Two years ago, Nancy Woody was awakened at around 10:30 at night by a plane flying over her home in Prosser Lake Estates, roughly 4 miles north of the Tahoe Truckee Airport (KTRK in flight-speak).
She wasn’t thrilled, and soon after sent an email to airport staff complaining about the late flight. Staff received the email and responded to Woody (who was somewhat mollified at the time). She’s been on their newsletter list ever since.
It was through a newsletter update that she discovered the potential installation of KTRK’s Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B).
ADS-B is a technology that paints a clearer picture of planes in the air and on the ground for pilots and air traffic controllers. It uses satellite and GPS systems to track airplanes at all times in American airspace.
The technology’s benefits from the Federal Aviation Administration’s point of view include increased safety and efficiency at airports, reduction of costs, and improved environmental effects.
“The FAA really has worked hard to get this technology promoted through all the airspace and airports because they see it as a reduction in greenhouse gas, [a] change in environmental impact that aviation has,” said Hardy Bullock, director of Aviation and Community Services at KTRK.
“And really, the goal is to create this surveillance and create a level of control that allows airplanes to fly straighter paths.”
KTRK is already a safe airport, according to Bullock. The addition of ADS-B is essentially an enhancement of that safety. Implementation would fill the current radar surveillance “hole” over the Truckee region — the Sierra Nevada mountains currently block radar surveillance for anything under 10,000 feet (KTRK sits at 6,000 feet). But not to fear: KTRK arriving and departing pilots aren’t flying blind; KTRK has its own flight-tracking system.
“It’s really accurate data,” said Bullock. “It’s just not certified to be integrated into the National Airspace System. So that’s where the ADS-B part comes in.”
Nothing’s for certain quite yet: The technology’s presence at the airport is under discussion at this time. Bullock is leading the research charge on ADS-B, compiling unbiased information for the Tahoe Truckee Airport District (TTAD) Board of Directors’ review this summer.
It’s not ADS-B itself that concerns Woody. She’s actually quite enthusiastic about the technology.
“It makes perfect sense,” said Woody, a nurse at Tahoe Forest Hospital. “I think the ADS-B is a great system. It’s something that the FAA requires for all planes to have on board come 2020 … I think it will increase safety with the air flights and maybe reroute them if that’s the case.”
Her sticking point? Better technology equals an increase in flights, particularly at night.
“I would like to have some guarantee, maybe some regulations, something put in place before they start using the system so they know how to reroute the flights around the neighborhoods,” she said.
Bullock said the inclusion of ADS-B will fix that concern directly. The tech will better map out all the planes in the area, allowing traffic control to guide pilots over nonresidential areas with the comfort of knowing no other planes are around as conflict.
Regarding Woody’s nighttime concern, it’s another one on the plus-side for ADS-B.
“What limits activity at our airport at night is terrain,” Bullock continued, saying he and staff spoke with companies like NetJets and other operators of commercial flights, questioning their nighttime restrictions in Truckee. Their response: They don’t prefer to operate in Truckee at night because of the mountains.
In an email exchange between Woody and Bullock, Bullock explained that the airport receives approximately 100 night flights annually — 40% of which are emergency medical services. And ADS-B would increase the safety of these and all flights out of Truckee because of the tech’s additional data.
Still, Woody remains skeptical.
She referenced Bullock’s email response in her own follow-up email to Moonshine Ink: “Mr. Hardy saying [there’s no data saying ADS-B will add night flights or demand] is not totally honest if you look at the survey and approximately 18% of the pilots say it will allow them more access at night. It will also add more access during poor weather conditions. Obviously, the airport is expecting more traffic. What’s the purpose of adding larger hangers, and looking at expanding the runways, and creating a pilot facility?”
The survey Woody mentions was distributed by Bullock and his team, reaching out to numerous jet companies, pilots, and hanger tenants. The purpose of this outreach was to identify potential upswings in airport activity and demand.
Question two of the survey asked, “would ADS-B offer you additional flexibility to add capacity after 10 p.m. or before 7 a.m. that is currently unavailable due to airport infrastructure limitations?” The overwhelming response — over 80% — responded no. But there is that approximate 18% that keeps Woody concerned.
“I think there’s going to be more traffic at the airport not because of the ADS-B system itself, but because of growth in Truckee,” she said.
“I’ve spoken to a couple [neighbors] and they say the flights over the years have increased,” Woody said regarding other community members’ qualms. “I haven’t really heard them say or complain to the airport. I don’t think they have called in. I’ve just heard other people say. … I work at the hospital [and] they’ve realized that there’s been an increase in number of flights going in and out of Truckee.”
David Diamond is a Truckee resident and pilot member on KTRK’s Airport Community Advisory Team (ACAT). He’s in support of the new technology, describing it as a response to the growth of Truckee — a variable outside the airport’s control.
“Air traffic to Truckee has increased,” he said. “What the airport is doing is trying to respond … to what will happen in the next 10 to 20 years by putting in a system.”
And anyway, Bullock explained that actually, KTRK and TTAD are not interested in bringing in more planes full of people.
“We don’t want to do anything to our airport that would encourage more traffic, and that’s something that we spend a lot of time making sure that we don’t inadvertently do with the technology,” said Bullock.
That “we” includes the TTAD board, which met on May 22 and held a discussion about the topic. Noise abatement was only mentioned in passing; the board members were more concerned about the price and increased safety. No community member concerns were brought up, including Woody’s.
“I’m personally thinking there’s humongous opportunity compared to anything else we can do,” said Board Vice President James Morrison during the meeting. “The relative opportunity for us to increase safety and reduce noise and annoyance far outweighs any other idea that anyone’s come up with at this airport. Period, the end.”
The board will next discuss ADS-B at its June 26 meeting. More specifically, the meeting will address a discussion of cost: $1.7 million for the tech’s installation, plus a recurrent fee. As a point of reference, Bullock said the airport’s budget is $12 to $15 million a year.
That cost is what’s keeping board members like Mary Hetherington at bay. “I see benefits to [ADS-B], but I want to see what the costs are.”
Hetherington said she has had general concerns about the tech, and aside from the ongoing price discussion, they’ve been addressed.
Also at the June meeting will be a conversation about when the final decision will be made: July 8 or the August meeting. The board wants to make sure all five members will be present (one of which won’t be at the July 24 meeting).
From there, and assuming approval, Bullock expects contracts would be formulated in August of this year, with ground broken in October.
Though Bullock remains independent in his ADS-B research, he’s very confident the technology will improve the airport, saying he has no doubt it’ll enhance safety.
Diamond agrees. He texted the following to Moonshine Ink:
“People want to talk about all the good that can come from this but that just confuses the discussion. We want positive control over aircraft in the airspace. ADS-B, in conjunction with our tower personnel, gives us that. Everything else is icing.”