra, and it's we're all about the passenger and the end customer,” King says. “We want to make sure that their flying experience is really valued, and our products are big contributors to that.”