By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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Sequim has long been a meeting place for aviators; pilots dubbed it the blue hole because of its clear spot in the midst of a cloud-covered Olympic Peninsula. And with its proximity to the Boeing Co. plants around Puget Sound, many an aerospace engineer has retired here.
It was two years ago that retired pilot, air traffic controller and aviation safety consultant Daniel Gellert and retired pilot and electrical engineer Larry Speelman met at Costco Wholesale in Sequim.
Speelman, sighting Gellert's Edwards Air Force Base shirt, asked how he was connected to the Southern California base.
Gellert went to test-pilot school at Edwards; Speelman was stationed there during the 1960s, having joined the Air Force right after high school.
The men talked some more and learned they had some 70 years of aviation engineering experience between them.
Soon after, they had breakfast together to discuss a nascent idea of Gellert's.
They're now in the process of patenting that idea and planning to work with the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing to test it.
The idea, in simple terms, is a split-runway system that would allow more aircraft to safely take off and land at the world's busiest airports.
Currently, a jet must have one entire runway to land or take off. Above many airports, pilots make a long, stair-stepped approach before landing, sometimes waiting with their load of passengers up in the air as other jets precede them.
With the split-runway design, the runway would have two linear lanes, one for landing planes and the other for takeoffs, plus a dedicated, cross-runway buffer zone between the two.
Aircraft can taxi through the buffer zone and onto a second runway parallel to the split runway, Gellert and Speelman said.
The system, patented to Gellert's Aerospace Safety and Security company, aligns with the FAA initiative known as Next Gen, for next generation of air-traffic technology.
The FAA is developing a range of innovative devices for airports and aircraft, Speelman said, that are feasible now because of satellite navigation technology.
Instead of ground-based navigation tools, pilots and air traffic controllers can use global-positioning systems, he said.
Like switch to digital
The technological changeover getting under way, Speelman said, is similar to the switch from analog to digital in the information world.
United Parcel Service and Federal Express are already implementing GPS-based navigation, said Speelman, who worked in UPS' aviation electronics division for 14 years.
It will take years for all commercial jet traffic to catch up with GPS technology. Aircraft and airport control systems must be re-equipped.
And as the skies and the airports grow busier, airlines must find financially sound ways to streamline air traffic.
Runway space is a piece of that puzzle; Speelman and Gellert hope to be part of the solution.
"It didn't make sense to patent it until accurate navigation systems were in place," added Speelman.
Testing next year
But with GPS-informed accuracy, he and Gellert are moving forward. They believe their design could enter early test stages within the year.
The split-runway design "gives you the option of extending one runway instead of building another," Speelman said.
Along with minimizing asphalt, a two-lane runway can also reduce airborne wait times and taxiing distances, he said, so planes would burn less fuel and emit less carbon.
Gellert and Speelman couldn't say how much impact their technology might have on air fares.
But if airports' capacity for takeoffs and landings increases, and if they don't have to build as many new runways, that could amount to savings in the billions, Gellert believes.
And although he will travel to airports around the world to research satellite navigation technology, Gellert said he will continue to make his home in Sequim.
His former addresses include Hungary, New York City and Denver -- a few blocks from Speelman, who also lived in Colorado's capital, though they never met until both had been in Sequim for many years.
"The question is: Is Sequim a good place for a high-tech company? We say yes," Gellert added.
And for a satellite navigation-based, efficient runway system, Speelman said, "now is the time."
Sequim-Dungeness Valley reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladaily news.com.