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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sweepers can help

Sweepers Can Help

In the last few months, a Concorde crashed at a Paris airport runway apparently because of a piece of metal debris dropped from a flight that took off earlier and left undetected; and days ago, a Singapore Airlines flight SQ006 took off in a storm down a closed runway littered with concrete blocks and construction equipment.

Apparently, there were 227 wrong runway turnings in airports in the US alone last year, though these did not result in fatalities.

To overcome these, ground radar at airports could be installed but these cost from US$10 million for low-end versions to hundreds of millions for high-end ones.

Also, GPS systems are not feasible yet because all vehicles need to be fitted with them for them to work.

So, why not spend about US$100,000 for about half a dozen cars equipped with signalling lights and walkie-talkies to communicate with the Control Tower and the planes they will lead, guide-dog style, to their proper places at the correct take-off runways?

These half a dozen cars can be ordinary cars fitted with police car-like lights on top, in different colours to indicate different conditions, for example, flashing amber to signal "Follow Me" to the pilot of the aircraft to lead him to the correct runway. Then, when it has reached the correct runway, the lights can flash green to signal that the plane has reached its correct position. Of course, voice communication must also be established between all 3 parties, the Sweeper Car, the Control Tower and the Pilot of the plane.

Or, for slightly more, a special custom built automobile can be designed with fancier lights and radios. Each of these Sweepers must be manned by at least 2 people, the driver and another front seat Sweeper Member.

This is how it can work:

1. When the Pilot and the Control Tower are ready to take the plane to the runway, the Control Tower will assign a Sweeper to drive up to the plane parked at the Terminal Building. Radio contact will be maintained by all the 3 parties.

2. The Sweeper (with unique numbering, lighted at night) goes up to the assigned plane and establishes visual and radio contact with the Pilot. When all 3 parties have ensured that the correct Sweeper has contacted the correct plane and pilot, then the Sweeper drives along slowly followed by the pilot/plane along the taxiways until they reach the correct runway for takeoff. Radio contact is maintained at all times by all 3. The Sweeper has the correct lights to signal its intentions, that is, "Follow Me", "Stop" and "You've Reached the Position For TakeOff", using maybe, amber, red and green respectively.

3. Then the Sweeper, manned by at least 2 people and powered by bright lights for night work, drives down along the entire runway, manually checking that there are no fallen debris from previous planes that have taken off earlier. The powerful lights will help at night. Once the Sweeper has reached the end of the runway, it radios the Control Tower and the waiting Pilot that the runway has been 'swept' and he can take off.

4. Because the Sweeper is just a modified car, it is cheap. And a crew of 2 is not expensive. And you need only about half a dozen Sweepers for each airport. But proper procedures must be followed and the ritual adhered to strictly. Although the Sweeper and Control Tower will clear the Pilot for takeoff, probably the ultimate responsibility will still be the Pilot's.

5. This idea of using Sweepers is to avoid the 2 types of runway accidents that have happened in the last few months. In the case of the Concorde, a Sweeper could have spotted the debris and warned the Concorde not to take off. In the case of the SIA crash in Taipei, the Sweeper would have swept down the runway and seen the concrete blocks.

6. Because the Sweepers are just automobiles, they are cheap, easy to drive without having to learn, easy to install radio communication equipment and lights onto, and most of all, fast and nimble with wide visual vistas from which the Sweeper Team can see very well, almost panoramic and at ground level, all signs and debris on the runway. Since they are small, they can be parked in ordinary parking lots and nip about the airport fast and efficiently. If a procedure is properly adhered to, they themselves will not be in the way of planes and cause accidents.

7. This idea may work because the Sweeper Teams are based in the airports and know the layout of the entire runways well. Being part of the Control Tower's eyes, and from training and experience, they will know the airport far better than any pilot who flies in only once in a while or who may be unfamiliar with the airport's layout. It would take a Sweeper Member only a couple of days to familiarise himself/herself with the entire airport. Just as airport workers now know their own airport very well as ground staff.

8. This idea is simple, cheap and may prevent the 2 kinds of runway accidents that happened recently. It may even save lives. I hope you can study it, improve it, develop a set of procedures and training for it and push for its adoption in airports all over the world.

The Ghosts of SQ006