The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 24, 2012

Final pitch offered on virtual tower

A pioneering project that might open the door to others across the nation is one board vote away, and it appears the Raleigh County Memorial Airport Authority favors the concept of a virtual tower to help incoming and departing pilots gain safe passage in using the Beckley facility.

While some questioned various aspects of the idea in Tuesday’s meeting, comments by members of the airport authority were favorable.

A formal vote is to come at a special meeting, possibly next week.

As he has done on other occasions, Dr. David Byers, senior development professional for Quadrex Aviation LLC, based in Melbourne, Fla., outlined the proposal, explaining that a virtual tower relies on computers to relay data to pilots, rather than have an on-duty controller actually guide them in and out of airports.

“One big thing that does differentiate us from these remote towers is we’re not telling pilots what to do,” Byers told the authority.

“We’re just providing guidance to them to say, ‘There’s something out there.’ A pilot is coming in and asks, ‘Am I alone out there, or is there somebody out there I need to watch out for?’ It’s not that level where we’re actually steering traffic. Not telling pilots what to do. Just giving them alerts that you’ve got something out there you probably should look at. That’s your responsibility. You, as a pilot, operating in this air space, are to provide your separation.”

Several months ago, Byers’ firm was given $25,000 by the authority to develop the virtual tower concept, one that might catch on as smaller airports find it increasingly difficult to come up with needed funds to sustain actual towers with live controllers on board.

Airport Manager Tom Cochran enthusiastically endorsed the approach, saying it could be tied into the facility’s weather monitoring system.

“First of all, it’s a safety factor,” Cochran said. “Next, it’s an economic benefit. It’s the thing we need to move along.”

Cochran said the airport needs advice from Byers on how it can safeguard its investment in a virtual tower.

“This is not an open door for everyone to take advantage of what we have invested in,” the manager said.

“But I think it’s an ultimate opportunity for us to move toward the future. We have been idle here for years. I’ve heard this, ‘We don’t want to come into an airport that has no traffic control.’ And there’s a reason why they don’t do that. We’re in position to make that work for us. Yes, it will hurt us painfully financially to invest toward that effort. But I think it’s the best opportunity we’ve ever had at this airport.”

Lifelong aviator William Atwell, an Army pilot from 1968 through 2011 and Vietnam War veteran, likewise applauded the concept, telling the authority, “I can tell you, working in uncontrolled air space is always an issue for pilots.

“If the airport that is uncontrolled has a means of providing data, and that’s really what this system does — provides data, so in-bound and out-bound traffic is aware of other traffic — it increases the safety factor,” said Atwell, who works for the West Virginia National Guard and the state Department of Homeland Security.

Among his responsibilities is liaison work for the Boy Scouts of America in helping to plan for the 2012 Jamboree in Fayette County.

“We may not have a quick return as in past investments, but long term, it will benefit this airport,” Cochran said.

“Everyone that flies, regardless of how they do it, they’re still interested in safety. They still have that in the back of their mind.”

Money looms as a major hurdle, but Cochran said he has been encouraged in talking with members of the state’s congressional delegation, since funding already is moving on the floors of both the Senate and House.

“So, there is a spark of interest and that’s exactly what we need — to get our political people involved and take on the interest of where we’re going with this thing,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is to find funding. The bad part is we have to bite the bullet to make the initial investment.”

Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh, another authority member, said a piece of property the airport sold recently allows the facility to generate some projects such as the virtual tower.

“A lot of airports couldn’t even think about this,” he said.

Raleigh County Commissioner Pat Reed, who also serves on the authority, wondered if there is some means by which the airport could be reimbursed for its initial investment.

“Or are we just going to go in the history books saying that our airport was the No. 1 virtual tower?” she asked.

Pugh wanted to know just how far the airport could go before the Federal Aviation Administration became part of the project.

“I don’t think they could say no,” Byers said of the FAA.

“We’re just trying to see if this works. The bottom line is I don’t think the FAA could say no.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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