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Wed, May 03, 2006

Capstone Goes Off The Glass In Alaska

FAA Says Too Many Signatures Were On ATC Screens

By ANN Correspondent Rob Stapleton, Alaska Journal of Commerce

Just as the Alaska Region of the Federal Aviation Administration was receiving accolades from the Alaska Air Carriers Association for its part in creating and implementing the Capstone program, national program officials shut off parts of the program.

Capstone -- or automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) -- transmits and receives a real-time signal giving an equipped aircraft's altitude, speed, direction, destination, size and type from airplane to airplane, and from airplane to traffic controllers. Capstone is also capable of integrating weather information and a global positioning system onto a moving-terrain map that can be viewed on a display screen mounted in the instrument panel of the aircraft.

Capstone was taken off of air traffic controllers' screens at the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center March 24 over a technical issue. The Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center oversees air traffic control for all aircraft coming into the state.

The FAA decision came after a team of 20 FAA air traffic inspectors came to Alaska April 10-14 to examine the system for safety reasons.

The result is air traffic controllers in Anchorage are no longer seeing the Capstone images of aircraft enroute on their screens. This action comes after the system was credited for improving flight safety by more than 40 percent in Southwest Alaska over the last five years.

Recent accident figures from the FAA show that there were no fatal accidents among air taxis and commuter airlines in the state in 2005. Capstone is largely credited for the improvement, along with a change of culture spirited by the nonprofit organization, the Medallion Foundation.

According to the FAA's Alaska Region Web site, Capstone went off air controllers' screens at the Anchorage center because, "Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center was exceeding current authorization to provide services in a mixed (radar and Capstone) environment. The timeline to restore the ADS-B separation services is unknown at this time."

Air traffic controllers have many types of targets on their screens: radar-identified aircraft, Capstone-equipped aircraft and unidentified aircraft. Capstone was taken off the screen because there was too much other traffic for controllers to monitor.

Capstone program director Sue Gardner said that the team from the national Capstone program routinely examines the program.

"Yes, a team came up to examine the program. This is routine when something is taken off the controllers' screen," Gardner said.

Gardner said that the there is no exact date for the restoring the program at the Anchorage center and when it does go back online, a new procedure will be required for air traffic controllers at the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center.

Loss of service angers industry

The FAA's decision to shut down the Anchorage control center portion of the Capstone program prompted a letter of protest by Alaska aviation industry leaders to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. The letter has received no response.

"We no longer have confidence in the actions of the FAA, who has implemented technology and then taken it away," said Jim Cieplac, a former Capstone employee who now works for the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation. Cieplac said that the Alaska Air Carriers Association, Alaska Airmen's Association, the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation and the Aviation Industry Council all signed off on the letter that fell on deaf ears in Washington, D.C.

"We wrote a letter and asked for a response from the FAA administrator by April 21, asking why it was turned off and when it will be returned to service," Cieplac said. "It looks like the FAA is taking steps backwards, no one is responding."

"We aren't getting any answers, things are pretty quiet about this, but we are hearing from the carriers in Bethel about it," said Karen Casanovas, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association.

The Capstone technology is still active and working in the Bethel area. The problem, however, is controllers in Anchorage cannot track aircraft using traditional radar once they reach Bethel. Before the Capstone technology was shut off at the Anchorage control center, controllers could track a Capstone-equipped aircraft from Anchorage to Bethel, switching over to the Capstone technology once the aircraft was out of the view of radar.

Following the recent FAA decision, Anchorage controllers once again can no longer "see" aircraft once they get into the Bethel area.

"Capstone is off the glass, and we aren't sure exactly why," said Bethel pilot Will Johnson with Yuut Yuqungviat Flight School. "But the carriers out here are steaming mad about it." The reason that the FAA developed the Capstone program in Bethel was to aid in tracking aircraft in the area without the expense of putting a $50 million radar facility.

"I find it ridiculous that the center has been providing radar and ADS-B service to aircraft for five years in the Bethel area, and now they can't do it," said Dee Hanson, executive director of the Alaska Airmen's Association.

"We are coming into the busy season, spring and summer. This is a very busy airport and when the weather gets bad, pilots tend to rely on that new technology," Johnson said.

Capstone, a $130 million program, was scheduled to have been implemented statewide during the 2005-2006 fiscal year.

According to the safety foundation's Cieplac, eight to 10 of the ground-based transceivers that send and receive the Capstone signal in the Bethel area are not functional despite being scheduled to be turned on in 2005. He added that many of the transceivers in Southeast Alaska are also not yet functioning.

"This is really discouraging," Cieplac said. "Everyone has worked to make this a tool, a pillar of safety, and now a vital part of this link is mysteriously missing. You have to have faith that it will someday be restored."

FMI: Read The FAA's Fact Sheet On ADS-B


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