FOLEY AIRPORT INTRODUCES AUTOMATED PILOT SYSTEM

New system thought to be first in state

By Bob Morgan

Staff Writer

          FOLEY - Foley Municipal Airport's new Superunicom is drawing rave reviews from local pilots and those who visit the area and fly in and out of The Forward City.

          The $38,600 pilot-controlled automated systein is thought to be the first in the state and one of only a handful in the Southeast.

          "Everybody just  loves  it. People  are  calling  from Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina and other parts of Alabama to ask about it," says Aubrey Little Sr., who handles public  relations  for  Foley Municipal Airport.

          Superunicom, developed by Potomac Aviation Technology Corp. of Ft. Washington, Md., has been in place at Foley Municipal Airport about two weeks. Through a series of radio clicks, pilots can receive a basic airport advisory, extended advisory and radio transmission check, all originating from a maintenance-free system not much bigger than a television box.

          The system speaks with clear, natural voice and composes its greetings and advisory messages from digitally recorded human speech. The system's voice and behavior is so human some pilots have mistaken it for a live person.

          Three radio clicks trigger an airport advisory with only pertinent information. The system adapts advisory timing and content to the amount of system congestion. Advisories are provided to pilots within about 10 miles of the airport. 

          Three additional clicks after the basic advisory will give a pilot all the details, including information that might have been abbreviated in the basic advisory.

          Four clicks trigger the radio-check. Superunicom will ask a pilot to transmit a brief message, then the system will echo-transmits the message back to the pilot.

          Superunicom, which automatically greets inbound pilots, is aware of an airport's runways and configurations and local operating preferences. It also continuously measures current weather data and balances the information against the level of congestion on the system frequency.

          Foley Municipal Airport Manager Joe Bouzan says Superunicom should definitely enhance the safety factor at the airport.

          What kinds of safety hazards might the system prevent?

          Plant City, Fla.: A 56-year-old student pilot lining up his Cessna on final approach has a Piper Cadet piloted by a 19-year-old land on top of him, the two airplanes becoming interlocked at a height of 200 feet.

          Arlington, Texas: A Cessna 150 lands on top of a Cessna 152 approximately two feet above the runway. It is believed both air-planes entered the traffic pattern at approximately the same time but with the Cessna 152 at a lower altitude.

          While neither incident resulted in injuries, both could have.  Foley Mayor Tim Russell says the Superunicom system should be a "great safety factor" for the airport in preventing similar aerial mishaps locally.

          For example, since Superunicom is aware of an airport's runway configuration, winds and traffic, it will actually call a specific runway based on prevailing winds and an analysis of aircraft transmission patterns of other aircraft over the system. It will call that runway only when conditions unambiguously recommend one runway over another and when there is no potential for conflicting traffic.

          "I have the pleasure of flying quite a bit and safety measures are important to pilots," says Russell, himself a pilot. He says at some airports it's a challenge for a pilot to hear and understand what is being said by airport personnel.

          Jim Owens of Gulf Shores, who writes aviation insurance and has been flying since 1940, says the new system should be helpful to local pilots since only a few airports in the state have control towers. Owens listed those as Brookley in Mobile (day only), Mobile Regional, Montgomery, Dothan, Tuscaloosa (day   only), Birmingham, Huntsville and Muscle Shoals (day only).

          Owens, who flies out of Foley Municipal Airport, says other than the airports listed above others have no control of traffic and offer only advisory information.

          "It's entirely up to the pilot to look for traffic, to announce where you are and what you are doing," he says of flying in and out of small airports.

          Bouzan says pilots flying in to Foley Municipal Airport and going back home have helped spread the word about the Superunicom.

          Russell gives Bouzan and Little credit for spearheading the move to get the Superunicom system at the airport.

          Other aspects of the system include the following:

                     Alerts pilots to significant conditions such as ground fog crosswinds and windshear.

                     Alerts pilots to significant wind changes from last advisory.

                     The totally self-contained system is typically located at the airport's windsock, so pilots are afforded realistic runway conditions.

                     Alerts inbound pilots to the presence of other air traffic the pattern.

          Little says Foley Municipal Airport is constantly being praised by visitors for its beauty and facilities and for improvements funded by the city through mayor and council.

 Bob Morgan/Staff Photo

At Foley Alabama  APRIL 2000
Pictured at the airport Is Aubrey Little Sr., public relations director at the Foley Municipal Airport, Joe Bouzan, airport manager, and Foley Mayor Tim Russell.