The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 30, 2013

Virtual tower getting trial run at Beckley airport

Thousands of out-of-staters are expected to fly in and out of the Raleigh County Memorial Airport this summer, and with all that traffic envisioned, the timing seems perfect to give the virtual tower concept a trial run.

That was the consensus Tuesday of Airport Manager Tom Cochran and the scientist behind the idea, Dr. David Byers, senior development professional for Quadrex Aviation LLC, based in Melbourne, Fla.

Unless rain spoils the plan, the test will be conducted July 17-18 during the Boy Scouts Jamboree in nearby Fayette County.

“That will generate a lot of activity, both from the aviation perspective, but it also is going to bring a lot of people into town, people that we could provide a demonstration of what it is we can do and get some feedback as well,” Byers explained during a Tuesday briefing at the airport.

Depending on how the test goes, Cochran said positive results could provide some extra leverage in getting money from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Across the industry, attention is focused on the Beckley airport as it demonstrates the off-the-shelf hardware that employs S- and X-band radar and its ability to advise aircraft using the facility.

“There isn’t an airport in this country that doesn’t have issues of traffic control — large, medium or small,” the manager said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., are on record in support of the concept of a computer-driven control system as opposed to building a permanent tower occupied by human traffic directors.

So far, however, Byers advised participants in the briefing, the response from the FAA has been non-committal as far as the money is concerned.

“From the financial standpoint, that’s where the trail ends,” he said.

“Pretty much, the wheels of the federal government grind slowly. The idea needs to be pushed forward.”

Byers said the FAA and any other interested party would be welcome to observe the experiment and emphasized there is no risk to the traveling public, since the test doesn’t entail providing advisories to any incoming or outgoing pilots.

“We’re not using this information to direct traffic or advise people,” he said.

“That is way down the road. We’re just collecting information. We’re just going to see if our system sees airplanes. But we’re not going to use it for anything. The risk is just not there.”

Last fall, the airport authority deposited $50,000 in an escrow account to finance this current wave of research by Quadrex. Ultimately, the project would cost as much as $3 million. If the trial run proves successful, the next step would be to entice a 90 percent match in federal dollars from the FAA.

Besides commercial aircraft, the airport also promises to be a beehive of military activity, with C-130s arriving and leaving in conjunction with the jamboree at Glen Jean.

Cochran said nine Blackhawk helicopters will be parked at the airport for a variety of maneuvers, including the National Guard’s role in a planned mock evacuation drill at the Scouting complex.

“There will be a lot of military activity early in the process,” Byers said of the Scout celebration.

“With a lot of people coming and going, this is maybe a good time to capture data.”

Byers used a hypothetical situation in which a corporate jet is approaching the runway while a recreational pilot absent a radio is doing the same and the airport’s system is picking up both aircraft.

“They’re on a converging path,” he said.

“We don’t know the second aircraft’s altitude. But we have enough information to issue an advisory to the corporate pilot that you have traffic at 2 o’clock, 2 miles northeast bound, altitude unknown. Which is the typical advisory that a controller would deliver. Just information for the pilot to look over to the right, look up and down, and see if they can see this guy.”

Byers said the idea of the demonstration is to merely assess its capability once it is deployed.

“You’re never going to know until you get out there,” he said.

“I don’t assume there’d be any problems with the technology. It’s just getting it out there, turning it on, and let’s see what happens.”

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