HAWTHORNE — "Snow" fell on John Wayne Airport runways on Friday morning.
OK, it was simulated snow, part of an air traffic control simulator demonstration by JWA airport control tower support specialist Joe Santoro.
The hypothetical situation created by a high-tech simulator is used to train controllers, preparing them for any scenario they might face in the real world, including the unlikely event of a winter dusting at JWA.
"We can create any kind of emergency, special operation or procedure that (trainees) would see in their training or maybe would not see for a long time," Santoro said while looking at a computer-generated replica of JWA's runways projected onto a series of wall-sized monitors at the Federal Aviation Administration Regional Office and training hub in Hawthorne.
The hub opened about two years ago for the training of Los Angeles International Airport air traffic controllers. In November, eight JWA traffic controllers began receiving additional training via the simulator.
Controllers from Burbank and Long Beach airports will begin training in the hub as early as 2011 with Van Nuys airport to follow in the future.
So far, 73 airports nationwide use the simulators and the FAA plans to install four more systems in 2011 to serve a total of 86 airports. Software developer Adacel, whose North American offices are based in Florida, was awarded a $48-million contact in 2007 to deliver the Tower Simulation System, MaxSim 4.0, to FAA facilities.
The technology will play a vital role in increasing the efficiency and safety of training 11,000 new controllers expected to be needed through 2020, said Bill Withycombe, the FAA's Western-Pacific regional administrator.
"It is a very important tool in training of new controllers and that of veterans as well," Withycombe said.
Experienced John Wayne controllers will use the simulators for a refresher course in September as they prepare for wind-pattern changes caused by the Santa Ana winds. While traffic normally takes off in a southerly direction from the airport, high-winds occasionally make it necessary for pilots to take off in the opposite direction.
The Santa Anas are one of the characteristics seen at John Wayne, creating a challenge for air traffic controllers. Other issues facing controllers are the relatively small runways, a diverse mix of traffic that includes helicopters, private and commercial planes, and steep take-off requirements.
However, controllers become familiar with the layout of the airport and its runways long before ever actually taking their place in the control tower, as opposed to the days when trainees came straight from the classroom, Santoro said.
The simulator replica is a 360-degree, made-to-scale view of the airport and its surroundings. Even South Coast Plaza is visible to the west. Heading toward the sky, the software projects correct astrological positions for given times of day.
While the original design for the replica was created in August 2009, the program has been periodically updated to reflect the most current layout of John Wayne, as the airport undergoes terminal and parking structure construction, Santoro said.
The construction can be a distraction for controllers, one of the many that range from a flock of geese to engine failure.
"We can pause a problem, we can repeat a problem, things we can't do with live traffic," Santoro said.
Besides Friday's fictional scenario of snow fall, the simulator also replicates the more common to Southern California scenarios of heavy rain and dense fog.
"Things become a little different when you can't see the airplanes," he said.