FAA official wants localizer at airport
April 17, 2002
Federal Aviation Administration officials met yesterday with local pilots, air traffic controllers and airport administrators to discuss a proposal that just might make night landings in Aspen possible.
John Chapman, the FAA’s top expert on landing procedures at mountain airports, hopes to introduce a piece of equipment known as a localizer, which helps pilots land.
Chapman has been working on the plan to introduce a localizer to Aspen’s growing mix of navigational aids since last spring, after a Gulfstream III jet crashed a few hundred yards short of the runway at Sardy Field.
The charter jet was carrying 15 passengers bound for a birthday party in the Aspen area. It crashed after the pilot lost sight of the runway in a blinding snow squall shortly after 7 p.m. on March 29, 2001. All 18 on board were killed.
The FAA subsequently banned all nighttime landings into Aspen except by United Express and a few local charter operators that have special clearance. Chapman and the other top FAA official present at yesterday’s meeting, Dick Temple from Washington, said that the addition of a localizer is not likely to end the ban. However, they say it will improve safety and efficiency during daylight hours, provided the technology can operate correctly in the mountainous terrain.
Localizers are placed several hundred feet from one end of a runway, directly in line with the runway’s center line. They beam a signal to incoming aircraft that lets pilots know as far as 10 miles out where they are in relation to that center line, Chapman said.
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“A localizer’s simple,” he told the roomful of experts. “It squirts out a signal in one direction.”
The information sent out by a localizer helps pilots with their horizontal positioning in relation to the center of the runway; it does not help them determine their distance from, or height over, the runway. Chapman said it is unlikely that the equipment needed to provide the vertical information will be available in Aspen anytime soon.
Chapman said his real aim behind installing a localizer here is to improve the nighttime approach for United Express, Aspen Aviation and others with clearance, because the current approach patterns are far from ideal. But to do that, he needs to create an approach plate, as individual landing routes and procedures are called, for use by the general public during daylight operations.
But even if the localizer doesn’t open the airport to general aviation at night, it may improve the lot of private pilots. Air traffic controllers present at yesterday’s meeting said if the system works as well as Chapman claims, it will improve their ability to coordinate takeoffs and landings under certain, overcast conditions.
“This will help on those real crunch days when we have capacity problems,” said one controller at the meeting.
Jim Elwood, director of the Pitkin County Airport, stressed the preliminary nature of yesterday’s discussion. He and both FAA officials said a considerable amount of work needs to be done before a localizer is installed. Before spending $500,000 of local and federal taxes, they need to know the system will make it easier to land here during the day for a majority of pilots.
Localizers have been around since the 1930s, but past attempts to introduce them at Sardy Field have failed because the mountainous terrain distorted the signals. Chapman believes that antennas are now sophisticated enough to overcome the challenges presented by local geography.
Aviators and controllers expressed doubts about the localizer’s capability during peak traffic. Planes waiting for approval to take off currently line up at the upvalley end of the runway, directly between the spot where the localizer is and the planes on approach, which may distort the signal.
Chapman would like to see tests undertaken within the next few months, perhaps as soon as June.
The cost of the equipment, installation and spare parts is estimated at $500,000. Chapman said it would be ideal if the FAA could send out its own crew to install the equipment, because he thinks the FAA is more reliable than the private sector in time-consuming matters such as installation.
If the test goes without a hitch, Chapman hopes to have a permanent system operating by December, even though his colleagues and superiors at the FAA reckon it won’t happen before next spring.
“This will be an uphill battle,” Chapman admitted. “There will be people in Oklahoma City who don’t even want to talk about Aspen.”