The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 16, 2012

Authority moves ahead with virtual airport tower

Before the first Boy Scout arrives next summer in a traditional tan-and-green uniform for a jamboree, look for a computer-driven virtual control tower to be functional at the Raleigh County Memorial Airport.

That’s only on a temporary and experimental basis, however.

Manager Tom Cochran made that clear Friday after the airport authority voted to put $50,000 into escrow to finance the next wave of research in a project that eventually is like to run up a $3 million bill.

“You’ve got to have a demonstration somewhere,” Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh, an authority member, said before the vote.

“We want to be that demonstration project.”

For some time, the airport authority has worked with Quadrex Aviation LLC based in Melbourne, Fla., hearing in-person explanations from the firm’s senior development professional, Dr. David Byers.

The next major step would be to entice not only approval but more importantly a 90 percent dollars match by the Federal Aviation Administration, and two members of the state’s congressional delegation, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., are already trying to get the ear of the government.

“There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done,” Cochran said. “We’re working toward the temporary situation in July.”

In that regard, the manager said, the airport wants to have the tower in operation as a test so that the West Virginia National Guard can work in tandem with the Scouts arriving from across the country. The jamboree is expected to attract some 40,000 visitors to the Summit Bechtel Reserve in nearby Fayette County.

Eyes at other airports across America are riveted on Raleigh County, given budget cuts that could shut off funding for the traditional control towers, Cochran pointed out.

“Due to budget cuts, some airports could lose control towers,” he told the authority.

“There’s an airport in west Texas that is interested in this project. They have the money to support it. They’re right in the middle of oil country and have it.”

Cochran made another point clear — the primary focus is safety.

“We’re doing this for safety,” he said. “We’re not doing it for an investment or a business deal.”

Cochran noted that some insurance carriers have advised airlines not to use airports devoid of any type of controls.

From his Washington office, Rahall said the virtual tower concept is timely, given the Beckley airport’s recent growth and a concern over safety.

“Sen. Rockefeller and I are committed to making sure the airport has the tools and resources it needs to serve West Virginians now, and in the future,” said Rahall, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Our airports demand the same levels of safety and security as those in our largest metropolitan areas. We don’t need any weak links in our nation’s aviation network for our future economy and security.”

Already, the authority has provided Quadrex with $25,000 to jump-start the research, and the additional $50,000 is to finance additional study. Of the initial outlay, about $8,000 is unspent, he noted.

Pugh said he hopes Rahall and Rockefeller can apply sufficient pressure on the FAA to win the agency’s backing.

“If they get on board with this, it pretty much validates what we’re going to do,” the mayor said.

“I think it’s the right way to go. We have been selling properties and setting money aside for projects we could do at the airport that we normally weren’t not able to do. We’re lucky in the fact we can even put up $50,000. A lot of airports have not been able to do that.”

In a letter to the FAA’s acting administrator, Rahall and Rockefeller pointed out the Beckley airport witnessed a 22 percent rise last year in emplanements, which totaled 2,900.

“Moreover, it is reasonable to predict that growth in the local economy will be accompanied by an increase in traffic to and from the airport,” the two said.

By broadcasting advisories, alerts and warnings, they said the airport could provide “an additional margin of safety” for passengers.

Raleigh County Commissioner Pat Reed, also a board member, predicted the FAA would endorse the project.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt they’ll be a part of it,” she said.

Even with more physical improvements, Cochran said the airport would be lacking without some means of control.

“We could have a runway that’s 10,000 feet long and it won’t mean a thing if we weren’t controlled,” he said.

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