WESTERN SAN JUANS – Already operational at the Montrose Regional Airport and soon to be operational at the Telluride Regional Airport, a new technology is being used to help pilots address inclement mountain weather, and should improve both safety and efficiency in the skies.
The Colorado Department of Transportation last week announced that NextGen technology has been activated at the Montrose Regional Airport. The technology, called Wide Area Multilateration, allows air traffic controllers to track aircraft in mountainous areas that have previously been outside radar coverage. The WAM deployment is part of the Colorado Surveillance Project, a partnership between the Federal Aviation Administration and CDOT.
“The WAM project essentially puts radio equipment on the ground near each airport, maybe eight to 12 units, that communicates with an aircraft’s transponder,” CDOT Aeronautics Division Director David Gordon said on Tuesday. “With triangulation, we can always determine where an aircraft is at. That data is then collected through a server at each individual airport and then sent to the air traffic control center in Longmont.”
Prior to the deployment of WAM, Gordon explained, airports without air traffic control towers, like those in Telluride and Montrose, lacked radar coverage. The approximately 40-year-old existing radar technology was, in places, shielded by the mountains. When an airplane drops below mountain peaks, the FAA loses radar contact with the aircraft. While Gordon said it’s a safe operation, having constant radar contact with an aircraft through the WAM technology will increase efficiency, especially in inclement weather.
“The FAA will not allow a lot of aircraft arrivals in bad weather conditions until they know if an airplane has landed and has safely cleared the runway,” he said. “Only then, will it allow the next aircraft to start its approach. With the old system in inclement weather you may only get four arrivals per hour. It really slows down the capacity of an airport.”
When the capacity of an airport’s ability to accept arrivals is diminished, Gordon said it creates a variety of “hardships” including delays and diversions to other airports.
“It can add a lot of inconvenience to passengers and creates a hardship on the local economy,” Gordon said.
With the WAM technology in place, air traffic control will no longer lose radar contact with an aircraft and will be able to allow for more efficient arrivals during inclement weather than it otherwise could.
“Because they have positive control of an airplane in the air and on the ground, there could be up to 18 arrivals an hour,” he said. “It increases the efficiency of the air space and the airport and cuts down on delays and diversions. It will also save time and fuel and will leave less of a carbon footprint.”
“This system will allow pilots to fly search and rescue missions in weather conditions that would have previously kept them grounded,” acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “It also will support Colorado’s tourism by enabling pilots to land in conditions that previously caused diversions or flight delays.”
Implementation of the WAM project is being completed in phases with Colorado airports in Hayden, Steamboat Springs, Craig and Rifle all receiving the technology in 2009. Phase two of the project includes the installation and activation of WAM in Gunnison, Montrose, Telluride and Durango. The technology has already been activated at the Montrose Regional Airport and it is expected that activation for Gunnison, Telluride and Durango airports will take place in the middle of 2013.
Having the WAM technology activated at the Telluride Regional Airport is something Airport Manager Rich Nuttall is excited about.
“It’s huge,” Nuttall said. “It has a lot of positive ramifications to it. The system will allow air traffic control to see an aircraft all the way to the ground and facilitate the flow of traffic. It will reduce fuel costs because they won’t have to hold in the air as long. It’s also a good safety feature because they can pinpoint where an aircraft is at all times. It’s a great system.”
Nuttall said most WAM equipment has already been installed around the Telluride Regional Airport and that it is nearly ready to be activated.
CDOT’s Division of Aeronautics paid for the sensor site preparation and the system’s equipment, power and telecommunications, along with some local funding. The FAA maintains and operates the system.
Gordon said the WAM technology is part of the FAA’s overall NextGen program that uses cutting-edge technology to create a modern, satellite-based air traffic control system. It aims to transform the national airspace to make it even safer and more efficient for the traveling public, airports and operators, resulting in benefits to the U.S. economy. NextGen initiatives underway in major regions across the country are helping to deliver more on-time flights, reduce fuel burn and ensure that the U.S. has the safest aviation system in the world.