Despite boom in air traffic, SBD airport remains without radar

Local aviation officials are joined by Rep. Aguilar and THUD in pushing for a solution.

Despite boom in air traffic, SBD airport remains without radar
The control tower at San Bernardino International Airport directs heavy-jet traffic without a radar display. (Photo: Courtesy SBD Airport)

This special report is part of a series from Community Forward Redlands. It's been nearly a year since we first reported on the lack of a visual radar display at San Bernardino International Airport control tower. 

Pilots and airport officials in Redlands and San Bernardino remain concerned about the lack of radar at the booming San Bernardino International Airport (SBD), which handles large-jet traffic.

A new flight path approved by the FAA has increased calls to install a radar display in the control tower. 

Why it matters: An uptick in the number of cargo jets using SBD in recent years, mixed with the variety of aircraft landing at SBD, including passenger planes and general aviation, has caused local airport authorities to speak out about the lack of radar display in the control tower. 

In 2022, SBD handled 1.39 billion pounds of all-cargo aircraft landed weight. That figure represents a 60% increase over 2021 and the highest amount in the airport’s history.

In January 2023, SBD celebrated a milestone in passenger air travel. Nearly 20,000 passengers traveling through SBD since Breeze launched service in August 2023.

This concern has been compounded by a new flight path near Redlands Municipal Airport that the FAA approved in March.  

Controlling traffic without tower radar 

The FAA first directs flights landing at SBD airport by radar from the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in San Diego. Once the plane is about five miles from SBD, TRACON transfers communication to the airport control tower.

The tower manages incoming aircraft using radios and visual aids, such as binoculars.

The lack of a radar display screen inside the tower increases risks to pilots, passengers, cargo, and traffic from the nearby Redlands Airport, according to local aviation officials. The Redlands Airport, which has no control tower, does not operate with radar. 

Aviation officials push for radar

According to Mark Gibbs, director of aviation at SBD, the airport is one of about 20 airports without radar in the control tower that have the air traffic volume to qualify for radar.

It is also the 18th busiest federal contract tower in the nation in terms of heavy aircraft. That is why Gibbs and others in the region are working toward a solution. 

"It's unconscionable that we don't have radar," said Gibbs in a phone interview on April 4. "That's why we continue to push for it. It's the right thing to do."

In April 2021, the FAA accepted SBD into its contact control tower program. Joining the program made the airport eligible for an FAA-approved radar display. However, it also complicated the issue by limiting the airport's ability to install the radar without FAA approval. 

"The radar has not materialized, but I can assure you it is not from a lack of trying," said Gibbs. 

Gibbs calls it a "political issue" that cannot be solved simply by purchasing the equipment. 

"We meet all the numbers. There's a cost-benefit ratio the FAA uses to determine eligibility for them - we've met that for the last seven years and still don't have radar and we should," said Gibbs. 

A new flight path renews urgency for radar

Interest in the issue has increased following the opening of a new FAA-designated approach. This summer, residents might notice an increase in cargo carriers flying north of Redlands Airport over Greenspot Road to land at SBD.

Starting March 21, 2024, cargo carriers with specialized equipment and training can use the new FAA-approved flight path outlined in red below.

Flight path for the runway 24 approach from the west. (Photo: Courtesy of Redlands Airport Association)

During the last three years, Ted Gablin, president of the Redlands Airport Association, advocated for the safety of local pilots and the Redlands Airport during the FAA approval process. 

During the safety review panel, which Gablin sat on, the FAA developed various limitations on the flight path, including required equipment, preapproval to fly the approach, and certain weather conditions. 

"This is a visual approach, meaning the pilot has to be able to see the ground," said Gablin in a phone interview on March 13. Pilots are only allowed to fly this approach in good weather conditions. 

The flight path is so close to the mountains that there is little room for error. 

"If they don't program the approach properly into their flight management system or something causes them to divert from the prescribed path, they could have an accident," warned Gablin. 

video explaining flight procedures at SBD airport notes that the route was developed to avoid airspace over Redlands Municipal Airport, an aerobatic flight field, and the mountains. 

UPS cargo plane flies directly north of Redlands Airport over Greenspot Road on April 3, 2024. (Photo: Courtesy Redlands Airport Association)

Gablin said he's concerned that the issue of radar at the SBD control tower was not addressed before the flight path was approved for cargo jets.

“The tower can’t see the controlled air space that they’re assigned right now but the FAA is working on making that air space bigger,” said Gablin.

Taking the case to Washington, D.C.

Last spring, Gablin brought the issue to U.S. Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA 33), whose district includes parts of North Redlands, including Redlands Airport and SBD. 

Aguilar is now pushing the FAA to speed up the delivery of a radar display system. 

In July 2023, Aguilar brought the issue before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Committee (THUD). 

"Ensuring that our region's airports have the necessary safety equipment is vital for traveler and resident safety," said Rep. Pete Aguilar in an emailed statement to Community Forward Redlands on April 8. "I have consistently pushed in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies subcommittee for a radar display system at San Bernardino International Airport."

The 2024 report includes a specific request for contract tower radar display systems: 

"The Committee is concerned that the FAA is currently not installing certified radar display systems in its contract towers. The lack of radar display systems at FAA-certified towers creates congestion and inefficiencies at airports that handle large jet traffic in the region without the equipment to avoid air traffic conflicts."

The THUD committee requested a briefing within 180 days on the FAA's plans to put certified radar displays in FAA contact towers. 

Legislators are also pushing the FAA to explain how it will "urgently address and prioritize the deployment of any off-the-shelf equipment that is available to provide visibility of traffic to tower controllers in the FAA's contract tower program."

The FAA administrator is expected to appear before the THUD subcommittee this week.

"I'm proud to have successfully secured a commitment from the House Appropriations Committee to make this a priority," wrote Rep. Aguilar. "I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration, and our local airports to ensure this issue is addressed."

Moving Forward

Community Forward Redlands contacted the FAA for more information on a timeline. An emailed statement from the FAA indicates that it will still be some time before a radar display is installed at SBD. 

"The FAA is developing requirements and an evaluation process for Situational Awareness Display technology to enhance safety. We may begin evaluating products in 2025."

In the meantime, Gibbs said he will keep working toward a solution. 

"It would be a big benefit to everyone: controllers, TRACON, local pilots and our tower. It would be good for everyone."

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