The People, Technicians & Pilots Behind Our Navaids

by Dave Weiman
Published by Midwest Flyer – February/March 2019 issue

As pilots, we fly along, day in and day out, and at night, using a variety of navigational aids (navaids) including Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS); Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni-Directional Ranges (VOR); Non-Directional (radio) Beacons (NDB); Distance Measuring Equipment (DME); and Ground Communications Outlets (GCO), in addition to Instrument Landing Systems (ILS). While most pilots now use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for navigation, we still depend on AWOS to obtain current weather at thousands of non-towered airports without Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). Essential to the safe and reliable operation of navaids are the “people” who install and maintain them.

According to officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Office of Aeronautics, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) owns about half of the navaids in the United States. In most states, the navaids which are not owned by the FAA are owned by individual airports. In Minnesota, the State of Minnesota owns and operates more non-federal navaids than any other state with 215, followed by Texas with 182 and Georgia with 153. MnDOT also owns and operates most of the AWOS equipment in the state.

We asked Minnesota Aeronautics Director Cassandra Isackson, why Minnesota has more non-FAA funded navaids than any other state:

“We live in a state with a lot of weather, so MnDOT has always worked to ensure access to airports statewide,” said Isackson.

One of the key navaid technicians in Minnesota is Jim Larson, owner of Radio Systems, Inc., one of several independent contractors who work for MnDOT. Midwest Flyer Magazine recently spoke with Larson about his rewarding and challenging career.

     Jim Larson was born and raised in Little Falls, Minnesota, the birthplace of famed aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Larson now lives in Aitkin, Minnesota, where he works out of his home.

“I originally attended Alexandria Area Technical School for avionics where I obtained my First-Class Radiotelephone License,” said Larson. “I then joined the Army National Guard and trained in many different types of aviation electronics. I received my Private Pilot Certificate in 1970 and started contracting maintenance and installation work on NDBs and VORs with the then Department of Aeronautics in 1972.

Larson is responsible for maintaining 46 sites around the state including GCOs, and ILS, VOR, NDB, DME and AWOS equipment, and is on call 24/7. His most northern site is the AWOS facility at Flag Island in Lake of the Woods. His most eastern site is Rush City. His most southern site is Montevideo, and his most western site is Wheaton.

FAA certification is required for each type of equipment Larson maintains, as well as periodic inspections. Airborne inspection of the equipment is done by the FAA Flight Inspection Section, which Larson works with to verify proper equipment operation. The equipment is monitored by a network operated by MnDOT to check for outages, and in the case of AWOS equipment, for missing sensors. The National Weather Service also monitors the AWOS equipment for proper operation since AWOS data is also used for their information and is fed to the FAA and the broadcast media as well. Both the State of Minnesota and FAA rely on pilot reports (PIREPS) in identifying problems.

Larson can see a day when land-based navigation facilities will be replaced by GPS guidance. However, he believes that AWOS will still be an important navaid. “A pilot cannot have too much weather information!”

Larson says that the most gratifying part of his job is going to work every day and repairing or improving the performance of the equipment used by his fellow aviators. This work is oftentimes made more interesting by bad weather, storms or lightning.

Larson flys his A-36 Beechcraft Bonanza to each site when he can, but when the weather is bad and equipment is down, he will drive his personal vehicle to get things back up and running.

Larson holds Commercial and Rotorcraft Pilot Certificates, and Instrument, Single-Engine Land and Sea, and Multi-Engine Land Ratings. He is a member of EAA and AOPA, and a lifetime member of the American Bonanza Society (ABS).

Among the aviation events Larson regularly attends is EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he meets with equipment suppliers and state aviation officials, and keeps an eye on the latest and greatest developments in aviation technology.

While Larson will soon be retiring after 46 years of service, there are several other contractors in Minnesota who will continue to work to keep the state’s system safe and operational. There is also an opportunity for new people to get into the profession. It takes 4 months and about $50,000 to train and certify a navaid technician.

To learn more about career opportunities in maintaining navaids in Minnesota, contact the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Office of Aeronautics at 651-234-7200.

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