NextGen Ain't Peanuts at Snoopy's Airport

Highlights:
  • The NextGen approach to Charles M. Schulz — Sonoma County Airport will be the only way to land during fog-covered mornings and afternoons when the main runway is closed for construction in 2014.
This is the logo of the Charles M. Schulz Airport in Sonoma County, featuring Snoopy the cartoon.

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What do the names Woodstock, Lucy and Pigpen bring to mind? For pilots flying into Charles M. Schulz — Sonoma County Airport, those are the waypoints that guide them along the NextGen approach to runway 32. The airport, named for the famed Peanuts cartoonist who lived nearby, sports Snoopy dressed as a World War I flying ace on its logo.

Nestled in the heart of Northern California Wine Country, the airport is surrounded by tall mountains. When the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, as it often does mornings and evenings, it shrouds the view of the runway. While this kind of weather is perfect for growing grapes, it's not an ideal situation when landing aircraft. Fortunately, the FAA has taken a cue from Linus van Pelt and provided the airport with a safety blanket; the NextGen procedure enables pilots of equipped aircraft to land even when the approach to the runway is covered in fog.

Pilots need a clear view of the runway to land. When fog obscures the view, they have to rely on instruments in the cockpit, which pick up a signal from navigation equipment on the ground at the airport. At Charles M. Schulz, there is only one Instrument Landing System (ILS).

But the NextGen approach relies on GPS and uses a technology that boosts the accuracy of GPS satellite signals so pilots know, within a few feet, their exact position in space. Flying the procedure, known as Localizer Performance with Vertical Guidance (LPV), pilots descend to an altitude of 455 feet using their onboard instruments before they have to see the runway to land at Charles M. Schulz.

The satellite-based approach "provides a great backup (to the ILS) and is another means for us to get our passengers into airports we otherwise could not," said Steve Castellano, a Horizon Air pilot who focuses on air traffic control issues. Horizon Air, whose entire aircraft fleet is equipped to fly LPV approaches, uses the NextGen approach into Charles M. Schulz on a regular basis in all sorts of weather conditions.

Pilots of the small, general aviation aircraft that frequently fly into Charles M. Schulz are also benefiting from the LPV approach. Jim McCord, a general aviation pilot and member of the FAA Safety Team, said the NextGen approach makes it much easier to keep track of the aircraft's exact position. This is especially important as the terrain within a few miles of the airport rises as high as 4,600 feet above the airport's elevation.

McCord prefers the NextGen procedure to the ILS approach also because it is simpler to fly. As a certificated flight instructor, McCord trains student pilots to fly the NextGen procedure, which is easily programmed into the aircraft's navigation system.

The FAA is in the process of adding an LPV approach to the second of the two runways at Charles M. Schulz. This is especially important as the main runway, and the only runway with an ILS, will be closed for construction for several months next year and the ILS will be out of service.