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There’s No Place Like the Home ‘Drome - Airports of the Future

Source: www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing, By Sabrina Woods

Many aviators and aviation enthusiasts look upon their local airport and FBO as their “home away from home.” The idea of having a fixed location that could provide a whole host of services to include aircraft fueling, parking, access to flight instructors, and aircraft maintenance, began to take root after the First World War. Eager “Aces” scooped up the sudden military surplus of aircraft and used them to traipse from town to town. Some even made a bit of a name for themselves as entertaining “barnstormers” — notable performers included Charles Lindbergh, Glen Curtiss, and Bessie Coleman. With business booming, the aviators of the 1920s needed a place to beddown permanently and, with the passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926, these “fixed-base operators” became a fixture in the community.

These airports, which in the 1920s were little more than a strip of grass, a wind sock, and a little wooden building, haven’t stopped evolving. Airports today have so much more to offer a general aviation pilot than they did in Lindbergh’s day. The FAA Airport Organization’s Office of Safety and Standards continues to focus on building safer airport operational environments. Here are just a few of the exciting technological advancements that may be coming to a ‘drome near you soon.

Anyone There?

While on approach to your destination, you might just encounter a remote air traffic control tower. Advances in high definition cameras, ground detection systems, microphones, meteorological sensors, and a super high speed internet link make your conversation with a remote controller just like any other ... except that he or she might actually be located hundreds of miles away.

One “pro” of the system is that remote tower support at lower volume or seasonal airports is more cost effective than staffing a permanent tower, and another is that multiple camera feeds can project a clearer image of the facility grounds and eliminate line-of-sight and blind spot issues that some manned towers might have. This new technology has been deployed in Sweden where a remote tower currently controls a commercial airport, but it could come to a GA airport near you in the not-too-distant future. Currently, the Leesburg Executive Airport in Virginia has partnered with Saab (the security company) and the Virginia Small Aircraft Transport System, Inc. (VSATS) to test and evaluate a remote tower at this bustling GA airport later in 2016. Another such venture is at Fort Collins – Loveland Municipal Airport in Colorado.

And of course while on approach to your airport of choice, your freshly equipped ADS-B In and Out systems will have identified your position to ATC (Out) and will alert you to encroaching traffic. As an added bonus, it will broadcast weather or NOTAMS directly to your cockpit (In).

Light Up My Life

Frequent readers of FAA Safety Briefing may remember “Nightlights,” an article Tom Hoffmann authored in the November/December 2015 night-themed edition (www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/2015/media/NovDec2015.pdf). This article introduced advances in approach lighting systems known as the visual approach slope indicator (VASI) and precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lights. Supplementary to these illuminating devices, engineers at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center have been working with LED and solar lighting in an effort to lower operational costs and environmental impacts of landing, runway, and taxi light systems.

Self-contained solar powered LED lights are just right for GA airports where resources to pay for lighting equipment is more limited, and where the higher visibility requirement of larger certificated airports is just not necessary. These smaller lights use little solar cells to recharge their own batteries, also eliminating the need to run power supply lines all over a relatively small area. The benefits are invaluable.

In addition to the power that goes into lighting up your favorite landing strip, pilot controlled lighting is a delightfully wonderful and ever-evolving “thing.” For the airports (typically non-towered) that have it installed, with just a key of the mic you can now activate PAPI, VASI, runway end identifier lights, and taxiway lights to safely guide you home. These are in addition to the runway lights you may be the most familiar with. To recap, the lights typically remain illuminated for about 15 minutes and even the intensity can be controlled to keep the level within your desired limits. Level of intensity corresponds to the number of mic keys you input — three for low, five for medium, and seven for high intensity. Just be aware that if two airports are relatively close together (such as in the heavily congested airspace in the DC metropolitan area) different airports probably have a discrete radio frequency for cueing the lighting systems so that you aren’t accidentally wreaking havoc at Airport Alpha while you are trying to land at Airport Bravo.

Any Landing You Can Walk Away From ...

On November 3, 2011, a Cessna 550 Citation II crashed at Key West International Airport when the brakes failed during landing. It skidded off the runway and into the overrun. The occupants of the Cessna walked away completely unscathed and damage to the airframe was relatively minor.

Even more recently, on January 26, 2016, a Falcon 20 came safely to rest in the overrun of Chicago Executive Airport shortly before it would have departed the airfield entirely and ended up on a four-lane highway running adjacent to the airport. Once again, no one was hurt in the mishap and the Falcon sustained minor damage.

These two incidents could have easily gone a much different, much more tragic direction. How was it that man and machine escaped virtually unharmed? It is all thanks to a wonderful substance called crushable concrete, and its brilliant application by some savvy engineers.

EMASMAX® arrestor beds are composed of blocks of lightweight, crushable cellular cement material designed to safely bring anything that comes in contact with it to a near immediate stop. This “crushable” concrete is made up of foamed silica — a recycled glass and a high-strength plastic mesh that has been poured into lanes and covered with a cement layer and sealant. The air bubbles created in the process are what collapse on impact and form the arresting mechanism.

arrestor beds

The arrestor bed is installed in cubes that break away and absorb the energy of the aircraft. Even better is that the block style installation means easier removal and reinstallation after EMAS does its job. This application is perfect for those airports that simply can’t expand their runway safety areas due to man- or nature-made obstacles (think: San Francisco International Airport). A typical EMAS installation is set about 75 feet from the runway end and is between 400 to 600 feet in length.

EMAS has already found a home at several commercial airports so the next step is retrofitting GA airports. Greenville, South Carolina and Reading, Pennsylvania are leading the way in this technology at smaller fields.

Geometry 101: Every Angle Covered

In addition to effectively turning a “bad landing” into just another event you can walk away from, recent updates to airport design in Advisory Circular (AC) 150/5300-13 (http://go.usa.gov/csEcV) have improved guidance on runway and taxiway layouts. The AC also addresses the inclusion of safety areas to minimize runway incursion.

FAA’s Office of Airport Engineering provides critical guidance for the design of runway profile and line-of-sight requirements. Line-of-site requirements among aircraft, and between aircraft and vehicles that operate on active runways, are essential to safe operations at towered and non-towered airports. One of the new technologies the Office of Airports is evaluating will provide broadband wireless communication on the airfield. The technology will allow sensors to remotely control airport lighting, elevated signs, and NAVAIDs with minimal (or no) underground trenching for control cabling. This will tremendously reduce construction costs at airports of the future.
Planners and designers are also revamping how they lay out new airports and modify existing ones. The new taxiway-runway interface geometry advocated by AC 150/5300-13 helps to increase visual cues for improved situational awareness. Taxiway entrances are being redesigned so that you can quickly access and react to critical information signs. Planners are also encouraged to limit the number of taxiways crossing a runway. The idea behind this is that less intersecting surfaces amplify safety for airport operations, especially at non-towered airports.

Both planners and designers are now more aware of the benefits of avoiding the placement of taxiways at “high energy” intersections — these are runway zones where airplanes are transitioning from ground to air or vice versa — and are avoiding the use of “dual purpose” pavements (i.e., taxiing on a runway). A more efficient and safer system results when the taxiway geometry provides indirect access from an apron to a runway. It enhances situational awareness and eliminates the likelihood of two objects trying to occupy the
same space avoiding a runway incursion incident.

A lot of amazing engineers, technicians, safety analysts, planners, and ground operations personnel take great care in determining ways to safely and efficiently increase the abilities of your home away from home. With these guys keeping innovation to the forefront, the future of airports looks bright.

Sabrina Woods is an associate editor for FAA Safety Briefing. She spent 12 years as an aircraft maintenance officer and an aviation mishap investigator in the Air Force.