Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Look inside Harrisburg International Airport (KMDT) upgraded control tower

HIA in Middletown has installed a NextGen technology called the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS).

There's a reason why the air traffic control center inside the tower at Harrisburg International Airport was perpetually bathed in near-darkness: It was to avoid washing out the cathode ray tube screens displaying the aircraft in the airspace around the Susquehanna Valley.

Today the lighting is still dim. Not by necessity (the center was recently upgraded this year and the cathode tubes are gone) but because too much change, too fast, can be a little disorienting.

Inside, the air traffic controllers are talking to aircraft within a 120- by 90-mile box of HIA, directing the intricate ballet taking place in the skies above. For the first time in nearly 30 years, they can say they're doing so with state-of-the-art equipment.

For the general flying public the new $5 million system – already partially in place – will be seamless. For air traffic controllers, it is a major quality of life improvement, not to mention an improvement to the overall safety of the skies, part of a national upgrade of the air traffic control system.

Eventually the system will include satellite transponder information from each aircraft, allowing controllers to have an unprecedented detailed view of the skies. The new system (acronym STARS) is the "next quantum leap in air traffic control," said Jeff Yarnell, the STARS program manager for the FAA. "It's not tube-type TV anymore."

Harrisburg was among early adopters of the technology, partially because of the age of the previous system (it was becoming hard to find parts) and partially due to its proximity to Washington D.C. and other major air hubs.

A look outside might not reveal how much traffic is flying over the Susquehanna Valley, but a peak at a an air traffic controller's station shows just how many flights are moving through the skies. Their screens are a little disorienting at first. Centered on HIA, there are few landmarks that traditional maps include – no rivers, no highways. Instead, other airfields, and control equipment are displayed with small icons. Aircraft move across the screen, each with a sequence of information displayed next to it.

Around HIA is the "box" or area that the control center is responsible for. As aircraft approach, they are "handed off" from one center to another.

Air traffic control works like a tiered wedding cake, flipped upside and hanging from the ceiling. At the lowest and smallest tier is the tower, which handles traffic on the tarmac and in the airspace five miles around HIA.

As a plane climbs out of that radius, it is handed up a tier to the traffic control center at the base of the tower, which handles traffic in a 120-by-90 mile box around Harrisburg. From there, once it reaches the ends of the box, or 10,000 feet, an aircraft moves up to third, larger tier (directed out of New York).

In the past the equipment running those tiers was widely divergent. A tower could be on one set of hardware, speaking to a center on another. Which meant that parts and trained personnel were not necessary transferrable from one to the other.

The new system will be uniform across the United States, both in terms of hardware and software. Controllers will be able to connect quickly to data feeds from other locations, and see in greater detail not just the traffic in the air, but also the weather.

"It's a great system," said John Marconi, air traffic manager at HIA. "I think it helps both the guys and girls here do a better job."

Story and photo gallery: http://www.pennlive.com

HIA in Middletown has installed a NextGen technology called the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS).

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