Google Earth helps tackle Kansas airport obstructions

July 14, 2011

A new online tool that works with Google Earth is helping the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) and airport advocates work to avoid the construction of structures that could prove dangerous to aviation.

Visitors to the KDOT aviation Web page now will find a link to the Kansas Airspace Awareness Tool under a menu of Kansas airspace resources.

“One of the goals of the tool is to help developers of tall structures such as wind turbines visualize complicated airspace and, consequently, avoid unsafe conflicts between aircraft and obstructions,” said C. Edward Young, KDOT’s aviation director, in a news release. “If there is a potential conflict, the system will alert the user to contact the FAA.”

In Kansas, where there are 141 public-use airports, Young said that more than 2,000 airspace analyses were performed in 2010, most concerning wind turbines. Some of those cases “resulted in conflicts with local airspace and instrument landing approaches,” he said.

The airspace awareness tool was developed by engineering firm Burns and McDonnell under an FAA grant, and was showcased in February under what officials described as a “soft launch.”

AOPA Airport Support Network volunteers worked with KDOT’s aviation team by testing the new resource and suggesting refinements in recognition that a better understanding of airspace by local decision makers helps AOPA and other airport supporters work to protect airports and prevent hazards and restricted operations.

The airspace awareness tool visually depicts in three dimensions how airspace interacts with surrounding features. It illustrates all FAR Part 77 airspace surfaces, special-use airspace, military training routes, existing obstructions, Victor airways, vertically guided airspace surfaces, and aeronautical sectional charts.

The tool educates and provides awareness, but does not replace the FAA’s obstruction evaluation/airport airspace analysis.

Information for users explains how the tool, which uses Google Earth as a platform, works. “A user inputs exact coordinates and elevation of the proposed structure or selects a site and requests the maximum height allowable for that location. If the potential site has conflicts, a warning notice will flag it and relevant agency contact information is provided.” That lets developers eliminate unsuitable sites early in the planning process.

Two recent cases demonstrated how the airspace awareness tool can help protect airspace, said Greg Pecoraro, AOPA vice president of airports and state affairs. Local officials in Pratt, Kan., studied data from the tool and denied a project would have allowed a wind turbine to be erected causing approach minimums to increase by 140 feet at Pratt Municipal Airport.

In Ellsworth, Kan., two wind turbines were considered for sites three miles north of Ellsworth Municipal Airport, where plans are in the works to extend the runway to the north. Obstructions would have an impact on future approaches, so KDOT has challenged an initial determination that no hazard to aviation exists, and the case is now under FAA review, he said.