Election Section

FAA tests laser lights to prevent runway collisions

By Mary Pemberton The Associated Press
Friday November 15, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Laser lights are being tested at an Anchorage airport to help prevent pilots from making a sometimes fatal error — crossing in the path of other aircraft. 

The high-intensity lights are one of seven projects being tested nationwide to decrease the incidents of runway incursions, said Roger Motzko, runway safety programs manager for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Alaska region. 

Greatland Laser, LLC. of Anchorage is working with the FAA to come up with a way to make the four yellow “hold lines” — the lines on runway taxiways that pilots aren’t supposed to cross without the go-ahead from traffic control — more visible to pilots. The lines consist of two solid lines and two dashed lines. 

The laser lights are housed in emergency yellow metal canisters the size of theater stage lights. One is set up on each side of the taxiway next to the hold lines. They point toward each other about 2 feet above the reflective paint strips. 

Motzko said the nice thing about the lights is that they work better in low visibility situations. 

“As the weather gets worse, this enhancement makes that line look better,” he said. 

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the busiest cargo airport in North America, was chosen for the laser light project because Alaska pilots face more visibility obstacles than pilots elsewhere. For four months of the year, the yellow hold lines in Anchorage can be obscured by ice and snow. 

Farther to the north in the Interior, ice fog — the low-lying cloud that is a byproduct of auto exhaust and forms when temperatures fall to 25 degrees below zero — can reduce visibility to near zero at Fairbanks International Airport. 

And airport lighting, particularly at the state’s many small rural airports, occasionally is wiped out by snowplows and avalanches. 

Motzak said the problem of runway incursions is nationwide. In fiscal year 2002 ending Sept. 30, there were 338 runway incursions out of 65 million landings and takeoffs. 

Runway incursions can happen three ways: air traffic control provides the pilot with bad instructions, the pilot fails to obey correct instructions, or a vehicle or pedestrian gets too close to aircraft. 

While mistakes can have tragic consequences — 34 people were killed in 1991 when an air traffic controller at Los Angeles International Airport allowed a commercial jet to land on the same runway cleared for a commuter plane — most mistakes amount to near misses. 

For example, two years ago a Korean Air jet taking off in Chicago with more than 350 people on board averted a collision with a cargo plane that had taxied into its path. 

Last month four people were injured when a commuter jet collided with a United shuttle bus at O’Hare International Airport. 

Motzak said about 60 percent to 70 percent of the runway incursions are caused because of pilot error, mostly on smaller, noncommercial planes. 

What normally happens is that the pilot, after acknowledging an instruction to stay put from the tower, crosses the hold lines and enters the runway, Motzko said. 

“These are people making an honest mistake,” he said. 

The FAA in 2001 sent out a request to industry to come up with low-cost devices to help prevent runway incursions. The agency got 90 responses and picked six. Greatland Laser’s proposal was the seventh and last to be selected. 

Other ideas include magnetic loops in taxiways being tested at Long Beach, Calif.