In late 2013, the FAA provided 8 million dollars for this project as the next evolution of the Mountain Radar Program, WAM program that provides radar coverage all the way to the ground in several of the airports in the north central and south west part of the state.
Back in November, the FAA finally, after a couple of years of putting all the technical stuff together, issued what they call “a request for info”, which is basically an invitation to bid. The solicitation closed on Feb 10, 2017, and since then a huge team of folks from the NextGen office has been vetting those proposals. They have identified a preferred vendor and are in the process of negotiations. Who they have chosen should be available soon. I can tell you all four of the responses were incredibly well known and they each have the technical ability to do this project.
Once the vendor is selected, the next step will really kick off and you’ll start seeing a lot of things begin to happen out here. Initially, the vendor will do a site survey and later this summer you’ll see utilities start to go in. Equipment should begin to go in shortly after that as they figure out where the remote facility will go. At the moment, this facility is expected to be housed on airport property for cost and simplicity.
The project will initially be a passive test – there will be no class Delta airspace here, no functioning air traffic control. What they will do during that phase is set up the cameras, integrate the radar feed from TRACON and test it. Are the cameras in the right spot, are they the right kind of cameras, are the video monitors in the control room at the right height, etc. All the human factor kind of things. Then once they get comfortable with that they will start turning on the class Delta airspace by NOTAM and begin tests as a controlled airspace environment.
It will be a 2 – 2 1/2 year project. The goal is not just to have air traffic control services here at Northern Colo Regional, but to establish the future certification requirements for having a remote tower. This will enable other airports to put in a remote tower and essentially duplicate what has been created at FNL. That’s a huge benefit for a lot of other airports in our state that could use a tower.
One comparison often used is the system at Leesburg. While it is functional, they have partnered with Saab and the FAA is not involved with it. Leesburg is a camera only system. FNL will integrate radar from Denver TRACON facility in Platteville so instead of a little blip, you will be able to overlay radar data and you can tell “oh that a 172 and it’s X miles away and it’s at this altitude which gives a lot more situational awareness to the controllers than you would get in Leesburg just looking out the window and seeing a dot.
Plan on runway 6/24 not being available while the tower is operational. When the tower is turned off it goes back to being operational as Class E airspace. We will be keeping an eye on this development.
The time line is the first part of the year they will begin installing equipment. The system will be optimized and testing will take place the next year and then the system will be operational early 2019.
The policy part of this is just as important as the technology piece. If we had a traditional tower it would be a contract tower and not operated, staffed or maintained by the FAA. The kicker here is that the current law allows remote control towers to be eligible for inclusions in the federal contract program. When you’re eligible for participation in that program, it saves the airport several hundreds of thousands of dollars a year of controllers cost that FNL would have to pick up. Work is being done to update regulations to include eligible remote control towers in the next FAA authorization bill so that any remote control tower that meets the regulations can fall under the funding of a contract tower.
In February Jason went to Washington and met with 8 of their 9 congressional delegations and received a lot of support. They also spent half an hour with FAA administrator Michael Huerta who supports the idea. This would only add two lines to the regulations.