The Block Island Times

FAA considers decommissioning navigation device at B.I. Airport

Says Deepwater Wind project may impact signal
By Stephanie Turaj | Apr 07, 2013
Photo by: Stephanie Turaj Sandy Point VOR/DME.

The Federal Aviation Administration has recommended a study to possibly decommission a navigation device at the Block Island Airport, citing concerns that the proposed Deepwater Wind project would “have a significant impact to the related signal” of the device.

The FAA, in a memorandum dated Feb. 1, makes it clear that while a study is needed, the services provided by this device “will be evaluated and retained, if necessary.”

The navigation device is known as the “Sandy Point” VOR/DME, and is located just south of the runway at the Block Island Airport. It looks like a white cone and transmits radio signals that are received by an airplane’s radio system and helps pilots determine their position to land safely.

One local pilot, along with the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the town of New Shoreham, oppose the move to decommission the device.

“This is really important for people who are flying in bad weather to be able to land,” said pilot Henry duPont, an island resident. Without the Sandy Point VOR, pilots without more advanced GPS technology would not be able to fly to Block Island legally, duPont said.

The AOPA, which represents more than 400,000 members nationwide, also wrote a letter to the FAA opposing the decommissioning.

“AOPA opposes this decommissioning due to the lack of justifiable need for decommissioning, the substantial impact on general aviation flight operations, and the absence of replacement facilities and procedures,” its April 1 letter stated.

A FAA memorandum states: “This is a proposal to decommission the SANDY POINT VOR/DME located in Block Island, R.I. The DME services of this VOR will be evaluated and retained, if necessary. A wind farm proponent has proposed the construction of 5 large wind turbines approximately 4 miles from the SEY VOR/DME. The proposed construction of these wind turbines would have a significant impact to the radiated signal of the VOR.”

The AOPA disagreed with this. In its April 1 letter, AOPA Aviation Technical Specialist Aaron Pifer wrote that the “proposed construction of a wind farm 4 miles from the VOR/DME … is insufficient justification for decommissioning a navigational facility. The AOPA urges the FAA to harmonize the obstruction evaluation process with navigation aid (NAVAID) decommissioning.”

The Town Council also opposes the decommissioning. “The loss of the VOR instrument at the airport will make it impossible for the usual traffic of small planes to conduct an instrument approach if they do not have the latest — and expensive — GPS technology,” said the letter written by the Town of New Shoreham.

“Very few people have GPS equipment,” said duPont, who estimated that just 30 percent of private pilots who fly to Block Island have this equipment.

New England Airlines owner Bill Bendokas said that the technology is expensive to install, and many private pilots may choose to not upgrade to GPS technology.

“This may affect visitors to Block Island and, in general, affect the tourism,” said Bendokas. The letter submitted by the Town of New Shoreham said that the Block Island Airport is the second busiest small airport in Rhode Island. New England Airlines, which operates commercially-scheduled flights between Block Island and Westerly, R.I., has GPS navigation.

If Sandy Point were decommissioned, New England Airlines would not be immediately affected, but the company would have to purchase some additional equipment, said Bendokas.

“Having the facility [Sandy Point] rounds out the resources for navigating to and from Block Island,” said Bendokas. “Everything in flying has backups, and right now we’re using a combination of VOR and GPS. To use GPS alone would require significant expense to double up on GPS-specialized radios.”

Henry duPont also argued the importance of keeping the Sandy Point device. It “is one of the most important NavAids in our region. It is the basis for two [separate] instrument approaches to Block Island and provides fixes for instrument approaches at six other nearby airports including Westerly, Newport, and Quonset,” said duPont in a letter he wrote to the FAA, which he provided to the Block Island Times.

Henry duPont is a pilot and former private flight instructor. He has owned his Cessna C177-RG plane at the Block Island Airport for 30 years.

“In my plane, I have an instrument that tells me what direction I can fly toward,” said duPont. “I can fly to or from the VOR. As I fly toward it, the needle [on the instrument] centers and takes me right over the runway.”

According to a Federal Register Notice released by the FAA, the FAA plans to reduce the number of VOR devices across the country. The national network of VORs costs “nearly $110 million per year to operate and maintain and recapitalization costs are estimated at over $1 billion. The FAA can no longer afford to support an entire network of legacy VORs,” said the notice.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Ben Riggs | Apr 16, 2013 20:30

This description of the problem does not explain the reality for Block Islanders. The VOR system affects the longitudinal bearing information given to approaching aircraft. It cannot be replaced completely by GPS because all navigational systems must have an independent alternative to verify their accuracy. During a clear day that is your eyeballs. At night or in poor visibility it is another system, in this case VOR, or if VOR is not available, it would be airborne radar. But radar will not work in the vicinity of rapidly rotating radar targets caused by things like wind turbine blades. There is no radar-related system, including Doppler systems, that can compensate for this. So the bottom line is, if you install wind turbines close to the shore line you will both degrade the VOR system, if you still have one, and render backup radar systems useless. So that means no air service for BI at night or in bad weather. Don't plan on travel during those periods, and certainly make sure you don't have a medical emergency either.

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