Research Briefs

Juneau airport to get a safety boost

Photo of mountains and ocean around Juneau, taken from the air.

The Juneau International Airport and Gastineau Channel. The patches of churning water seen in multiple areas of the channel give an indication of the strength of the northerly wind conditions and turbulence that planes can expect to encounter when flying along the waterway. (Photo courtesy John Hermle.)

A turbulence warning system alerting pilots landing at and departing from Juneau International Airport in southeast Alaska has taken a significant step toward completion with the integration of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) radio communications into the system.

Turbulence has long been a serious concern for pilots approaching and departing Juneau. The airport's single runway sits at the end of the Gastineau Channel, surrounded by steep mountainous terrain. Wind-flow patterns streaming into and over the narrow channel are complex and unpredictable. After a number of turbulence-related incidents in the early 1990s involving passenger jets, the FAA imposed strict rules of operation for pilots until a new warning system could be developed for the airport.

The Juneau Airport Wind System (JAWS), which NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory began in 1998, takes wind readings from five anemometer sites and three wind profiler sites around the airport to determine areas where turbulence may be experienced. JAWS receives new data every minute from sensors, giving pilots receive near-real-time information about wind speed and direction and indications of moderate or greater turbulence in the airport’s approach and departure corridors.

The move from a prototype system to one that integrates FAA communications is a significant step toward making air carrier operations at the airport—which provides Juneau’s only non-waterway entry and averages 400 flights per day—more efficient while maintaining or improving safety, says NCAR’s Al Yates. “Once the final, end-state JAWS is completed, accepted for use by the FAA, and integrated into airline rules of operation, airlines will be able to fly more frequently and safely in poor weather.”

The researchers are working to complete the final phase of the system and hand it over to the FAA in 2012.