Radar outage restricts airspace

BWI reroutes flights when main system, backups fail again

2nd incident since August

November 05, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Air traffic supervisors rerouted hundreds of flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport's airspace yesterday as a precaution after the primary radar system failed and two backup systems malfunctioned.

It was the second significant radar outage at the airport since late August, and prompted air traffic controllers to take the rare step of formally declaring the airspace unsafe. Rerouting was expected to continue until early this morning, when officials said they hoped to have the main radar operating again.

Controllers described failures similar to those that occurred during a 27-hour period Aug. 30 and 31:

Planes in all quadrants disappeared from controllers' screens for extended periods.

"Holes" in the radar image repeatedly rendered aircraft invisible - in some cases for up to 20 miles of their flights.

At one point yesterday morning, the Coast Guard contacted controllers to locate a plane flying over the Annapolis harbor. Controllers were unable to find it.

All traffic except for BWI arrivals and departures was rerouted outside the airspace and handled by controllers at other locations. At the airport, that meant delays for about 50 flights arriving or departing, with the longest delay about 30 minutes, according to the FAA.

The failures generated renewed demands by controllers that the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the air traffic system, get to the bottom of the problems.

The Maryland General AssemBly plans to hold a hearing on the issue this month.

Since the August incident, despite a string of internal reports describing the failures, FAA officials have maintained publicly that the system has worked properly.

"Had the agency truly taken steps to correct this before and acknowledge there was a problem, we could well have it fixed by now," said Rockton Thurman, a senior BWI controller and president of the local National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "But if they want to fix this stuff, they have to acknowledge something is wrong with it."

Frank Hatfield, air traffic division manager for the FAA's eastern region, said last night that although he had received reports from supervisors at BWI during the day, none involved planes disappearing from radar screens.

At most, he said, a few of the "tags" - numeric flight identifications for controllers - might have disappeared from the screen.

"I'm not aware of any issue today where we lost track of a target," Hatfield said. "Clearly, I can't address what the controllers are saying."

Responded Thurman: "I've got five pages of notes of aircraft that were dropping off the radar scope, dropping off in all quadrants from two to 15 or 20 miles at a time. We'd reacquire them for a mile or two, then they'd drop back off again."

In August, it was a bolt of lightning that knocked out the main radar and its primary backup system, called Cenrap-Plus. Relying on the secondary backup, called Cenrap, controllers said they encountered problems so serious during those two days that they were forced to keep notes on paper of the locations of virtually every plane.

In a subsequent internal report, the tower manager described radar coverage during that period as "poor to nonexistent."

The problems this weekend began when the main radar system was shut down for routine maintenance late Saturday night, controllers and FAA officials said. When technicians were unable to restart it, they tried both backup systems. Both performed poorly, but the first backup was a little better.

Even so, controllers immediately saw many planes disappear, according to Thurman.

In August, supervisors responded to the radar gaps with few extra precautions. Yesterday, however, they acted quickly, controllers said.

Until mid-afternoon, supervisors in the BWI tower also increased the minimum distance between planes from 3 miles to as much as 20 miles.

Nevertheless, controllers yesterday invoked "Article 65" - an option in their contract that permits them to formally declare the airspace unsafe while giving them a measure of legal protection if an accident occurs.

In addition, tests of both backup systems conducted between August and this weekend show a pattern of failures.

On Oct. 21, the second backup system performed so poorly during an early morning test, it was shut down after about 20 minutes. During that time, controllers lost track of two aircraft, including a state police MedEvac helicopter headed for the Eastern Shore, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

In a test of the same system on Oct. 28, an aircraft disappeared for 20 miles during its flight.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, said yesterday he had contacted the FAA, controllers and others to appear at a hearing this month.

"It seems there are serious problems, and we want to determine what the facts are and whether we need some more resources either at the state or federal level," he said. The FAA, in response to his request to appear at the hearing, has sent him a briefing paper, Franchot said.

"Emphasis on the brief," said Franchot. "It did not seem to address the seriousness of the problems."

In addition, he said, the agency replied that it was too overwhelmed presently to testify at a state-level hearing.

"As a policy maker, it would be pretty amazing to me if they're not able to send someone. That would be a real warning signal to me that there is something significantly wrong."

Hatfield said last night that the decision to attend would be made at the "headquarters level."

Meanwhile, results of the recent radar tests are being analyzed, he said.

"I absolutely want the best possible coverage I can get," Hatfield said. "This experience might provide us with some valuable data to make some improvements."

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