Capstone nicked in FAA-union crossfire

PHOTO/Rob Stapleton/AJOC
Glitches in the FAA’s Anchorage Center software for air traffic control over Alaska became the focus of a union squabble with Federal Aviation Administration management -- but not until two labor groups erroneously discredited the Capstone technology project under way in Alaska.

transportation.jpg Capstone uses global positioning satellites and terrain databases to guide aircraft in areas with poor or nonexistent radar coverage. Its first use in the country was in Bethel, where it was rolled out Jan. 1.

A press release issued by the Professional Airways Systems Specialists and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Jan. 29 titled "Software Glitches Endanger Air Traffic in Alaska" has FAA Capstone officials baffled and refuting the claims of the two unions.

"These claims are unfounded and factually incorrect," said Gary Childers, with the Alaskan Region Capstone office.

PASS represents 11,000 employees nationwide with 125 in Alaska, and NATCA represents 17,000 nationally.

Officials from both unions later admitted that the release was intended to get a PASS employee more access to Capstone information meetings.

The employee, with the FAA’s Alaskan Region Airways Facilities, has not been allowed critical training and management contact with Capstone related matters, according to PASS spokesman Ron Rahrig.

But neither the FAA nor the employee would discuss the claim after the release was issued.

"The state of affairs up there in Alaska is horrific. This is by far the worst relationship that we have with FAA management in the entire U.S.," Rahrig said.

According to FAA officials in Anchorage, the two incidents referred to in the press release involved the Micro En-route Automated Radar Tracking System while it was acquiring data from the Capstone system.

The first incident happened on Jan. 19, when the Micro-EARTS software used in the Anchorage Center for air traffic control acquired an F-15 taking off from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The officials said that when the F-15 flew across a latitude slightly south of Anchorage that is the same as Bethel’s latitude, the Micro-EARTS system gave an erroneous reading.

Capstone aircraft, much like transponder-equipped aircraft, have a data block on air traffic controllers’ screens, according to FAA officials with the Capstone program.

When the F-15 crossed the Bethel latitude, as it was being handed off to Kenai radar, the data block on the Capstone aircraft in the Bethel area identified it as the F-15.

"Air traffic controllers at the center picked up on it right away and notified their supervisor, who notified John Hallinan, the Capstone program director," said Gary Childers, in the FAA Anchorage Capstone office. "There was no danger to either aircraft, controllers had the traffic, it was just misidentified."

Hallinan and the center supervisor decided to monitor the system for other similar occurrences.

On Jan. 20 an Alaska Airlines jet climbing to altitude from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport crossed over the same latitude simultaneous with a Capstone-equipped aircraft in the Bethel airport area. Once again the data block erroneously indicated that it was an Alaska Airlines jet some three hundred miles away.

"Center called John (Hallinan) at home and a decision to unplug the (Capstone) ADS/B system from the Micro EARTS system at the center was made," Childers said.

"This was not a Capstone software problem, but a Micro-EARTS software problem, as it acquired the data from the (Capstone) broadcast data," said James Call, an aviation safety inspector with the Capstone program.

According to Capstone’s Call and Childers, programmers from Lockheed Martin, who write programs for the Micro-EARTS system, used a test bed system on the East Coast to simulate the data error. They rewrote the software and flew to Anchorage to rectify the software code to accept the Capstone data correctly.

"The system was only unplugged for 18-20 hours, and is now up and running perfectly," Childers said.

"We operate with a double back up system, and as you know we are very safety sensitive. At no time was the flying public or any aircraft in danger," Call said.

The press release, however, stated, "The incident prompted the unions to urge the FAA to take the program off line until it’s tested and debugged completely." Also in the release, PASS official Rahrig states, "We are concerned about the testing of an experimental program in a live traffic environment," a statement that the Capstone officials refute.

"We voluntarily took the system out of the Micro-EARTS system, and this is not an experimental program that is being tested as they indicate," Childers said.

"We started testing this a year ago and now have the system installed in 84 aircraft. We are online with this, and it became official and is in use in the Bethel area as of Jan. 1, 2001," Childers added.

Local NATCA official Rick Thompson, who was listed on the release and quoted in the communique, clarified NATCA’s position for the Journal.

"Well, PASS was having some labor management problems, and we wanted to give them some help by putting some pressure on Washington, D.C.," he said. "We fully support Capstone and any other new technology. We need it."

02/10/2001 - 8:00pm