Operators using the newly-activated automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) air traffic control and information system in the Gulf of Mexico will likely see flight leg times cut an average of 15 to 25 minutes and individual IFR routes shortened by at least 30 miles, compared to using the old grid ATC system in the Gulf, according to the FAA and individual operators. Jim Linney, FAA program manager for central service area, surveillance and broadcast service office, said that approximately 170 of the 600 helicopters operating in the Gulf plan to upgrade to ADS-B “over the next few years.” Linney said ADS-B air-to-ground radio equipment is installed on seven offshore platforms and nine shore stations and that five more sites will be added to give the system more “robustness.” He also said that there are approximately 18 ADS-B weather stations in the Gulf and that number will eventually increase to 35. The additional equipment mostly will be added to deep water platforms. However, as currently equipped, the system is fully operational Linney said.
The FAA’s Houston Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) officially turned on ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico December 17, and a PHI helicopter was the first to officially fly IFR and land using the system that morning. PHI has a fleet of 12 ADS-B-equipped helicopters operating in the Gulf.
Under the old “grid” system, airspace in the Gulf was divided into 20- by 20-mile grids outside radar coverage, and controllers would not allow more than one helicopter to operate in any given grid at any given time, even if they had safe horizontal or vertical separation. Controllers tracked grid traffic by relying on pilot position reports. Traffic to and from the grids was funneled through a system of VOR waypoints that invariably were not the most direct routes to platforms or land bases. During peak times, such as shift changes or hurricane evacuations, ground delays and holds in the Gulf are common. “I’ll be on a rig trying to get clearance from Houston Center and I have to wait an hour because they are so swamped,” said Steven Reas, an S-76 pilot for PHI.
“If you are ADS-B equipped, I can get you up to surveillance altitude (5,000-foot floor) and work you immediately,” said the FAA’s Linney. “I don’t have to wait until the grid beneath you is clear, whereas that is what I would have to do if I were separating you procedurally. Those folks who used to have to wait on shore to take off to go outbound can now take off immediately, go up, and we can vector you to your destination.”
Reas said Gulf pilots are eager to fly with ADS-B. “It will save some time, especially on flights going lateral [east or west], it can save up to 30 miles compared to flying on the grid.” Currently in the Gulf, all of PHI’s Sikorsky S-92As and some of its S-76C++ helicopters are ADS-B equipped. Reas said the system is virtually seamless for the pilots using it.
Linney said making the system mimic radar-driven data presentation was key to controller acceptance and ease of use. “We took the ADS-B system and made it look like radar [on the controller’s scopes]. It looks like a regular data block and there is even a [radar] sweep.” Linney said Houston Center spent some time since the 2007 technical trials optimizing the system and that included simultaneous controller visibility of actual radar and ADS-B targets. “You had to make sure the [ATC] system has the capability to pick whatever sensor is best in that airspace–we don’t want to forsake that radar target just because we have ADS-B guys out there, too.”
Linney said that even the closer-in VFR traffic will benefit from ADS-B in the Gulf thanks to platform-based weather reporting and digital updates of TFRs relating to military use airspace in the area. “They’d love to know the weather before they fly out there,” Linney said. He said the infrastructure that has been put in place should provide incentives for operators to equip for ADS-B.