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April 09, 2015 // Fort Myers: Adding to the STARS Constellation

(This story was written by FAA Communications and published jointly by Focus FAA and the NATCA Insider.)

Controllers at Fort Myers Tower and TRACON (RSW) had new technology at their fingertips—designed to improve operations—just in time for the spring break traffic spike.

The STARS system reached initial operating capability at the facility on Feb. 6, replacing the outdated Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS IIE). The conversion also replaced old radar displays with high-resolution LCDs — all as part of the FAA’s TAMR program.

STARS offers several state-of-the-art features, including multiple radar feeds that can be fused together for a more accurate representation of where aircraft are located, and six levels of weather.

“This automation system essentially is what’s going to get us to NextGen,” said RSW NATCA FacRep Ross Costa, who trained controllers in STARS prior to its launch. “On the surface, this project looks small, but it is humongous with loads of coordination and communication, and with many different entities moving together to achieve a common goal. It makes me proud of what we are able to do.”

RSW is one of the first facilities to make the conversion this year, and several more are scheduled to follow. The new platform will accept, process, and display ADS-B, a key component of the NextGen’s mission to modernize the NAS. ADS-B allows both controllers and pilots to see displays of traffic updated in close to real time. STARS supports other NextGen initiatives as well, and will eventually become the single-terminal automation platform across the NAS. One of the most remarkable things about the conversion to STARS is the seamlessness of it; engineers and technicians removed the old equipment and installed the new without causing any disruptions or flight delays.

“The STARS/TAMR program is really excited to bring new equipment to these aging ARTS IIE sites,” said Mitch Herrick, the national NATCA lead for the TAMR program. “The FAA has been trying to get to a single terminal automation system for nearly 40 years. TAMR is poised to make that a reality.”

RSW is closed from midnight to 6 a.m. every day. During that time span, traffic in the tower’s airspace is transferred to Miami Center. Engineers and technicians removed the old ARTS workstations and activated most of the STARS equipment while the facility was closed. Controllers arrived at dawn with the new technology at their stations. But the cutover works seamlessly at 24/7 facilities, too.

“It was superb how the team came together,” said Jerimiah Easley, manager of the Engineering Services team from Atlanta that traveled to RSW to provide support. “Everyone played an active role in making the cutover a success. I’m very proud of them all.”

When controllers took their stations at 6 a.m., following the STARS launch at RSW, they knew exactly what to expect because the system went in three months ahead of time for training purposes. The training program, developed collaboratively by NATCA and the FAA Program Office, consists of a six-hour presentation and an additional two-hour, hands-on training session with the new radar scopes to get controllers up to speed.

The cutover to STARS will not only benefit controllers, but also Technical Operations and Engineering Services personnel. Even though the components of the new system are more powerful, they are smaller and lighter than the old ones, making them easier and safer to move, install, and repair. There are also fewer components for data processing, which means more space available in equipment rooms.

“The equipment is newer, which will hopefully make it more reliable,” said RSW Technical Operations Manager Al Sockbeson. “The future expansion of the capabilities of this new system will enhance air traffic’s ability to do their jobs.”

More TAMR News, from Herrick:

“We have had two recent transitions to STARS at both Harrisburg (MDT) and Savannah (SAV). Both were wildly successful. MDT was an amazing story because it can only be termed as flawless. Every part of the automation and adaptation worked perfectly from the moment we turned it on. That has never happened before. At SAV we experienced a few minor things that had to be fixed, but that is to be expected at all sites.”

“SAV is another great story of on time and schedule and the collaborative efforts of everyone coming together in the weeks leading up to the transition to overcome some pretty significant problems with the digitizer for the ASR 8. Communication and collaboration are the reasons that SAV was successful.”

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