The flashing white triangle on Ike Isaacson’s laptop computer screen rotated left as the Washington Air National Guard tanker began its banked turn.
Which was exactly how it should be - the triangle was the tanker, as far as the computer and several satellites were concerned.
Constant updates from orbiting satellites showed the plane’s precise location at 44.30.26 degrees north, 124.04.33 degrees west. It was cruising at 490 knots, 29,290 feet above the ocean.
The triangle inched across a computerized map of the Oregon coast as Expo 91, a Spokane-based Guard tanker on a routine refueling mission, demonstrated a new way to keep track of military planes.
After several years of quiet testing in the tankers, the portable tracking system may find its way into the cockpits of hundreds of large military planes, from tankers to cargo jets and transports.
The crash of the military jet carrying Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 32 others on a trade mission to Croatia last month convinced the Pentagon its large planes need additional navigational aids. That push for new safety devices put Isaacson, who has developed the portable tracking system, in the heady position of telling generals and Cabinet officials how to keep track of their planes.
Isaacson is a 50-year-old Guard master sergeant and boom operator, someone who runs the equipment that refuels military planes in flight. In 1991, he was part of the Spokane unit sent to Egypt for the Persian Gulf War.
The first night of the war convinced him military planes could use extra help navigating in dangerous situations.
His formation of KC-135 tankers was sent to refuel combat planes returning from the first strike on Iraq. The radar on the 40-year-old tankers is prone to failure and the planes were coming back in the pitch black night over featureless desert.
They heard a distress call from the pilot of a cargo plane, who was lost and without radar. Because of war-time security, the Saudi ground controllers were refusing to answer.
“We could hear the panic in his voice,” Isaacson recalled.
There has to be a better system, he thought.
Back in the United States after the war, Isaacson heard about the Global Positioning System satellites, which were being developed commercially for aircraft and even automobiles. Using satellite information, the systems can track a plane or a car on computerized maps.
“It was so magic back then. Expensive - $4,000 to $6,000 - but the technology was really slick,” he said.
But it was not technology the military could readily use. The satellites offer one type of data to airlines and commercial customers.
The military uses specially coded satellite data that commercial systems - and enemy forces - can’t read. The software for the commercial systems doesn’t read the military code.
He tested a commercial system on Guard flights, then received Air Force permission to use satellite receivers Army troops use to locate their positions or direct artillery fire. He adapted an antenna that could be hoisted through an opening in the tanker normally used for sextant readings. He discussed software changes with an Oregon firm that develops programs that read maps. He figured out hookups to the planes’ electrical system that could power a commercial laptop.
And he kept the cost down.
“We use Defense Mapping Agency maps,” he said as he demonstrated the system last week on a routine mission above the Oregon coast. “They’re very, very accurate. Plus, they’re free.”
For more than a year, Isaacson and other members of the Spokane-based 141st Air Refueling Wing honed the system, circulated it among other air units and sent reports to their superiors.
Military planes have other navigation devices. A KC-135 already has three different systems, said Capt. Jim Brooks, the navigator on the demonstration flight. Those provide raw data and images that can be tracked on maps with pencils and protractors.
But in wartime, in bad weather, in emergency situations, crews can become “task saturated,” Brooks said. They lose what the military calls situational awareness, the knowledge of important things going on around them.
“Instead of having to interpret so much (data) the crew can see it easily,” Brooks said. “When the weather gets bad, when you have to change routes, this could help.”
Task saturation was an immediate concern in the crash of the plane carrying Brown. Although the cause of the accident is still under investigation, the plane did crash while approaching an unfamiliar airport in bad weather.
In the wake of that crash, the Air Force formed a “tiger team,” a collection of specialists charged with finding quick ways to get more navigation aids, flight recorders and other warning systems into military planes.
The Thursday after the crash, Isaacson got a call at the Guard headquarters at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Get to Washington, D.C., by Sunday, he was told. Bring your laptop computer and satellite hookups.
On Monday, he showed it to a colonel. On Tuesday, he showed it to a two-star general. On Wednesday, he was showing it to the people in charge of buying equipment for the Air Force. By Friday he was showing it to Air Force Chief of Staff Ron Fogelman, reminding the four-star general that it fit with previous directives to find “off-the-shelf” equipment whenever possible.
Walking down a Pentagon hallway to another meeting, he was rerouted to demonstrate it for Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall. By the following Monday, he had demonstrated it for Secretary of Defense William Perry.
“I thought, he’s someone you only see in a picture or on the news,” Isaacson said.
On April 26, Perry announced that satellite mapping systems would be added to the nation’s military transports and tankers, starting this fall. That means as many as 1,200 planes could be popping up laptop computers like the Guard tanker was using on a routine refueling mission over Oregon.
Eventually, a special version of satellite tracking will be built into those planes and any new aircraft the military buys. Until then, however, this is a good interim solution, Isaacson said.
And relatively cheap by Pentagon standards. The estimated budget is about $4 million for the entire project - or about $3,500 per plane. The biggest expense is the laptop, he said.
The 23-year veteran of the Air Force and Guard hasn’t received any special recognition yet for his device, but that doesn’t bother him. He just wanted a little extra help for crews flying in dangerous situations.
“My intention was never to get anything out of it,” he said.
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