Makeshift control towers guide rescue planes

The FAA used its ingenuity to create control towers that allowed thousands of planes to land in hurricane-devastated areas.

Hurricane Katrina knocked out much of the aviation communications infrastructure along the Gulf Coast, but the Federal Aviation Administration’s creativity allowed emergency relief planes to land by the thousands Labor Day weekend.

As of this afternoon, about 15 FAA radio transmitters throughout the area were reported down.

Yesterday, terminal radars from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., to the west of New Orleans were also inoperable.

The FAA is still assessing the damage to navigational aids, electronic devices that provide position data to aircraft in flight.

The Greenwood, Miss., Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) is partially out of service. Flight service stations provide pre-flight weather briefings, flight planning services, in-flight radio communications, and search and rescue services, mostly to corporate and commercial pilots who do not work at major airlines.

Greenwood telephone calls are being rerouted to AFSS facilities in Jonesboro, Ark., and Jackson, Tenn.

FAA officials say their information technology specialists have performed Herculean feats to restore connections.

In the past week, workers have installed mobile satellite communications throughout the Gulf region, along with temporary air traffic control towers.

“We have patched together the system with mobile communications equipment, satellite-based equipment and power generators,” FAA spokesman Greg Martin said. “That’s all you can do when you are looking at a region with no infrastructure. It’s a testament to the dedication of not only our controllers, but also our technicians.”

Last weekend, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport became one of the nation’s top five busiest airports, as employees handled 3,300 flights per day -- quadruple the normal air traffic levels, according to FAA officials.

The airport is the main conduit for relief and relocation efforts. Because of the heavier traffic, the FAA brought in a portable air traffic control tower to magnify the communications’ capacity of the airport’s main tower. Twenty-four technical operations specialists and 18 air traffic control specialists work in the facility.

In Mississippi, the Defense Department deployed a temporary tower at Stennis International Airport to assist emergency relief aircraft.

The military has also launched radar devices and radio communications on aircraft to fill in connectivity gaps.

Today, radar is slowing coming back online, say officials from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

“We have been told that over the next few days that a good deal of progress will be made on radar,” said Chris Dancy, an AOPA spokesman.

Although most AOPA pilots are restricted from the airspace above the disaster area, they are lining up to volunteer when the all-clear is given.

“They are more than willing and very eager to help out, but our advice to pilots is to wait until the government says they are ready for the additional aid,” Dancy said.

Volunteer pilots already aiding in the rescue efforts confirm that the FAA's improvised transmission system has performed admirably.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked helpers from Angel Flight America to participate in the evacuating displaced persons.

“There are no communications problems,” said Milt Whitehurst, a retired commercial pilot from Angel Flight South Central – the Texas branch responsible for Louisiana and Mississippi – said. “The remote transmitters are working OK. The air route traffic control is OK and the radar is OK. And the towers are up and running. Our pilots are going in and out of the there all the time.”

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