NTRA pursues radar amid safety, traffic concerns

Michael Hutchins, Herald Democrat
Officials with North Texas Regional Airport — Perrin Field are considering options for adding radar to the airport’s services. The move comes amid safety concerns related to the airport’s increased traffic in recent years. (Herald Democrat)

Officials with North Texas Regional Airport — Perrin Field are considering options on how to bring radar service to the airport’s control tower. The move comes as airport officials have expressed concerns regarding increased operations and air traffic around the former air force base.

The topic of radar at NTRA was discussed Thursday during a meeting of the Grayson County Regional Mobility Authority, in which airport officials detailed the need for radar and spoke about recent safety concerns from traffic.

“If you could visualize that there is a box and we keep putting more and more airplanes in that box,” NTRA Airport Director Bob Torti said Thursday. “Without radar this is not a good thing.”

The need for radar at NTRA became the new focus for airport officials last year after the airport was accepted into the Federal Aviation Administration’s contract tower program. The program allows the FAA to finance operations of the airport’s control tower and moved the responsibility away from Grayson County.

With this long-term priority resolved, officials seemed to signal that radar would be the next upgrade that officials would pursue in efforts to improve safety. This new technology will be increasingly needed as the airport continues to grow, airport officials said.

On average, the FAA will consider adding radar when an airport reaches about 30,000 flight operations in a year. By comparison, Torti said NTRA averages about 5,000 to 7,000 operations per month with more than 50,000 expected for the year.

Of these operations, Torti said about 60 percent are related to US Aviation, a flight school that operates at the airport and is its biggest operator. The flight school primarily teaches commercial pilots who are coming from China and other countries in order to get their certifications.

During Thursday’s meeting, Torti said there have been incidents recently, including four reported near misses, that were related to the flight school’s operations that have been reported by airport officials and controllers in the tower.

The FAA defines a near collision as “operation of an aircraft in which a possibility of collision occurs as a result of proximity of less than 500 feet to another aircraft, or a report is received from a pilot or a flight crew member stating that a collision hazard existed between two or more aircraft.”

Torti said one of the incidents involved a pilot coming into the airport from an unexpected angle and nearly coming in on top of another plane. In a separate incident, Torti said another pilot was signaled by the tower 28 times after asking for clearance to cross a runway to return to a hangar.

In recent weeks, Torti said the tower chief called for a full stop at one point due to the number of planes in the air to let traffic clear.

“When I hear my tower chief say yesterday that sometimes it becomes dangerous, those are not words you want to hear either from a pilot or someone running traffic around your airport,” Torti said.

Torti said he believes that part of the issue is a language barrier on the part of the pilots, who are predominantly not native English speakers. Torti said the pilots are expected to be fluent in English before coming to the U.S. for training, but some are not. US Aviation has partnered with Grayson College to provide some language training and services, Torti said.

Mark Taylor, vice president of US Aviation, said he was unaware of any safety incidents at the airport involving pilots with the program, but he is in favor of the addition of radar to NTRA. Taylor went on to say that the airport is an extremely safe environment for his pilots.

“I can assure you if it was anything of more significance, I would have more information,” Taylor said.

Currently, US Aviation maintains flight schools at three airports including one in Denton and Fort Worth Alliance Airport, both of which have radar and tower services. Taylor said the flight school operates 106 aircraft, employs 116 flight instructors and does 35 percent of its business at NTRA.

Taylor said the benefits of adding radar to the airport’s services goes beyond just safety, and will also drive business development at the airport.

Airport officials have taken some steps to better route and separate air traffic recently, Torti said. Among these efforts is the recent reopening of the 4,000-foot runway last year. Torti said some instructors with the flight school have said the prefer to use the longer runway as the shorter one does not have touchdown markers. In response, Torti said the airport will add additional signage to make the runway more usable to student pilots.

Officials with the airport said it may be a year or more before radar is fully implemented at the airport. Molly Waller, a planner with Centurion Planning and Design, said efforts will likely see delays due to a backlog of requests to the FAA during the recent partial government shutdown in January.

Beyond the delays, other factors may create hurdles. Waller said radar service will not be conducted at NTRA and the airport would instead receive information from Dallas-Fort Worth. Waller said she was uncertain what service would be available, and it would be important to ensure that the radar reaches low enough to cover the airspace where student pilots will be flying.

The second favor will be ensuring a signal could be transmitted from Dallas to NTRA. Waller said the connection would need to be a physical line as satellite and other non-physical means are not traditionally used. There could be an existing line that would meet this need, but Waller could not rule out the need to lay additional cable for the project.

Waller said the project could be expedited through congressional assistance, especially if there the need for radar was safety related.

“I think we have a real strong case for radar on this deal,” Torti said. “With the among out traffic and the experience level being so low, people not understanding the English language, we have a real strong case there.”