The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 22, 2013

FAA consent, money both needed for ‘virtual tower’

BECKLEY — Aviation eyes across America are watching to see how the Federal Aviation Administration feels about the use of technology to help guide pilots in and out of the Raleigh County Memorial Airport.

Getting the FAA nod is one big, mandatory step.

Corralling enough federal bucks to get the “virtual tower” up and running looms as an even bigger hurdle, made even more challenging in this era of tight budgets and competing needs.

For now, the FAA seems on board with the idea, after one of its officials joined pilots and others for a trial run in July during the Boy Scouts Jamboree, a time when the airport saw more than its customary number of commuters.

“We called in private pilots,” Airport Manager Tom Cochran pointed out. “We called corporate pilots in. We called in the military. Everyone had positive comments of satisfaction with it.”

Cochran quoted the FAA official watching the hours-long demonstration as saying he could support using a computer-run device to help guide incoming and departing pilots as opposed to having a tower manned by humans.

“It works,” exulted Dr. David Byers, the senior development professional for Quadrex Aviation in Melbourne, Fla., who led the research into the ambitious project, after it was tested this summer.

For now, Byers is working in tandem with other components so that everything meshes, provided the FAA flashes the green light, and somehow the West Virginia delegation can lasso the funding, estimated in the neighborhood of $3 million.

The FAA gave no indication when it would pass judgment, but Cochran says the official sitting in on the demonstration was visibly impressed.

“It will have to be certified by the FAA before it can be put into service,” he said.

“The only problem of that right now is that the FAA is just like all of our government — there’s no money for them to work with to help us fund it. So, we’re just doing some other studies right now internally to see which direction financially we can go to get that component.”

State money obviously is not an option.

“Not really,” Cochran acknowledged. “That’s not a part of the budget. Mostly what our State Aeronautics Commission does is match federal grants we get. They have been very good about matching those in the past. We are budgeted through June of next year to have that support from them. However, for us just to go to them on an open project for them to fund all of it would not be something that could be done. They’re going to put most of their transportation money on roads and bridges right now.”

Ever since the idea was advanced by Byers, and talk grew serious about a “virtual tower,” airports around the nation — especially the smaller ones that cannot afford to either build or maintain ones run by people — have been keeping close tabs on the developing story in Beckley.

Cochran said the FAA official at the July trial run saw the benefits of using computers to assist pilots making a landing or taking off, especially for the smaller airports that either lack a tower or can’t maintain the ones they operate.

“This could be a fail-safe operation that they could have at least something that would be monitoring their air space,” the manager added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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