Wednesday, June 10, 2009

FAA gives thumbs down to Hailey approaches

Agency: No way to improve bad weather landing strategies

Express Staff Writer

The Federal Aviation Administration has cast a cloud over hopes for a brighter tomorrow for Friedman Memorial Airport.

In a major decision that likely puts an end to hopes that inclement-weather landing approaches to Friedman Memorial Airport could be improved, the FAA has ruled that terrain surrounding the field is the permanent, immovable obstacle to lowering altitude minimums for approaches.

The FAA decision, written April 29, was disclosed this week. The agency printed the decision on its Web site. An environmental impact statement study is now underway to designate a site for a replacement airport.

Critics of closing Friedman have argued that electronic navigation aids could allow aircraft to land at Friedman through lower inclement-weather ceilings.

One such claim was made by Paul Bowers, an Alaska aviation consultant hired by the Friedman Airport Users Alliance to fight relocating the field. The organization has never disclosed its founders or members.

In a two-page memo, Jason Pitts, manager of the FAA's Western Flight Procedures Office in Seattle, ticked off a series of disapprovals with a common theme—the terrain surrounding Freidman. He wrote that GPS-based navigation systems cannot "change the terrain features surrounding SUN (Friedman's FAA designated code) that currently drive the existing minimums."

An estimated 30 percent of airline flights to and from Friedman either are cancelled or diverted because of weather. One essential component in deciding weather minimums is whether a commercial plane can execute a missed-approach go-around on a single engine and avoid terrain north of Friedman.

Landing approaches are made up of a series of published criteria, including reporting and holding points, minimum descent altitude, final approach fix, height above touchdown and missed approach.

Pitts had been asked to rule on the issues by Cayla Morgan, an environmental specialist who's managing the Friedman relocation EIS.


One casualty of the FAA decision was hope that Horizon Air might approach Friedman over the city of Hailey and land from the north to avoid terrain perils of south-approach procedures.

To that proposal, Pitts wrote an elaborate technical explanation of what would be required for a north approach—increasing the angle of aircraft descent steeper beyond the norm and an extended final approach that would put planes closer to terrain north of Hailey.

"All possibilities were explored," he stated. "Excessive precipitous terrain in the final approach segment makes an RNP (Required Navigation Performance) approach from the north impossible."

Pitts also consulted with the Regional Airspace Procedures Team, the body that must approve changes in minimums. He told Morgan that the team "disapproved any further action on approaches to SUN from the north."

Friedman Manager Rick Baird said the practical effect of the FAA decisions is that approach minimums will remain in effect and flight cancellations and diversions due to weather will continue until a new airport is built.

The proposed new field would include a state-of-the-art landing system with far lower minimums than those at Friedman, largely because the new site would be free of obstructing terrain.

For 15 years, Friedman has attempted to operate a Transponder Landing System, a simplified approach system. The $1 million system has been installed but has never been tested and certified by the FAA, and has yet to gain a sponsor to pay for its operation. SkyWest Airlines has been studying its possible use.

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