Flying blind

Nothing is more worrisome and dangerous for pilots than losing visibility in smoke, fog or low clouds and having to rely solely on instruments, especially when they're trying to pick their way through mountains or tall buildings.

Now there's a fix — a $250 computer program from Ashland software engineer Paul Mace that meshes GoogleEarth, GPS and weather data to give pilots a three-dimensional, full-color view of the real world around them on a computer screen, as if it were a clear, sunny day.

The display "flies" much like a video game. If the pilot banks, the landscape moves, too. If the pilot climbs, things get smaller. In the distance, cities, buildings and runways are all "flagged and tagged" with air-space ceiling indicated. Even if there's thick fog, the pilot can still see the big mountains near the airport.

Mace earned computer-industry fame 25 years ago with the first software that could recover a crashed hard drive. He's Vietnam veteran and the pilot of a Beechcraft Bonanza who wanted to expand safety for general aviation pilots with what's called "synthetic vision."

The program, Symbolic Flight, came online a year ago and has sold 100 copies. Mace said pilots' first response tends to be disbelief about the price.

"They think something like this should cost $65,000 to $100,000," he said, "which they could never afford. Then they become wildly enthusiastic."

Their joy, Mace said, comes from the fact that all pilots have had the experience of "reading from instruments and what they see out the window. If they're disrupted by passengers or distracted by instructions from ground controllers, it can wipe out their sense of situational awareness, where they are in space.

"Then their confidence and judgment is shaken," he said. "It's hard to get back to reading and understanding your instruments when you start losing your nerve."

One of the best-known victims of such conditions is John F. Kennedy, Jr., who died in 1999 when he crashed after becoming spatially disoriented in haze and approaching darkness.

"He's a perfect example," Mace said. "He flew beyond his capabilities, lost the sense of where he was in the world. His confidence eroded. He had no perceptual input."

At that point, "you only have your self-confidence and input," Mace said. "Once you lose that, it's only a question of where your body is going to come to rest."

The program is available (in PC format only) at, and pilots can test fly it free for 30 days. The display is a small touch-screen computer that costs about $1,000.

Mace said likely users would include just about anyone in general aviation, including medical pilots, flight schools and firefighting air tankers. No commercial airlines have purchased it yet, he said, noting that retrofitting commercial aircraft is inordinately expensive.

While it might seem like common sense to marry GoogleEarth (a virtual globe made from satellite images) with GPS, Mace said it took an inventor like himself who "had the problem (as a pilot), understood the problem and could come up with the solution — all different skill sets — and I happened to have them all."

Mace said he's had "hundreds" of situations in the air when his own vision was compromised, "and this (program) would have kept me out of deep trouble.

"All pilots who fly in the West in fire season have times when smoke fills the air and obscures the horizon," he said.

Mace said he's watched the tension drain from pilots who use the program,

"You can just watch pilots relax," he said. "They instantly stop sweating. What they thought was true is true.

"With synthetic vision, no matter what the weather, no matter what the disorientation, confidence is restored," he says, "and you know where you're going."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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