An aviation-systems manufacturing firm contends that it can come up with a solution to reduce the number of commercial flights diverted in bad weather from Friedman Memorial Airport.
GE Aviation announced in a news release Friday that minimum approaches can be lowered—and reliability improved—at the airport without additional navigation equipment on the airport property.
The company, a division of General Electric that produces aircraft engines and aviation systems, has developed what are known as "Required Navigation Performance" procedures at airports around the world, including in mountainous Tibet, said Ken Shapero, spokesman and director of U.S. programs for a division of the company.
Currently, planes landing at Friedman use a less sophisticated GPS-based system that requires a larger landing space in the surrounding environment.
GE Aviation's suggested landing method would shrink the required "buffer" of airspace, thanks to more accurate GPS and other navigational equipment on board. The procedure maps out paths for approaching the airport as well as what a pilot should do if he or she is unable to land.
This procedure can lower minimum approach heights, or the height at which the pilot must be able to see the airport before landing. The current minimum approach height for commercial planes landing at the airport is 1,800 feet for a standard GPS approach, making it difficult for pilots to land in cloudy weather.
An ideal approach minimum is roughly 1,000 feet, said airport Manager Rick Baird in a meeting of the Bellevue City Council and the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority on Oct. 25. Baird said lowering the minimum approach height to 1,000 feet would cut diversions at Friedman in half.
But while GE Aviation announced it could develop an RNP procedure, Baird said Friedman already has an FAA-approved RNP approach.
"Nobody flies it," Baird said Monday. "When we ask [the airlines] why, we're told it's because it has an 85-mile missed approach."
That means pilots would have to fly 85 miles out of their way before changing course and flying to an alternate airport. That poses a serious safety question for airlines, Shapero said.
"Some airlines would wonder whether, if they ended up in the rare situation where they had an engine out on missed approach, whether [flying that extra distance] would be feasible," he said.
The approach developed by GE Aviation would eliminate that problem, he said.
GE Aviation's news release states that the study found that "new optimized RNP approach paths" would lower minimums and allow Horizon Air Q400 turboprop planes to land at Friedman Memorial Airport on days when they currently cannot.
SkyWest planes were not considered in the study, as only Horizon planes are equipped with the correct GPS and other navigational aids.
"Unlike other possible alternatives for improved access at Sun Valley airport, the deployment of advanced RNP procedures would require no additional ground infrastructure," the release states.
As the procedure does not require additional on-ground equipment, it would not require the airport to expand outside the current site or acquire more land.
Shapero said that since the study was commissioned by a private airport user group, he could not release it until he gets the group's permission.
He added that he could not give exact figures for minimum approaches or reliability improvement.
"The study talks about, in general principles, what could be done," he said. "The devil is in the details. I could give you five numbers that would all be true, but in different circumstances."
Baird and Airport Authority member Tom Bowman said they had not seen the study, but would be very interested in having GE Aviation present it to the Airport Authority.
"I explained to them that we were in the process of trying to determine for and with the FAA whether reliability can be improved," Baird said. "I don't know if the FAA has seen this report."
Shapero said the company was just interested in providing a good solution for reliability problems at the existing site.
"What we want to do at the end of the day is to have an [instrument landing system] at the Sun Valley airport that people can use, not something that is great, except for [the missed approach]," he said. "What we want is something everybody around the table sees and nods their heads and says, 'Yeah, that makes sense.'"
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com
Schoen: Airport is not unsafe
An Associated Press wire piece reproduced in the Oct. 31 edition of the Twin Falls Times-News stated, "The FAA said [Friedman Memorial Airport] should be moved because expanding residential areas and high hills make the airfield too dangerous." County commissioners took issue with that characterization during their meeting on Tuesday, saying the Federal Aviation Administration never said the airport must be moved. "Our airport is operating safely," said Commissioner Larry Schoen. "The FAA is not telling us to move our airport. That perception needs to go away, and these statements need to go away." A call to the Times-News to determine whether the sentence could be attributed to The Associated Press or the paper was not returned as of press time Tuesday. Friedman Memorial Airport Authority Board Member Tom Bowman said he plans to draft a letter to the Times-News clarifying the situation.
Site at Soldier Mountain?
Despite some pointed questions regarding part-time Wood River Valley resident Bruce Willis and his plans for an airport to service his Soldier Mountain Ski Resort, the Federal Aviation Administration said last week that Willis' application was still on hold. Willis made a request to develop an airport in Camas County near U.S. Highway 20 in June 2009. The application was put on hold at the time, pending a draft environmental impact statement for a replacement Blaine County airport. One of the suggested sites, Site 12, was close to Willis' suggested site and could have caused airspace concerns. Mike Fergus, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said Willis' request has not been revisited. "We have not processed the Bruce Willis request because the EIS is suspended, not terminated, which means we continue to keep our options open," he said. The airport was planned to have an 8,500-foot runway and cover a space roughly 10 times the size of the airport's current 211 acre footprint. Though any property owner can develop an airstrip or small airport without FAA approval, the FAA has jurisdiction over all airspace use in the United States.