EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Aviation’s future continues to unfold behind the fences of the William J. Hughes Technical Center.
The 5,000-acre compound, which also includes about 84 acres set aside for the Atlantic City International Airport, can seem like a fortress. Glimpses of the facility are visible through the fences: nondescript office buildings, several hangars and warehouses, the tail of a grounded Boeing 737 rising above a grassy field.
Signs along Tilton Road warn motorists not to stop under the flight paths of commercial jets. At the main entrance, visitors are greeted by a guard post. They must fill out a form at a visitor center that asks for their license plate number; they must also walk through metal detectors before they can proceed.
Every weekday, several thousand workers from across South Jersey converge on the center. Holly Baker, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman, estimates the center employs about 4,000. That includes 1,500 FAA employees, an additional 1,500 contractors and nearly 1,000 from tenant organizations, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal Air Marshal Service.
The tech center’s impact on the local economy is obvious — $27.4 million was budgeted this year for facilities and infrastructure maintenance alone — and the technology developed there today has global implications for aviation.
Inside the center, people at a maze of interconnected labs are working on various components of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. The FAA is tasked with developing the technology to deal with increasing congestion in the sky, resulting flight delays and rising fuel costs.
According to an FAA report released in March, NextGen improvements are expected to reduce flight delays by 38 percent and save 1.4 billion gallons of fuel by 2020, while saving an estimated $24 billion.
Although a planned NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park nearby has been mired in legal and financial difficulties, the FAA’s labs have moved ahead on a number of NextGen projects.
From his post at NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability, or NIEC, engineer Nick Marzelli can call up 70 different airports on the lab’s 300-degree simulated tower suite. On a recent Thursday, two birds glided across a computer-generated sunset over the runways of Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif.
The immersive environment can be used to evaluate and then train air traffic controllers in NextGen concepts without tying up actual infrastructure. Since the lab opened in 2010, Marzelli said, the lab has participated in projects for airports in Boston, Newark and California, all from the highly controlled environment in Egg Harbor Township.
“They had some new departure and arrival procedures in Philadelphia,” said Marzelli, who lives in Northfield. “We ran the program for two months, cycled through most of the controllers in Philadelphia.”
Across the hallway, past the low-frequency hum of a room full of servers, a screen traces the flight paths of 6,500 aircraft over the United States using a combination of low-tech radar data and Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast, or ADS-B. The data gathered here, both real and simulated, is fed to the NIEC simulations.
Michael McNeil, the center’s surveillance branch manager, said ADS-B uses GPS to allow for near-instantaneous tracking of air traffic. He said the technology, which all aircraft will be equipped with by 2020, would allow planes to fly closer together than the currently mandated five nautical miles.
That, he said, would greatly increase the capacity of the airways.
“We have to spread airplanes apart because we don’t know exactly where they are,” said McNeil, 52, of Galloway Township. “If they start to turn, we don’t detect it for 12 seconds. With ADS-B, you know that within the first second.”
Deepak Chauhan, a 29-year-old computer specialist from Egg Harbor Township, said the lab is also involved in research into unmanned aircraft systems, as well as a prototype of a cockpit navigation tool that uses the ADS-B data. The latter, an instrument that resembles a car navigation system, is a kind of GPS for the sky.
“It gives the pilot more confidence in his own situational awareness, as well as knowing where your own ship is at all times,” he said.
The system won’t enable a pilot to start making his own decisions about flight paths, Chauhan said, but would give the pilot a better idea of what the control tower is seeing from the ground.
Meanwhile, the FAA’s Fire Safety Branch — arguably the best-known lab at the tech center — continues to work on fire-prevention and extinguishing technologies. The lab is also occasionally called upon to research major plane crashes.
Branch manager Gus Sarkos, who started working at the center in 1969, said the latest projects include improving fire safety on cargo planes and researching environmentally friendly replacements for halon, a fire-suppression agent that’s very effective but has been shown to deplete the Earth’s ozone layer.
The technicians try to perform tests in real airplanes when they can, hence the decommissioned airplanes motorists see off Pomona and Tilton roads. Sarkos said they use the planes to test new fire-suppression systems.
“This place is sort of like a proving ground in a lot of ways,” said Sarkos, 71, of Linwood. “I keep going because I’m really interested in what we do.”
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