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‘It’s a safety issue.’ Questions raised about GPS-based landing systems at US airports following 7 Investigators' report

Former Wayne County Airport official charged for allegedly accepting over $5M in bribes, kickbacks
Posted at 5:52 PM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 18:31:16-05

(WXYZ) — The 7 Investigators were the first to expose an unsafe landing system at Detroit Metro Airport. Now an industry leader is coming forward, alleging that the FAA’s refusal to invest in better landing systems both here in Michigan and across the country could be putting airline passengers at risk.

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“The bounds of safety are being pushed because of our lack of interest in upgrading the ILS,” said John H. Johnson Sr., president and CEO of Watts Antenna Company.

ILS stands for Instrument Landing System. The ILS Y Offset Localizer is the system that pilots and air traffic controllers have been complaining about at Detroit Metro Airport for years.

"You’re putting the flying public, number one: in harm’s way," said retired air traffic controller Vince Sugent during an interview with 7 Investigator Heather Catallo in December 2020. "Number two: you’re putting the pilots in a very compromised position and the controllers in the tower."

Sugent filed a federal whistleblower complaint about the Instrument Landing System on Metro Airport’s westernmost runway.

The ILS Y Offset Localizer is designed to help pilots approach at an angle on that runway during high-capacity, busy air travel times. However, Sugent says its placement at Detroit Metro Airport results in the signal getting interrupted when other planes taxi in front of the antenna system. That can force pilots to have to abort their landings and do something called a go-around.

In one radar playback obtained by the 7 Investigators, a pilot urges the tower to change runways after a troubling approach in bad weather:

“You guys need to be off of Yankee (Y runway) and go to Zulu (Z),” the pilot said.

“Trust me that’s a constant discussion,” the controller responded.

“No it’s not a discussion, it’s a safety issue coming from the pilots,” the pilot said.

“You guys can call the tower and talk to the supervisor about that. It’s out of my control, and I agree with you,” the controller said.

And the potential danger with an unexpected go-around could be great.

"They could actually hit in poor weather," Sugent said.

In his report to the president about the ILS Y Offset Localizer at Detroit Metro Airport, the U.S. Special Counsel agreed with Sugent’s safety concerns and urged a “review of the safety issues associated with the ILS Y approach procedure.”

Meanwhile, Johnson says his company has sent more than 2,000 letters to Congress and the White House in the last few years, urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to improve safety by upgrading the aging ILS systems at airports across the U.S.

“There are ways to actually resolve all these problems and make it safer for the public,” Johnson said.

Johnson says larger ILS antenna arrays like the Watts systems installed in Switzerland actually produce a narrower signal for the pilots. That makes it harder for objects on the ground, like those taxiing planes in Detroit, to interrupt the signal in the critical area near the ILS.

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“The right quantity in the right direction and minimize any other radiation,” said Johnson about the signal. “So then you get maximum capacity with maximum safety.”

Instead of upgrading ILS systems, Johnson says the FAA has invested mainly in Global Positioning System (GPS) landing programs for U.S. airports.

“The international community is not stuck on GPS, they’ve already said it needs back up,” Johnson said.

Dozens of pilot reports to national databases indicate frequent GPS interference during flights.

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The reports show many of those GPS failures are caused by the military jamming signals during testing activities, and some airports have had issues with nearby truckers on the ground using jamming devices.

In a statement to the 7 Investigators, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said, “As the implementation of GPS-enabled Performance Based Navigation (PBN) and Automated Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) progresses, the FAA has established a resilient and layered navigation and surveillance infrastructure to enable aircraft to operate safely. Our conventional navigation aids such as Instrument Landing Systems, Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range and Distance Measuring Equipment remain as key strategic pieces and we maintain their operation at the highest level.”

Pilots say they support having both GPS and ILS for the safest possible landings.

The 7 Investigators will continue to question the FAA about their plans to remedy the problems with the landing system on the westernmost runway at Detroit Metro Airport.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com.