Charlotte Douglas Develops Custom Simulator for Driver Training

Karen Reinhardt
Published in: 

If necessity is the mother of invention, Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) should be passing out cigars. It developed its own customized computer simulator for airport driver training with help from the Volpe Center, a fee-for-service branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

According to airport officials, the simulator has significantly enhanced airfield safety. It has also received a nod from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In 2007, CLT's simulator training won the FAA Southern Region's Mark of Distinction Award for exemplary effort or initiative regarding airport safety.


Reducing runway incursions continues to be one of the FAA's top priorities. An increasing volume of flights, vehicles and people accessing airport movement areas makes it a formidable task. According to the FAA, automated warning systems enhance runway safety, but education and situational awareness are the keys to preventing incursions. Although vehicle deviations represent a relatively small portion of the total U.S. runway incursions, their potential risk in the terms of loss of life is significant.

Facts & Figures

Project: Driver Training Simulator

Location: Charlotte Douglas (NC) International Airport

Estimated Cost: $50,000

Funding: $1,000 for the computer equipment from the Volpe Center

Key Benefits: Improved airfield safety; significant cost savings vs. existing simulator equipment

Additional Development: Airport operations supervisor launched company that sells simulators to other airports

About seven years ago, the FAA issued an Advisory Circular Alert (CertAlert) regarding ground vehicle operations on airports, encouraging airport operators to set up driver training programs. In a nutshell, it required authorized airside drivers to read airport regulations pertaining to driving on ramps and aprons. It also recommended formal training and video sessions, examinations and requirements for demonstrating driver proficiency to enhance existing programs. But the CertAlert took it a step further, encouraging airport operators to consider using newly developed driver-training simulators to train personnel.

Why A Simulator?

In 2003, the FAA Office of Runway Safety and Operational Services tasked the Volpe Center to evaluate a high-fidelity airport driving simulators as a training tool to reduce vehicle-pedestrian deviations. Because most airports cannot afford the cost of a high-fidelity simulator and do not have the space they require, Volpe Center researchers developed and evaluated a low-cost ground vehicle simulator for airport driver training to increase vehicle operator awareness.

Two years ago, the Volpe Center chose five airports to test the simulators and study how airports go about building a simulator. CLT was one of Volpe's test airports.

"As with most airports, CLT's driver training program is designed to facilitate safer driving operations, better airport situational awareness during vehicle movement and fulfill Federal Aviation Administration requirements," says Jimmy Mynatt, Airport Operations supervisor.

Addressing vehicle and operator requirements, and coordinating construction, maintenance and emergency activities while attempting to train personnel on the movement area can be extremely difficult, Mynatt adds. "Training before simulators was mainly PowerPoint presentations and classroom training," he explains, noting that driver training in movement areas can interfere with airport operations.

CLT employees can "take a drive around the runway" without ever leaving the office.

The Price is Right

According to Mynatt, traditional driver training simulators cost a half-million dollars and more. With the help of the Volpe Center, he modified a standard flight simulator into a simulated environment for use in driver training. All it took, he reports, was a computer, LCD screen, off-the-shelf software ( X-Plane(r)) and approximately 200 hours of his time.

"The first thing we had to do is create the curved taxiways using a CAD program," Mynatt explains. "Then, according to FAA standards, we added all of the movement marking areas that would be required with training on the actual runway."

Mynatt designed the airport signage, terminal buildings, static aircraft on the runway, and even cement bricks to replicate foreign object debris so trainees using the simulator would "feel as if they were right out there in the real environment." The end result illustrated that a low-cost simulator with lower fidelity does not negatively impact the benefits of a simulator within the setting of ground-vehicle training, he reports.

Mynatt estimates the total cost of the project to be approximately $50,000, including his time to replicate CLT's airport terminal facilities and ramp with airfield signage and markings, airfield lighting and animated vehicles. The Volpe Center has since developed a prototype for voice recognition communications to add to the simulation.

The original simulator was incorporated into CLT's Driver Training Program last year, with 120 employees from airport operations, maintenance, engineering, airport police and other divisions participating. The program used a user logon and included a feature that allowed management to track employees' training history.

"The training is specifically geared to prevent incidents and increase safety awareness," says Mynatt. "Airport staff have to drive out on the runway every day; driver simulators are an inventive, cost-effective way to keep them and everyone else on the runway safe."

An Entrepreneur is Born

Anticipating an industry-wide need for lower cost driver simulators, and betting on the notion that airports don't have the personnel or time to customize their own software, Mynatt started his own company, Innovation Aviation Technologies.

"The cost is a big factor," Mynatt says of his company's simulator. "It's affordable ... it covers FAA Part 139 requirements for AOA training ... and can be tailored to each airport."

Mynatt's system simulates airfield driving and inspections in multiple environmental conditions, runway incursions and communications with air traffic control towers.


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