The Sammies Series: Q&A with MITRE and finalist David Gray
For decades, American aviation relied on ground-based radar systems to track aircraft in the sky. On Jan. 1, 2020, more than 100,000 commercial and general aviation aircraft began using the satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, which allows air traffic controllers to trace aircraft movements in real time with GPS. David Gray, acting group manager for Communications, Information, and Networking Programs at the Federal Aviation Administration, led this major transformation and was recognized as a 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals finalist in the Management Excellence category.
Dennis Sawyer, managing director of national airspace system evolution and system engineering at MITRE, spoke with David Gray about his background in public service, how ADS-B is transforming aviation and why young people should consider working in government.
Sawyer: How has ADS-B helped revolutionize air traffic control work?
Gray: ADS-B gives air traffic controllers higher accuracy and more real-time data about aircraft location, altitude and speed, which makes a huge change in how they perform their jobs on a day-to-day basis. In a radar environment, air traffic controllers see where a plane was, not where it currently is. With this new technology, controllers are able to see the plane much closer to where it is.
ADS-B also enables us to surveil airplanes in places we never could before, such as remote locations or the ocean where it’s not economical or possible to build any sort of ground-based infrastructure. This opens up the possibility for satellites to detect and track aircraft in those locations and increase efficiency and safety in those kinds of environments.
Finally, the new system enables air traffic controllers to have more options for efficient aircraft separation standards. This really makes a difference when planes are going in and out of busy terminal areas such as New York City, because you can get more aircraft in and out of that airspace.
Sawyer: I think it could be hard for people who aren’t familiar with aviation to understand the breadth of this project. How has ADS-B changed the way pilots fly?
Gray: ADS-B creates a display of air traffic that has been really transformational for pilots who install optional equipment.
Historically, pilots created and maintained a mental model of all the traffic around them based on what they heard the controllers talking to other airplanes about. In testimonials from pilots, you’ll hear them say, “I had no idea how much traffic was around me, and I will never fly without the ADS-B display again.”
Sawyer: How did your team help the aviation industry implement this new surveillance system?
Gray: One piece of this project was establishing common international standards to make sure that the equipment used in the U.S. works everywhere. After we had that locked down, the FAA told the aviation industry 10 years ahead of time the equipment they needed. We worked consistently for over 10 years with industry stakeholders, and we ended up with more than 100,000 aircraft equipped with ADS-B by the January 2020 deadline.
We also developed training programs for every air traffic facility in the National Airspace System. The FAA had a team of federal employees and contractors who visited and trained controllers and technicians at these facilities like clockwork. We visited 20 to 30 facilities per year for several years. The teams were at these facilities for months and months, and they made this work look so easy. Operations in facilities across the country today are dramatically improved as a result.
Sawyer: What major lessons did you learn from developing this new technology?
Gray: During this project, government and the aviation industry worked together in an environment where all different stakeholders were able to voice their concerns about successfully implementing the new system. I don’t know if we could have succeeded without having such an open environment. Having gone through this experience, I have a new appreciation for how important it is to engage and collaborate with our stakeholders.
Sawyer: How does the FAA’s work help the U.S. position itself as a global leader in aviation?
Gray: There’s an effort at FAA to consider how this new technology will change the way that the government and the aviation industry do business. What are the important things that the agency needs to do as far as automation, surveillance, data, communications ability, navigation and quality to make the airspace environment safer and more efficient? The United States’ airspace is unique; it’s denser with more airplanes. This gives us the opportunity to solve hard problems, and when we solve those, we’re leading globally.
Sawyer: Why did you choose a career in public service and what drew you into working in the government?
Gray: My parents always modeled service in the community, whether that was in church or in other community organizations. I was really amazed at the number of things that they were involved with and leading. They were real models for me.
I didn’t actually end up in government because of some grand plan. I mostly happened into a job supporting the FAA as a contractor and, as a result, I had amazing opportunities to make aviation safer and more efficient.
Sawyer: What would you say to a college student or recent graduate considering a career in government?
Gray: There are a lot of opportunities to do exciting and groundbreaking work in the government. Public service is about carrying out a mission that makes a difference for our country and in the lives of our fellow citizens, and I find that to be pretty exciting.
I’ve been focused in public sector aviation for more than 20 years. It’s tied to 5% of the U.S. economy, generating more than $400 million for people with aviation-related jobs. Working in aviation in the FAA is about the safety of the 1 billion U.S. passengers who fly every year; it’s about the general aviation pilots that fly more than 25 million hours a year. There are amazing people working in this industry and at the top levels of government.
Join the conversation with #Sammies2020 and follow the Partnership on Twitter @publicservice. Read more about the 2020 Sammies honorees on our blog in Inspiring stories from this year’s Service to America Medal awards.
This post is part of a new blog series featuring in-depth interviews with our 2020 Service to America Medal finalists. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.