ASR Approaches – a vanishing breed

November 6, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

One of the first things a pilot in trouble is trained to do is ask for help. Often, ATC is the lifeline for a lost VFR pilot or an IFR flight in distress by getting them to a runway. But sometimes they can’t help.

The Maryland State Police lost a medevac helicopter last month in some rapidly deteriorating foggy conditions. With two car accident victims aboard the helicopter was unable to land at the original hospital helipad and was diverting to Andrews AFB. The pilot, for reasons yet undetermined, was unable to receive the ILS and asked for an ASR approach. The controller on duty was not certified and no one else in the facility was able to help.

Long ago, our flight school used to take instrument students over to Andrews almost every evening when traffic was light to practice ASR and PAR approaches. In the era of faster, easier, cheaper it appears that the availability of such skills is dwindling.

But, as the excerpt from Air Traffic Saviors shows, there are still times and places where ASR skills would save lives.

“Great Lakes Region—On the evening of January 3, 2007, Detroit Tracon controller Patrick Eberhart noticed that a Beechcraft Bonanza inbound to Pontiac, Michigan, was off course in its initial approach. As the aircraft was being re-vectored to start the approach again, the pilot declared a fuel emergency and advised of a flight instrument malfunction. Eberhart cleared his frequency of other traffic and provided no-gyro vectors to the Bonanza, a procedure that hasn’t been used in Detroit for more than 10 years! It worked, and the pilot descended below the clouds perfectly aligned with the runway.”

Has anyone had occasion to use, or could have used, an ASR in the last several years? Is this something we should concede to efficiency or should the FAA should consider reinstating/ retaining ASR at more locations?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • L. G. Arthur

    I have been an aviator since 1954, and worked as a professional pilot for 29 years. Holding an ATP, with various jet type ratings as well as an A&P.

    The last radar approach I had was in the late 50’s at MDW “Chicago”. It was excellant. The controller did a great job, I never had the occasion to do that again during my nearly 18,000 Hours of flight time. My confidence was there in the system if I ever needed it.

    I believe it would be worth while and could save lives if our controllers were trained and offered practrice GCA approachs to pilots when time and cercumstances allow.

  • Alex Kovnat

    Thanks for your article on radar-based landing approaches.

    Accuracy-aumented GPS, i.e. WAAS and even more emphatically, local area accuracy-augmented GPS, blows everything else away so completely in terms of accuracy, we are in danger of becomming too dependent on it. So we need to keep alternatives on the back-burner. Years ago, microwave landing systems were developed to improve on the accuracy of traditional ILS. But implementation of MLS was halted owing to the availability of GPS, particularly after President Bill Clinton ordered that full GPS accuracy be made available to everybody, not just the military.

    Airport Surveillance Radar approaches, whereby the air traffic controller gives the pilot the word as to whether to go left or right, up or down are one answer. But at small airports, where there is no tower and nobody on duty, automated radar approaches would be needed. One can imagine a synthesized voice, sounding masculine or feminine as needed to make the pilot comfortable, giving instructions based on radar at any of a number of wavelengths.

    When a plane on a landing approach is close to the ground and the runway, maximum accuracy is called for. So I envision a millimeter wave radar system, operating at ~35 GHz (that’s ~35,000 Megahertz!) or even higher (i.e. 94 GHz), locating the aircraft’s precise position and then an automated system as I described above, vectoring the pilot to the point where hopefully there will be enough optical visibility for him or her to complete the landing manually.

    At said frequencies, range is limited owing to atmospheric absorption. So when an aircraft is more than a kilometer or so from the runway, lower frequency radar would be utilized, switching to millimeter wave when the aircraft gets in close enough for accuracy, rather than range, to be most vital.

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