NOAA 99-072
Contact: John Leslie


Because aircraft flying between the U.S. and Central and South America lose radio contact with control towers as they travel over certain areas of the Gulf of Mexico, the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration are joining forces to implement a solution to keep open the crucial lines of communication and improve flight safety, NOAA said today.

NOAA's National Data Buoy Center and the FAA are testing a new buoy-mounted radio-relay system that would enable pilots to have direct, real-time communications with ground controllers.

When aircraft are 150 nautical miles or more away from shore, they lose radio contact with the air traffic control systems in the U.S. and other nations surrounding the Gulf. That leaves a large portion of the central Gulf without voice communication. "The buoys will fill this void, making it possible for pilots and control emergency alert systems to maintain contact during the entire flight," said John Kelly Jr., director of the National Weather Service.

Air traffic over the Gulf is expected to increase significantly in the future. The buoy communications system is designed to enhance flight safety in the region and, when combined with new surveillance techniques, will enable an increase in passenger and cargo flights over the Gulf.

The buoy-mounted communications system communicates with aircraft via standard FAA VHF/AM transceivers operating on air traffic control frequencies, and with the FAA Air Route Traffic Control Center in Houston, Texas, via a satellite link, providing direct real-time communications between aircraft and controllers.

Plans call for a network of three 12-meter buoys in the Gulf situated on a line, which runs from about 200 miles west of Ft. Myers, Fla., to about 200 miles east of Brownsville, Texas, and spaced approximately 200 miles apart. In addition to the communications equipment, these buoys will be equipped with a full range of environmental measuring devices that collect real-time information about the temperature, winds, sea state and other weather observations for the National Weather Service.

So far during the testing period, which started Sept. 4 and will last until early November, more than 60 aircraft have been contacted successfully with the new buoy system at ranges up to 225 nautical miles, exceeding the required 168 nautical mile range.

The National Data Buoy Center remains the premiere source of meteorological and oceanographic measurements that help National Weather Service meteorologists issue warnings and prepare forecasts for the nation's marine community.