Flightcom: Ground Support Product Leader 2012

The company’s headsets offer hands-free mobility and clear communication to ground support crews.


We added a Product Leader category to our popular Ground Support Leaders of the Year awards this year. At last month’s Cygnus Aviation Expo, we officially recognized Flightcom Corporation, Portland, OR, for its wireless ground support communication system.

The company’s headsets – both wired and wireless – are already supporting hundreds of commercial and military flight crews and ground support personnel at more than 40 U.S. airports.

Last December, however, the company won a major contract with Southwest Airlines to provide a wireless ground support system for pushbacks outside Southwest’s 420 gates at 73 airports in 37 states for more than 3,400 flights a day across the United States.

How does the system work? Here’s a basic explanation of its four main components:

  • The ComHub: Essentially, the heart of the system. The ComHub connects the pushback driver and the wing walkers to a DECT-based wireless network. During pushback, the ComHub, carried inside a bright yellow weather-resistant bag, is connected to the plane’s interphone so that the driver can talk directly to the flight deck.
  • The Wireless Headsets: One for the driver and, typically, two for the wing walkers (although the system can work with as many as four wing walkers). The headsets provide a transmission range of 1,600 feet. A push-to-talk button on the driver’s headset allows for direct communication with the flight deck. Headsets for the wing walkers keep these important guides in continuous communication with the driver on an open mic.
  • Waterproof Charging Case: Everything fits into an unbreakable, airtight and dustproof carry case that can easily be wheeled to wherever it needs to be. A convenient, built-in battery charger provides power for all the components. The case easily plugs into a standard AC outlet to provide the headsets with a full charge in two hours that’s good for 24 hours of continuous use. Batteries will stay charged for up to a year, keeping the system “at the ready” whenever it’s needed.

There’s more to the system – and more to its potential aviation uses besides pushing back planes from gates. We talked with a couple of Flightcom executives and here’s what they had to say about what makes the wireless system an award-winner.

TEAMWORK

On a loud, busy ramp with the pressure always on to make the turn, the difference between costly work injuries and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to aircraft is often measured in fractions of a second.

So much the better then, if the entire ground team can hear one another and let their own voices be heard to stop an accident from happening.

“Once we got on the ramp, we realized flat out that there was no good communication system for the entire ground support team,” says Simon Broadley, vice president of engineering for Flightcom.

Before striking the deal with Flightcom last year, Southwest Airlines relied on what most airlines relied on for pushbacks. The pushback driver wore the sole headset that was plugged into the aircraft. Meanwhile, the wing walkers relied on what wing walkers had relied on for the past half century – hand signals.

Hand signals, of course, only work when they can be seen. As Broadley sees it, the wing walker is crucial to a safe pushback, but literally had no voice in the matter without the wireless headsets.

“Wing walkers were living the life of silence,” Broadley says. “They just were not able to have any effective communication. Now, when a wing walker sees a problem, he can say something right away.”

Studies by the Flight Safety Foundation show that human factors are the primary culprit in ramp accidents. Poor communication typically tops the list when things go wrong.

“The wireless system not only enables communication between the flight deck and ground crew,” says Michael Walsh, director of business development for Flightcom, “it optimizes communication by controlling who can talk to whom and under what circumstances.”

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