Here’s a tricky word problem: A scheduled commercial jet carrying a bellyful of astronomy geeks takes off hours before a total solar eclipse from Alaska’s Anchorage International Airport heading to Honolulu. Along the 2,800-mile journey, the Boeing 737 spears the eclipse’s 60-mile-wide shadow as it screams across the surface of the Pacific Ocean at 10,000 miles an hour. How did they do it? One word: Software.
“Here’s a football analogy,” says veteran pilot, instructor and engineer Hal Andersen, who was in charge of the Alaska Airlines flight. “Think of the airplane as a football, the software as the quarterback and the eclipse shadow as the receiver. The quarterback in this case launched the football out of Anchorage and got it into the arms of the receiver running across the field at 10,000 miles per hour thousands of miles away.”
Developed by GE Aviation, the software, called flight management system (FMS) works inside thousands of aircraft. It lets pilots precisely plan their journey and fly in the most optimal manner. It can track a plane to an accuracy of 10 meters (about 30 feet) and the time of arrival to within 10 seconds to any point in the flight plan. This precision comes in handy when you want to catch a fast-moving shadow in the middle of the world’s largest ocean.
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