Our GPS System: More Stinking Leftovers

9:14 AM

Recently, AIN Online's Andrew Wood ran a very good, very detailed article with a headline that is sure to get any pilot's attention:

Federal Watchdog:
GPS Constellation in Peril

Since we all use GPS these days as a primary means of VFR nav – and for IFR nav for those with certified boxes – hearing that the system is in "peril" ought to get our attention big time. Here's a pull from Woods' AIN article:

"A study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) predicts that GPS service levels could fall well below civil requirements in the next decade. GPS typically has 24 satellites in orbit, although it currently has 31. But these are mainly aging “legacy” units, which are progressively failing and, while replacements are being launched, GAO calculates that these will be insufficient to bridge the gap before the Department of Defense’s advanced technology GPS III satellites are forecast to enter service in 2014. Worse, GAO investigators state that the GPS III program timing is overoptimistic, meaning a two-year delay is likely."
Man, as a freshly-minted instrument pilot – one with his eye on a Garmin 430W for Katy – I do NOT like the sound of that. But wait, there's more, and it gets worse. Again, from AIN:
"GAO predicts that a two-year GPS III delay could cause the constellation to go below the optimum 24 satellites as early as next year and deteriorate to as few as 18 satellites before full recovery in 2022. The report is a startling indictment of lax management, poor contractor oversight, “requirements creep,” indifference to budgets and schedules and the continuing lack of a single individual with complete program responsibility, according to the GAO."
How's THAT for uncertainty? You can read the entire GAO report here [pdf], but if you wish to add more uncertainty to your already concerned mind, here is a pull from the GAO report's summary section:
"It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption. If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected. (1) In recent years, the Air Force has struggled to successfully build GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals; it encountered significant technical problems that still threaten its delivery schedule; and it struggled with a different contractor. As a result, the current IIF satellite program has overrun its original cost estimate by about $870 million and the launch of its first satellite has been delayed to November 2009--almost 3 years late. (2) Further, while the Air Force is structuring the new GPS IIIA program to prevent mistakes made on the IIF program, the Air Force is aiming to deploy the next generation of GPS satellites 3 years faster than the IIF satellites. GAO's analysis found that this schedule is optimistic, given the program's late start, past trends in space acquisitions, and challenges facing the new contractor."
All I can say is this: This whole situation smells like more stinking government leftovers from the Bush administration, who I am sure was told this could have been avoided if they would only come back from the ranch long enough to do something correctly in a timely fashion. And in these early months of the Obama administration, again our new leaders are charged with cleaning up yet another mess. But as the days tick off under our popular [unless you are in that GOP 20 percent that bows to the alter of Rush Limbaugh] new President, I am personally energized that he has teams in place to sterilize Washington and get these important tasks completed.

The FAA funding and labor issues are certainly tops on the list of W's aviation-related messes that Team Obama is tasked with cleaning up. But certainly the GPS system has to rank right up there too...if not for us GA guys and gals, but for the military, who needs the system far more than we do.

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