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Three Radar Outages in One Weekend Seriously Call Into Question the Reliability of FAA Air Traffic Control Equipment - (3/24/2008)

CONTACT:  Steve Wallace, Miami Center, 954-401-1348; Steve Hefley, Northern California TRACON, 209-612-0760; Carl Chesley, Augusta Tower, 706-339-9638; Alexandra Caldwell, NATCA National Office, 202-220-9813

MIAMI, Fla./SACRAMENTO, Calif./AUGUSTA, Ga. – This weekend three separate radar outages at facilities in California, Florida and Georgia both severely limited controllers’ abilities to safely guide planes and caused delays at several airports in the three states – seriously calling into question the reliability of the equipment the FAA is putting in its air traffic control facilities.

Outages were experienced at three facilities representing all tiers of air traffic control: Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, Northern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and Augusta Air Traffic Control Tower.

Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZMA)

  • At approximately 3:00 P.M., Saturday, RADAR contact and communication was lost at Miami Center – a facility responsible for the control of air traffic above Central and Southern Florida as well as the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean – due to an interruption in the communication line. 
  • When the outage began, Miami Center lost RADAR contact and communications with approximately 12 aircraft for several minutes. 
  • For over an hour and a half, controllers struggled to maintain identification of and communication with aircraft traveling through several hundred square miles of airspace over the Bahamas. 
  • Communications and RADAR coverage were established above 29,000 feet by air traffic controllers and airways facilities personnel. 

Northern California TRACON (NCT)

  • At 10:05 A.M., Saturday, radar was lost at NCT (a facility responsible for all aviation in the airspace surrounding Sacramento International Airport, the three major Bay Area Airports and 60 other smaller airports).  After a minute and a half the radar came back on, only to send out erroneous flight plan data and, this time, take out all of the other radar systems with it (a total of six).  
  • The facility lost its Automated RADAR Terminal System (ARTS) – taking away all data associated with RADAR returns of aircraft, they knew the aircraft were there but had no indication on the scopes as to who was who.
  • This loss led controllers to stop and keep planes on the ground, in addition to holding airplanes for seven to eight minutes that were already airborne and outside of NCT’s airspace. 
  • They then tried to switch to a back-up system (RADAR Gateway) that controllers at the facility have only been trained on once (with a PowerPoint presentation) in a three-year time period.  Due to the lack of training at NCT most of the controllers didn’t know how to implement the back-up system.  The system worked, though not correctly.  During this transition the controllers were unable to see any traffic for one to three minutes and only had the use of radio to safely guide planes.  
  • At 10:28 A.M. the radar was restored though the facility remained on ATC Alert until 2:15 P.M.  ATC Alert is a status that alerts all surrounding facilities to make contingency plans in case the facility falls to ATC Zero, a dire situation where the air traffic control facility has either no RADAR or radio and the facility’s ability to control traffic is gone. 
  • The situation was made worse due to the FAA’s consolidation of four different control centers (Oakland, Stockton, Monterrey and Sacramento) into one (NCT).  Had the facilities been separate, the outage would not have affected San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose or Sacramento. 

Augusta Air Traffic Control Tower (AGS)

  • At 3:15 P.M., Sunday, Augusta Tower experienced a commercial power failure, RADAR was lost and the generator did not come on, bringing the facility to ATC Zero.  Six aircraft were in the facility’s airspace, all at different altitudes. 
  • The backup system used was a series of portable radios, which only work for about five miles; this brought the facility to ATC Alert.  
  • Ten minutes later the power came back on, only to go out again five minutes later – bringing the facility to back to ATC Zero. 
  • When the power came back on again ten minutes later the facility remained at ATC Zero and, because it was a Sunday, no techs were available to fix the tower RADAR control panel and tower generator, in addition to other broken equipment. 
  • Finally, at 5:18 P.M. AGS’s operations were back to normal, with the exception of the aforementioned broken items.

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