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New equipment helps airport track air traffic

by Tia Lyons | November 26, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field now has a way to better track and receive notifications about aircraft that is coming in, heading out or flying near the airport within 250-plus nautical miles of airspace.

Airport manager Johnathan Estes said he recently installed an Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS–B), also known as Alpha Delta Sierra-B, receiver at the airfield.

Not only does the device help with tracking and notifications of aircraft positions in relation to Goodwin Field, it also helps maintain statistics and trends of aviation activity in the area, Estes said.

He said the device has already proven useful in that it records the positions of aircraft that does not normally appear on live-flight tracking services, such as Flight Aware and FlightRadar24.

The services provide real-time flight information about aircraft around the U.S. and the world.

For instance, Estes said the ADS–B sends out alerts about arrivals and take-offs for Survival Flight, the emergency medical transportation company that is based at SARA and contracts is services with Medical Center of South Arkansas.

Estes said the ADS-B system notifies the airport about arrivals for the Survival Flight helicopter.

"Survival Flight does not normally show on Flight Aware or FlightRadar24 unless you specifically search for the tail number -- manually search for their helicopter," Estes said.

"What this system does is it allows us to track all aircraft that is transmitting with an ADS-B signal out," he explained. "It gives us a little bit better situational awareness because there are times they will sneak up on you in the middle of the day or when some small mom-and-pop aircraft is flying around."

In 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration mandated that aircraft traveling in certain altitude classes -- A,B, C and E -- within the U.S. use ADS-B signal output devices, Estes said.

"If you don't fly in A,B,C or E, you are not required to have ADS-out. The (El Dorado) Downtown Airport is in Class G, so it's outside the requirement," he said.

Estes said ADS-B input equipment was installed at SARA on a voluntary basis, adding that he reached out to Flight Aware, who provides the equipment for commercial and residential use.

"You can install it at your house or your facility so that you may track aircraft. You have to give up a little bandwidth on your Internet (service) and the small amount of power consumption that the device uses," Estes explained.

He said the equipment remains under Flight Aware's ownership and helps the service broaden its tracking coverage and accuracy.

However, he said the system at SARA is filtered and cannot track aircraft that limits the amount of data -- including location, speed, altitude and aircraft type -- that is displayed on tracking services.

The practice is commonly called "blocking."

"You can build your own system and if you build your own system, you can still track blocked aircraft and I have other ways to track blocked aircraft," Estes said.

He noted the Raspberry Pi GPS application, which can be used to build an ADS-B device.

The ADS-B system at SARA helps to track aircraft in instances in which the pilots are not required to file a flight plan, per Instrument Flight Regulations.

"That's a type of flying where you can't really see where you're going so you fly by your instruments," Estes explained. "The reason I spring for it is it will allow us to effectively track those flights."

The system also tracks flights with Southern Airways Express, the area's Essential Air Service provider that offers commercial flights to Dallas and Memphis and an intrastate route between El Dorado, Hot Springs and Harrison -- all EAS communities in Arkansas that are served by Southern Airways.

"Whenever the airline takes off from El Dorado to Dallas, we can track it every step of the way because they filed a flight plan and it pops up on Flight Aware," said Estes. "The system allows us to track all aircraft that is transmitting with an ADS-B signal out."

He said the signal picks up activity within a coverage area that includes South and Central Arkansas and North Louisiana and can reach as far as Fayetteville for major airlines.

By late afternoon on Tuesday, Estes said the device had picked up the positions of 1,000 airplanes and helicopters that had flown near SARA.

An airplane could be seen and heard buzzing overhead as Estes spoke with a News-Times' reporter SARA.

"Looking at this (the ADS-B tracker), I can tell it's not going to land here," Estes pointed out.

One of the trends that have emerged since the ADS-B device was installed at SARA is that daily flight activity picks up around the airport at 8 a.m. and begins to slow down around 6 p.m.

Estes said the tracking device has also confirmed another trend that he has noticed within the past five years: aviation activity is on the decline in South Arkansas.

"It really kind of shows and allows me to show people and help them visualize that aviation is declining within our communities as cities in South Arkansas are shrinking," he said. "People getting out of aviation or moving and a lot of the (air) traffic is moving north."

Using the ADS-B device, Estes said he can build and store years' worth of data and records to determine the activity at SARA in any given year.

"It's really useful and cool information because we have something other than just fuel sales that we can go by to tell us how busy the airport is and how busy the airspace around us is," Estes said, referring to SARA's fixed-base operation.

"It's another tool we can use to say that South Arkansas is growing in aviation or declining in aviation and for the last four years, I've been saying that South Arkansas has been declining in airspace," he continued.

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