ADS-B making life easier for Gulf helicopter pilots

 - February 22, 2010, 8:17 AM

Think working at New York Tracon is a tough job? Try heading down to the Gulf of Mexico, where controllers handle between 5,000 and 9,000 helicopter flights a day, all without the aid of surveillance radar.

The waters off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida might be an oasis of calm, but thanks to the oil business the activity in the skies above rivals the busiest terminal airspace in the world. Officials estimate helicopters transport more than 10,000 workers a day to and from about 3,800 offshore oil rigs. For controllers, keeping track of all those helicopters is as hard a job as there is.

But help is on the way. Houston controllers are beginning to use automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) to assist them in separating and managing Gulf traffic. Called a key technology at the heart of the FAA’s NextGen operating environment, ADS-B brings a full suite of ATC tools to controllers working the Gulf of Mexico. Before ADS-B, they had to rely on a helicopter’s estimated or reported–not actual–position. Individual helicopters flying IFR at low altitudes to and from oil platforms were isolated within 20- by 20-mile boxes to ensure safe separation from other helicopters. If one helicopter was operating inside a grid box, no other traffic would be allowed to enter, often leading to long delays for pilots seeking IFR clearances.

In addition to helping controllers keep track of Gulf traffic, ADS-B allows pilots flying ADS-B-equipped helicopters to know exactly where they are in relation
to the weather and receive automatic information updates, including the latest Notams and TFRs.

And it’s not just helicopter pilots who benefit. Before the start of ADS-B use, airliners and business jets transiting the Gulf were kept as far as 120 nm apart to ensure safety. Controllers are now able to reduce the separation between ADS-B-equipped airplanes to five nautical miles, significantly improving capacity and routing efficiency. ADS-B technology is also leading to the publication of new, more direct flight routes over the Gulf of Mexico, which the FAA says will go even further toward improving efficiency in the region.

The FAA was able to install ground stations on oil platforms as part of an agreement with the Helicopter Association International, oil and natural gas companies and helicopter operators. The agency deployed a network of ground stations on oil rigs and the surrounding shoreline (see map), bringing satellite-based traffic surveillance to an area that sees nearly as much daily air traffic as the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

The Gulf of Mexico is the second key site where ADS-B is being used by controllers to separate aircraft. The technology is also in use by controllers in Louisville, Ky., a location chosen in part because UPS voluntarily outfitted much of its fleet with ADS-B avionics from Aviation Communication and Surveillance Systems of Phoenix. Four ground stations give controllers at the Louisville International Airport and the Louisville Tracon facility an ADS-B coverage area extending 60 nm from the airport up to 10,000 feet.

Controllers in Philadelphia began using ADS-B last month and the FAA reports a similar system will become operational in Juneau, Alaska, next month. ADS-B coverage is expected to be available nationwide by 2013.

The FAA first established an ADS-B prototype in Alaska as part of the Capstone technology demonstration program, outfitting numerous general aviation aircraft with free ADS-B avionics. The improved situational awareness for pilots and extended coverage for controllers resulted in a 47-percent drop in the fatal accident rate for equipped aircraft, FAA and NTSB figures show.

In South Florida, the installation of 11 ground stations now gives pilots of properly equipped aircraft free traffic and weather information. Controllers will soon begin using ADS-B around Miami to separate aircraft.

FAA officials estimate helicopter operators using ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico will likely see their 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. There are also 18 ADS-B weather stations in the Gulf, a number that will increase to 35. The additional equipment will be added to deepwater platforms.

The FAA’s Houston Tracon officially turned on ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico on December 17, and a helicopter operated by offshore specialist PHI was the first to fly IFR and land using the system that morning. PHI has a fleet of 12 ADS-B-equipped helicopters operating in the Gulf, including all of its Sikorsky S-92As and some of its S-76C++s.