Operation Irma

With Hurricane Irma closing in, Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) played a significant role in the seamless pre-dawn evacuation of 62 Embry Riddle University training aircraft from Daytona Beach to Alabama in early September.

“It’s a remarkable day when 62 general aviation aircraft line up to depart five minutes in trail of one another in 12 groups from Daytona Beach International Airport in the middle of the night,” said Bob Molden, FAA Operations Manager at Daytona Tower.

The success of the operation, which began around 2 a.m. on September 9, was attributed by Embry Riddle officials to the skills of the university’s instructor pilots, FAA controller assistance and the situational awareness provided by ADS-B.

All of the university’s aircraft are equipped with ADS-B Out so they can report their position every second to the FAA. Their pilots can also see other Embry Riddle aircraft in the stream of traffic because all 62 also have ADS-B In. Embry Riddle was an early adapter of ADS-B technology and equipped its cockpits with early generation equipment in 2003 which it has since upgraded to meet the FAA’s new requirements. Thus the pilots could see the other aircraft taking off ahead of them and know that the spacing was going to be sufficient.

A team of Embry Riddle instructor pilots coordinated their plans with each of the FAA air traffic control facilities that would handle the aircraft before departing. The plan was to space the departures out in 12 groups of five aircraft each flying 5 minutes in trail of one another, said Veenen Udayan, a check pilot and assistant manager.

“Once in flight ADS-B allowed each pilot to see the progression of the fleet of aircraft ahead of them. The great thing about that is if the pilot of one aircraft was talking to Jacksonville Center and another to Atlanta Center, each pilot could see where the other one was going to get a good idea of what was happening,” Udayan said.

In addition, ADS-B In enabled the Embry Riddle pilots to see weather graphics and data over the FAA’s Flight Information Service–Broadcast. Pilots could see other aircraft flying nearby, even those without ADS-B Out, by watching a cockpit display fed by the FAA’s Traffic Information Service–Broadcast (TIS-B). TIS-B shows the Embry Riddle pilots the same picture a controller sees based on both radar returns and ADS-B Out reports.

Rodney L. McNeill, Air Traffic Manager at Jacksonville Center, had extra controllers standing by to accept the unusual volume of general aviation traffic heading his way from Daytona Beach. McNeill said the Center knew the aircraft were coming but some of the Cessna 172s took off using visual flight rules and had to be issued an IFR clearance once they were airborne. In addition to Jacksonville Center, four other FAA facilities added controllers to support the operation: Daytona Beach Tower, Jacksonville Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), and Atlanta TRACON.

ADS-B also helped the Embry Riddle aircraft land at Auburn, which is an uncontrolled airport with no tower. “Pilots could see three or more aircraft in front of them on the ADS-B cockpit display and see which runway they were moving toward. This way everyone knew they had enough spacing to land safely and so ADS-B helped a lot with the progression of the evacuation,” Udayan said.

As dawn approached, the line of aircraft headed West. Forty-two aircraft touched down at Auburn University Airport, while the remaining 20 landed at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, parking on the apron of a fixed-base operator.

Universities with aviation programs stick together and Auburn has helped Embry Riddle park its training aircraft during previous hurricanes. When Hurricane Matthew hit the Jacksonville area in 2016, all of Embry Riddle’s aircraft headed for Auburn, which boasted enough ramp space for all the aircraft and enough hotel space there for all the pilots.  This time the aircraft had to be split up between two airports to find bunks for all the pilots.

University officials made the decision to fly the aircraft out of harm’s way once it became clear the winds of Irma could easily flip aircraft parked on the ramp.  Eight of the university’s other aircraft were safely stored in the Daytona Beach hangar.

Embry Riddle officials were able to watch the exodus develop on an ADS-B operations display.   The aircraft involved in the evacuation included 44 Cessna 172s, 8 Piper Arrows, 9 Diamond DA42 aircraft with twin diesel engines and one Beech Baron twin.

“The FAA is a valued partner because we were saturating the airspace aircraft on IFR flight plans and it takes close coordination to do that effectively. We had very little delay in getting our aircraft out of Daytona thanks to the FAA,” said Kenneth P. Byrnes, Embry Riddle Assistant Dean for the College of Aviation.

When Molden woke up at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the evacuation, he took a screen shot of a FlightRadar24 display on his phone. The commercial internet application showed a straight line of aircraft headed west from Daytona Beach. He emailed it to the tower supervisor, noting that it was a nice looking line of aircraft and an outstanding job by the controllers there.

When it came time to return to Embry Riddle five days later, ADS-B cockpit displays helped pilots taking off at Auburn time their departures. When an aircraft was next in line for takeoff, the pilot would watch the aircraft ahead take off, then wait 5 minutes before requesting an IFR clearance from Atlanta TRACON. Once the clearance was issued the pilot would have a 2 to 3 minute takeoff window. Udayan said the pilots could follow the track of the aircraft that just got airborne on their cockpit ADS-B display.

Molden said when some of the returning Embry Riddle aircraft were entering the airspace, Daytona Beach TRACON and Tower lost their radar feeds due to a transmission line outage. Controllers were able to track the Embry Riddle aircraft using ADS-B and clear them to land for another 20 minutes. After that there was a pause in operations as some non-ADS-B equipped airline aircraft entered the area.

“ADS-B not only allowed Embry Riddle pilots and university officials to keep an eye on the line of aircraft leaving Daytona Beach, it helped us get the aircraft back here safely from Alabama in time to resume training just five days after Irma passed through,” Byrnes said.

Daytona Beach Tower controllers who worked Embry Riddle Irma evacuation left to right Tiffany Williams, Samuel Rubino, Joe Lipinski, Amanda Bau 

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