Jan. 15--LONG BEACH -- It is a deadly legacy that Long Beach Airport does not want any part of, unless it's in the role of preventing future chapters from being written.
March 1977: Two jumbo jets collide on the runway in Tenerife, Canary Islands. With 583 people killed, it's the world's deadliest aviation accident.
February 1991: Thirty-four people are killed when a USAir 737 collides with a Skywest Metroliner on a Los Angeles International Airport runway.
July 2006: A United Airlines 737 and Atlas Air 747 cargo plane nearly collide, coming within 35 feet of each other as they were on intersecting runways.
January 2007: A Frontier Airlines flight takes a last-second maneuver to avoid hitting a smaller Metroliner taxiing on a runway at Denver International Airport.
All four were caused by one of the most nagging problems at U.S. airports, runway incursions -- incidents, some with tragic results, where airplanes collide or come perilously close while accidentally traveling on the same landing strip.
The planes may be using a taxiway and crossing a runway to get to the terminal while another incoming passenger jet gets ready to take off or land. Or an incoming aircraft may not spot another already on the runway -- a phenomenon called "rearward conspicuity," the inability to see an airplane's "behind," especially at night or during bad weather.
With an annual rate of 63 million takeoffs and landings across the U.S. annually, reducing runway incursions is a top priority of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Already FAA initiatives like pilot education have helped reduce "serious" runway incursions by 40 percent over the last five years.
A serious incursion is one where a plane has to take extreme actions to avoid a collision, or a collision actually happens.
But that downward trend has flattened out, and there are estimates that a runway incursion happens once a day in the U.S., which has prompted a search for even more prevention measures.
One of the most promising tools is in the early stages of a year-long evaluation at Long Beach Airport's 10,000-foot-long primary runway.
The potential solution appears almost simplistic in its design: a bank of four lights alongside the runway blink a warning to airborne pilots on approach whenever another airplane enters danger "zones" on the landing strip.
The lights blaze steadily when the runway is clear. But when planes on the ground make a turn off taxiways onto or across the runway, they trip buried sensor loops and the lights begin blinking their warning.
Pilots can use that information to scan the runway for obstructions, decide to fly over the runway and reapproach, or consult with air traffic controllers or the airport tower to determine if the problem may clear up.
The FAA decided to use Long Beach Airport to test the Final Approach Runway Occupancy Signal (FAROS) system because it has a complicated network of five runways that intersect with each other and with multiple taxiways.
It is also one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country, with nearly 370,000 annual flights originating there. The activity involves a mix of landings and takeoffs involving blimps, helicopters, charter and corporate planes, military cargo planes, banner towing aircraft and small general aviation craft.
Long Beach also had existing infrastructure and equipment from previous FAA tests that could be modified to develop FAROS.
Sensor loops are imbedded in the runways to detect when planes cross from taxiways onto the main runway, alerting the control tower. When combined with ground radar it gives a fuller picture of activity.
Traditional Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) lights also are installed at the airport and used by planes to determine if they are approaching at too high or too low an altitude.
The proposed FAROS system would combine those two, allowing the PAPI lights to retain their primary use but having the added feature of blinking to warn of the potential runway obstructions.
Moved to action Long Beach in 1996 and 1997 had a large number of reported runway incursions, eight and 10, respectively, although the vast majority were categorized as low risk by the FAA, said Jaime Figueroa, FAA's Surface Systems Manager in Washington, D.C.
The FAA also included other categories of incidents in those numbers, something it doesn't do today.
"The FAA told us we were No. 1 in the nation in terms of runway incursions and that's not a good thing to be," Christine Edwards, Long Beach Airport's current acting manager and special projects coordinator at the time.
"We immediately started to look at all kinds of things that we could do to get off that list," Edwards said.
First the airport identified the most incursion-prone hot spots. They turned out to be places where the "tic tac toe" shaped runway systems intersected with each other and with taxiways. Signs were redesigned or created.
Officials began educating pilots on how to identify those hot spots and avoid incursions.
Training materials and an educational course were put together, including videos narrated by actor Harrison Ford, an avid pilot who uses the Long Beach facility frequently.
An online runway game was created to show how to avoid the close calls.
"We had a lot of success with all of those things in raising pilot awareness," Edwards said.
Then-airport manager Chris Kunze took part in a 2001 safety task force meeting with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation to talk about runway incursions.
Bruce Lansberg, the foundation's executive director, suggested making the facility's existing PAPI lights flash as a pilot warning.
Lansberg said it made more sense to come up with a technology that could be used on the runway rather than trying to retrofit every airplane with state-of-the-art warning systems.
Seconds are precious in aviation accidents and a system where the airport tower or air traffic controller has to evaluate a potential problem and then radio the pilot to warn him or her can take too much time, Lansberg said.
"The person best equipped to resolve a problem is frequently going to be one of the pilots involved," Lansberg said.
"We volunteered to be a test place for the idea," Edwards said and the FAA was agreeable because Long Beach already was a test site for the imbedded sensor loop system to detect moving planes.
In the early 1990s, the FAA began a study to find out if inductive loops, weight-sensitive devices placed into streets that help cars trigger stop light rotations, could be used in a similar fashion on runways.
Ground-based radar can't always see the entire runway system, so to fill in the gaps, the inductive loops would work as a "poor man's radar." All the FAA had to do was research how to connect those sensors, which were found to be effective, with the PAPI lights.
Long Beach wouldn't incur the brunt of the cost because the program would be part of the FAA's research department. The airport paid for additional infrastructure under the main runway.
By September 2002 the airport was able to conduct a demonstration of how FAROS might work.
A series of flights were made onto the airport's giant "diagonal" runway that bisects the other four shorter runways and that was equipped with the FAROS system. The reaction from a contingent of production pilots and general aviation fliers was that FAROS was a no brainer, Edwards said.
"They said, 'We need to do this. It could prevent some really major accidents,'" Edwards said.
But the FAA's massive bureaucracy moved slowly and FAROS' development proceeded glacially, officials said. An operational evaluation, the last step before it could be adopted and put into permanent use, seemed a long way off.
"I think it was because there are a lot of competing projects, and not a lot of R&D funding," Edwards said.
The airline pilots association, led by Lansberg, executive director of its safety foundation, continued to pushed for FAROS and finally the program was put into final position for testing.
FAROS fares well So how has FAROS been doing so far?
"We turned it on in August and it's been performing well," Figueroa said. "Will it save the day? It's too early to tell." The FAA needs a full year of statistics before it can evaluate performance, Figueroa said. It also needs at least a one-year evaluation before it can become an officially commissioned FAA program.
Not only will FAROS be judged by engineering standards and how it impacts runway incursion rates in a real environment, but also on whether it makes economic sense.
"Is there a business case for it? And what are the costs and benefits," Figueroa said.
Long Beach is the only airport with a FAROS system but other airports, including Dallas/Fort Worth International, have been pestering the FAA to try it out as well.
Edwards believes that FAROS is the answer to runway incursions. Maybe it won't reduce incidents to zero, but combined with other educational programs and technology that still could be developed, eliminating the potentially horrific close calls could be achieved, she said.
And that could help keep Long Beach from making the list of fatal incursions that have hit other airports.
"I think we've been fortunate we haven't had one," Edwards said.
"I would also say it's been more than luck. I think maybe we haven't had one because we've been effective in our pilot awareness and education programs."
Copyright (c) 2007, Press-Telegram.
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