Radar at BWI back in service

FAA acknowledges possible problems, declines to explain

Md. lawmakers set hearing

November 06, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The main radar system at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was returned to service about 4:30 a.m. yesterday, but Maryland politicians are still awaiting an explanation from the Federal Aviation Administration on the causes for two major radar outages at the airport since August.

For the first time yesterday, FAA officials acknowledged there might be problems with the system and said they are investigating. But agency officials are declining to appear before a state General Assembly committee this month to answer questions about the BWI radar problems.

FAA officials maintain that radar contact with aircraft was never lost during the first outage in August and in the most recent outage, which began late Saturday night - a claim vehemently denied by BWI air traffic controllers, who described significant radar gaps that rendered them blind to aircraft for extended periods during both outages.

Late yesterday, the head of the BWI controllers' union said he believes the FAA will work with controllers to resolve this and other discrepancies between the problems they've been encountering with the radar systems at the airport and the more mild descriptions of these problems that have been filtering up the FAA chain of command.

Meanwhile yesterday, Maryland politicians pressed for quick answers from the FAA - which operates and maintains the air traffic system - and said they expect to meet with agency officials in the next few days.

"We are pursuing this at the highest levels of the FAA," Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said. "There should not be any doubt in anyone's mind about the safety of the air traffic control system. To the extent that there is any doubt, that's a serious issue."

The first radar failure occurred after lightning knocked out the primary and first backup system, called Cenrap-Plus, during a storm Aug. 30. For the next 27 hours, controllers guided planes by using a second backup system, called Cenrap.

During that period, hundreds of planes lost radar contact with air traffic controllers, according to interviews with several controllers on duty those days and reviews of records documenting some of the problems.

The difficulties re-emerged last weekend after BWI's primary radar was shut down for routine maintenance and technicians couldn't restart it. Throughout Sunday and early yesterday, controllers relied on the first backup system and said it performed about as poorly as the second backup had in late August.

Planes `lost' from sight

In both instances, controllers said, planes disappeared from all quadrants of controllers' radar scopes. Quirks of the backup systems sometimes cause flights to disappear for a mile or two and at low altitudes. But controllers said that during both outages they lost contact with flights for as much as 20 miles, including many at high altitudes.

The FAA disputed that yesterday. At worst, said a spokesman, controllers lost a few "data blocks" - identifying tags that give the airline and flight number and follow planes across the radar screen.

"We never lost primary targets," said Jim Peters, an agency spokesman. "Our airline facilities division and the local technicians are investigating why the problems occurred. But we haven't reached any conclusions or decided what action to take."

Controllers said Sunday's daily operations log clearly states that planes were disappearing, using the controller terminology "no virgile."

Reading from the log yesterday, BWI senior controller Rockton Thurman , who heads the controllers' union, repeated the description: "Many targets are not being tracked. No virgile, no data block. Some 5 miles, some 20 miles."

Thurman said he wasn't sure how many planes lost radar contact, but added "it was a large percentage."

The FAA said all flights that ordinarily pass through BWI airspace without stopping at the airport were rerouted around the airspace Sunday. Typically, that figure would total several hundred. But federal officials said yesterday that the rerouted flights numbered just 20.

"That would surprise me," Thurman said. "Either they didn't reroute all of them or ... I'm not sure where they get those numbers."

In addition, the agency said, 26 flights arriving at or departing from BWI were delayed Sunday, compared with the 50 that federal officials estimated Sunday. Some flights at Reagan National and Dulles International airports also experienced delays, but officials said they didn't know the extent of those delays.

During the August radar outage, when air traffic supervisors continued flying planes almost normally through the airspace, few delays were reported.

After an article Oct. 21 in The Sun describing the August radar troubles, Maryland officials began seeking answers from the FAA, but have had little success.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.