SA aviation authority ready to calibrate landing systems at airports again

SACAA's calibration plane crashed in January this year, while on a calibration mission at the George airport. (Getty Images)
SACAA's calibration plane crashed in January this year, while on a calibration mission at the George airport. (Getty Images)
  • If all goes according to plan, calibrating the instrument landing systems at South Africa's airports will start again on Saturday 22 August.
  • Civil Aviation's calibration plane crashed in January this year, while on a mission at the George airport.
  • Industry experts suggest that it might be worth considering having an alternative standby situation in SA in the future.

If all goes according to plan, calibrating instrument landing systems (ILS) at South Africa's airports will start again on Saturday 22 August.

An ILS is a system that sends radio waves from the runway to guide pilots when landing – usually in bad weather with low visibility. Regulated safety protocols require that when an ILS is not functioning, or its certification has expired, the affected airport must be downgraded to a lower instrument usage level until this is rectified.

SACAA's calibration plane crashed in January this year, while on a calibration mission at the George airport. That has left no alternative available for calibration. Since then, SACAA has been trying to get plans in place for calibration to start again.

ILS at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, King Shaka International Airport in Durban, Cape Town International Airport, the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and George Airport have already had to be switched off due to calibrations that expired.

To bring the expired ILS back to service, calibration would need to take place to perform the necessary adjustments for performance accuracy.

It is important to contextualise the situation encountered due to not having had an immediate available alternative option to calibrate the ILSs at SA's airports, according to SACAA spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba.

"The landing of aircraft at airports in South Africa will not simply stop in the absence of an instrument landing system (ILS)," he explains.

"The ILS is just one of the few landing and take-off techniques that are used. This simply means that you can still land without an ILS, however, visibility on the runway must be determined first."

Plans in place

An aircraft that will be used for calibration has already arrived in the country from abroad and its crew went into quarantine as stipulated by the Department of Health's Covid-19 lockdown regulations.

"We hope that if all goes according to the plan, the first calibration scheduled for Saturday, 22 August 2020 will be able to start. In addition, the SACAA wishes to reiterate that the calibration programme will prioritise those airports that require urgent attention," says Ledwaba.

"The risk mitigating measures have always worked in the past. The SACAA also appeals to all interested parties to exercise patience and afford the Flight Inspections Unit and the service provider space to carry out this essential task."

Ledwaba says it was unfortunate that when the SACAA initiated the process of sourcing a suitable service provider after its own plane crashed, the process was hampered by multiple factors that were beyond the SACAA's control, including the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and related lockdowns.

Moreover, the service provider that was eventually contracted, encountered difficulties in getting all the required approvals on time, like a Foreign Operator Permit, work permits, and visas.

Backup plan?

Chris Zweigenthal, CEO of the Airline Association of Southern Africa, says considering the long delay after the loss of the calibration aircraft in January, perhaps it is worth considering having an alternative standby situation in SA going forward to assist with the calibration requirement.

Zweigenthal too explains that the loss of ILS does not mean it is a safety issue. In normal weather conditions operations can continue without the ILS.

Aviation expert Linden Birns, managing director of Plane Talking, says even if its calibration aircraft had not been destroyed in the January crash, there was always the possibility of it not being available or serviceable while it was undergoing maintenance, for example.

Satellite navigation

He adds that over the last 25 years satellite-based navigation technology has evolved and matured.  This can help pilots determine the position of aircraft without having to rely on ground-based ILS. This newer technology is increasingly being adopted in airline operations globally.

In order to use satellite-based navigation, aircraft must be fitted with the necessary equipment, the pilots flying the aircraft must be trained to use it and the airport they are flying to must have a satellite navigation-based approach procedure approved and certified by their local aviation safety authority.

In SA, most of the major airports like Cape Town International, OR Tambo and King Shaka already have approved satellite navigation procedures in place. Furthermore, most modern commercial aircraft are equipped for satellite-based navigation and most crews that operate them are trained to use it.  Most smaller airports and older aircraft in SA, however, do not have the equipment or approved procedures.

"It is important for the public to know that pilots will never compromise safety. In rare instances where there is a combination of bad weather, low visibility and an unavailable ILS, pilots might have to divert their flight to another airport where visibility is better, or a fully functioning ILS is available," says Birns.

He says the financial situation of the SACAA has worsened over the past six to seven months. The Covid-19 lockdown has meant a big portion of its revenue has dried up and, on top of that, SAA (currently in business rescue) owes it a lot of money of which it stands to only get 7.5 cents in the rand in terms of the SAA rescue plan. This has left a massive gap in the SACAA finances and its ability to, for instance, buy a new plane to do the calibration.

What about drones?

John Stupart of African Defence Review suggests drones could perhaps even do the same calibration job at a fraction of the cost.

"Granted, it is untested and untraditional, but I fail to see why it wouldn't be possible. Aside from the excessively restrictive drone regulations we have in place in South Africa, there's no physical barrier I can see preventing the right drones from doing the same job," says Stupart.

Airports Company SA (ACSA) says the airports in the country it owns and manages are open and operating safely while some ILS need to be re-certified.
"Airports Company SA wishes to emphasise that safety is of paramount importance. Flying does not stop in the absence of an instrument landing system and there is no need to close any airport," it said in a statement.

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