Congress poised to support Gulf low-level ATC initiatives

 - July 30, 2008, 10:50 AM

Taking a more proactive stance than was common in the past, HAI has in recent months been energetically lobbying on Capitol Hill in favor of the development of a low-level air traffic infrastructure over the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an idea that’s been proposed, tried in various forms and discarded, back-burnered and pigeon-holed over the years.

Concerted efforts by both HAI president Roy Resavage and HAI’s legislative staffers seem to have paid off. With the success and acceptance of the FAA’s Capstone project in Alaska, a similar ATC scheme for the Gulf of Mexico region today has higher-level backing than in years gone by.

Evidence of this newly found support can be found in the recently approved language in the Senate’s version of the Department of Transportation’s fiscal year 2004 appropriations bill, which sets aside $7 million for the establishment of a program–to be administered and developed by the FAA’s Southwest region office in Fort Worth, Texas–that would be a low-level weather, communications and automatic dependent surveillance (ADS) net over the expanse of the Gulf.

The Senate version of the bill, FAA Reauthorization Bill S.824, authored by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), also has the support of influential Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking minority member of the Commerce Committee, and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chair of the aviation subcommittee.

Inky Blackness

Flying over this oil-rich region at night under present-day conditions is a lot like low-level, late-night flight over the Midwest–long stretches of inky blackness, interrupted by patches of twinkling lights, seemingly all the brighter for their contrast with the vast, lightless emptiness surrounding them. In places, the population density of the Gulf of Mexico approaches that of some of the more sparsely settled parts of the U.S., with some 35,000 men, and now an increasing number of women, making their livings in this dangerous, vital oil industry. This population is supported by a fleet of more than 650 helicopters, a fleet that logs somewhere between 5,000 to 9,000 sorties a day according to figures recorded by HAI. Considered as a whole, this passenger volume ranks the Gulf Coast helicopter fleet as America’s 15th largest airline.

Yet much of this fleet flies without the ability to communicate with ATC, without the ability to obtain accurate, current weather data and without radar coverage. Writing in last fall’s issue of the official HAI house publication Rotor, legislative assistant Ann Carroll put it this way: “Imagine leaving your base station and flying 80 nautical miles south of the Louisiana coast, not knowing what the weather might be at your destination when you arrive. Worse yet, you are unable to obtain an inbound clearance before losing your communication with Houston, so you are forced to shut down on the rig to prepare for the inbound flight. In other instances, pilots are cleared for approach, they shoot the approach and fail to break out, necessitating the performance of the published missed approach procedure. Pilots are then required to climb to 2,000 feet and hold. An inability to communicate with Houston at an altitude of 2,000 feet forces the pilot to wait while his company dispatcher calls Houston to obtain another clearance or permission to climb until the lines of communication are established. Tremendous amounts of fuel and valuable time are wasted while pilots await clearance and instructions from Houston Center.”

Both the House and Senate have approved legislation containing language directing the FAA to develop and carry out the Gulf project. HAI estimates the total cost of a network of 31 automated surface observing system (ASOS) installations (to be located on offshore rigs for the most part), along with the necessary automated dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) capability and 14 off-shore VHF network transceiver/repeaters, to amount to some $27 million over a 20-year operating period. In the proposed system, aircraft develop their own position data via onboard GPS, then transmit that data to others in the region via either a microwave satellite uplink and downlink or via a ground-based VHF network. While chiefly intended for helicopter use, the system would benefit all general aviation aircraft operating below 18,000 feet in Gulf airspace.

While the House and Senate bills differ on specifics, both agree on the amount ($7 million) sought in the upcoming fiscal year.

With minor differences separating the House and Senate versions of the FAA reauthorization bills, the successful conclusion of a series of conference committee meetings was expected by late last month. Passage of the bill is expected by both houses before Congress’ summer recess later this month.