Towering Above a Crisis

15 April 2010 (Last Updated April 15th, 2010 18:30)

Recent earthquakes have highlighted the importance of emergency airport infrastructure during times of disaster. Alex Hawkes investigates the potential of temporary air traffic control towers.

Towering Above a Crisis

On 12 January 2010, a catastrophic earthquake with a 7.0-magnitude rippled through the town of Leogane, just west of the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. In the aftermath, an estimated three million people were affected by the quake and up to 230,000 people were thought to have died.

Haiti Port au Prince Airport was immediately converted to support disaster relief and military flights, with the US military stepping in to assume air traffic control responsibilities. The airport and its main tower badly suffered severe damage during the quake, however, and the military struggled to manage the flow of air supplies - at one point the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was even forced to halt aid aircrafts heading to Haiti because of bottlenecks.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a company specialising in emergency air traffic control towers was busy preparing to send a unit out to help with the situation.

Host Systems' Mobile ATC Tower was fully kitted out and ready to be dispatched on 19 January, just seven days after the tragic event. Yet as managing director of Host Systems Michael Brunton soon found out, actually getting the unit across to Haiti was a completely different matter.

"Haiti's airport and its main tower badly suffered severe damage during the quake."

"We always keep a stock model for emergency response scenarios, and as soon as we heard about the problems in Haiti we rapidly assembled a team to fit out the tower with all the necessary radio equipment. The tower we had available can handle over 200 aircraft movements a day and is deployable in an hour," Brunton says.

"We spoke to the British Government and various aid organisations but could not find anyone to fund for the transportation to Haiti."

Instead, the US military sourced a converted caravan, which arrived at Haiti on 23 January.

"The US military did a good job to get the airport operational with a temporary caravan supplied by the FAA, which had never been out of the US. They lost precious time, however, when they had to wait for a Russian Antonov plane to collect and transport their unit to Port au Prince and then deploy it," Brunton says.

"The Host Systems tower is transportable by II-76 or C-130, and we could have had our tower in Haiti on 20th January and operational within an hour, using our experienced team."

"Host Systems' flagship Mobile ATC Tower is deployable at the press of a button on a remote control."

Just over a month later, an earthquake rating 8.8 on the Richter scale occurred off the coast Maule Region of Chile, causing similar levels of devastation. Host Systems made another attempt to send its ATC across to help with the emergency situation but, again, couldn't find the necessary funding.

Both incidents serve as poignant examples of how vital temporary or emergency airport infrastructure equipment is during disaster situations – as after all, without a fully functioning airport, relief organisations are not able to quickly send supplies, particularly to isolated areas such as Haiti.

Temporary air control host

Since its inception in 2003, Host Systems has continued to develop its temporary air traffic control towers to be as efficiently and easily dispersible as possible.

Using a logic control system, Host Systems' flagship Mobile ATC Tower is deployable at the press of a button on a remote control. Stabilisers come out of the unit, which automatically level the system to within 2°. The operator then chooses between half or a full height of 7m, before the system automatically locks itself into position.

"Our Mobile ATC Tower has an operational life of a minimum of 15 years, and we offer upgrades every five years to extend that period. The advantage of its mobility, particularly during an earthquake, is that the tower can be lowered in less than two minutes and wheeled away from danger," Brunton says.

"The Mobile ATC Tower has enabled the RAF to develop ATC capability to an impressive 400 movements a day."

The company's primary markets currently remain military and civilian airports. The most notable example of a Host Systems Mobile ATC Tower is at the British RAF's Camp Bastion. As the fifth busiest UK-operated airport, the tower was installed last September and has enabled the RAF to develop ATC capability to an impressive 400 movements a day.

The system was delivered as a standard fully mobile elevating system mounted on a trailer, but is able to be operated independently of the trailer with all power and interfaces being transferred into a remote Appliqué Box.

The RAF was, therefore, able to easily remove the cabin in minutes using quick-release electrical inputs and cabin ISO connections. The company is now in talks with other air forces to supply its ATC in the Middle East and South East Asia.

In the civil airport sector, the Mobile ATC Tower has been able to carve a niche as an intermediate measure while new, more costly, permanent air traffic towers are being constructed.

"Airports worldwide are currently experiencing budget problems and whereas any fixed air traffic control tower will cost between £8-10m, our mobile tower will cost under a million," Brunton says.

"Also, the construction period of a tower is anywhere from 18 months to two years, whereas we can have our mobile tower delivered and operational in four months."