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FAA system tracks aircraft out of radar’s reach

JOAN LOWY
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – A surveillance system to help air traffic controllers monitor planes in remote areas out of the reach of radar is being deployed in Colorado just in time for ski season.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that the system began initial operations on Sept. 12 at four airports heavily trafficked by skiers – Yampa Valley-Hayden, Craig-Moffat, Steamboat Springs and Garfield County Regional-Rifle airports.

The region’s mountains block radar signals, preventing controllers from separating planes below 11,000 feet. As a consequence, planes are required to maintain a distance of over 34 miles to prevent collisions.



Flights have also been limited by poor weather because pilots aren’t able to see well enough to avoid other planes.

With the new system, planes will only have to maintain a separation distance of just under six miles. That will permit more frequent takeoffs and landings, reducing delays. Flights will also be less restricted by weather conditions.



The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates an average of 75 planes are delayed each day at remote airports from November to April.

The surveillance system uses a network of small sensors similar to cell phone towers. The sensors send out signals that are received and sent back by aircraft transponders. System computers immediately analyze those signals and are able to determine the precise location of aircraft. This information is transmitted to screens viewed by air traffic controllers, whose job it is to prevent planes from flying too close together.

The new system “lets us see aircraft we couldn’t see before due to the rugged terrain,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement. “It improves the safety and efficiency of those flights and saves time and money for passengers and operators.”



Colorado provided $5.7 million for equipment, physical site preparations, power and telecommunications for the new system, FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said. The FAA will spend $2.6 million to operate and maintain the system, she said.

The system will be superseded in 2013 by the nationwide deployment of a new air traffic control system that uses GPS technology to track planes. When that happens, the Colorado surveillance system will become a backup system for the satellite-based system.

Later this year, the FAA plans to deploy a surveillance system in Alaska, where mountainous terrain also limits the ability of radar to track planes, Jones said.


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