Long Beach Testing FAA's Newest Runway Inclusion Warning System

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 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.

The answer?

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.

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