October 28, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
The FAA, in a technology-based effort to further reduce runway incursions, has a target date of 2016 for operation of a system that will provide real-time collision avoidance information to pilots using runways and taxiways at 23 of the nation's core airports.
Meanwhile, the agency is reaching out through news media, the Internet, trade shows, and in the Aeronautical Information Manual to encourage pilots to learn about the Runway Status Lights (RWSL) Program that is now up and running at five major airports. In 2011, Orlando International Airport in Florida became the latest RWSL-capable airport, joining Dallas-Worth Worth International Airport in Texas, Los Angeles International and San Diego International airports in California, and General Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport in Boston, Mass.
The fully automated system consists of red in-pavement lights that activate on the basis of software processing of airport surveillance system data. Two subsystems, runway entrance lights, and takeoff hold lights, warn pilots when it is not safe to cross or enter a runway, or roll on it. “Airport surveillance sensor inputs are processed through light control logic that commands in-pavement lights to illuminate red when there is traffic on or approaching the runway,” says an FAA online program description.
RWSL is designed to serve as an added safety layer that functions in the background of airport operations to enhance the situational awareness of pilots and surface vehicle operators. Control tower personnel have no direct control over the lights except to control their intensity, or shut down the system in the event of a malfunction, said RWSL Program Manager Claude Jones in an interview.
Pilots should be sure to understand that the system’s indications constitute runway status information—not an ATC clearance—to pilots and ground vehicle operators. In the event that an ATC clearance to an aircraft to enter or cross a runway is issued while RWSL indicates that it would be unsafe to do so, the guidance issued to pilots is to query ATC before proceeding, Jones said.
A 30-day site acceptance test process is conducted at each airport where the system is installed. Check notices to airman for changes in operational status. Seven more airports are expected to go operational with RWSL by summer 2012, Jones said.
Pilots interested in reading up on RWSL should refer to Section 2-1-6 of the Aeronautical Information Manual. It describes the system in detail. Online FAA videos offer demonstration and animation of the system. A brochure is also available for download from the program’s page.
In October 2010, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt cited the technological improvements as components in the agency effort that helped cut the number of serious runway incursions from 12 in 2009 to 6 in 2010. It marked the second consecutive year in which serious incursions were cut by half. The effort also featured outreach programs and training for general aviation pilots
The FAA’s National Runway Safety Plan, issued Sept. 22, identified RWSL as one of the systems that worked toward resolving a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to provide “a direct warning capability” to flight crews.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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