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Friday, May 1, 2009

Offshore Notebook

Pat Gray

IFR in the Gulf of Mexico

Helicopter instrument flight in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) has always been eyedropper slow, due mainly to a lack of radar coverage. This is changing. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast or ADS-B will cure these short comings through its unique ability to provide positive control without radar.

There will be a series of dedicated ground stations located in a network throughout the GOM. The FAA is installing three types of equipment: 35 Automatic Weather Observation Stations (AWOs); nine to 12 ADS-B surveillance stations that decode aircraft downloads and uploads; and nine additional VHF air-to-ground communications sites to augment the existing 14.

The arrival of ADS-B in the Gulf is about to become a reality. It would not be practical to list all of its contributors in this column, so I will stick with the FAA’s role as of April 2009.

James Linney is the manager of the central ADS-B program that includes most of the central U. S. from the GOM to the Canadian border. The prime contractor for the project is ITT, which provides the infrastructure and works closely with Linney.

In the early stages of the program, there was a terrific amount of administrative work, especially in finding and acquiring sites to install equipment. A lot of it centered on getting multi-party agreements to allow equipment on oil and gas platforms in the GOM. Fortunately, most have been completed with some 47 different locations that, hopefully, will be available. Also, there are multiple disciplines within the FAA that have to be brought on board for coordination and approvals. Much of the above is ongoing and much has been completed.

The 47 locations are scattered throughout the Gulf and the space available on them is near and dear. The platforms cost the producers millions to build and install, and volunteering space for any reason is a major concession on their part.

Now that the major paper work has mostly settled, initial hardware is being deployed. The FAA and ITT have already placed equipment on four platforms. Two sites (Tick and Virgo) have new FAA VHF radio shelters. One named "Innovator" has a new AWOS and will have an ADS-B installed in April. The FAA feels this site was a model for the rest of the GOM implementations and showed how quickly it could be done. About 200 miles offshore, the Atlantis platform has four VHF radios installed and they want to get ADS-B and AWOS this summer. These early sites are needed by the FAA to support testing and schedule-meeting.

On the FAA controller side, the GOM low-altitude airspace was divided into three zones: eastern, central and western. The size of each zone was determined by the amount of traffic it contained, but the sizes can be modified if needed. The platforms mentioned above support all three sectors and will be used for the upcoming system tests, along with some other locations.

The current plan is to have a Service Acceptance Test completed by June 2009, have Communications Initial Operating Capability (IOC) by September 2009, and the IOC for surveillance services for Air Traffic Control by December 2009.

Mother Nature had her input via the hurricanes of 2007 and 2008, causing delays for hardware installations. This led GOM producers to concentrate on repairing damaged facilities while battling with roller coaster oil prices.

There have been very few glitches so far, thanks to people like Jim Linney who said, "We know everyone is committed to the objective, and the companies who work out there definitely want the safer and more efficient service for their employees that this program will bring. The industry knows how to get work done fast and that’s exactly what we need — a real focus on working on the platforms in the next few months. We are clearly dependent on our energy partners to hit the schedule we agreed upon".

There is some concern from helicopter operators about getting a final rule passed for the airborne avionics; a difficult task to accomplish. The equipment must be capable of maintaining air traffic services with Houston Center and then determine what Houston’s performance requirements will be. The FAA needs early-equipped helicopters to test the system as a whole. The FAA’s ADS-B program and the Rotorcraft Directorate are working intensely on those efforts. The FAA made this program a priority for avionics certification, which helps.

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