UNIVERSITY PARK -- New technology to better guide pilots into University Park Airport will be operational by year's end and should make air travel safer and more efficient, the state transportation secretary said this week.
"This new system represents the 21st-century way that pilots will see and react to each other and their environment while flying," said Allen Biehler, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation secretary.
Unlike previous systems, the new technology will allow pilots in properly equipped aircraft to see one another on radar at altitudes below 4,000 feet -- a level that previously left pilots to depend on their own eyes to spot traffic and potential collisions.
"It extends the radar coverage to the ground," said Bryan Rodgers, University Park Airport director.
The coverage, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, also gives increased access to critical pilot aids such as Global Positioning Satellite, weather radar and multifunction cockpit display to planes with transceivers. It also will provide more detailed information to air traffic controllers.
The state plans to put similar ground stations are in place by the end of the year at airports in Allentown, Wilkes-Barre and Lancaster, to provide such coverage for all aircraft traveling through the eastern part of the state. The new technology currently is in place between Florida and New Jersey.
The state plans to have coverage in place for the entire state by 2009.
The costs are being split between PennDOT and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"The ADSB technology is a tool that will help air traffic safety issues in the interim," Rodgers said. "It's not the total answer for us or the total solution."
A big part of the solution to improving air traffic safety at University Park will be the construction of an air traffic control tower at the airport, Rodgers said. Pilots approaching or leaving the airport rely upon air traffic controllers in New York for guidance.
"We're the busiest airport in the United States without our own air traffic control tower," Rodgers said.
An average of 65,000 flights -- takeoffs and landings -- come into the airport each year, with 45,000 of them being general aviation flights.
University Park's ground system for the new, high-tech coverage has been installed at the airport in an existing building at the airfield, Rodgers said. It will not become operational until the systems at the three other airports have been installed.
"The system would provide only spotty coverage with only one out of the four in operation," said Kirk Wilson, a PennDOT spokesman.
The technology will be accessible to pilots and air traffic control towers that are equipped with transceivers. Rodgers estimated a transceiver will cost about $8,000.
"I think we'll see the real benefits of it down the road as more and more aircraft become equipped," Rodgers said.
There are no plans to mandate pilots to utilize the system, Wilson said. He cited radar as another example of a tool helpful to pilots, but also one they are not required to employ.
Jennifer Thomas can be reached at 231-4638.
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