Cause of radar failures may be known by next week

FAA investigating 2 recent outages at BWI

November 08, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Federal aviation officials say they hope to know by early next week the cause of recent failures in backup radar systems at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

After a briefing at Federal Aviation Administration headquarters in Washington yesterday, state leaders and air traffic controllers said the agency is working quickly to fix the problems. They added that they are confident that adequate safety measures are in place to keep planes apart if the system fails in the meantime.

"We expressed in very strong and very blunt terms that safety is the most important issue, and that our concern is that we need to investigate any possible anomalies," said state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. "The FAA representatives made clear and seemed very passionate about how safety overrides everything."

The FAA held the briefing yesterday at the request of Maryland's congressional delegation, whose staff attended with Porcari.

Twice recently, air traffic controllers had to depend on the backup systems, known as Cenrap-Plus and Cenrap, after the main radar was damaged or shut down. In both instances, they say, the backup systems failed, causing the images of hundreds of planes to disappear from their radar scopes for up to 20 miles of their flight paths.

In the first incident in late August, air traffic managers ignored the recommendations of controllers who wanted to limit the number of planes flying through the airspace as a safety precaution. When the second radar failure occurred last weekend, supervisors rerouted a large percentage of air traffic around BWI and took additional safety steps.

Frank Hatfield, head of the FAA's eastern region air traffic division, said yesterday that last weekend's response should give the public confidence that appropriate safety measures would be followed if another failure occurs.

"This is the most scrutinized, analyzed radar system in the country right now," Hatfield said. "This is probably the safest time to fly in and out of Baltimore."

Hatfield said a review of computer records would take several more days. He said the review hasn't produced evidence that the planes disappeared from the scopes during those outages, as described in FAA documents and by controllers.

"We might never reconcile that, but to me that's academic," Hatfield said. "The issue is did the radar system perform the way it's supposed to or not, and we need to fix it as soon as we can."

Hatfield canceled plans to replace a part in BWI's main radar system this weekend, because it would have required shutting it down and relying on the questionable backup radar systems again.

"The decision was made not to do that until we sort through what the issue is with the Cenrap," he said.

After filing reports with higher-ups and getting little response after the August incident, Rockton Thurman, head of the local office of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said yesterday that he is now satisfied with the direction of Hatfield's investigation.

"I feel very comfortable that the agency's going to do everything it can to figure out what the problem is," Thurman said.

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