Miami Center (ZMA) controllers have a much clearer picture of low-altitude traffic on the east coast of Florida thanks in large part to the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP).
By filing ATSAP reports, controllers were able to raise awareness of an issue with radar coverage below 18,000 feet near Vero Beach Municipal Airport and St. Lucie County International Airport. Miami Center manages that airspace and provides approach control services for both airports.
But because an Airport Surveillance Radar 11 (ASR 11) installed at Vero Beach about five years ago was only set up to provide secondary radar coverage, controllers couldn't see the numerous aircraft flying through the area without transponders. The radar only tracked the aircraft operating with beacon codes.
Without primary radar coverage, controllers couldn’t point out the other traffic to the aircraft that they were guiding through the airspace.
“Controllers need to be able to issue traffic [advisories] to those airplanes and not worry about pilots flying by another plane they’re not looking for,” said Santiago Garcia, who was the safety manager at Miami Center when the ATSAP reports were filed.
Though the lack of radar coverage had been an issue for several years, Miami Center’s request for funding for the upgrade was still awaiting approval, according to Charlyn Davis, the Plans and Requirements manager at Miami Center when the radar issue was being resolved.
ATSAP gave controllers the means to verify the issue received proper attention, and the En Route Communications, Surveillance, Weather and Facilities group looked at the work that would be necessary to expand the ASR 11’s coverage.
The ATSAP reports made it clear that the lack of primary coverage was causing a safety issue, and the En Route group quickly secured funding for the work.
Tech Ops specialists at Melbourne System Support Center then set up software configurations on the radar to send primary radar data to Miami Center. Tech Ops specialists at Miami Center set up the En Route Communications Gateway and Host to receive and display the data.
“The radar was always capable of providing the primary data,” said Chris Russell, a NAS operations manager at Miami Center. “We turned on the functionality.”
The work also included upgrading the telecommunication lines between the radar and Miami Center to carry the extra data.
Now, controllers are able to see all the aircraft operating in the airspace, and they can make sure the aircraft they’re talking to is aware of the other airplanes flying near them.
The resolution convinced one of the “biggest naysayers” at Miami Center the value of ATSAP, according to NATCA ZMA Facility Representative Steve Wallace.
The controller works in the area that handles the airspace around Vero Beach and was impressed to see how effective ATSAP was at resolving the issue.
Wallace said part of achieving that effectiveness is creating a climate in which multiple controllers are willing to file reports on a single issue.
“That's when you really start seeing value, when several people come forward and acknowledge that there's risk involved in what we do and start providing perspectives,” he said.
Wallace said NATCA leaders and FAA managers were able to create that kind of climate at Miami Center by working toward three common principles: the safety of the operation, professionalism, and valuing and involving front line employees.
“If you want to create a place where people will openly share info, you have to involve them in everything you do,” he said.