A key enabler of the move out of normal, legacy, staffed, out the window (OTW) Towers and into remote, staffed/automated, sensor-driven, computer mediated, windowless towers is that the military contractors have developed remarkable technologies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This is about the military-industrial complex looking for peacetime markets.
1. One of the persistent issues in airport capacity at major metro airports is runway occupancy time. The airplane lands, rolls down the runway, maybe the pilot skips a turnoff for a more convenient taxi route, and the next plane can’t depart until the first one gets off the runway.
We could really improve runway occupancy time using military technology. We could put an arresting hook on the tail of the airplane, string heavy-duty cables across the end of the runway, and let the airliners “take the gear”. They’ll get off the runway a lot quicker.
Not so fast, you might say – there are things acceptable in military aviation that are not acceptable for domestic, civilian passenger flights. Let’s explore that.
2. Military pilots sit at computer consoles at Creech Air Force Base, using joysticks and keyboards to fly military aircraft in real-time. They fly surveillance, missile attack, and search and rescue over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It’s an extremely cost-effective program – they don’t have to house the pilots in-country, they just datalink the skill set and they’re in business. They found out they don’t need highly trained officers – a lot of high school kids turned non-coms have the joystick skills.
Question: Would you approve of using similar technology for regional airlines flying passenger service in the United States? It would certainly save money and resolve some union issues. Would you be comfortable sitting in the back of a pilotless regional jet? How come?
3. Combat information systems now integrate a wide variety of information sources to represent the entire battle space on a ruggedized laptop screen. Generals in bunkers and Sergeants in humvees use the screens to coordinate their operations. Industry wants to use “virtual towers” (and lately, Nextgen Towers) to sell these military systems as civilian systems.
Question: Would you approve of using similar sensors and displays to move the coordination of airport activity from traditional control towers to off-site windowless control centers? Would you be comfortable with your family flying in to the airport late at night, when the virtual controllers have gone home and the airport is operating as an Automated NextGen Tower?