Another eye for safety; FAA tests new radar systems at Spokane airport;

June 21, 2007

On a computer monitor in David Crowner's office overlooking the Spokane International Airport, a dot moved along a runway illuminated red - a signal that the runway was "hot," or occupied.

Looking to his left, out the windows of the airport's aircraft rescue firefighting tower, Crowner could see a small plane making a low pass over the runway.

And through the Internet, federal officials in Washington, D.C., could have remotely watched the same digital views.

The displays are part of one of two competing radar systems the Federal Aviation Administration is testing at the airport. Designed to let aircraft controllers see what's happening on their runways in bad weather, the systems could help keep passengers and workers safer on the ground.

"Humans are prone to error, and we have to do everything we can," said Crowner, operations manager for the airport. "Unfortunately, when a mistake happens, albeit minor, it can have grave consequences. We need backup; we need technology to work with us."

Windsor, Conn.-based Transtech Airport Solutions Inc., which makes the displays and the radar units that feed them information, hopes the FAA will decide to order the system for small- and medium-sized airports nationwide, said Mike Stannert, a senior director for Transtech.

The systems in Spokane are being tested and developed, and the timeline for ending tests is unknown, said Mike Fergus, an FAA spokesman.

"If one of these two systems gets approved, we want to be able to keep it here," Crowner said. "That's our biggest fear, that after the test is over ? somebody comes along and says, 'Well, we really need it at another airport with a higher priority.'"

The FAA chose Spokane for the test because it is busy for a medium-sized airport and because it is one of the foggiest airports nationwide, Crowner said.

"There are days when you can't see out the window," he said.

Currently, the airport uses a manual runway lighting system to warn pilots and vehicle drivers, Crowner said.

The displays, part of Transtech's Critical Area Management System, show both a three-dimensional view of the airport and a two-dimensional aerial schematic of its main runway. They relay information gathered by five millimeter-wave radar sensors positioned along the main runway that detect incoming and departing aircraft and service vehicles. They can even detect coyotes and other non-mechanical intruders.

"We've had tumbleweeds" show on the display, Crowner said.

With the press of a button, Crowner switched to a 3-D view of what the pilot of an incoming aircraft would see from the cockpit.

"It almost looks like a video game," Stannert said in a phone interview. "Some people have described it as that."

But runway safety is a dead-serious matter for federal safety officials.

The world's deadliest aviation incident happened in March 1977 when two jumbo jets collided on a runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands, killing 583, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. While the NTSB does not have regulatory power like the FAA, it wants the FAA to require all airports with passenger service to have ground movement safety systems to prevent accidents, according to the NTSB.

No ground collisions have occurred in Spokane, said Crowner, who is charged with keeping the airfield safe, including removing snow.

While aircraft controllers in Spokane have not used either system to direct air traffic, they have had access to the displays to learn how they work, Crowner said.

A competing unit, a version of Park Air Systems' NOVA 9000 Air Traffic Control System, is visible outside, a few yards away from the fire tower. A tall tower with a spinning rotor, the NOVA 9000 unit resembles a ship's radar.

The NOVA 9000 covers the whole airport, whereas CAMS covers only the main taxiway through overlapping, circular detection areas, Crowner said.

Park Air is a wholly owned subsidiary of aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp. Versions of the NOVA 9000 are being used at airports in London and Paris.

CAMS is being used in Spain, Israel, Germany and England, Stannert said.

Transtech installed CAMS about two years ago in Spokane, and Park Air set up the NOVA 9000 there about a year ago, Crowner said.

"Basically, it's a head-to-head competition between the two," Crowner said. "We believe that they both serve and have an applicable use for various reasons. So it may be that both systems get approved" for different types of airports.

While similar systems designed for larger airports could cost tens of millions of dollars, the FAA wants solutions for airports with visibility problems that don't have traffic to justify such large costs, Crowner said.

The systems at Spokane each had to cost less than $1 million, he said.

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