June 5, 2013 - Controllers at Dallas/Fort Worth TRACON are now using STARS (the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System) to guide air traffic 24 hours a day.

The facility is the first large TRACON to begin using STARS on a continuous basis as part of Phase 3 of the Terminal Automation Modernization Replacement program. (Phases 1 and 2 brought STARS to 51 TRACONs from 1996 to 2009.)

The effort to bring STARS to the DFW TRACON promises benefits that should extend beyond the Dallas area. Every other facility using STARS will have the opportunity to use the rules and new software functionality, as well as new training created for the DFW TRACON.

The transition from the Common Automated Radar Terminal System (CARTS) automation platform to STARS was the culmination of years of work, a road that was paved with collaboration.

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A Fort Worth SSC Technician checks STARS keyboard functions at Meacham Tower in Fort Worth. Image: FAA

Engaging controllers and Tech Ops technicians involved in the testing process from the beginning assured the program stayed on track.

The program had great participation and feedback in testing at the factory, at a number of test events at the Tech Center, and throughout the installation and testing of the equipment at the facility. The collaborative environment really allowed the system to be developed jointly.

The collaboration included efforts from Terminal Services, Technical Operations and the Program Management Organization, and drew on the expertise of members of NATCA and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS). And the work didn't just take place at the TRACON. Employees at a dozen towers in the area also put in long hours supporting the transition.

Those efforts and expertise had a big impact, including improving the training that got controllers ready for STARS.

The DFW TRACON's management put training in the hands of those who know the operation best — controllers. A group of four controllers, three training specialists, and one supervisor developed a much more efficient and effective training plan. They created 10 hours of simulator training from what had been dozens of hours of computer-based training.

One description of the training was choosing between having someone read you a document or having someone you work with on a daily basis sit and demonstrate the keystroke functions.

The training team obviously chose the latter. They set up a PowerPoint presentation in the radar lab and let controllers practice on the simulator what they had just learned from the briefing. Controllers took advantage of the opportunity.

Controllers never left their training positions. They kept asking questions, doing entries, setting up preference sets, which  allow controllers to set up their displays in the way that most suits them. A version of the training plan was used at all 12 towers in the Dallas area that switched to STARS as part of the TRACON's transition. And the plan will be shared with upcoming TAMR sites, such as the Northern California and Atlanta TRACONs.

The collaboration paid off in regards to both the training and the attitude toward the new system. As the largest-scale STARS installation to date, the transition meant months of long hours for the technicians and managers who work in the TRACON's System Operations Center and Radar and Automation System Support Centers, as well as the Dallas and Fort Worth System Support Centers (SSCs), which support nine Texas towers that upgraded to STARS.

Those employees not only had to work overnight shifts helping Engineering Services get the new equipment installed and functioning, but they also had to keep up with their regular preventative maintenance and support tasks.

Some of those efforts took place while many of their colleagues were away for STARS training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. The technicians in the Dallas/Fort Worth area got the extra work done with what was essentially a skeleton crew, according to Batie. That took tremendous effort and sacrifice.

The commitment extended to the North Texas Operational Support Facility located at the DFW TRACON. Employees there started preparing for STARS three years ago, beginning with supporting a gap analysis to determine what software functionality existed in Common ARTS that needed to be added to STARS. They also helped with operational testing and evaluation at the William J. Hughes Technical Center and Raytheon, and played a key role in the live test runs leading up to continuous operations.

Once the software and adaptation arrived in Texas, they began to test it at the facility. The OSF team worked closely with the controller training team. The controllers would find things that needed to be changed while working with STARS in shadow mode, and the OSF team would adjust the adaptation.

They also spent a lot of time working with rules — the software code that allows the OSF team to tailor how STARS behaves on the glass for controllers.

But because the 80 to 100 existing STARS rules all interact, each time a change is made, they all have to be tested to make sure the system is functioning properly. One of the most apparent advances of STARS is the displays, which use LCD screens that are crisper and brighter than their cathode ray tube predecessors. The new displays are also easier for Tech Ops technicians to maintain.

Since they are brighter, facilities will be able to adjust their light settings as they would like, and controllers will no longer have to work in near darkness to be able to see their displays.

Aside from the screens, STARS is set up to function much the way CARTS did, allowing controllers who have spent years working on CARTS to use the new automation platform without a major adjustment. In fact, 95 percent of the keystrokes are going to be the same in STARS, minimizing the front line impact.

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Two automation specialists from the DFW TRACON Automation SSC, with STARS equipment. Image: FAA

That means the features of STARS will be available in Dallas, along with the most-liked features of CARTS — essentially the best of both tools from both STARS and CARTS

Not all the extra functionality will be turned on immediately, but controllers will eventually have access to optional efficiency tools like minimum distance lines between aircraft and projected tracklines that show where aircraft will be in one, two, or three minutes, Peterson said.

TAMR isn't stopping in Texas, of course.

Another large facility, Philadelphia TRACON, is fully operational as the key site for the tech refresh at facilities that already have STARS. Among other advances, that initiative is bringing the LCD displays to those facilities. The same equipment is currently being delivered to Miami TRACON.

Northern California TRACON and Atlanta TRACON are working toward their transitions from CARTS to STARS. They're the next two facilities on the TAMR Phase 3 schedule.

For more information, contact TAMR@FAA.gov