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Automation of Operation at Airports Lacking a Control Tower Disclosure Number: IPCOM000237389D
Publication Date: 2014-Jun-16
Document File: 2 page(s) / 59K

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Economic pressures are driving a desire to eliminate staffed control towers at smaller airports. The current mode of operating at such airports involves the pilots planning to use a runway communicating their intent verbally on a designated radio channel. The potential for error in this system is shown by the Quincy, Illinois, accident of November 19, 1996, in which United Express 5925 collided with a private aircraft kill 14 people. The proposed solution would also address issues of operation of mixed manned and unmanned aircraft at untowered airports through automation of runway allocation.

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Economic pressures are driving a desire to eliminate staffed control towers at smaller airports.  The  current mode of operating at such airports involves the pilots planning to use a runway communicating  their intent verbally on a designated radio channel. The potential for error in this system is shown by the  Quincy, Illinois, accident of November 19, 1996, in which United Express 5925 collided with a private  aircraft kill 14 people [1].  The proposed solution would also address issues of operation of mixed  manned and unmanned aircraft at untowered airports through automation of runway allocation. 


The current mechanism for allocating runways at airports in the U.S. that lack a staffed control tower is  use of an assigned voice communications frequency, called the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency  (CTAF), f or pilots operating at the airport to declare their intentions and inquire whether other traffic is  clear of the runway in question. This procedure is described in section 4‐1‐9 of the FAA Aeronautical  Information Manual [2]. This procedure works well when traffic is light, but becomes less reliable when  applied in situations where traffic is sufficient to permit misunderstanding. The Quincy, Illinois, accident  alluded to above is a case in point. There, an approaching regional airliner used the CTAF to establish  that two aircraft were waiting to take off from the airport. The airliner pilot asked if the pilots on the  ground were waiting until after he landed. The pilot of the second aircraft in line responded that he was  holding. The pilot of the lead aircraft apparently failed to hear the query and consequently did not reply.  The approaching pilot, unaware of the missed communication proceeded to land. His aircraft collided  with that of the pilot who missed the transmission at the intersection of the two runways killing all  aboard both aircraft. 

As the government looks toward implementing the NextGen airspace, providing air traffic control  services for airports lacking a staffed control tower through remote tower services is included in their  vision. This white paper suggests a strategy that could augment or serve as an alternative to that  approach. 

Technical Discussion 

The core idea of the solution is an automatic system that authorizes use of airport facilities to one  aircraft at a time based on requests from the aircraft. This sort of facility is sometimes referred to as a  token‐passing system. In its simplest form, it would involve a data link between each aircr...