Glacier Park, Montana - Off The Radar - ATC - Aviation Information

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Glacier Park, Montana - Off The Radar

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Published: Sunday, January 18, 2009 8:40 AM CST

Airport caught between old, new technology

Glacier Park International Airport is working toward getting a radar system for its air-control tower, but like many small airports without radar has found itself in transition between existing and emerging technology.

And ultimately it's the Federal Aviation Administration's decision as to when the airport will get radar.

As it is now, air-traffic controllers at the Kalispell area airport tower "eyeball" the planes taking off and landing, said Ron Taylor, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization, an independent labor union.

Aircraft are tracked by the Salt Lake City airport radar system until they enter Glacier Park's five-mile airspace, at which point Salt Lake controllers hand off the baton to local air-traffic controllers and aircraft use visual flight rules.

From that point, local controllers separate aircraft on the runway and control aircraft through visual observation.

"I think what they have is archaic," Taylor said. "It's 20th-century technology. There is no margin for error in the job of an air-traffic controller, and there is no excuse when critical tools [such as radar] are not made available."

Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the FAA's Northwest Mountain Region, said he takes exception to the independent union's claim.

"To say that the public is at risk, absent of concrete examples, is somewhat unconscionable," Fergus said. "We have the best air-traffic control system in the world and they"re too professional to let anything slide."

Glacier Park International Airport Director Cindi Martin acknowledged the enhanced ability a radar system would provide, but said the FAA calls the shots on when it's installed.

"We've never said we didn't want it," Martin said. "The airport for many years has wanted to get a link to the radar on Blacktail Mountain that would broadcast back to us.

"The FAA purchases and installs equipment and what we have to do is open a project with the FAA," Martin explained. "We have opened a project and it's in the FAA's hands."

The largest share of money for airport projects comes from the federal government, which has established a supply formula based on entitlement money, calculated on the number of planes using an airport.

Former airport director Monte Eliason said ever since the airport authority built the contract tower in 2001, the authority has been asking the federal agency for a radar drop into the tower from the radar base at Salt Lake City.

"We wanted to have local controllers be able to look at the monitor that Salt Lake City receives," Eliason said. "We wanted them to see" what is beyond the airport's five-mile airspace.

The FAA at that point said it was against agency procedures to do that, he recalled. But as the agency relaxed its policy and began putting radar drops at other airports, the Glacier airport authority pushed harder, Eliason said.

Agency officials then told the local authority it was working with Lockheed and Raytheon for an in-tower system for Glacier, "just like what we wanted," Eliason said, but the local authority would have had to foot the bill. Negotiations continued, but nothing had been resolved on the radar issue by the time Eliason left in 2003.

Martin said the tower chief approached her shortly after she began work at Glacier Park International in August 2006 and asked about getting a radar system. The airport authority then added the purchase of a system to its capital improvement program, targeting a 2009 or 2010 installation date.

According to Fergus, the FAA can't commit to a time frame for radar installation at Glacier Park International.

"It's a tedious and complicated budget and schedule of who gets what and when," he said.

in the meantime, the FAA is moving to its Next Generation Air Transportation System " NextGen " featuring as its foundation the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). The new technology uses ground stations, on-aircraft avionics and satellite data to paint an accurate picture of what is happening in the sky, according to a recent Airport Magazine article.

The ADS-B, still in its infancy, is a collaborative effort between the federal agency and ITT, a contractor that currently is inspecting airport sites to see how the new technology could be applied.

Jim Trout, a longtime member of the Glacier airport authority, said the conundrum lies in the emerging technology.

"If we put a repeater in now, we'd be throwing money out the window," he said. "It would be totally obsolete in a few years."

Taylor maintained that Glacier Park International could install the older radar system for $100,000 or less, but Martin said she was advised by FAA air-traffic control engineers that the system would cost roughly $350,000 to $400,000.

The FAA sent a technician to Glacier Park International in late November and accepted the airport for NextGen installation. It could take several years get access to the new technology, though, Trout said. Industry experts say it could be three to four years out yet.

The airport has had a few near misses in dealing with the growing mix of general aviation and commercial airline flights, Taylor claimed, including a Dec. 27 incident during which a private jet attempted to land without clearance while snowplows were still on the runway. In those kinds of scenarios a radar system can be a critical tool, he maintained.

"If they'd had radar, they could've been tracking the guy," Taylor said. "When you have terrain issues and bad visibility, every tool in the world helps."

But Fergus said that incident was attributed to pilot error, and radar "wouldn't have made a difference....radar doesn't affect safety in this context.

"If a pilot doesn't call in, the controller wouldn't be looking at the screen," Fergus said, explaining that even if the tower had radar, controllers wouldn't spend all their time looking at the screen.

Trout said representatives from the independent union have not talked to the authority board about their concerns over the radar issue.

AT GALLATIN Field Airport in Bozeman, record-breaking passenger boardings last year prompted that airport authority to go ahead with a radar system using the older technology.

"We moved ahead because our traffic count was No. 2 in the state behind Billings," Gallatin airport Manager Ted Mathis said. "We didn't feel we could wait, and all indications are that NextGen won't be available for a few years."

The Gallatin airport authority worked with the FAA to put a radar unit on the airfield two years ago, and just paid the FAA $412,815 to buy and install a STARS LITE radar display-screen system for the Bozeman airport.

Gallatin logged 351,214 passengers in 2008; that compares to 186,507 passengers at Glacier Park International last year.

Both Martin and Mathis said it's common for airports the size of the Bozeman and Kalispell not to have radar screens for air-traffic controllers.

Helena Regional Airport, another smaller airport, also doesn't have a radar system, but has worked on getting one a dozen times through the years, airport director Ron Mercer said.

"It's a great addition to an airport," Mercer said.

But there are "incidents" or near misses with radar systems, too, he added.

Martin pointed out that just as there are bad drivers on the roads, "there are bad pilots" who occasionally choose not to follow the rules.

"Radar enhances safety to some degree," Mercer said, but an equal benefit is reducing the time planes have to hold until they can land. If there are three aircraft coming in around the same time, a radar can more easily get the planes "vectored in," he said.

STAFFING has been a concern at Glacier Park International, too.

Tennessee-based Serco Management Services has been contracted by the FAA since 2002 to provide air-traffic controllers at the Glacier airport.

"We recently lost two employees at Glacier tower," Serco spokesman Alan Hill said. "One has been replaced and plans are under way to replace the other. In the interim overtime is being used to ensure proper coverage and the safe operation of the tower."

Glacier tower normally has a staff equivalent to four full time and one part-time controller. Controllers are certified weather observers through the National Weather Service, capable of providing weather observation services while the tower is open, Hill said.

Martin said she was aware of the staffing issues.

Taylor said that while "staffing is being pushed to the edge," working long hours right now, he believes the staffing problem soon will be resolved.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at

PATCO web site @ PATCO:::Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization
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