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Flight Crews: Colorado Remote Tower Offers Enhanced Capabilities

The recent opening of a remote ATC tower at Britain’s London City Airport (EGLC) brought new attention to a technology that enables controllers to remotely monitor activity in and around an airfield. A remote tower has operated at Virginia’s Leesburg Executive Airport (JYO) since 2018, with onsite testing at a second U.S. remote tower facility at Northern Colorado Regional Airport (FNL) set to resume this summer following delays related to COVID-19.

Colorado Remote Tower Project Program Manager William Payne says plans for the remote facility at the previously-non-towered airport grew out of the state and the FAA’s Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) program, which deployed sensors throughout rugged terrain to provide center controllers with ADS-B coverage to supplement conventional radar systems.

“We lose radar coverage at 16,000 feet in Colorado, which before WAM often led to significant delays and diversions at our ski country airports during their busiest months,” Payne said. “While performing certification testing, I noticed WAM also allowed us to see aircraft taxiing on the ground at Yampa Valley Regional Airport (HDN), which got me thinking of the potential for a remote tower.”

Canadian firm Searidge Technologies ultimately installed 31 cameras across three locations at FNL. A central 14-camera mast provides a 360-degree view of the ramp and surrounding airspace, with the rest of the cameras located 1,000 feet from both ends of Runway 15/33 to provide close-in views of the approach and departure corridors and aircraft queued for departure.

Payne emphasized that the system provides controllers at a remote site with much the same experience as if they were in a standard ATC tower.

“The costs to design and construct legacy towers are going through the roof, and once the tower is built, it’s a fixed asset,” he added. “Airports are dynamic and growing places, and a remote tower offers far greater flexibility to adapt to expansion.”

FNL Airport Director Jason Licon noted that his airport has seen a 40% increase in business aircraft operations over the past decade.

“The costs to design and construct legacy towers are going through the roof, and once the tower is built, it's a fixed asset. A remote tower offers far greater flexibility to adapt to expansion.”

Jason Licon Airport Director, Northern Colorado Regional Airport

“It’s particularly important to provide towered operations when dealing with larger, faster and less-maneuverable aircraft,” he noted. “Controllers have told me the remote tower offers a different toolset that in some ways is superior to a conventional tower.”

FNL currently has a temporary tower staffed by controllers supplied by air navigation services provider Serco to support testing of the remote systems.

“We average around 350 cycles – one takeoff, one landing – daily, with some days reaching as high as 600,” said Jay Turnbull, chief instructor at The Flying School, which is based at FNL. “That’s pushing a lot of [airplanes] through a very small funnel, so we’re looking forward to seeing the remote tower up and

running.”

As for concerns over controllers monitoring video cameras instead of looking out a control tower’s windows, Payne noted that the majority of aircraft operations are already controlled from remote facilities.

“Center and TRACON, two legs of the ATC stool, never see an actual airplane,” he said. “The remote tower concept truly bridges ‘old school’ ATC with new technologies and capabilities that will continue to expand and evolve over the next decade.”

Review NBAA’s airspace resources at nbaa.org/airspace.

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