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Ohio University's avionics research helps air travelers

ATHENS, Ohio (Feb. 10, 2005) -- This season's snow and ice storms may have stranded thousands of air travelers in airports throughout Ohio and the nation, but flyers shouldn't get too skittish about booking winter trips.

While there are not any landing systems that can safely guide flights during severe blizzards, research being performed by the Avionics Engineering Center, part of the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology at Ohio University, has made tremendous strides toward making it possible for planes to land during inclement weather conditions - thus making it less likely that flights will get diverted to distant runways.

For more than four decades, Ohio University has been the avionics industry leader in Instrument Landing Systems (ILS), the primary precision landing system used by the nation's largest carriers.

It is the only in-flight precision approach system approved for commercial flights to guide a plane below 500 feet. Not even the Global Positioning System (GPS) is used for that today.

"ILS still provides the best landing minimum, that is, how low you can go before you need to see the runway," said Dale Courtney, a lead navigation engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The system works this way: from the end of the runway, two transmitters radiate two signals. Together, the signals create an invisible line, or localizer, that guides the plane down the center of the runway.

In the cockpit, all the pilot has to do on a foggy day is follow the signal to a safe landing. Of course, the pilot still ultimately has to be able to see the runway before landing - FAA regulations - but the ILS is so exact that, at FAA Category 3 airports, the highest classification, the guidance quality is so great that the pilot can fly blindly all the way to the ground.

And at Category 2 or 1 airports, the landing systems are precise enough to guide a plane down to 100 or 200 feet, respectively, before the pilot needs a clear view of the runway.

In other words, it takes one heck of a blizzard over a Category 2 or 3 runway to warrant diverting a plane to another airport that would be clear but also miles and hours away from home, family and holiday parties.

And because all airports want to be able to land planes in inclement weather, Ohio University works with the FAA and various airports, such as San Diego International and Chicago's O'Hare International, to make this possible.

Right now, Ohio University ILS teams are helping O'Hare plan a new runway and expand two others by examining factors that could interfere with the ILS.

By calculating the effects that steel aircraft hangars, chain link fences, or passing tractor-trailers might have on the ILS transmitter signals, the team is able to make recommendations for the airport before they break ground for the runway.

"The Avionics Engineering Center members were definitely seen as the experts in the field and not as just another consultant," said Finlay Graham of Ricondo and Associates, Inc, a firm working closely with the O'Hare project. "The work that was farmed out to the university was done 'sole source,' as no other organization in the country is seen to be able to provide this service," Graham said.

After the new runway is built and the ILS installed, the Ohio University Avionics team will return to test the system to be sure it's in compliance with International and FAA requirements, and that it's providing the desired Category level.

David Quinet, an Avionics research engineer, said of his role: "We take on a lot of responsibility in assuring the desired guidance quality is met after the airport has spent millions on a new runway or on changes in its environment, on terminals, hangars, etc."

When all is said and done, O'Hare will be able to pass the FAA inspection and open its runway as planned.

"I'm not aware of any place where we've found deficiencies in the work that Ohio University has done," said Courtney.

At Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, an Avionics team determined that the airport's plans to build an above ground Automated People Mover to shuttle passengers between terminals would not interfere with the ILS. The airport has since built the transportation system.

And Ohio University is also working with Florida's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to extend one of its runways. There, the team will have to devise a way for the airport to operate its ILS without too much interference from boats on the nearby Dania Canal.

That's just a few of the avionics projects Ohio University is involved in right now. Los Angeles International and San Diego International are two more airports employing Ohio University researchers to improve their facilities and increase their planes' ability to safely in even the worst weather conditions.

"The Avionics Engineering Center is very proud that it can work with the Federal Aviation Administration to make our national airspace system safer and more reliable for the traveling public," said James Rankin, Avionics Engineering Center director. "Our ILS team is very dedicated and uses its expertise to provide airports with trouble-free approach and landing systems."

And the university's reach extends beyond the American borders to include several foreign airports.

When South Korea built its Seoul-Incheon International Airport, which opened in 2001, planners contacted only Ohio University to plan the navigational and landing systems at this new state-of -the-art facility. The team determined what equipment the airport would need and what sorts of limitations it would have on planned and future development.

Similar planning was just completed by Ohio University on the new airport's third and fourth runways, which are not yet operational.

And when Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport was considering a switch to another landing system, MLS, during its expansion 12 years ago, the Avionics Engineering Center helped the airport determine that it was unnecessary to make a large investment in a new system. Instead, the airport modified its existing ILS for significantly less cost.

That cost-saving finding was thanks to research Ohio University is constantly doing to improve the capability of ILS in the presence of structures on the ground.

So, even with many weeks of winter still looming ahead, passengers will still be able to concentrate on snowmen and family gatherings, not on how they'll get home from Detroit when they wanted to land in Columbus when the white stuff hit.

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Media Contact: Russ College Director of External Relations Colleen Girton, (740) 593-1488 or girtonc@ohio.edu, or Media Specialist Jack Jeffery, (740) 597-1793 or jefferyj@ohio.edu

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