updated 7/10/2003 1:19:22 PM ET 2003-07-10T17:19:22

Airplanes will eventually be able to land in bad weather at thousands of small airports thanks to a radio signal switched on early Thursday morning at the Federal Aviation Administration’s command center. It took nine years, nearly a billion dollars and a team of space scientists to get the satellite-based signal to do what it’s supposed to: tell pilots where they are in the air within 5 feet.

THE SYSTEM corrects the global positioning system’s signal, which is only accurate within the space of a football field.

Federal aviation officials said turning on the signal was a huge step forward in exploiting the potential of GPS for air traffic control.

Once the system is fully deployed, the FAA will be able to phase out some of its expensive ground-based navigational aids.

“It is a form of rocket science,” said FAA chief Marion Blakey, acknowledging the project is several years behind schedule and over budget.

Still, she said, the wide area augmentation system represents a huge technological leap from the days before World War II, when pilots navigated by following bonfires on the ground.

The new system works like this: Signals from GPS satellites, which get distorted in the ionosphere, are received by a network of ground reference stations. The stations correct the signals and relay them through a master station, which relays them back up to communications satellites. Pilots receive those signals in the cockpit.

Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, predicted small airports will flourish because they will no longer need at least $2 million worth of ground-based navigation systems for planes to land on their runways in bad weather.

The system will also allow airline pilots to fly shorter, more direct routes and faster descents, so more planes will be able to land per hour, Blakey said.

Charlie Keegan, the FAA’s associate administrator for research and acquisitions, said the system will make it safer and easier to fly. Pilots using the wide area augmentation system can fly their approach to the runway by aligning the plane with a line on a display in the cockpit.

The FAA has designed 560 approaches for 281 airports and will design another 300 within a year, Keegan said.

Only a dozen or so pilots now use the wide area augmentation system with ground-based backups in their planes, he said.

The FAA hasn’t certified receivers yet, but expects to do so by this fall. Boyer said 25,000 private pilots have a receiver that can receive the new signal with a minor upgrade.

Japan and Europe are building similar systems that will be compatible with that in the United States, creating a worldwide navigation capability.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said commissioning the system “moves us closer to realizing the aviation potential of GPS and the precision it can add to the world’s safest and most complex airspace system.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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