Navigation technology touched down in Tahoe |

Navigation technology touched down in Tahoe

Greg Risling

Landing a plane can be a nail-biting experience for airline passengers and sometimes, the crew.

The shifting turbulence and the gradual descent is all but forgotten when the screeching, rubber tires skid across a Tarmac.

Very few passengers know or care about how a plane technically makes its final approach but a new precision system introduced by the U.S. Department of Defense is the most reliable guide to date according to airline experts.

Lake Tahoe Airport was one of the last to receive the Global Positioning System. The navigation aide provides highly accurate position and velocity information via a constellation of 24 satellites in space. Equipped with the new technology, the airport now has four different GPS routes that pilots can take into the Tahoe Basin. The various approaches are especially helpful during bad storms when gauging altitude and location become more critical.

“It’s rocket science for laymen,” joked Mindy Johnke, spokesperson for Oasis Aviation, which is the airport’s fixed-based provider. “It’s easy for private and corporate pilots to use. It’s a more reliable system.”

GPS will eventually replace the ground-based system that is an older model whose malfunctions have resulted in delays and repairs. Last year, the airport’s distance measuring equipment shorted out during a lightening storm. It took three months to get it working again before it experienced another failure. The earth-bound equipment was also susceptible to high gusts of wind and frigid temperatures.

There is little room for error when flying an aircraft and GPS will narrow that margin, said Larry Levi, a flight instructor for Emerald Bay Aviation. Levi mentioned that GPS will bring the plane closer to the runway and 100 feet lower than existing approaches.

“The more options, we have the better,” he said. “Pilots can pick out an approach that can get us closest to the ground. GPS is the way of the future.”

The satellite system doesn’t cost anything for the airports but installing the technology in airplanes will run a hefty price for major airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration will require all aircraft to have GPS by 2005 and Levi said the agency is slowly decommissioning ground-based aides.

With the GPS soon to be a industry standard, some of the previous requirements may be abolished. The current “minimum” visual distance of the landing strip a pilot must report is five miles. According to Janis Brand, airport manager, planes with GPS can radio three miles out.

“It makes it easier for the operator and the pilot to navigate in bad conditions,” she said. “It will take years to put GPS in all of the aircraft but it will help out tremendously.”

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