A headline in Loudoun Extra March 16 referred incorrectly to a new landing system at Leesburg Executive Airport . The wide area augmentation system will not replace the airport's current navigational aids but will be available in addition to other aids if pilots wish to use it and have the proper equipment. (Published 3/20/03)

Leesburg Executive Airport will be one of the nations' first small airports to receive a new navigational system designed to allow small aircraft to land more smoothly and safely, especially in bad weather, the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday.

The system is schedule for installation at more than 2,500 small airports starting late next year but could come to Leesburg as soon as this fall, said FAA engineer Mike Vermuth.

The system, known as the wide-area augmentation system (WAAS), combines signals from existing global positioning satellites. The information helps planes make a direct approach to runways when pilots cannot see out the window.

Planes equipped with a WAAS box in the cockpit can descend gradually rather than using "step down" approaches in which planes descend for a distance, level off to clear obstacles and then descend again.

During such an approach, a single-engine turboprop crashed on approach to the Leesburg airport March 1, killing all three on board and narrowly missing several downtown homes.

Vermuth, who manages FAA programs on the East Coast, cautioned that the WAAS is not yet as accurate as instrument landing systems (ILS), which commercial pilots use.

"The error rates, the consistency, there are still some things to be worked out," he said. "Everything is still evolving. It's not like an ILS system that's been out there for years and years, and we know everything about it."

Vermuth spoke a day after local pilots asked for an improved navigational system during a packed meeting of the Leesburg Executive Airport Commission.

The meeting was the panel's first since the March 1 crash. Eight months ago, another small plane crashed just north of downtown Leesburg within feet of a house on Tudor Court. Pilot James M. Scambos of Ashburn died in that crash, which a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report said might have been caused by a complete engine failure.

An improved navigation system would reassure the public about airport safety "so we don't hit too many more houses in this town," said pilot Drew Steketee.

The Leesburg airport now has a localizer, which provides only horizontal guidance for pilots on approach, and an automatic weather observation system, which sends them minute-by-minute updates on airport weather conditions.

A preliminary NTSB report on the March 1 crash indicated that the plane's instruments were working properly, and town officials have speculated that pilots Donald W. Fitzpatrick, 58, of Reston and Gregory D. Jackson, 42, of Sterling became confused in the heavy fog and low cloud cover that afternoon. Passenger Bronson Byrd, 56, of Purcellville also died in the crash.

Leesburg Executive Airport was among airports scheduled to receive the WAAS system before the crash, but airport director Doug McNeely said he was surprised to hear it could come so soon. "That's great news," he said.

Other safety improvements planned for the airport include building a perimeter safety fence and trying to stop residential development nearby, he said.

Steketee, who flew near the plane that crashed in July while trying to help the pilot reach the airport, urged the commissioners to preserve open land. Scambos, a United Airlines pilot, tried to make it to the open field just north of the airport, Steketee said.

"We almost made it," Steketee said. "We've got to keep a patch like that on either end of the airport."

The Leesburg Town Council is considering a rezoning application to build more than 300 homes north of the airport.

Roy Steinfort, a member of the airport commission, asked why the airport had not followed through with an application for a $4 million FAA grant last year to purchase land around the airport. McNeely said the airport had not lost the grant but would receive it over several years rather than as a lump sum.

Leesburg withdrew its application after it became clear that a state budget crunch would make matching funds available last year for only one capital project at the airport, either the land acquisitions or the new terminal building, McNeely said.