Gulf operators see benefits of recent ADS-B activation

 - January 27, 2010, 6:39 AM

Operators using the newly activated automatic dependence surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) ATC and information system in the Gulf of Mexico will likely see flight leg times cut by an average of 15 to 25 minutes and individual IFR routes shortened by at least 30 miles, compared with using the old grid ATC system in the Gulf, according to the FAA and individual operators. “The business case is there for [operators] to get into ADS-B as quickly as they can,” said Matt Zuccaro, president of the Helicopter Association International (HAI).

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 currently installed on seven offshore platforms and nine shore stations and that five more sites will be added to make the system more robust.

The FAA’s Houston Tracon officially turned on the Gulf of Mexico ADS-B December 17 and a PHI helicopter was the first to officially fly IFR and land using the system.
Controllers at Houston Center “have been wanting to do this, provide this level of service, for a long time,” said Linney.

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 grid square at any one 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. At peak times, such as shift changes or hurricane evacuations, ground delays and holds in the Gulf have been common.

Now, “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 take off immediately, go up, and we can vector you to your destination.”

Linney said making the system mimic the presentation of radar-derived data 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.”

He said that even the closer-in VFR traffic will benefit from ADS-B in the Gulf thanks to platform-based weather reporting in the highly changeable Gulf and digital updates of TFRs relating to military-use airspace in the area. “The infrastructure we put in place should [provide an incentive for] more than IFR aircraft to get the equipment,” he added.