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The Magic Box, Part II

I've already described the TrafficScope TPAS VRX traffic proximity alert system. Now it's time to put it to the test. I took to the asphalt at Frederick, Maryland, on a hazy Sunday morning in late June. I had the TrafficScope on board a Cessna 152 Aerobat and I had a VFR flight plan to cut right into the ADIZ beehive around the Baltimore-Washington area. Visibility was about four miles (not good), and there were no clouds. But there were plenty of airplanes.

I've already described the TrafficScope TPAS VRX traffic proximity alert system. Now it's time to put it to the test. I took to the asphalt at Frederick, Maryland, on a hazy Sunday morning in late June. I had the TrafficScope on board a Cessna 152 Aerobat and I had a VFR flight plan to cut right into the ADIZ beehive around the Baltimore-Washington area. Visibility was about four miles (not good), and there were no clouds. But there were plenty of airplanes.

THE BEST LAID PLANS
Why was I flying an Aerobat on such a non-aerobatic mission? Because the flying club's Cherokee had been pulled out from beneath me for an impromptu wash party, I don't exactly have access to a vast and varied fleet, and this was better than no airplane at all. I'd originally planned to run the VRX through the gantlet of the busy northeast corridor on a recent cross-country flight from the Maryland suburbs to an area near Allentown Pennsylvania in a Cessna 172. However, the SureCheck engineers had intentionally modified my beta test unit so that it wouldn't inadvertently power up while its front panel buttons were activated inside someone's crowded flight bag, but the push time required was so short that even my quick jabs weren't quick enough. When I'd finally realized how fast a jab I really needed, my 200-mile cross-country (into what would've been perfect testing territory) had come and gone, sans TrafficScope. Nonetheless, this wasn't a bad day. Although VFR, I'd be inside the Class B around Baltimore, and since IFR separation minimums wouldn't apply, I could get a bit closer to other aircraft ... if ATC would let me, and could spare the time for a few comparative traffic calls.

INCOMING!
Actually, after the previous month of mostly scuzzy Sunday weather, including several IFR and low-IFR Sundays in a row around the Washington, DC, area, I was happy to be flying at all. The VRX was powered up, and I left it at its default settings (a five-mile radius and plus-or-minus 1500-foot vertical). Even before I got to the run-up area for runway 23 at FDK, it immediately began issuing verbal advisories. As a pilot announced, "74 Romeo, turning left crosswind to downwind at 23 Frederick", heading back toward me, I heard, "Traffic advisory; monitor closure rate". (Actually the first thing I heard before the female voice was a male voice counting from 14 to 18, twice, but I presume that was because it was a test unit.) Shortly, as the outlined square on the display turned into a solid square, and 74R turned from base to final, I heard "Traffic alert; obtain visual contact!" I watched, fascinated, as the relative altitude on the display decreased from 600 down to 100 feet, and 74R crossed the threshold and rolled down the runway.

IN THE FRAY
Several other airplanes followed, and the VRX display alternated so fast that I wished that I'd brought a tape recorder and portable intercom so that I could have verbally recorded what I saw; I'd never write it down fast enough. But from what I could tell, the displays jived with what I was seeing. (After so many days of lousy flying weather, local pilots were making up for lost time.) As I switched the VRX into "auto" mode, the little "A" in the lower-left of the display reflected that change, and sure enough, as soon as I climbed through 500 feet AGL, it switched over to "flight" operations mode. I'd be dog-legging northward of Baltimore, first toward the Westminister VOR, and from there on to Martin State Airport, where I expected that the folks in the control tower would have a little more time to oblige me with traffic point-outs.

SLIM PICKIN'S OUTBOUND
Unfortunately, although there was activity in general, all I saw were a few instances of traffic at or beyond five miles, and (according to the VRX) at the "same altitude". Potomac Approach was too busy to give me any verification or advisories, though I certainly did ask. Most of the way to Martin State, I saw the swept-wing icon indicating the presence of Mode S equipped aircraft (which was no surprise, considering where I fly). Once I got talking to Martin State, the folks in the control tower were only too happy to oblige. As I maneuvered around to enter a right base for runway 15, they called out traffic at one mile on crosswind, but the VRX didn't register it, for some reason.

DOWNTOWN
Once I got parked on the ramp at the base of the tower, it took an exasperatingly long time just to reach Flight Service on my cell phone, to get a weather and SUA update (and to make sure my VFR flight plan was indeed cancelled). I decided the heck with this; I was filing IFR going back. While on the ramp at MTN, while I was still on the Clearance Delivery frequency, the VRX was even busier than it had been at Frederick. It showed traffic at 1.4 miles and 200 feet above me. Sure enough, there it was, on short final, a moment later. I watched the altitude and distance click down for several aircraft on final approach. Also, as I had done at FDK, I pushed the "LOC ALT" button to see the altitude agree with the airport elevation. (It did, within 100 feet, anyway.)

...AND BACK THE OTHER WAY
I got my departure clearance, took off, and was cleared "direct Frederick" shortly thereafter. Although the visibility had just about doubled from an hour earlier, I didn't get much in the way of call-outs on my way back, either. Potomac Approach did call me out to another aircraft as "three miles, westbound", but I didn't see that aircraft on the VRX (possibly because they were outside the 1500-foot altitude window). I saw a 737 fly overhead from my one o'clock to my seven o'clock, but it didn't look like the VRX picked that up. The unit did show one aircraft at four miles and 100 feet above me, but Potomac said there was no traffic at that distance from me.

CLOSE IN
I maintained my 3000-foot altitude almost to the pattern at FDK. It was now about 10 AM. Potomac Approach got less busy and more cooperative, however there wasn't much to see on the way back. They did have traffic at 10 miles, northbound at 3500, but it wasn't in range for any kind of a quantitative comparison. Then as I closed in on Frederick, I got a slew of read-outs, much like what I expected. Potomac pointed out traffic at five miles, 3100 feet, and the VRX showed a "5.0" and an up arrow with "0100" -- pretty darn accurate. Then there was a "4.0" and "SAME ALTITUDE" and Potomac confirmed that, too. While on a left downwind for runway 23 at FDK, I noticed one airplane at what I considered to be a ridiculously low altitude, on a very low "inside downwind". I asked the pilot to "say altitude" and he replied "600" (which would be about 300 AGL, folks). I don't know what he was doing there ... the VRX couldn't tell me, either.

Observation: I will say one thing about that annunciated voice, by the way. You can wind up feeling like you're "stepping on yourself" when self-announcing your position in a busy traffic pattern. Several times after I'd keyed the mike, the VRX joined in and I wondered if the other pilots heard my automated companion butting in -- not that it was an unwelcome interruption, but I imagine it might get old after too many times of not being able to finish a sentence.

THE BOTTOM LINE: All in all, even though my unscientific evaluation included some unresolved differences of opinion, there were enough good hits to keep me on my toes. Although it would sure be nice to have the relative bearing of other traffic in addition to its relative altitude and distance, this is still a great improvement over my Mark I eyeballs. Speaking of which, I can't say that the VRX is bulletproof, but it seemed to me to be a useful extra set of eyes. And with its cost being a small fraction of what you'd have to pay for TCAS, on-board radar, ADS-B, or even a Traffic Information Service Mode S transponder, I consider it a pretty good deal.

- SureCheck TrafficScope VRX Product Information

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