A Simulating Experience

Between August and September 2005, controllers from O’Hare fast-forwarded to the year 2018, operating a real-time, human-in-the-loop simulation of a new airport layout plan defined by the O’Hare Modernization Program.


A pilot radios the tower at Chicago’s O’Hare International airport, “Tower, Eagle Flight 559 is outside the outer marker, two-eight center.” The controller, without missing a beat, responds “Eagle 559, O’Hare, you’re number two; you’re following traffic still two out; runway two-eight center, cleared to land.” Wait a minute – O’Hare doesn’t have a runway two-eight center. Yet, this exchange did take place — at FutureFlight Central’s air traffic control facility at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. It’s a telling tale.

Over a six-week period in August and September 2005, controllers from O’Hare fast-forwarded to the year 2018, operating a real-time, human-in-the-loop (HITL) simulation of a new airport layout plan (ALP) defined by the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP).

The OMP is a multi-billion dollar program by the City of Chicago to reduce delays and congestion at one of the world’s busiest, and most-delayed, airports. It will reconfigure O’Hare’s intersecting runways into a more modern, parallel layout that will substantially reduce delays in poor weather conditions and increase capacity at the airfield. Phase I construction is underway, and the full build-out is scheduled to be completed by 2013.

The key feature of the new ALP is the addition of one new runway, and the realignment of three existing runways to establish a system of parallel runways that ensures at least three arrival and three departure runways are active even in poor weather conditions. The peak operational capacity of the new ALP, under visual conditions, is expected to reach 300 operations per hour. In addition to the new runway layout, the OMP includes a new western terminal complex with 60 gates, and extensions to the K, L, and M (international) concourses that will add some 20 new gates.

Bringing ORD to FutureFlight

FutureFlight Central (FFC) is one of a suite of air traffic control (ATC) and cockpit simulators that comprise the “SimLabs,” or Simulation Laboratories, at NASA Ames. A virtual ATC tower, FFC is a national Air Traffic Control/Air Traffic Management (ATC/ATM) test facility dedicated to solving safety and capacity issues at the nation’s busiest airports. The two-story facility offers a complete tower operating environment including a 360-degree full-scale 3D out-the-window view of an airport. Controllers, pilots, and airport personnel participate in real-time simulations to optimize expansion plans and operating procedures, and evaluate new technologies.This is all done in the safety of a simulated environment without any impact to the users. The facility is a realistic environment that enables stakeholders to achieve consensus through a common vision of the future.

FFC provides detailed and realistic 3-D airport database models displayed on twelve projection screens to provide the 360-degree out-the-window view. Interactive tower displays support all air and ground positions controlling traffic within the terminal air space. Up to 12 controller positions, four ramp tower positions, and 16 sim-pilot positions are networked in real-time.

A digital voice communication system allows controllers to talk to pilots and coordinate in the tower, as they would in real life.

The data-collection capabilities in FFC include a wide array of surface performance measurements for aircraft and ground vehicles, controller and pilot communication metrics, and audio/video observational and debrief data. This high-fidelity collection of human-performance data, and airport surface data that includes human-performance factors, provides stakeholders with information that can be used to fine-tune airport designs and operations, and to develop, modify, and validate procedures in the tower.

Real-Time Simulation Defined

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