TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --- Air traffic control is serious business. Every day thousands of flights take off and land all across the U.S. Dedicated professionals known as air traffic controllers are responsible for monitoring every flight and coordinating with aircrews and people on the ground.
In 2016, about 134,000 aircraft, including military planes and commercial airliners traveling from San Francisco and Sacramento, were monitored by air traffic controllers assigned to the 60th Operations Support Squadron at Travis Air Force Base. That’s an average of 367 aircraft daily for the busiest air traffic control complex in Air Mobility Command for two out of the past three years.
These professionals use sophisticated radar technology to track aircraft that enter Travis AFB air space. Sometimes the radar can pick up something known as a “false target” which shows up on radar like it’s an aircraft, but it may not be.
“When a target, false or real, is observed by a controller and appears to intersect the flight path of an aircraft with radar service, a traffic call is issued,” said Master Sgt. Brian Bertolucci, the 60th OSS airfield automation manager NCO in charge.
This traffic call requires pilots to scan the areas they’re flying in for other aircraft that may or may not be in their flight paths.
This tends to distract aircrews from their primary missions, which is to get to wherever that aircraft is going, said Bertolucci.
Approximately four miles southeast of Travis AFB there is a wind farm with nearly 600 windmills that can interfere with Travis radar, leading to several false targets on a daily basis.
In January 2015, as part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, Travis partnered with C-Speed, a product development and engineering services company, to install and test the capabilities of a gap-filler, Light-Wave Radar System, which is capable of distinguishing between wind turbines and aircraft.
An independent review team analyzed the data from multiple reports on the system’s performance. In October 2016, the team found there was a significant improvement to existing radar surveillance performance. So much improvement that C-Speed, Travis AFB and the Energy Siting Clearinghouse were nominated for the IHS Jane’s Airport Review Innovation Award, which was presented at the Worldwide Air Traffic Management Congress in Madrid, Spain in March 2017.
While Travis AFB didn’t win the award, the nomination was one of only two from the U.S. and the only one representing the Defense Department.
Tech. Sgt. Matthew Zimmerman, the 60th OSS ground radar systems NCO in charge, assisted C-Speed, the DOD, Department of Energy and numerous other government agencies with planning, testing and integrating the infill radar system at Travis AFB. He was also one of two people who represented Travis AFB at the conference.
“It’s an amazing feeling to get nominated and recognized for performance and innovation,” said Zimmerman. “The nomination showcases Team Travis’ flexibility to innovate with the private sector on a worldwide stage. Being able to step out of your comfort zone to solve problems through innovation is a necessary skill.”
Bertolucci joined Zimmerman at the conference and shared his sentiments. “It was an incredible and rewarding experience,” he said.
During the three-day conference, Zimmerman and Bertolucci met with aviation management experts from all over the globe. “They provided a great deal of insight into how and where the air traffic management industry is and will be moving in the future,” said Bertolucci.
Lt. Col. Eric Weber, the 60th OSS commander, said the success of the gap-filler radar technology is just one way his Airmen and Travis AFB lead the way with innovation.
“When you think of how this can benefit the public, regional and international airports around the globe, we are balancing green energy with a growing national and international airspace system,” he said. “We are balancing emerging technology and green energy with emerging requirements and growth with international travel and commerce. It’s a win-win.”
Weber also said Travis AFB benefits from having an innovative spirit.
“Travis (AFB) has a culture and climate of innovation,” he said. “It’s the most innovative environment I’ve been a part of in my 19 years of service. Our Airmen are empowered to solve problems and as a commander it’s my responsibility to foster an environment where they can thrive.”
C-Speed plans to seek Federal Aviation Administration certification and approval to implement their gap-filler, Light-Wave Radar System, in the national airspace of the U.S.
At Travis AFB, innovation will continue as well, as the 60th OSS seeks to build upon the success it has seen with the gap-filler technology, said Weber.
“We will build upon our efforts with the Pilot Mitigation Program Initiative Data Collection Study,” he said.
The goal is to leverage existing infrastructure at Travis AFB such as command and control systems, radar and wind turbine radar interference mitigation systems, to collect data necessary for the FAA. They will assess the feasibility and development requirements associated with the integration, operation and performance of an infill radar inserted into the FAA’s existing command and control system, Weber added.
According to the PMP charter, the project will allow the demonstration and performance measurement of two infill radars, compare infill radar performance and permit ATCs to assess integrated radar coverage of both the wind turbine area and other coverage areas.