Landing in fog city

St. John’s Airport: a bright light on the Rock

Moira Baird
Published on April 7, 2011
St. John’s Airport runway lights as they are currently configured. — Submitted photo

It’s a ritual of spring at the foggiest airport in Canada — delayed flights, missed connections and as many as 70,000 fog-bound travellers a year trying to land in or leave St. John’s.

Millions of dollars worth of high-intensity runway lights and navigational aids are expected to solve that problem by early 2013.

Known as a Category 3 instrument landing system, this combination of beacons and technology guides planes to the runway when the cloud ceiling is less than 100 feet.

For St. John’s, that usually means any time there’s fog, especially between April and June.

“This system is the most capable technology available today — and there’s no airport, in my opinion, that needs it more than St. John’s,” said Randy Mahon, director of operations for St. John’s International Airport. “It’s going to put us on par with other airports in terms of usability.”

St. John’s will be the third airport in Canada, along with Toronto and Vancouver, with a Category 3 system.

“You’re in a pretty elite group,” said Ron Singer, spokesman for NavCanada, which operates the air traffic control towers at airports across the country.

“With a Category 3, it’s expected that planes will be able to land with the cloud ceiling being virtually zero.”

Using this landing system, forward visibility can also be as low as one-eighth of a mile.

How it works

On approach to the runway, the pilot will rely on the instrument landing system to guide the plane to decision height — in this case, within 100 feet above the runway.

That’s when the pilot decides whether or not to land.

“The pilots have to either be able to see the runway lighting system, or if they can’t see the lighting system at that point, they have to do a missed approach, pull back up and go around,” said Mahon.

Because the Category 3 runway lights will be easier to see in the fog, he expects fewer missed approaches.

The instrument landing system consists of a pair of navigational aids that send signals to the cockpit display instruments.

“It’s a heavily automated process,” said Mahon.

One part of the system is a glide path transmitter — beaming the angle of descent to the aircraft as it approaches the runway touchdown point.

The other is a localizer, an array of antennas that provide left-right guidance — keeping the aircraft aligned with the runway centre line during landing.

The new system also comes with a dedicated power supply, complete with a diesel generator that is already in place for the airport’s current Category 2 designation.

Additional lights

The Category 3 system will increase the number of lights on Runway 11-29 — adding extra approach lights, runway edge lights, touchdown zone lighting and centre-line lighting.

“It’s an elaborate array of visual aids,” said Mahon.

Runway 11-29 is currently used for aircraft approaching from the west in poor weather. (Runway 16-34 will also get additional centre-line lights as part of the upgrades.)

The St. John’s Airport Authority expects to start installing the extra lights during the summer of 2012.

NavCanada, which is responsible for the navigational aids, will start installing them by August 2012.

All the upgrades are scheduled for completion by the fall.

Sometime during the first three months of 2013, the new system will be certified and operational — just in time for the foggy months of April, May and June.

Mahon said it took about a year for airport staff and NavCanada to put together the funding application for the Category 3 system.

It was submitted in September 2009 and late last month the airport received the green light.

The lighting and runway upgrades will cost $25.8 million split three ways among the airport authority and the federal and provincial governments.

The cost of the NavCanada’s portion of the work is not included.

Singer declined to disclose the cost saying NavCanada doesn’t release commercially confidential information.

Environmental extremes

Mahon said the new landing  system will help with “any weather phenomenon” that affects visibility.

Topping the list is fog, but it will also help in rain and snow.

“We get all the extremes — most hours of low visibility, most snow accumulation, windiest airport,” said Mahon. “In my opinion, it’s one of the most challenging aviation operating environments in the world.”

Once fog is taken out of the equation, St. John’s will be an average airport. Almost.

Wind will remain the exception.

Mahon said the main landing limitations will be crosswinds and aircraft capability.

“Air Canada, WestJet and Porter have all supplied letters of support to the St. John’s Airport Authority for the new Category 3 system,” he said.

Thanks to the new landing system, the airport’s year-round usability will jump to almost 99 per cent.

That five per cent increase is the biggest projected improvement Mahon has seen in his 33 years at the airport.

“It’s a huge increase.”